Tag Archives: philosophy

The Starting Point

As you can see, philosophy struggles with huge tension. On the one hand, love seen as a natural extravagance of sex arouse a kind of rational suspicion. Conversely, we see an apology for love that borders on religious epiphany. Christianity hovers in the background, a religion of love after all. And the tension is almost unbearable.
—Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love (15)

Evocation of Butterflies Odilon Redon.jpg

Evocation of Butterflies, Odilon Redon c.1912

Thus, when Kierkegaard was finally unable to contemplate the idea of marrying Régime, he broke with her. In the end, he represented the aesthete seducer of the first level, lived the ethical promise of the second and failed to make the transition, via the real-life seriousness of marriage, to the third level. Nonetheless, he visited the whole gamut of forms of philosophical reflection on love (15).

I, for one, have a very hard time forgiving Kierkegaard for this failure. A friend convinced me to give him another chance, and so I suppose I must, but I am always on the side of the heartbroken and against those that create a philosophy or moral that disregards, or attempts to repress, the truth of love: “as we all know, love is a re-invention of life” (33). Well, at least according to me and M. Badiou, as told in his compelling little book In Praise of Love (2009), a book composed of a conversation with Le Monde journalist Nicolas Truing  initially coming from a series of conversations from Avignon Festival’s “Theatre of Ideas.”

Badou begins the book by discussing some problems with the modern perspective of love. The first being the unwillingness to admit risk into one’s life which is perpetuated by online dating sites that advertise the possibility of finding your “soul mate” or perfect match risk free. And then:

The second threat love faces is to deny that it is at all important. The counterpoint to the safety threat is the idea that love is only a variant of rampant hedonism and the wide range of possible enjoyment (8)

And so one can see in the history of philosophy and religion an attempt to devalue romantic love. In philosophy the love of friendship is the gold standard while in religion, the transcending love of god, or some higher power, is the only true love. There is something in the temporal, mundane, and corporal nature of passionate love that make people feel exposed to their mortality and vulnerability I suppose.

But surrendering your body, taking your clothes off, being naked for the other, rehearsing those hallowed gestures, renouncing all embarrassment, shouting, all this involvement of the body is evidence of a surrender to love. It crucially distinguishes it from friendship. Friendship doesn’t involve bodily contact, or any resonances in pleasure of the body. That’s why it is a more intellectual attachment, and one that philosophers who are suspicious of passion have always preferred (36).

For Badiou, the idea of a transcending love is also off the mark. Love is about difference, not oneness. It is the “Two scene”, as he puts it, in which,in its role as a ‘truth procedure,’  “a certain kind of truth is constructed” (38).

the “Two scene” —is experience. In this sense, all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference” (39)

All kinds of love, Badiou states, make it possible for us to feel that we do not have to experience the world as a solitary, but can experience it through the difference of the other, side by side. Certainly this must be true. I only have to think of the delight I take in seeing the world from my youngest son’s point of view. I think we all do that—it is easy to find joy in experiencing the world through our children’s eyes but somehow we are told this can not extend to passion. People often look for love (through online dating sites in particular) to find the perfect match—the one that is just like me!—and yet, for myself, what I love the most are the people that make me see the world differently, through their eyes, their minds, and of course in the case of romantic love, through their body.

Badou’s book is thought provoking and quite lovely, although I did hit a few snags when he got to Lacan. In a nutshell, Lacan declared that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Badiou clarifies the famously “shocking” proposition a bit, explaining:

Lacan doesn’t say that love is a disguise for sexual relationships; he says that sexual relationships don’t exist, that love is what comes to replace that non-relationship (19).

The reason why it doesn’t exist, according to the theory, is that the pleasure, while mediated by the other’s body, in fact takes you very far away from the other in the form of your own personal pleasure. I am not sure I buy this. After all, if sex where truly, solely, a narcissistic adventure, then why the need for an other at all? Masturbation would suffice for that, no? It is difficult to see, in fact, why the theory applies only to sexual relationships. In this light can there be such a thing as friendship if the pleasure of the friendship can only be felt individually. Maybe I am missing something. Coincidentally I have a rather large tomb of Lacan’s sitting on my to-read pile, so I will have to investigate.

But overall, Badiou’s book is a brave declaration, in this day and age, of the importance of love. The chance encounter that transforms into destiny. Badiou talks of the process of falling in love as the “event-encounter” from which love follows. The passages in which he focuses on the declaration of love is really wonderful and true:

The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it iso perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright […] That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened” (43)

I love that—a kind of horrifying stage fright—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image out of my head of those three little, yet infinitely powerful words, clinging to the curtains of the stage of my mind: the butterflies of I love you.

As Troung writes in the introduction to this book, “praise of love, sung by a philosopher who thinks, like Plato, whom I quote: ‘Anyone who doesn’t take love as a staring point will never understand the nature of philosophy.'” My thoughts exactly.

*published 2012 by Serpent’s Tail, trans. from the French by Peter Bush

Sacrificing a Thousand Apparent Truths

The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’ 
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).

7199476

14th & 1st, L line Florist, Victoria Accardi (2016)

The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.

[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).

What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.

The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).

By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.

The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:

Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).

Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,

Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).

All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:

Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).

Well. What more can one say?

 

*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)

IMG_6014

The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129

The Nectar of Mathematics

It is better to do the right problem the wrong way than to do the wrong problem the right way.
Richard Hamming quoted, Julian Havil, Impossible: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums (50)

IMG_5786

My kind of geometry: The Doughnut

I was deep into my morning walk a few weeks ago when a powerful craving for doughnuts caught up with me. But proper doughnuts require a little time and a small crowd to partake in the pleasure, so I waited until the right moment.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong (H.L. Mencken quoted, 82).

I find that I tend to read a math book or two every year. I’m not sure what it is in me that compels me to plow through the complex equations that I have little to no real understanding of, but I do it anyway. I like the ideas that the math symbolizes, I suppose. I take a strange pleasure in relating events in my life to mathematical equations.

A recipe is like a math equation: n( x + y) (s/t/r) + nfº = Ne (That’s n ingredients, multiplied by speed and time of rotation, plus n degrees fahrenheit, equals the nectar of mathematics: in this case: Apple-cider doughnuts.). Of course we ran into some problems.

Now that we have complex numbers properly placed and our mind receptive to lurking difficulty, we will consider what should be a simple computation for a calculator (44).

Ah yes, the lurking difficulty. Well, that is something one must always be prepared for. I had my heart set on apple cider doughnuts. My children and I were all visiting friends who had kindly procured all the necessary ingredients. I only needed 1/2 cup of apple cider (which I would reduce to 2T) and my friend wondered what to do with rest as they didn’t care for cider. I told her not to worry, my boys would take care of that. The next morning, I awoke, ready to prepare the dough when I realized our error. I neglected to tell the boys that there had been a reason, other than their enjoyment and ever-lurking thirst, for the purchase of the cider. They had made quick work of it. Good communication is important. In math, baking and life—that holds true.

Put succinctly, to increase the chances of success the team must adopt the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of being wrong together, not correct together (53).

Something strange that I love about math, as it feeds some sort of philosophical truth I seek, is that not only can there be multiple ways to reach a solution, but there are multiple solutions to a problem. It just depends on what system, matrix, or units of measurement and/or data you are using. There is not as much firm ground as we like to think. There are just abstract ideas and evolving methods of problem-solving.

Of course making apple cider doughnuts is not that complex of a problem. I solved the equation, in fact, by a simple adjustment of words. Rather than making Apple-cider Doughnuts I replaced the 2T reduced apple cider with milk and renamed the solution: Plain Doughnuts.

*title from p 128: “Certainly, [the proof] is more secure and in looking at it we can taste the nectar of mathematics…”

 

 

 

Apart From Naughtiness

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.
—D.H. Lawrence, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (55)

IMG_4106

It was only once I was walking down the dark empty hallway that an awareness began to percolate back into my brain alerting me that I had left my glasses behind. Before the realization entirely sank in, while I was still merely in an optical haze of confusion, I spun around and ran back hoping to beat the timer I had turned—I didn’t want the light to go off and have to blindly find my way back to the stack among multiple stacks. Not my fault. I had gone there to get one book. Just one. But in my arms were four. I got excited and was dashing off like a thief in the night.

People wallow in emotion: counterfeit emotion. They lap it up: they live in it and on it. They ooze it (18-19).

What began as My Skirmish With Jolly Roger, (which I found in there! in the general stacks—a first edition! —I’m going to have to talk with someone about that.) —a stand-alone limited edition of Lawrence’s forward to the “Paris edition” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover— turned into A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, extending the original essay by some fifty pages. I added both to my check out, naturally.

And with counterfeit emotions there is no real sex at all. Sex is the one thing you cannot really swindle; and it is the centre of the worst swindling of all, emotional swindling. Once come down to sex, and the emotional swindle must collapse. But in all the approaches to sex, the emotional swindle intensifies more and more. Till you get there. then collapse (21).

In the essay, Lawrence seems to be trying to find his reader. Not the one who skips to the dirty words, not the one who is sanctimoniously looking for moral outrage, but his reader–the one who craves something true. It is a delicate and precious thing:

Herein lies the danger of harping only on the counterfeit and the swindle of emotion, as most “advanced” writers do. Though they do it, of course, to counterbalance the hugely greater swindle of the sentimental “sweet” writers (23). 

It is even harder, in this day and age, to resist the cynics and avoid the fools. This week I began my summer internship. I am working in the editorial department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend my lunch hour wandering the sublime halls of the museum. I let myself approach each piece of art instinctually—yes or no. It is simple. I have time. No pressure. It is just me. Is the answer to the multiple choice question yes or no? I wish life were so simple.

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table (40).

Poor blossom, indeed. Lawrence advocates passionately, in this essay,  for marriage, which, having been married, forces a sort of reckoning within me. Additionally, as the novel’s plot involves adultery, his stance is interesting. And yet, marriage for marriage’s sake–for stature or security or any other shallow or temporal purpose is exactly what he most vehemently rails against…so,  I do come to see his point. I am not only a dedicated observer of art, I am also an observer of couples, and when I espy the authentic thing—I rejoice with a yes in my heart. Life can be all that.

For an essay that begins, ostensibly, as a warning to the reader of the myriad pirated editions of his work, Lawrence diverges with such fervent passion into the heart of the matter, into our very hearts, that I cannot help adoring him. He is a sane man in a mad world, which may make him appear crazed, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for “ideals”, and for this “spiritual” knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness. The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. And they did. Now they have done it. The last great ebullition of friendship and hope was squashed out in mud and blood. Now men are all separate entities. While “kindness” is the glib order of the day—everyone must be “kind”—underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary (57).

It’s the “dreary” that makes me smile. Yes, it is indeed dreary.

*title from pg. 32

Soaking Wet: truth and meaning

“All thought arises out of experience, but no experience yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (87)

IMG_4065

In part 1 of Hannah Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind she examines (with breathless thoroughness) the concept of “Thinking” (part 2 comprises “Willing” and the appendix takes on “Judging,neither of which I have read yet).  I suppose there are three types of people: those that actively (or willfully)  don’t think, those that think, and those that go the extra bend of the river and think about thinking.

“Every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses” (87)

The senses concern themselves with truth. Verifiable information. This sort of thinking is procedural and factual. But we are endowed with the ability to internalize, generalize, and “de-sense” those facts and therefore search for meaning. The meaning can never exist in ‘the truth’ of experiences. Meaning only comes from the second part of the dual-mind—the searching, pondering mode of thinking.  I exist is a different mode of thinking than why do I exist?  Truth is irrelevant to the latter question.

“The business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it finished the night before. For the need to think can never be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew” (88).

Thinking that occurs through the interaction of our senses is primary of course, as Arendt wonderfully sums up “The famous first sentence of Aristotle’s metaphysics. ‘Pantes anthrõpoi tou eidenai oregontai physei”—”All men by nature desire to know”—literally translated reads: “All men by nature desire to see and to have seen [that is, to know] (58). But, the sort of thinking that Arendt tells us Kant called the ‘intellect,’ the sort of reasoning that has no objective truth associated with it, nor does it have an end game, is a separate and separated life. It is like death in that it is abstract and utterly solitary, creating a break between mind and soul, but— it is life too—it is the wonder and the mystery: it is how we know beauty.

Thinking beings have an urge to speak, speaking beings have an urge to think” (99).

Common sense thinking (cognition) does not require language. But the intellect does: “It is not our soul but our minds that demand speech.” Languages in many forms, animal languages I think included, are useful, even necessary  for communication, but this is different from the internal discursive reasoning that humans engage in and which can not be considered possible without true speech. We talk to ourselves—how bizarre and yet how essential. Arendt examines, historically, two of the major philosophical strands considering the origin of this “speculative reason” (103):

“I have dealt with two sources from which thinking as we know it historically has sprung, the one Greek, the other Roman, and they are different to the point of being opposites. On the one hand, admiring wonder at the spectacle into which man is born and for whose appreciation he is so well equipped in mind and body; on the the other, the awful extremity of having been thrown into a world whose hostility is overwhelming, where fear is predominant and from which an tries his utmost to escape” (162).

Thinking about thinking framed within those two opposing world views is quite profound. It seems to me the Roman view-point is currently in vogue, but I personally feel split unevenly between the two. Life is a wonder, and the force of the beauty insists that we speculate. It is the cause of the thinking. I can’t go a day without feeling that—hardly an hour, really. And yet I have my own pains to bear. The unfairnesses and unkindnesses that are suffered and witnessed are irrepressible.  Whywhywhy?

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. By shielding people from the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society. What people then get used to is less the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always led to perplexity, than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars” (177).

Yes. The possession of rules is the true opium of the masses. The refusal to think creates a veneer of well-run, quasi-peaceful societies, religions and political parties, but it is truly the death of progress and hope. The death of our human-ness—our ability, gift, and need to reason.

Like the photo above of my son moments after falling into the river after having climbed out farther than any common-sense thinking would have allowed—our hopes and dreams take a pounding. Maybe we weren’t strong enough, maybe the bark underneath was rotting away, maybe it was a good risk, maybe it was a dangerously bad one. But, still, to feel the air between our fingers, the cold water, and sand in our hair and to then think of the moving water, of my sweet boy’s unflappable enthusiasm even in the face of being thrown into this river of life—I think I’d rather be alive to it all. We may be all wet, but at least we are awake.

Inability to think is not a failing of the many who lack brain power, but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded. Everybody may come to shun that intercoarse with oneself […]. thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process, its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results or specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence—it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers” (191).

Parlez, bijoux!

There is nothing like being a human. As ridiculous as a work may be, if it is praised it will succeed.
—Denis Diderot, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Les Bijoux indiscrets/The Indiscreet Jewels, (61)

IMG_3582

As my interest (okay, fine, obsession) with Diderot continues I took a slight detour into his novels (he is famed for his l’Enclopedie but perhaps not as well known for his literary works). Perhaps detour is too strong a word, the fact that each of his three novels are completely different and experimental in their own way fits perfectly into the kind of discursive and avid (not too strong a word in his case, I believe) intellect.

Allow the voice of your jewel to awaken the voice of your conscience, and do not blush at confessing the crimes you had no shame to commit (61).

The premise of Les Bijoux indiscrets is hilariously scandalous, I’m amazed, frankly, that Dali or Almodóvar never made a film of it. How can one resist a story of a sultan who obtains a magical ring which, once turned toward its female victim, causes her “jewel” to speak. Don’t think that just because this book came out in 1748 women’s vaginas didn’t have a lot to bitch about, actually, I suppose they had more…but this is not a book whose purpose is sympathy for the desires of the various jewels. It is really a provocative philosophical romp undressing the sexual hypocrisies of society.

Diderot was of course accused of indecency and while he was in the middle of negotiating the terms of his editorial-ship in regard to his monumental and incredible l’Encyclopdie, he was promptly thrown into jail for many months. That’s the thing about hypocrites—no sense of humor. Ah well.

Diderot uses this genre, (some people consider it a roman à clef, as some of the characters seem pointed towards real people—and court life in general) in an interesting way. Quick digression—I should mention that I also read his book, The Nun (La Religieuse) and, although a very different genre, it seems to me that he uses the literary form in both cases to explore philosophical ideas and political critiques. Both books suffer from this inverted stance. In literature, the story must come first, and whatever philosophy flows from the tale should not try to lead. It would be like a tango with two leads—an exquisite balance is lost. In The Nun, written as if it were a sort of Samuel Richardson novel in the vein of Clarrisa (Diderot wrote an essay in praise of Richardson that is so effusive in its praise that it is only its sincerity that keeps it from being on the wrong side of the ridiculous— but gosh I love the man’s committed passion!). I digress. The protagonist, Suzanne, is a woman forced into the cloistered life petitioning (the novel is, like Clarissa, epistolary, a long letter written to a man she hopes will help her out of her miserable condition) to be let free. For Diderot’s purposes it is important that Suzanne have no ulterior motive other than the simple reasonable truth that she has no feeling or interest for the vocation. She simply has no calling for it, why should she not have the freedom, the free will, to say, no thank you?  And the tortures and indignities she suffers with perfect patience and understanding! And yet, this purity and simplicity makes Suzanne a pretty flat character, and worse, she really loses credibility when, in an extended series of scenes (greatly detailed) she remains oblivious to the importunate sexual advances that are inherent in the Mother Superior’s fondling of Suzanne’s breasts (and other sweet spots)…. Really Suzanne? I know Diderot wanted to make her “an innocent” but I don’t care who you are, if your breasts are being fondled you are going to feel something, and if you are remotely intelligent you are certainly going to suspect something. Geesh.

But back to the jewels.

“Many are those in whom the soul visits the head as if it were a country house, where the stay is brief. These are the dandies, flirts, musicians, poets, novelists, courtiers, and all those whom we call pretty women. Listen to these people argue, and you will immediately recognize vagabond souls that are influenced by the different climes they inhabit” (126).

While the premise of this novel is fun, I don’t think Diderot has enough fun with it, but that may be because that is not really what he wants to talk about, and he may simply lack any deep insight into the complexity of what a woman’s vagina may have to report on from her perspective…the novel seems focused on the jewels’ fidelity or lack thereof (more the man’s perspective, I’d say) but what is lovely in the novel is the relationship between the sultan Mangogul and his beloved Mirzoza. Their spirited and philosophically complex discussions are the true heart of this novel. I couldn’t help thinking that Mirzoza stood for Sophie Volland who was Diderot’s mistress—her name was not Sophie, but because the name harkens the Greek word for wisdom that is what he called her throughout their passionate (intellectual and sexual) relationship as documented in his copious letters to her (only his are known to be extant).

“What! [affection in a jewel] devoid of meaning?” Cried Mirzoza. “So, is there no middle ground, and must a woman necessarily be a prude, a gallant, a coquette, a voluptuary, or a libertine?”
“My soul’s delight,” said the sultan, “I am ready to admit the inexactitude of my list, and I would add the affectionate woman to the preceding characters, but only on the condition that you give me a definition thereof that does not fall under one of my categories.” (100)

Where does the soul reside? Are animals sentient? Are people fundamentally good or bad? These are some of the conversations dispersed throughout the tale between these two lovers whose respect and tenderness for each other is a lovely thing to spend some time with.

*monoprint—”Motherhood” by J. Ryan 2015

Vita Activa

If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth 
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (234)

IMG_3518

I took my twelve-year-old son to a college lecture last week called Creatures Who Create: Should We Bring Back Lost Species? given by Bruce Jennings the Director of Bioethics For Humans and Nature. He began the talk with a quote from Hannah Arendt. As it turns out it was from her book The Human Condition—a book that has been on what I call my “bbq” (beckoning books queue) for over a year. So it seemed time to read it.

To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an “objective” relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself (58).

Divided into five major parts: The Public and Private Realm, Labor, Work, Action, and The Vita Activa and the Modern Age, Arendt gives a deeply thoughtful and historical account of the permeating modern angst of alienation. I could hardly do it justice to it in this format—even pulling quotes seems a bit violent to the content. Overwhelmingly, though, I feel that quickening— my perspective, my ability to contemplate the nature of our “condition” has been cracked open that much more. An intellectual expansion brought about by respect for her method of inquiry, as well her sensitivity to her subject.

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity (121).

This false expectation of ever being free of labor which is a necessary child of necessity is key to Arendt’s thesis and a fascinating entré into how work differs from labor and ultimately how labor has been subsumed in our culture into a cult of productivity instead of a healthier recognition of  labor’s true status as a cycle, an unceasing necessity, as well as an appreciation of product-less work which has a permanence and immortality which humans need to feel connected to life.

Works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things[…] they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed […] can only destroy them. […] It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read” (167-8).

There is so much in the book my head is still in a stupor of reader’s gluttony. When my son and I left the lecture I asked him what he thought of it. Being a little contrarian, he said he had understood nothing. But as we discussed the topic I pointed out to him that his opinion of the matter aligned very nicely with what the speaker had presented. Yes, he was forced to admit, he had understood and thought about plenty. I told him even if 40 minutes of the 60 minute lecture was impenetrable to him I was not concerned, boredom is a good and profitable condition as far as intellectual and creative stimulation are concerned, and the 20 minutes that sunk in gave us an evening’s worth of contemplation together, and lifetime’s worth individually.

As Arendt points out, all action stems from contemplation and the lack of contemplation when considering actions which inevitably, indeed— ALWAYS have unforeseen consequences  is a vastly underused skill in our culture. We are all thrown into this world and we must, and can, forgive the others thrown-in before us for their actions which led to what looks like an environmental catastrophe in the making. That does not mean that we should withdraw into isolation, or give up on the only thing that gives our lives meaning—each other. We must profoundly, prudently, and compassionately contemplate the decisions that we make which impact our selves (which is always a plurality), our planetary cohabitants, and our world. And then we must act.

The Path of Sympathy

“But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 
—Albert Camus, The Plague (162).

79dca890-10dc-4c7e-acc8-9cedab0d5cde

Last week I was talking to a friend who lives as far away from me as is possible while still sharing the planet. We got to talking about Camus and he asked if I had read The Plague. I hadn’t. He said, “Do read it. It is why we must see eachother again.” The Plague is about exile and separation, it is about the resignation of despair, the banality of evil, and the capacity for endurance, but at its heart there is also: friendship.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (255).

The story, told by a slowly revealed narrator, is related in a kind of detached expository manner. With the help of a detailed diary kept by a man named  Tarrou, the hellish months of the plague-stricken town Oran are calmly related. The story is neither unnecessarily ghoulish nor gory. After all, everyone knows that plague is ghoulish and gory. The question Camus seems to want to ask is: is it any worse than the plague, the inner plague, that infects humanity?

One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being  that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill (131).

The capacity to murder one another for whatever well-thought-out logic, law, or Supreme decree is the truly disturbing plague. All others are mere “natural” microbes doing their thing, running their course. At least with microbes the evidence of their malfeasance is indisputable. Or one likes to hope. Camus does spend the first third of the novel describing the inertia of the human mind when faced with unpleasant evidence. Our confirmation bias runs strongly in both directions towards good or bad—it’s an addiction to being right, I suppose…but I digress…

True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defense (172).

Pockets of the virulent inner-form of plague pop up with unsurprising and depressing frequency. The history books and current news are bursting with examples. In Camus’ tale, the microbial plague stripes away much of what keeps societies occupied and largely sedated: the petty dogmas and concerns of daily life.  The friendship between Dr. Rieux and the stranger to town, Tarrou, reveals the profound beauty of friendship and simply joys, but also the un-heroic yet, human response of sympathy to others. The ties of love that bind us and make us terrifyingly vulnerable to a world in which microbes and other natural events wreck havoc, are are also what give us its deepest pleasures.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it seems to me we have made some small advancements as far as recognizing and dealing with “natural” menances. Very small perhaps. But in comparison to acknowledging what Camus was really talking about—the inner plague—there is no contest. And it’s wearying.

I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. […] All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences (253-54).

Love serves nothing if it cannot serve each other. Friendships are unique in that they describe a love that is not based on birth or affiliation. That is the kind of love, expanded, which shows the way of sympathy to all of our fellow humans. Let’s follow it.

*Title from p. 254

** A Vintage Books Publication, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert

 

Bathing in Language

I am Comrade Korotkov, V.P., from whom the documents were just stolen…Every last one…I could be arrested…”
“Very simply too,” the man on the porch affirmed.
“So let me…”
“Have Korotkov come personally.”
“But I am Korotkov, comrade.”
“Give me your identification papers.”  (20) 
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad

rooster.j.ryanI read a book of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov (Diaboliad and Other Stories) this weekend, intermittently taking breaks to read another book, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In fact, just as the child learns to know himself through others, he learns to know others through himself; he also learns to speak because the surrounding language calls up his thought, because he is enticed by its style until a single meaning emerges from the whole” (51, Merleau-Ponty)

Language calls up thought…the two (language and thought)are distinct…if one considers Bulgakov’s Diaboliad within that distinction, his use of satire, indeed satire generally, becomes a thing of great substance. His language is calling, what thoughts emerge? Perhaps it is only because I was (more or less) simultaneously reading a book about language that  I was lead to consider, more deeply, the ‘language of satire.’ But once I did, it seemed to me the first order of business was to consider the translating of such a genre. I find the myopic world of English-speaking literature annoying, (please indulge me while I get this little rant out of the way) translations* into English are far less frequent than the reverse, and that bothers. How better can one experience different cultures, worlds, and times than through literature? I’m sure I don’t know, but the insularity of the English literary world is problematic not  to mention emblematic.

The most characteristic of a word is “what the others are not.” Signification exists not for a word but for all words in relation to one another. Our present tense could never be the same as the present tense of a language without a future tense. It is for this reason that one can never exactly translate from one language to another (99, Merleau-Ponty).

Translation is a fascinating project, and satire is an entirely different order of complexity. As Merleau-Ponty elucidates, translation is in some regards, impossible. Language is more than a grouping of words. Every word is connected to a web of other words and the ability to see that web, to be conscious of the layers and interconnectedness is particularly essential in satire.

A very fat and pink man met Korotkov with the words, “Just marvelous. I’m putting you under arrest.”
“I cannot be arrested,” replied Korotkov–and he laughed a Satanic laughter, “because I am no one knows who. Of course. I cannot be arrested or married” (40, Bulgakov).

Fortunately for Bulgakov the horrors of bureaucracies are keenly understood by most. The entire tale revolves around Korotkov’s loss of his ‘papers’ but the sickenly bizarre frustrations of state agencies are not lost. It is the particular: the play of names, the references to the Soviet state idiosyncrasies, the absurdity interlaced with cultural artifacts and references of the day  that make the ride, in translation, less smooth than the original language required. The totality of the web of language is difficult to fully see and feel by a translation. Still, I am not dissuaded.

As far as the imitation of speech is concerned, one finds himself in possession of a double kinesthetic gift which is lacking in the imitation of gestures (36, Merleau-Ponty).

I think that what Merleau-Ponty is referring to is the phenomenological truth that in regard to the senses, language, which one speaks and hears with the ‘other’ to which the language is directed, is unique among our experience in the world. If I wave my arms, I can never see myself doing it as you do, but if I speak to you, we experience the language together without a marked difference of perspective.

There is no radical difference  between consciousness of self and consciousness of other people (46, Merleau-Ponty).

There seems to be, to Merleau-Ponty,  a circular wrapping around of the concept of ‘egocentric.’ A child is so entirely egocentric that there is actually no separation between herself and the other. For me, it is a reminder of the basic neutrality of individual words to consider what is thought of as an ugly and maligned concept such as ‘egocentric’ in a different way. There is a unity with others in the egocentric inception of our being; what is unity but a melting into our centers, in which the center is everywhere. Language unites, but it also, in fact, is what ultimately separates us. Once a child integrates the rhythm of their native environment, the pronouns, and prepositions…the lacunary nature of existence is delineated. There are spaces between us after all.

This meditation of the objective and of the subjective, of the interior and of the exterior–what philosophy seeks to do–we can find in language if we succeed in getting close enough to it (102, Merleau-Ponty).

Bulgakov buries a world of pain in the language of the absurd, but because language is more than a grouping of words, more than a mode of communication, it doesn’t matter so much that I don’t know that a green felt covered desk is shorthand for ‘institution’ – I’ve spent enough hours at the DMV to know that a Gogol-esque moment of a nose running across the tiled floor is entirely possible. The original state of our unity is the subtext, it is the baseline of sanity by which satire is possible.

A momentary enlarging of his own life: it consists of living for a moment in other people, and not only living the same thing as others for his own benefit (39, Merleau-Ponty).

Language, and by extension literature, is just that- a momentary enlarging of our own lives. Just as an infant begins with the ability to articulate every sound possible in any language, she also begins in a state of complete union to others. However, through the maturation of our individuality,  the sense of shared consciousness can wither away.

According to Delacroix, “the child bathes in language.” He is attracted and enthralled by the movement of dialogue around him, and tries it himself (12, Merleau-Ponty).

Our consciousness is made through language. As many people have figured out, control of language becomes control of thought. Bulgakov and others took subversive hold of their language through satire thereby holding the line on sanity. That what separates us is every bit what unites us is a beautiful paradox. As David Foster Wallace famously said – this is water. We bathe in it. In this mad world it is through language that we will all float.

*Speaking of translations – Diaboliad and Other Stories was translated by Carl R. Poffer, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language was translated by Hugh J. Silverman.