The Fair was fun, we garnered lots of interest and gathered a list of names and email addresses. The big takeaway is a longing to be twenty years old again, and on the other side of the table. After hearing his spiel for four hours I’d happily follow my Italian colleague (whose table adjoined ours) home to Rome and Florence next summer. But my role now is to lead, not follow. Alas.
The balancing act we all must perform, in discharging our roles and authentically appropriating our lives, is one of the big themes in Existentialism. Play the waiter, the obedient son (or impassioned patriot), the socially-constructed man/woman, the student, the professor too proficiently, and you raise the specter of bad faith, self-objectification, and a denial of freedom. But play your role poorly and life loses interest.
Bertrand Russell does double duty today in my classes. In CoPhi we’ll note his progression from a youthful preoccupation with mathematical logic to the statesmanlike public intellectual who did not falter when asked what he’d most like to say to people in a thousand years: “If we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and tolerance that are vital to the continuation of life.” We’d better hear that now, or there won’t be anyone left to hear it in the next millennium.
In Happiness we’re up to the chapters on zest and affection, two of his favorite things. He was a fan of the great Baker Street detective. Who knew?
The forms of zest are innumerable. Sherlock Holmes, it may be remembered, picked up a hat which he happened to find lying in the street. After looking at it for a moment he remarked that its owner had come down in the world as the result of drink, and that his wife was no longer so fond of him as she used to be. Life could never be boring to a man to whom casual objects offered such a wealth of interest.
And then there’s the zesty thrill of a country walk.
One man may be interested in the birds, another in the vegetation, another in the, geology, yet another in the agriculture, and so on. Any one of these things is interesting if it interests you, and, other things being equal, the man who is interested in any one of them is a man better adapted to the world than the man who is not interested.
Russell also notices the intrinsic interest some take in others, as for instance on a train. This reminds me of Whitman on his ferry. The whole discussion reminds me of James’s “Blindness” and “the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception.” It’s an impressive insight, for such a bright mind. Sadly, I don’t meet enough zesty scholars.
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