Posts Tagged ‘Sartre’

Existence in extremis: mad as hell

October 24, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals.  That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi, along with Tim Crane on mind and body (“How could a piece of soft tissue think and feel?”) and more report presentations. [Sartre, Camus @dawn… roads to freedom… deB SEP, IEP… “Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoirtrees and bridges…]

It is arresting to realize that when we get mad and then busy (as Bill McKibben says we must), it’s all at the instigation and the behest of that hunk of soft tissue between our ears: an unlikely candidate for freedom and resistance, and yet it’s fundamentally who and what we are, when suitably harnessed to a motive agent like a body. Like? What else is like a body, in a way capable of executing events in a world?

So, to some of those extreme Gallic statements:

Sartre:

  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-b0mbs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love.

de Beauvoir:

  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”

Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.

Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

More on him tomorrow.

It’s midterm report presentation time. Dreaming and “Lord of the Rings” were good on Monday, as were yesterday’s reports. Caleb’s song about schadenfreude (or something similar) was terrific, “Philosophy Feud” was fun, Alex and Garrett did a good job delineating the differences between philosophy and psychology, and it was strange to see myself interviewed and impersonated. (Do I really do that many ums and y’knows?) Good job, Paul, Journey, and Landy. You were way more accurate than some Sidelines reporters I’ve spoken with. And that beaming smile Paul projected for me? That’s just how it was, the day they finally mustered me into the Philosophy Club. Unlike Groucho and Woody, I’m happy to belong to any club that would have me for a member.

Speaking of extreme statements: in EEA we’ll discuss the Green Generation, Climate Rage, and mild-mannered McKibben (whom I recall meeting at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, in the very week of Older Daughter’s birth) at his rhetorical wits’ end (“This is Fucked Up“) over our collective failure to confront and address climate change. Then Julianne will talk to us about greening sports stadia etc. Then, maybe, I’ll be ready for the Series. Go Giants!

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roads to freedom

November 18, 2011

In a silly mood this morning, for some reason. Speaking of J-P Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, 

Marie was noting, in connection with yesterday’s SOL discussion of the Dalai Lama and the question of emptiness at the core of human existence, that Sartre wrote (and wrote and wrote) of “the desire to be good…or if you prefer the desire to be god”…

Well, as Woody Allen said: I gotta model myself after someone.

Sartre was wordy. Did anyone ever write more about Nothingness? But he was very terse when Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion crossed the channel to ask him about freedom.

“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.”

happy

December 7, 2010

It’s the last day of class 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

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 in a pointless car crash at age 44. We must consider him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

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.

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.

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.”

That’s what I’ll leave you with, for now. The last slide says it all:

NOTE TO STUDENTS: All presenters need to be present today. All others need to turn in final essays and 3 journal entries, stapled. Older Daughter says the High Schoolers are docked points for lacking staples. Don’t let it happen to you.

Critchley, R.I.P.

April 14, 2010

That’s Critchley’s book we’re putting to rest for the semester today in Intro, not Simon himself. He’s a step ahead of us on that anyway, in his Book of Dead Philosophers. The last entry is

Simon Critchley

(1960-?)

Exit, pursued by a bear.

His pre-posthumous “last words” make it clear that the point of examining philosophers’ exits was not merely to indulge  a morbid curiosity, but to help us stand more fully in the light that casts the shadow of mortality, to confront the terror of annihilation that enslaves us and free ourselves from it. No easy task, but well worth tackling. (And as we were saying in A&S yesterday, it is the project of a non-theistic spirituality.) To philosophize is to learn to love that difficulty. Or, to learn to die. Or live. Same coin.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Hans-Georg Gadamer. Asked to comment on 9/11, at age 102, he said: “people cannot live without hope; that is the only thesis I would defend without any restriction.” About his limited mobility he said: “Thank God, one does not have to think with one’s legs.” Well, maybe he didn’t.

Jacques Lacan. Last words:  “I’m obstinate. I’m dying.”

Theodor Adorno. Another mountain-climbing philosopher with a weak heart. Supposedly no prude, he was unable to enjoy being covered in flower petals (and etc.) by three uninhibited women students in the unbuttoned ’60s. Sad.

Emmanuel Levinas. A French P.O.W. held by the Germans, he was originally drawn to Heidegger but recoiled from the discovery of the latter’s Nazi affiliation and tried to invert his philosophy of authenticity. Death is not that by virtue of which the self becomes authentic, but is rather [an] ever-unknowable event… death is not mine.

Jean-Paul Sartre. What a strange thing for an atheist existentialist to say:

I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here.

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion ought to have asked him about that.

Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre’s “Beaver,” groundbreaking feminist, close observer of aging as a widening of the gap between subjective and objective self-knowledge. Lying about one’s age is in extremely bad faith.

Hannah Arendt. Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but still regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Does Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby count?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A very sensible phenomenologist. The remedy for death is not to turn away in fright, but to move through it and back to our elemental vitality. Back to the middle of the bright field, away from the abyss. Just remember it’s there, and waiting patiently for you.

W.V.O. Quine. I met him in a kitchen once, as an undergrad. He was talking with Wilfrid Sellars, trying to remember what state he was in (Missouri, semi-inebriation), and discoursing on the futility of metaphysics. He was a fascinating and talented guy, but a philosopher without a question mark on his keyboard is as close to an oxymoron– or just moron– as I can imagine.

Simone Weil. I don’t think she meant to renounce her will a la Schopenhauer, but not eating will achieve the same result. Sad to think of her last hungry words celebrating “the joy and spiritual signification of the feast.”

A.J. Ayer. His near-death experience led this confirmed atheist to speculate on the persistence of consciousness after death, but he said it didn’t incline him to re-consider the god-hypothesis. Oxygen deprivation will lead people to say interesting things. I love his wife’s comment: “Freddie has got so much nicer since he died.”

Albert Camus. “The point is to live.” His life ended in a pointless car crash in the year of Simon Critchley’s birth. He was 44. We must imagine him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

Roland Barthes. The “Death of the Author” author said aging was “slow suicide,” and then he demonstrated his meaning. A teacher to the end.

Donald Davidson. Not the Fugitive Poet, but the author of the influential “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”  Intriguing perspective: freedom  and determinism are not pulling in opposite directions… the meaning of death depends upon our freely chosen attitude towards it.

John Rawls. Justice is fairness, and fairness requires the  disregard of our particular identities. Sounds incontestable, until you  really think about it. But nobody’s come up with a better theory so far.

Michel Foucault. Michael Pollan’s twin, separated at birth? Life can be a work of  art… for better or worse.

Jean Baudrillard. “The very fact of your absence makes the world distinctly less worthy of being lived in.” Nice line.

Jacques Derrida. If Critchley’s right, I’ve been picking on him– as Post-modern Deconstruction‘s most visible target– too much all these years. “The dead live on, they live on within us… wherever a philosopher is read, he or she is not dead.” Another nice line.

Bye, Simon.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Some of you have been on unofficial Spring sabbatical. See you in class.

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [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, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

recurrence

November 24, 2009

Time is winding down on our course, and it keeps popping up in our reading selections. Nietzsche, whose “eternal recurrence” thought experiment invites personal reflection on one’s own meaningful relation to past, present, and future, raises the subject this time, and Sartre (remember Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion and their excellent adventure?) chimes in with his claim that since “existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.” Time is nothing, we are nothing, until we act and choose. But when we do, we create something we can’t run away from. Scary, and– as previously noted (“renunciation“)– not so happy. Recall, too, his distinctively French- intellectual disdain for the distinctively American “myth of happiness” and Americanism generally.  Robert Solomon says Sartre said he never had a real moment of despair in his life. Huh. It was all affected, then. Sounds like “bad faith,” doesn’t it? But “Jean-Paul Sartre is currently dead,” authentically an object without possibilities. So let him be.

We’ve noted the views of at least two Taylors, Richard and James, and of Philip Zimbardo. Is time even real? Well, aging feels real enough. When time passes slowly it feels oppressively real, and when it “flows” it feels unbearably light. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” said Thoreau. Meaning?

Meaning, I suppose, that we experience time as a condition of meaningful, happy-making activity. So it’s as real as happiness, happiness is as real as time, and both are real-as-experienced. We need time to unfold our projects, construct our relationships, and enjoy our lives. When we succeed, we experience them and it together as a subjective unity that closes the loop on each episode of expectation. A closed loop is a moment in time– which may or may not correspond to a conventional moment as measured by our clocks and calendars– that represents fulfillment or (in Dewey‘s language of everyday aesthetic experience, and in Nietzsche’s of self-overcoming, in the clip below) consummation. Enough moments like that will make some of us describe ourselves as happy, whether or not Aristotle would approve.

For Dewey, btw, the thing about time is not that it’s not really  real, but that it’s not just yours and mine: it’s ours. It’s the stream humanity goes a-fishing in. We still have our consummations as individuals, but our largest meanings embrace the “continuous human community.” When we affirm our place in that pan-temporal community, our inescapably-subjective relation to time trades the worst vestiges of misanthropic narcissism for the more sympathetic angels of our nature: social solidarity and species identity. My time then is your time, and our kids’ time, and theirs, and… and aren’t we glad we had this time together?

Does it help, though, to live now and into the always-cresting now of what was the future just a moment ago, to  excise big chunks of the past? Nietzsche (among many others) said happiness requires living in the now. How forgetful must we be, to accomplish that? Must we aspire to the “blissful blindness” of childhood, the animal (“dog-like”) spontaneity of the Cynic, (IEP) or the aphasia of the amnesiac?

“Forgetting is essential to action” and for “the life of everything organic.” That seems right, we accumulate too much informational dross every hour of every day for our finite minds to absorb. We can be “healthful, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.”

But then he gives us “eternal recurrence,” the “greatest weight.” The horizon, fixed decisively to the shores of this world, seems suddenly, paradoxically infinite and dizzying. And liberating? “Be calm.”

Passion

November 23, 2009

I’ve been using this little book, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece in my Intro courses for many years. This semester I’ve saved it for last, hoping to provide a bit more historical perspective than the same authors’ topically-arranged Big Questions achieved. I’ll be going back to the old approach next time. (I know where to find a much cheaper version of at least one “big question.”)

The  brooding thinker doesn’t really represent my idea of philosophy anyway. A little sitting-and-thinking is fine, but I prefer the perambulating, peripatetic spirit of motion and activity. The best ideas come while walking, said Nietzsche (who showed, in spite of himself, that the worst ones do, too).

Philosophy is something you do, not something you just ponder. I did enjoy the art history lessons.

I’m a big fan of the late Robert Solomon (his widow Kathleen Higgins, still at the University of Texas in Austin, published the latest edition of Big Questions just after his untimely death in a Swiss airport a couple of holiday seasons ago). He also wrote Spirituality for the Skeptic, which we’ll be reading in the “Atheism & Spirituality” course next semester. In that book, love of living is the simple essence of spirit– made poignant by our knowledge of the author’s own foreshortened fate, which he would remind us is inevitably our own. We must not take a moment of life for granted.

Solomon: “Whether or not there is a God to be thanked seems not the issue to me. It is the  importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.” Thank who? Thank God, thank goodness, or thank pitchforks and pointed ears. But give thanks. Gratitude is a renewable resource, and then some. It’ll leave you feeling gratified.

He was a critic of overly-narrow, technical philosophy that, with “mind-numbing thinness,” fails to speak to ordinary human concerns. He was the sort of academic philosopher you might look for, if you were inclined to look for one,  in a popular film like Waking Life:

vital living

October 15, 2009

coleridge5“We want to be able to stay up late”– like the poet Coleridge, “frenzied with grief,” past his prime, meditating into the wee hours on life’s meaninglessness— “and think through our confusions.”

Speak for yourself, Eric Wilson. Staying up late, sleeping past dawn, waking in angst and trepidation to worrisome, interminable days of hand-wringing regret followed by dark nights of desperate journaling and substance-abuse… that’s the unhealthy, unhappy profile I’m picturing here.

A better plan: read your Poore Richard, bed down early and rise “when there’s a dawn” in you. (And btw: despite your sneaky attempt to claim him through his “quiet desperation” line, Thoreau was not one of you. He was a morning person, always and cheerfully up at dawn.) I confess I haven’t researched this, it’s just a prejudice at this point, but I’m betting there are fewer depressives amongst us early-birds. That doesn’t make us “shallow” persons, does it?

Rhetorical question, never mind. I ought not to take any of this personally, I know… But I do begin to resent the insinuation that people like me and Willy James, who’ve fought for nearly every inch of contented flourishing we’re managing to hold against the charging darkness, are somehow more “passive,” simple, comfortable etc. than those who habitually frown and weep and congratulate themselves for being so “capaciously complex” in their “durable melancholia.”

They’re sounding the depths of “life’s insoluble mysteries,” the constitutional melancholics, working harder to maintain their anhedonic edge than we do to get over ours? They dwell (with Emily Dickinson) in “a fairer house” of possibility than we, “more numerous of windows, superior for doors”? Doubtful.jameschocorua(James once bragged of his summer home in Chocorua, N.H., that it featured 14 doors “all opening out,” a personal resemblance his sister was quick to notice. I have fewer doors myself, but make frequent, eager egress through them. And unlike Leibniz, Mr. Superficiality Incarnate, I do windows.)

And did you just call us “trivial liars”– ?!– but I’ll let that pass.

It does seem, though, that the stereotypically happy person is a straw-stuffed caricature , as drawn here: someone foolish enough to think it possible to “escape melancholia in an existence in which we are doomed to suffer physical and psychical pain… If we are honest, we cannot.”

The reality is that hard-won happiness must suffer at least as many blows to the spirit as reflexive sadness. No Exit. Nobody thinks so. Save your straw.

Reflecting on Beethoven, Wilson writes: His “simultaneous detachment from and attachment to death is an essential dimension of the melancholy life.”

That’s interesting, but it’s not the exclusive province of melancholia. Jennifer Hecht, speaking to and for us all, says: “Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.”

It finally dawns on me: Wilson is a Sartrean in American clothing, even echoing the author of L’Être et le néant‘s contempt for “the perfectly happy American life” and concluding that non-melancholics prefer “a world in which everyone simply accept(s) the status quo… a dystopia of ubiquitous placid grins… a flatland.”

They, we (the indictment continues) “hide behind the smile” out of “fear of the world’s complexity” and of death.

And here’s the biggest surprise: melancholics like himself are holding out for something much better than happiness: “ecstatic joy.” He’s joking, right?

No. Invoking Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) Wilson insists: “We (melancholics) know that we are going to die… this very death is a spur to vital living.”

Indeed, an honest and unblinking acquaintance with your own mortality can be the clarion moment of awakening for those traveling the path of real happiness. (Joy, sorry.) It’s just that nothing in Wilson’s screed to this point has remotely resembled such a journey. This late and sudden ode to joy is out of left field, and is about as stirring as Matt Holliday’s recent acrobatics there. So Wilson, too, now drops the ball. And the world still turns.

Poor John Lennon. “You’re born in pain, and pain is what we’re in most of the time.” If he’d known how it would all end for him, tragically, stupidly, absurdly, would his pain have been intensified? Or would he have noticed and savored all that was not painful in his eventful, impactful, foreshortened life? We’ll never know.

But how ironic, that pitiable, pathetic, effortlessly-munitioned Mark David Chapman— like all the Mark David Chapmans of the world, they’re sadly legion– confused, disturbed, up late outside the Dakota, Salinger’s Catcher in hand– misperceived his victim as charmed, exalted, unburdened by life’s demands… until its senseless, sudden obliteration at Chapman’s uncreative, melancholic impulse. Hardly a “spur to vital living.”

peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.

prine

Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.