The worm at the core

Once again, the pre-dawn horizon rewards the early riser. What a gorgeous golden moon, hovering just above the neighbors’ rooftop, just greeted the dog and me this a.m.

I’ve come across a book with immediate relevance for all my current classes, especially Atheism & Bioethics: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life leads with the same epigrammatic William James quote that suggested my own title, way back when, with its “worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight” that “turns us into melancholy metaphysicians.” The worm comes from fear, source of so many of our obsessions and compulsions. “The knowledge that we are mortal underlies both the noblest and the most unsavory of human pursuits.” If we know this, say the authors, growth and progress can be ours.

Philip Kitcher raises the role of fear in the early and forever-inescapable human ethical project, in today’s second chapter of Life After Faith. I of course thought instantly of Brooks’ and Reiner’s timeless 2,000 Year-Old ManCarl: What was the means of transportation then? Mel: Mostly fearCarl: Fear transported you? Mel: Fear, yes. You would see… an animal would growl, you’d go two miles in a minute. Fear would be the main propulsion. 


Not fear per se, but clear-eyed acknowledgement of our fear of dying followed by serious reflection on its place in life, may transport us. Maybe.

Today in CoPhi it’s Leibniz and his bête noire Voltaire. James is Voltaire’s ally against the Panglossian courtier Leibniz, whom he labelled “superficiality incarnate.” One of the hazards of metaphysics is a diluted sense of reality, leading to the appearance at least of dishonesty. Who could ever believe this the best of possible worlds, except someone whose grasp of possibility had been badly stunted by too much thinking?

You know who doesn’t think too much? My dog. I was listening to Older Daughter’s radio show last night, which developed an animal theme. I texted the suggestion that she close the show with Walt Whitman’s paean to animal nature, and she did. “THINK I could turn and live with animals…”

Jacques Barzun’s Stroll With William James, I’m reminded, opens with an anecdote about James calling absent-mindedness a matter of being “present-minded somewhere else.” Exactly right! What I’ve been trying to say about immediacy really boils down to the thought that it can be useful to a person – though possibly not to a dog – to cultivate that kind of presence, occasionally.

On most occasions, it’s still probably best to be present where you live. So, Happy birthday Billy Collins, poet-extraordinaire of ordinary life who, like Updike, also “gives the mundane its beautiful due.” That may be the best way, most days, to dispatch the worm at the core.

5:30/6:48, 35/69

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