Archive for June, 2016

Natural epiphany

June 30, 2016

The subject of “epiphany” came up during class last night, and again afterwards at the Boulevard. Creative epiphany is not necessarily a divine or supernatural manifestation, a vision of Christ, or a religious conversion. But it is a bolt or a jolt of awareness that casts familiar experience in a new and brighter light. You can’t really go looking for it, but you can make yourself ready to receive it.

One of us had done just that before class, readying himself by ditching the car and “walking to work” (see D.B. Johnson’s “Henry”), ditching the cold sterility of our over-cooled  classroom building, and then ditching the laptop in favor of pen and paper. Going old-school with a “functioning pen” (see J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter epiphany) in the open air can slow you down to a pace of thought smarter than fingers on a keyboard, giving each cursive stroke more substance than is allowed by the sometimes-unbearable lightness of the “Delete” key.

The guy who designed Central Park must have been similarly struck, when he wrote:

“It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.”

Yes! Science supports natural epiphany, if you’re ready for it.

5:45/5:35, 61/88, 8:06

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Born free

June 29, 2016

The main subject of our stroll thru civilization today is Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss romantic who made his reputation by denigrating civilization itself. “Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.”

We’re born free, he said. “To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man.” But he didn’t really think we could lose our chains, just loosen them a bit, by educating ourselves to understand that some chains actually unify and improve our condition.

“I have never thought, for my part, that man’s freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.” Nice reverie, but he also said some shall be “forced to be free.”

He wasn’t wrong about that. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but without them we’d be slaves to primitive circumstance and deprivation. We’re all better off when we do. Total independence and self-reliance are myths that do not enoble, any more than savagery enobles.

He was wrong to encourage a cult of community and nationalism. “Every patriot hates foreigners,” and that’s supposed to be a point in patriotism’s favor? What would JJ say about Brexit? What does Brexit say about him?

“Trust your heart rather than your head,” he said. Wrong again. Mistrust both, use both, learn, repeat.

6 am/5:35, 69/85/62, 8:07

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Dedicated

June 28, 2016

Darn dog did it again, retrieved me from pleasant dreams at an ungodly hour, and so I’ve just finished Stoner in this morning’s dense fog. What a wonderful story of a humble, decent midwesterner not unlike some I’ve known, of a life “dedicated to teaching” in a place I knew so well as a neophyte learner decades ago, Columbia, MO. Concluding in the years just before my arrival, its themes of personal perseverance and generational persistence are resonant, serious, and hugely entertaining. The fictional dedication “to WS” gratifies the reader, one imagines, as much as it would its subject, and makes a much larger statement about real dedication.

I understand the devoted readership it’s inspired, and the author’s surprise that some found it a sad tale rather than an affirmation of life and love as drops in the on-flowing stream of civilization. He called it an “escape into reality,” and that’s precisely the paradox of mental transport that great literature can afford. Worth losing a little sleep over.

5:45/5:34, 73/92/65, 8:07

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Feeding the right wolf

June 27, 2016

What if the future’s a dead end? What if there’s nothing out there among the stars, in the deepest reaches of space and time?

But what if there’s everything

Good answer, young Casey Newton. That’s how you feed the right wolf, the bringer of light and hope. Darkness and despair are just too easy. Live in possibility, don’t give up. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.
Yesterday was the publication anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Young Jo Rowling must have been feeding the right wolf, to have been lightning-struck as she was by the idea for her wizard world while waiting for a late train. “I did not have a functioning pen with me,” she said. “I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me … I began to write that very evening.”
Creative lightning most often strikes dreamers and optimists, doesn’t it? Hope so.

5:50/5:34, 75/86/68, 8:06

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Smart fish

June 25, 2016

“They had been brought up in a tradition that told them in one way or another that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate and, indeed, inimical; they had believed, without ever having really thought about it, that one had to be chosen at some expense of the other.” Stoner

This is one of the central contentious issues in the Plato versus Aristotle “struggle” for our civilization’s soul, isn’t it? The genuinely-empiricist impulse is to integrate intelligence and sense, not wall them off. Embodied mind and sense-based knowledge are the only kind we can know.
And I’m still astounded not to have known Stoner until now. John Edward Williams said of his protagonist, “The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was… It’s the love of the thing that’s essential… The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.”

Love, “a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart, it was a force that comprehended them both…”

Family took me to see Finding Dory last night. A smart fish suffering short-term memory loss had better remember to pay attention to what she sees and hears, and to accept a little help from her friends. Embodied mind and memory, as Aristotle knew, are social. Love it.
6:30/5:33, 74/95, 8:06

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Stoner

June 24, 2016

Well that was a stormy night. Spent the last three hours of it sleeplessly in the library recliner, alongside  our thunderstruck old Angel dog.  She somehow made her way past several closed doors to fetch me at 3 am. Younger Daughter, I discovered, had at some earlier point in the night improvised a blanket tent above the dog bed in an attempt to pacify the terrified pooch. Cute. Nice try.

So, what to do in the recliner at 3 am when sleep eludes? I went to Hoopla and found an audio recording of a book I can’t believe I’d never heard of, Stoner by John Edward Williams. It’s set in a slightly fictionalized early-20th century version of my old college town Columbia MO, about a farm kid who goes off to the university to study agriculture and ends up getting a lit degree and becoming a prof. It didn’t put me to sleep, but I didn’t mind.

“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?’ Sloane asked. ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.” 

“He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which is simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.”

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Only sometimes? But it’s not usually a shattering awareness of futility, for me, more just a sense of humility. And, of solidarity with all the other academic under-laborers who’ll never know it all, read it all, or teach it with the requisite “dignity” and depth. Stoner’s people on the farm scratched at the earth, his people in the academy scratch at culture and learning. It all comes from an itch for living that good parents and teachers pay forward.

6 am/5:33, 70/95, 8:06

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Wide open spaces

June 23, 2016

I’m pleased with how eagerly our class has taken to the themes raised by Gros in Philosophy of Walking, the escape from a stultified identity, the freedom of briefly floating on two feet as “just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life,” the thrill of heading out and de- or re-constructing the self, and the pleasing symbiosis of walking, writing, and thinking. “Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.” Walking in Memphis, walking on old battlefields, I’m Walking

Now we just need to dial back the summer heat a bit so we can take it comfortably outdoors. Hall-walking, like mall-walking and treadmilling, is just not the same. Just talking the walk isn’t either.

6 am/5:33, 79/96/72, 8:06

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Stand and move

June 22, 2016

Today our stroll gets more literal and more Gallic, as we pick up Frederic Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. Still working our way through The Cave and the Light too, now up to Galileo, another Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, and Locke. Herman’s emerging thesis seems to be that real light must shine from above and beyond, must transcend and transform the material earth of things, must impose civilization upon recalcitrant humans who can’t or won’t exit the cave on their own without divine guidance and instruction.

It’ll be interesting to see whether and how our new text engages this thesis. Walkers are an independent breed, we like to stand and move on our own pegs and don’t like the insinuation that we’re incapable of doing so. When I first picked up Gros’s book last summer I was initially put off by what I perceived as the author’s deconstructive and textualist sensibility, specifically the idea that walking deconstructs personal identity and self-possession.

My philosophy of walking [I wrote] denies the dichotomy between working and recreating, the dualism of discoursing and experiencing that I think I read in Frederic Gros. I need now to go back and re-read his Thoreau section, with the question before me: does he also take from Henry what I do, viz., a sense of walking as a form of life that straddles the worlds of text and experience? Again, I must pluralize. Texts, experiences, realities are my quarry, not just words and verbal constructs. Something there is, Horatio (and Jacques), that is not merely dreamed up and written in your philosophy texts. That’s one of the implications of “more day to dawn.”

Later I wasn’t so sure.

I may have been hasty in detecting deconstructionist tendencies in Frederic Gros’s Philosophy of Walking. Overtly at least, he’s on the side of immediate experience and reality, against that of the Derridean overtextualizers. Or so it appears, given his sympathetic rendition of Thoreau’s famous “rocks in place” declaration of independence from tradition, convention, and cultural inertia. Honest writing must first acknowledge the truth of the writer’s own experience. If he cannot tap that well, he has no business writing. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

So we’ll see. The question for all who crave reality is where to seek the light, and how. The answer, to begin with, is: Stand, and move.

5:45/5:32, 77/96, 8:06

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Anything could happen

June 21, 2016

I’m not a Sartre fan but his pranksterish youth, his “thus pissed Zarathustra” and a Lindbergh hoax are perversely endearing and humanizing.  And his typical overstatement nonetheless conveys one of the central truths of philosophy, that we ignore life’s vast (though not quite infinite) range of possibility to our detriment. “I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen.” A juvenile delinquent could even win and refuse a Nobel prize, and be lauded at his death as a secular saint.

Did you see that rare solstice moon last night? A once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, apparently, for those whose lifetimes are still constrained by time.

The constraint of time, and the administrative compulsion of my insurer, sent me for my annual physical screening yesterday. The doc had a probative question about American philosophy, at the exam’s most dreaded and probing moment. It wasn’t easy to concentrate on my reply but I was grateful for the distraction.

And, I’m grateful for the online publication of my little testimonial essay on John Lachs yesterday at the Berlin Practical Philosophy International Forum. Its concluding questions imply an echo, perhaps disturbing but also potentially invigorating, of Sartre’s “anything could happen.” More important, they imply the possibility that we can make something happen.

6 am/5:32, 77/91/73, 8:06

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Paternal prototype

June 20, 2016

Fathers Day was all about surprise and delight this year, with donuts and catfish, the Times and the pool, the Cubbies at Wrigley on Sunday Night Baseball (with just a short late peek at the Cavs’ moment of triumph) , and finally the phone call from distant Older Daughter.

And of course thoughts of gratitude for my own late father‘s wonderful lifelong modeling of how to live honestly and humbly, to be of service, to be worthy of appreciation. I fear I took him too much for granted. So many other fathers, like the one in today’s poem, were so much less worthy. He was quiet, kind, generous, selfless, supportive, strong. “On the days I am not my father,” I could do much better.

6:30/5:32, 72/92, 8:06

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