Archive for the ‘death’ Category

Where will you spend eternity?

June 3, 2013

It was Decoration Day in the Tennessee hinterlands yesterday, as it is annually on the first Sunday in June.

The old custom in my wife’s family is to gather in the family cemetery  on that date (not on Memorial Day as some do elsewhere, for reasons no one seems to know), place flowers on the graves of the departed, and then tuck in to a bounteous potluck picnic under the big shelter my late father-in-law (now one of the residents of the estate, tucked under) helped build.

It’s a strange custom, I suppose, but also a good reminder to ourselves the living to enjoy our brief tenure above the turf, and to remember the lives of those who’ve gone before us in the inevitable procession.  We didn’t do that back in the midwest, where I came from. Too bad.

It’s the Graves family cemetery, by the way. Really.

But you don’t have to be a Graves to get in. My wife has thoughtfully reserved spots for our family. Older Daughter’s not too keen on spending eternity there, though, and neither am I. My preference is to be boiled to my elements and ritually apportioned in all my favorite places: Radnor Lake, Warner & Centennial Parks, Greer Stadium. Maybe a spoonful to join the Graveses et al.

And if the cost comes down, family, I’d like some small part of me to enter low earth orbit and circle my favorite planet for as long as anyone can imagine.

Meanwhile, an occasional walk through the graveyard is a good thing. Next year I’m bringing Walt Whitman along, and I’m going to set up my folding chair on one of the unoccupied corners of the field  and read to the inattentive throng:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
  How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

  I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
      stuff woven.

  Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
  A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
  Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see
      and remark, and say Whose?

  Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

  Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
  And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
  Growing among black folks as among white,
  Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I
      receive them the same.

  And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves...
Do I contradict myself?
  Very well then I contradict myself,
  (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

  I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

  Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
  Who wishes to walk with me?

  Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

  The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
      and my loitering.

  I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
  I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

  The last scud of day holds back for me,
  It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
  It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

  I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
  I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

  I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
  If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles...

This side of eternity

February 27, 2013

I like to complain about staff meetings, for all the good it does. But something worth pondering came of yesterday’s, right at the end.

Our department has just hired a second full-time, tenure track Religious Studies prof. (We hired our first last year.)  This is sure to be good news for our department, our students, and for me and my Atheism course.

Once again we succeeded in securing the services of the candidate who had emerged as our first choice, though the process was made bumpier this time by unanticipated late-hour administrative input from above. But we’re pleased and relieved, and were taking a few moments yesterday to review what went wrong and right, “for next time.”

Someone pointed out that “next time” may be a long time coming. Two hires in two years is unprecedented for us. We’ll push (per the urging of our recent external reviewer) to add another philosopher, possibly a three-year postdoc if not another permanent full-timer, but the likelihood is that we’ll be “encouraged” to make due at our present level of staffing for some time.

On the other hand, noted our cheerful chairman as we adjourned and dispersed quietly  into the good night, “some of us are not getting younger.” It’s good to think about the passage of time, he said. It’s good to think about your own funeral, and your final rest.

And on that happy note I must now finish the Bioethics exam. Time’s a-wasting.


“Every morning he gets up quite early”

January 10, 2013

There’s a historical plaque on our campus, near the Business  and Aerospace Building across from the library and Starbucks, commemorating 1986 Nobel economist James Buchanan. It’s there because he was a 1940 graduate of our school, known then as Middle Tennessee State Teachers College. Our top Honors students are now called Buchanan scholars.

He wrote many books reflecting a broadly libertarian. contractarian, individualist point of view. Turns out he was a much more interesting thinker than I’d imagined, seeking a reconciliation of his temperamental anarchism with an equally insistent Hobbesian realism in (for instance)  The Limits of Liberty. Must read more of him, someday. Somehow.

I mention him now because I’ve walked past his plaque hundreds of times with barely a flicker of interest, and because yesterday Buchanan died.

So now that’s two consecutive mornings devoted to the subjects of Times obits. As I was just saying: all this must pass.

But I have no time to reflect on that right now, my very lively spouse has a 7:40 flight out of here and I am of course her cabbie. But here’s Prof. Buchanan’s story.

“Every morning he gets up quite early and works quite early,” reported his George Mason colleague. He was committed to addressing “how to work, how to think, how to live.” Gotta admire his work habits, if not his economic philosophy. I’ll never pass that plaque indifferently again.

Our sick culture of violence

December 18, 2012

People are saying it’s different this time, that the slaughter of innocents in Newtown will not so quickly recede into the collective American unconscious as most every other gun-assisted atrocity always has. This time “something snapped,” this time we’ll take “meaningful action” to address and begin to cure our sick culture of violence. Even a few Republicans with high NRA scores are saying so.

It’s important to realize that it is a cultural problem, exacerbated but not created by our disgusting bloated arsenal of killing machines. The latest young murderer  had ready access to them of course, his mother apparently was laying in supplies for the apocalypse. The pitiable self-parodying irony of her fate, in the light of that, requires no further comment.

But the shooter also apparently had a “head full of video games” to match his house full of guns. The truth of the stupid familiar slogan (“people kill people”) is unavoidable: these dreadful weapons, perversely described by an expert enthusiast on npr as “cool,” obviously don’t collect or discharge themselves. Someone must intend that, and intentions don’t grow up in a vacuum.

I was giving Younger Daughter a hard time yesterday over her penchant for violent entertainment, from “Hawaii Five-O” (etc. et al) to zombies to “mature” video games. And don’t get me started again about football. She’s a gentle and peaceable soul, as I suppose are most of us. 999 out of 1,000, at least.

But, isn’t all this “fun” and “entertaining” violence really unhealthy, for the culture at large if not for each individual consumer? Doesn’t it create a perfect little petrie dish for the nurture and development of nut-jobs who can stroll down one Wal-mart aisle for their games and another for their guns, even if Mom hasn’t done them the convenience of stocking up at home already? It’s a big country, 1 in 1,000 adds up.

So has anything actually snapped, in this country, this time? I heard the Hawaii Five-O theme in the next room again last night. People all over town were glued to the Titans on TV, either dispersing or gathering their aggressions. Young and not so young people all over the land were again spending their leisure in virtual violent conflict. As we say: it’s a free country.

I never used to understand Kris Kristofferson’s lyric about freedom’s meaning “nothing left to lose,”  we saw again in Connecticut what a terrible price we all continue to pay for a too-glib interpretation of what freedom means. If something really has snapped, we’ll at last act to honor the freedom of little boys and girls to grow up and live their lives.

“We will have to change”

December 17, 2012

The President’s remarks at the Newtown vigil last night were moving, and promising.

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

…the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

I look forward to the specific changes in gun control policy the President will propose and fight for. Minimally, we must “register all firearms, license all owners, require background checks, ban semi-automatic weapons” (Bob Herbert).

And I look forward as well to a change in rhetoric and tone. I look forward to the day when an ecumenical “interfaith” memorial vigil like last night’s will automatically include, alongside the Priests and Imams and Rabbis and Revs, a humanist philosopher – or a president eager to proclaim his own humanist sensibility. “You know,” the President said,

all the world’s religions, so many of them represented here today, start with a simple question.

Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?

We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

Good words, right up until the last. But I wanted to hear, unambiguously and unambivalently, that the only plans worth pondering aloud on horrible occasions like these are the ones we still haven’t made, to regulate our own behavior. The inscrutable hypothetical death-dealing “heavenly plans” of an evidently-dark lord of superstition do not console. They do not begin to redeem the obscene, gratuitous loss of those twenty “beautiful little kids” and six courageous educators. They do not deserve breath or mention.

Do we have the courage to stop this?” And does our president have the courage to lead on this, against the entrenched and mobilized gun-and-religion lobby? Those are the right “simple questions.”

An indecorous question

June 4, 2012

“Where will you be buried?”

Yesterday was Decoration Day out in the hinterlands, a dying tradition in more than one sense of the term. But it’s still observed on Memorial Day in some places, and by my mother-in-law’s clan on the first Sunday of June. The idea is for the living to gather at the cemetery and florally decorate the graves of the dear departed, then enjoy a potluck picnic and the convivial privilege of one another’s continued existence. It had superstitious origins rooted in concern for the appurtenances of the afterlife, and later became yet another patriotic holiday. But like pretty much everything, it can be taken in naturalized form.

Unspoken but undeniably in the minds of at least a few of the more reflective decorators, on this annual  occasion of feast and finitude,  is awareness of the prospect that each participant will in time, in turn, slip beneath the turf to join William Cullen Bryant’s “innumerable caravan” themselves.

…approach thy grave, Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. –Thanatopsis

So Decoration Day at its best is a stoic celebration of life and a mindful reminder that it’s not forever.

And at its worst? At its worst it’s a morbid, fear-induced, life-negating depressant. “Where will you be buried?” is the indecorous question a Country Cousin greeted Older Daughter with, almost as soon as we were out of the car.

It’s good, as I say, to remind ourselves that (as another poet said) we all spend eternity here, “tucked under.” Most of the decorators actually believe themselves to be immortal spirits who’ll spend eternity in heaven, but never mind. We’re never too young to think about that. So I don’t object to the question itself, although I deny the premise: who says you have to be buried? I’d rather be scattered, myself. Spread my dust around in all my favorite places, including this very spot out back under the glider, in Edwin and Percy Warner Parks, at Radnor Lake, at Stones River, at Greer Stadium (kinda like Steve Goodman)…

And shoot some of me into space with Leary and Roddenberry and Scotty, if you can afford the freight.

On May 22, 2012, a small urn containing some of Doohan’s remains in ash form was flown into space aboard the Dragon spacecraft as part of COTS Demo Flight 2

But if the cold cold ground appeals instead, Cousin, go for it.

I did object to the gleeful tone of eagerness we heard in his voice, as though he thought we should all be in a big hurry to reach the front of the caravan. Philosophy is about learning to die, sure, but in the version I prefer it’s more about learning what it means to live.

And so I thought Older Daughter’s response to the indecorous question was just right. She said she hadn’t really given burial plots a lot of thought yet, being focused for now on things like passing the Driver’s Test, going to college, starting a family, living her life. We all have time enough to die. Now’s time to live.

“Must Life be Tragic?”

March 2, 2012

The second 2012 Berry Lecture in Public Philosophy last night featured my old friend Rob Talisse, co-author of Reasonable Atheism and author of eight other books in his first nine years at Vanderbilt, according to John Lachs’s introduction). His topic: “Must Life be Tragic?”

It is, of course, for us humans, if we just mean that we’re going to die and we know it. None of us will achieve all that is worth achieving. We can dream of far more than we can ever attain, in a finite lifetime.

But Talisse meant to say more than that. He is a quick, aggressive, insightful, iconoclastic thinker. His thesis was in part that pluralists (like me), who hold “value”to be varied and incommensurable, make life even more tragic for ourselves by acknowledging a greater plurality of uncompensated unique goods than does the non-pluralist who thinks that “value is one big thing.”

But note: as Talisse is defining the term, a philosopher like John Stuart Mill is a non-pluralist: value for him is one big thing, namely utility (or pleasure, or happiness). The way I typically use the term, Mill is a pluralist. How could he not be? He was William James’s hero, an exponent of liberty and eccentricity. They always entail variety, often of the incommensurable type.

But that’s another conversation. What most intrigues me this morning is the implication that I make my life more tragic because I acknowledge that I might have traveled other roads in life, might have pursued other goods than those available to a professional philosopher. Those other goods are whispering to me: “I ought to be pursued by you.” But I’m a finite human, I can’t have it all. And that adds a layer of tragedy beyond the impending loss we all must anticipate, by virtue of our intrinsic mortality.

I find it strange to think of merely hypothetical (though possible) goods laying claim on how I apportion my days. It’s the other way around, seems to me: we all make claims on the world. Claims are mirrors of desire, which the world apart from us entirely lacks. But Talisse says that view commits a kind of “value phenomenalism” he finds objectionable. Still another conversation.

So, let’s pretend I could have become a great St. Louis Cardinal. But instead I chose to stay in school and eventually became  an academic who occasionally writes and talks baseball but will never fulfill that old childhood dream of playing it at the highest level. I’ll not make it to Cooperstown, not even as a writer/sage. A few have, but I’m no Grantland Rice. And there are no plans to open a philosophy wing at the Hall of Fame. They do host an annual academic symposium there, in which I did participate once, but that’s not the same. I’ll do my thing again this month at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, but that’s not the same either.

So my life is thus, on Talisse’s telling, more tragic than if I were to renounce the pluralist line. I could then silence that annoying, nagging whisper: No, I’m pursuing my highest good right here in the philosophy department. I ought not to have chased that illusory baseball dream.

Instead I have to say that philosophy and baseball were for me incommensurable, heterogeneous goods. I can never know that one was my optimal good. I must always fret that my choice cut me off, permanently and ineradicably, from my best life. So whatever life I’ve lived or might have, was inevitably going to be tragic for its renunciations.

But: is the hypothesized fact that I could not be a philosopher and a great ballplayer, but had to choose and may have chosen the wrong incommensurable good, really so tragic? Isn’t the greater tragedy of life, beyond mere mortality, the fact that many of us fail to achieve many complementary goods that we need not renounce, that were “compossible,” but that we’ve simply and contingently failed to secure?

I can be a good philosopher, spouse, dad, friend, neighbor, humanitarian, philanthropist, amateur athlete, whatever… but for whatever failures of will or imagination or industry or ambition, I end up achieving only a subset of those goods. I never really lose a moment’s peace thinking about the games I haven’t played. I do sometimes fret about missed opportunities I can’t possibly blame on my choice of vocation.

But it’s March, it’s Spring Break, it’s Spring Training! It would be a personal tragedy not to enjoy it at least as much as I enjoyed Rob Talisse’s lecture last night.

“The Art of Fielding”

December 22, 2011

Chad Harbach’s first novel was a perfect change of pace at semester’s end, so compelling I wasn’t tempted to check twitter or email or the Times even once yesterday. I’ll never again commence winter break without immersing in a cool fiction. But I do feel about closing it as Harbach’s legendary ur-Cards shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez felt about leaving the field after the last out:

It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.

But I’ll return to this book and its truly novel combination of elements: baseball, the pursuit of perfection, the vicissitudes of fortune, literature (especially Melville), philosophy (especially the Stoicism of Aurelius and Epctetus). Harbach is one of my people: captivated by words but all too aware of their limitations, and ours.

Talking was like throwing a baseball… You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them — you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words.

Words have never expressed our common plight more succinctly, “The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and  will not.”

One of Harbach’s characters loves the work of Whitman, which he intends to read to an injured and convalescing young friend & lover. But “he should have brought Tocqueville. Or William James.”

Yes, bring it. A sequel would be great.


“The point is to live,” said Sisyphus

April 26, 2011

And then he died, in a car wreck. Age 46. Absurd, no?

It’s the last day of class (again)  in Intro to Philosophy, before exams next week, so some of us are happy. But the last day is also always a little bittersweet. Seems we just get started, then before you know it comes the time we have to say good-bye. But, I’m so glad we had this time together

Logicomix concludes. Russell turns from his obsession with the foundations of mathematics to the larger search for the human “conquest of happiness.” Not that math can’t make a mathematician happy… but we’re not all mathematicians. We are all human. We mustn’t confuse our “maps” with reality, or our certainties with heaven.

Russell seems to have been happy, at last, with the ultimate uncertainties of living. He didn’t stop analyzing, but he did stop “deadening ze emotions.” He rejected the pessimism and “unrestrained voluptuousness” young Wittgenstein had triggered, and found redemptive meaning in love and compassion. He found joy in paternity.

Sisyphus was happy too, according to Camus. (“One must consider Sisyphus happy.”) Did he  understand the secret of life to be meaningful work? Any work can be made meaningful enough to make life worth living, seems to be his point, for those who throw themselves into their lives and help others.

“The point is to live,” said Camus, before his life ended so abruptly. His end punctuates his point: meaning is to be sought in the actual living of our lives and not in the hard particulars of our dying, “behind the wheel” or wherever. We must consider him no longer happy, but also no longer seeking. I’ll bet he’d get a laugh, though, out of the recent controversy in France over his mortal remains. So useless to ask him why, throw a kiss and say good-bye. (I don’t know why Steely Dan suddenly sounds like existentialism to me. More absurdity, I s’pose.)

Heidegger talked a lot about being thrown, too. [That’s Simon Critchley on geworfenheit, or “thrownness”… and here he is on learning to die and other fun stuff.] Evidently he threw himself into his work for the Reich, and lately is reaping the reward of a  bad reputation. His being-in-the-world, his Dasein, has departed. There’s no longer any there worth Being, there. [heroes & villains]

Jean-Paul Sartre said we exist before we acquire any specific or essential identity, leaving us either dreadfully or bracingly free (depending on attitude) to invent ourselves. But it’s very hard to be free in good faith, since our perpetual tendency is to objectify ourselves and one another. But you can’t be a free person in the same way an inkwell is an inkwell. Well, duh.

Here’s Sartre hosting Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Sartre’s paramour Simone de Beauvoir pushed him to place his abstract talk about freedom in its real world social contexts, and to acknowledge the additional patriarchal obstacles in the way of women’s liberation.

[Solomon: From Existentialism to Postmodernism]

Postmodernists say philosophy, defined as the search for truth, is moribund. But New Agers, even the looniest, show there’s still an appetite and an audience for wisdom pursued passionately, a hunger for philosophy only living can sate.

Postmodernism‘s strange claim is that there is no truth, only “discourse”; and New Age philosophy sponsors various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. But have they got a secret?

[What the [bleep’]… The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And with that, we ring down the curtain on another semester of Intro to Philosophy. I hope everyone takes this away:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

And as promised, Mr. Einstein gets the last word: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

earth’s eye

October 30, 2010

Yesterday was a fabulous day to loop the lake at Radnor, “Nashville’s Walden.”  It’s so good to see the comeback it’s made from damage sustained in the May flood. One of the very best reasons to live here. How many times have I circumnavigated this pool, over the past thirty years? The prospect is fresh every time.

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows. HDT

Perhaps, as the poet said, the truth does depend on a walk around the lake. Or on many, until we can walk no more.

It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. It struck me again to- night, as if I had not seen it almost daily for more than twenty years, — Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago…

WordPress’s automatic generator says this may be related. I think so.

This too. The inscription speaks of grace and curiosity. Its presence here speaks of belonging, of being part of something you know will outlast you and feeling fine, though sooner or later to be (in Annie Dillard’s unflinching phrase) “tucked under.”

“We spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under.” Yet our time above ground, on a day like yesterday, is indeed all about preparing the Earth to support new life.