Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Proust and James, in or out

December 20, 2012

William James’s sister Alice described his  temperament as the “delightful” mirror of his New Hampshire summer retreat in Chocorua, dubbed Stonewall, with its “14 doors all opening out.” He used to spill out of one or the other of those doors to cross the street and climb the mountain or circle the lake. He was (at his best) the epitome of nature-loving, expansive vigor and vitality, curious, questioning and questing, and engaged with the world.


When I think of Marcel Proust, on the other hand, the image that springs immediately to mind (right after the cookie bar) is his infamous cramped cork-lined bedroom and its suggestion of an insulated, involuted mind, a closed-off character.


I strolled into the stacks of Vandy library yesterday and picked up the Cambridge Companion to Proust. Its editor says he’s gotten a bum rap over that sealed chamber, that he was just trying to cut out some of the construction noise next door.

Well, we’ll see.

We’ll also see if I can take seriously the project of offering my own modest summary of Proust.

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

The Thursday afternoon tutorial on William James I’ve been doing with a couple of students got cancelled yesterday, so I was able to attend the weekly meeting of the new undergraduate Philosophy Club from the beginning. It’s a small but passionate bunch, excited about ideas and eclectic in conversational range. If you like that sort of thing, drop in at 5 pm on Thursdays (James Union Building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, roon 304).

Yesterday’s discussion began with the perennial free will debate but quickly moved on to the nature and existence of souls, the untapped potential of brains, Cartesian dualism, the possibility that we might be living in a “matrix,” collective dreaming, and on and on. Just a bit undisciplined, but what else would be the point and pleasure of an undergraduate philosophy club?

I would only remind them of Carl Sagan’s cautionary wisdom in Demon-haunted World. Asked for his gut feeling about UFOs and aliens he always responded:

I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.  Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

The gut has its place. It’s what I was “thinking” with all day yesterday under my “StL” hat, as if the latest fortunes of a professional sports franchise in my long-ago hometown should have anything at all to do with my outlook on the value of existence. It was my gut that felt annoyed when my colleague (a long-ago East Coaster), fully informed of the Red Sox collapse, admitted not knowing about the Cards’ historic comeback.

Gut-level emotive “thinking” is what childhood indoctrination is especially good at engendering and reinforcing. Baseball is St. Louis’s civic religion, at least since the St. Louis Hegelians folded their tent. They got me early. (I attended my first Cardinals game in about 1966, just before they opened the new stadium that they tore down in 2005.)

Baloney has its place, too. And so has critical thinking. As skeptic Michael Shermer notes, “when we’re growing up we tend to be pretty credulous.” We should all read his magazine.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a world of wonders we’re living in. Our existence is a natural miracle.  Here we are, in the face of “stupefying odds.” That’s worth talking about, every Thursday afternoon. And I’m even luckier, I get paid to do it every single day.

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior

“We are not a part of nature, we are all of nature”

March 12, 2011

My head’s back, sorta.

Thinking this morning about my impending presentation at the 16th annual Conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture, about the great Sidd Finch, and about the Buddha on nature.

“He specifically said it was a sin against right living for anyone to claim to have supernatural powers,” Jennifer Hecht reminds us. But,

Once Buddhism was out of the Buddha’s hands, the ideas of prayer and worship, a universal mind, magic, gods, and, of course, karma began to creep into many of the Buddhist sects that arose across the centuries…

Including Finch’s, evidently. Even “The Natural” couldn’t hurl a ball faster than a speeding bullet. What Sidd did in 1985 (in George Plimpton‘s fervid imagination) literally defied nature, not to mention credulity.

But there’s a larger point here:

The Buddha invited us to use our human consciousness to realize that we are not a part of nature, we are all of nature. It was a transcendent secularism, an empirical guide out of the limitations of the human mind… Buddhism is a nontheistic graceful-life philosophy and a nontheistic transcendent program. JMH

“We are all of nature” means we already possess the tools (as big league scouts like to say) to free ourselves from self-centered worries and fears.

This situation of ours is bliss… you are a collection of thoughts amid the universe, with nothing to do but be delighted with that surprising truth, and with the whole range of experience, without preference, without hurry, without dread. Every moment is a marvel of being.

“Nothing to do” is a stretch. Nothing but grade those papers, prep those classes, finish that conference talk (last year‘s & the year before)… Being “all of nature” is a full-time job. But Spring Training was awesome. Wish I was there.


January 5, 2011

David Brooks is often resented and criticized by my peers for dipping into philosophical waters he’s not been trained for. But I’m always happy to see philosophy on the pages of the Times (or hear it again on the radio), especially when it barks up one of my favorite alleys.

The topic of Brooks’s latest sally into my field is nothing less than naturalized transcendence: the quest for meaning and purpose in life which does not invoke or rely on supernatural powers and universal explanations.

We should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

Making? How about enjoying? One “cup of strong coffee at the proper moment” really can overturn your world. Make mine a grande-sized mug.

Brooks’s inspiration for this rare and welcome neglect of the political news-cycle, published on New Years’ Eve, is a new book by a pair of philosophers: All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Kelly of Harvard.

Michael Roth likes it too, but wonders if the authors haven’t gone overboard in extolling the transcendent possibilities inherent in the madness of crowds so often displayed in our sports arenas and stadia. Is triumph between the white lines really akin to capturing Ahab’s whale? Old Heidegger even comes into play here, but Roth– evidently not that kind of sports fan– questions the gravitas of bats and rackets and balls.

Can privileged, happy spectators really stand as an antidote for the general affliction of modernity? Is “whooshing” along with a crowd the philosophers’ cure for nihilism or just its expression?

Well, he’s right: it’s important to “whoosh” for the right things and for the right reasons.  I’ve been known to wax poetic and metaphysical about baseball, and will soon be doing it again: Sidd Finch and Sadaharu Oh are on deck.

But I wouldn’t contest the claim that our culture is insanely, obsessively, divertedly fixated on games. They’re only games, after all, and crowds can and too often do become unthinking violent mobs.

But… let’s not confuse the sullied product of professional athletics and consumerist gluttony with the purity of the experience to be had at (for instance) Younger Daughter’s junior varsity basketball game. The Tigers suffered their first defeat last night, but they’ll roar back. With a whoosh.


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.

plugged back in

August 2, 2010

Robert Pyle’s little essay in  Orion magazinea few years old now, still has the power to inspire and infuriate. The author’s brother-in-law challenged his lament for young people who’d rather connect with the Internet than with the Earth itself.

“How do you know,” Leon asked me, “that these kids aren’t just as stimulated, and ultimately fulfilled, as we were by making up our own games outdoors?” I had to admit that he had a point. How indeed could I be sure? But by the third glass of champagne I had an answer—or at least a couple of questions: For one, what happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat? And where will all the conservationists come from when kids no longer have a patch of ground that they can truly call my space?

My original comment on this article, posted Dec.’07:

Bill McKibben was prophetic about this, as about so much else. Our vaunted Information Age really is an “Age of Missing Information.” But rather than pull the plug in a literal way, I’m going to continue tasking myself each day to pull away from the keyboard and the email in responsible moderation. Our evolutionary health depends on our learning to do this.

So: once more into the breach. “Moderation” is not much of a rallying cry, but there it is. It was good to get away, it’s good to be back, and it’ll be healthy to “pull away” again as needed.

Just trying to evolve here a little.

thoroughly modern Henry

June 7, 2010

E.O. Wilson opens his Future of Life with a charming, fanciful monologue directed at old Thoreau. The name is correctly pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, marking its subject as a “thorough” naturalist, and Wilson’s first big point is that Henry’s world is not so far removed from ours as the short-term view of time and life incline us to imagine.

Thoreau’s brief time on Earth lasted just long enough for him to have caught the first edition of Origin of Species. He died in 1862, at 44, three years after Darwin’s detonation of the old delusion about our separability from the rest of nature. Thoreau understood our interconnectedness and our native biophilia implicitly. Thoroughly.

And he understood that time is a fast-flowing tributary uniting us with generations not at all far upstream or down. He would grasp Wilson’s point entirely:

I am old enough to have had tea with Darwin’s last surviving granddaughter… I discussed my first articles on evolution with Julian Huxley, who as a little boy sat on the knee of his grandfather T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog”…as a child I could have spoken to old men who visited you at Walden Pond when they were children of the same age. Thus only one living memory separates us.

We’re connected across the years in a much tighter weave than we often allow. In this summer of the great spreading gulf oil spill, can any of us still seriously doubt that we’re connected to the planet just as tightly, or that when we scar it we injure ourselves? 

Wilson closes his epistle with a lament we must echo louder today:

The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes– cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.

No one in your time could imagine a disaster of this magnitude…

Go outside

June 5, 2010

Jennifer Hecht offers a precise neuro-optical account of why we have a harder time adapting to the dark than to the light, if you’re into that sort of thing. But I prefer her poetic riffs on the splendors of the great outdoors, and how they can cure “the crazies.”

Your crazy is contained in the room you are in. The room in which you loiter. When you step outside, outdoors, into the wide open upness (if urbanly not side-to-side), your crazy expands immediately to fill the immense space and almost none of it is left in your head.

Crazy taken outside does not act like an eye going from lightness to dark, but rather like an arm being asked to swat a fly off your picnic. It’s not a slow influence towards sanity, it is Jack stands up and gets out of the box. Climbs out of his little metal cube, regards the winder with some wry distaste, shudders, walks away.

Which is what I’m going to do right now: just walk away. (I’m already outside.)

Those helio-phobes and dermatologists who warn that any solar exposure at all invites unnecessary risk of melanoma, and even those vitamin D enthusiasts who say 15 minutes a day may be enough? They’re the crazies. Reducing your risk of skin cancer and meeting your vitamin D quota are important, but so is your sanity. You only think you love it in your room, Brian Wilson… and beneath your laptop, Older Daughter.