T. S. Eliot’s ‘Is That All There Is?’

In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T. S. Eliot wrote:

Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?

Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.

Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.

Note: As quoted by Edward Mendelson while reviewing Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot and a collected edition of Eliot’s poems.

Philosophy As ‘Ways Of Seeing Things’

In Confessions of a Philosopher (Random House, 1997, pp. 399-400) Bryan Magee writes:

[T]he most important things great philosophers have to give us are to be got at not by analysing the logic of their arguments or their use of concepts but by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying….”Is reality illuminated for me if I look at it in the light of X’s explanation of it?”….For the most part philosophy is about different ways of looking at things: its purpose is not so much of knowledge as of understanding. An original philosopher is saying to us in effect: “You will find you will understand things better if you look at them this way.”….in this respect philosophy can be like art….the result is an enhanced perception and understanding of my own world, my own experience, an enrichment of my vision….What one gets from a philosophy consists largely not of true propositions but, more important than that, ways of looking at things, ways of seeing things.

I’ve made note here and elsewhere–in an interview with 3AM Magazine–of my original motivations for studying philosophy. The latter spoke to philosophy’s therapeutic function. The former, more explicitly in line with Magee’s claim above, spoke to the ‘special elevated vision’ the philosophical attitude seemed to promise: I would see the world in a whole new light once I had become a philosopher. But of course, that is what philosophy’s therapeutic function amounted to as well–at least as I understood it. For what I hoped for and desired more than anything else via the study of philosophy was that it would convince me that the world I lived in, a world then tainted by my grief and anxiety and sorrowful remembrance, could be viewed anew, and thus transformed, made into one that I could go on living in with purpose and desire and striving. My state of mind then did not permit such a perspective: all was shadow and murk. For philosophy did not just promise to elevate me above the fray, to look down from an Olympian height (in the way that the two paragraphs I quoted from John David Mabbott in the post linked above had seemed to.) That promise still contained within it a hint of remoteness: perhaps I would have to separate myself from the mundane world to enjoy such a ‘superior’ perspective. But the promise to see things anew, to see ‘reality in the light of what it is saying’ was a trifle more ambitious and humble and human all at once: I would walk these same streets, among the same people, see the same sun rise every day on this world with all its ugliness and beauty, and yet, none of it would be the ‘same,’ because I would be a philosopher.

These original conceptions of philosophy carried a hint of the poetic, the artistic, the religious, and the scientific to me; and despite my immersion in technical analytic philosophy in graduate school, they never quite left me. Every attempt to straitjacket it into only one of those categories was, at some important level in my  mind, a failure to understand philosophy’s promise, a betrayal I could never sign up for.

Rohin Kushwaha On The Writer’s Craft

A few days ago, I made note of the passing of my young nephew, Rohin Kushwaha, at the age of nineteen, mourning the tragic loss of a brilliant, young, and talented man to the ravages of a relentless disease. In that remembrance, I made note of Rohin’s writing talents:

His intellectual ambition was vast, speaking of a vision and a scale not normally associated with one so young: he studied computer science and dreamed about writing a different kind of video game, complex, based on rich narratives with complicated characters; he would bring his own novels and stories to life with the games he wrote. He had completed work on one novel and had begun work on another; he was talented and prolific and organized and hard-working, the perfect artist.

Today, I can say something more substantive about Rohin’s writerly talent and ambition by sharing a powerful piece of writing he wrote in response to a fellowship application prompt. I include it here on this blog, in this public space, because it contains lessons that all creators of any stripe, writers, and artists alike, would do well to learn, a wisdom it took me over three decades to realize (albeit only partially). What is striking about the writing below is not just that it is written by a 18-year old, or that it is describing the writing of a novel at that age, but that the articulation of the necessary labors of the writer that it contains–write regularly; do not wait for inspiration to strike; the muse only visits while you work; revise, revise, revise, for a work of writing is never complete, never ‘done’–are among the deepest of the writer’s craft. It is succinct; it is to the point. Some of Rohin’s friends referred to him as an ‘old soul,’ wise beyond his years. This piece of writing shows why. Every writer, creator, or artist could take this little piece of writing, print it out, stick it on their desk, and get to work. I know I will.

Thanks for writing this Rohin. I hope others read this and are inspired to write, and create, to bring their works to completion. You’ve passed on, but your words will live on and inspire others. With all my love, Samir Chacha.

Here is the prompt:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Here is Rohin’s response:

Ever since I was 10 years old I told myself I could do it. But there was a part of me that also knew I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t rather. As far back as I could remember I always wanted to tell stories. Stories like the ones I saw in movies and read in books. Stories that made people feel something as they experienced it. I wasn’t sure if this passion of mine would fade with time. I wasn’t sure if it was a passion at all. But when your mind is so packed with character arcs, plot twists, and dramatic moments that it’s about to burst, you have to let it out somehow. So I did. The summer I turned 16 I decided to sit down and write a book. And I told myself it was going to be good.

Before I even typed the first word I thought I had the whole thing figured out. I thought I knew every detail of my story, chapter to chapter. But as I wrote I began to realize I only knew three things about my story: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The question I kept having to ask myself is “what happens next?”. This is the question that made me stop writing immediately after the first chapter, a mere 577 words.

The next day I sat at my computer and stared at the next blank page, hopeless. I didn’t write a single word that day because I was afraid that what I decided to happen next would be the wrong thing to happen next. I was afraid of telling a bad story. I shrugged it off each day, telling myself I wasn’t “inspired” or “in the mood”.

It must have been a week until I realized the “trick” to completing my story, the “trick” to writing. Even if you’re not inspired or not in the mood. Write anyway. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Write anyway. Even if the sentences you make are bad sentences. Write anyway. So I did. 1,000 words a day. That’s what I told myself. Some days that would take an hour, others it would take 3. But I never went to bed until those 1,000 words a day were complete.

And just like that my story began to be told. I found my characters writing themselves, speaking and acting as they would if they were real people. I found motivations and plot points aligning, finally making sense in the bigger picture. And I found myself enjoying every moment, every struggle and every little victory of writing my story. There were even some days I found myself writing over 1,000 words without even realizing it.

In two months time I was done. I was actually, finally done. 65,000 words, 65,000 of my own words. So I decided to put the story down for a month. Come back with a pair of fresh eyes and impress myself all over again with what I had done.

But what I had found when I came back was that my novel had changed from science fiction to horror. I read each sentence, each chapter in dread. I was amazed at how little so much of it made sense. After finally coming to terms with it, I realized that I was far from done. I had barely even started.

So I tore each chapter to pieces. I rewrote, rewrote, and then rewrote some more. And here I am a year later. Is my story perfect? Not even close. It is ten times better than it was last year? Improvement is relative, so I’ll at least give myself that one. But this story will forever be the thing I am most proud of. Because when I sat down every day, even when I knew it wasn’t perfect, I wrote 1,000 more words.

“Even if you’re not inspired or not in the mood. Write anyway. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Write anyway. Even if the sentences you make are bad sentences. Write anyway.”

Commodified Relationships And Friendship

When relationships are commodified, can friendship survive? This old, plaintive question has not lost any of its urgency. Once we meet and greet our fellow humans our interactions are quickly  transformed into the transactional because that is the context within which they function. To be with our friends, to spend time with them, to engage in all manner of social interactions often requires money. We spend money on our friends, they spend money on us; perhaps we consume each others’ purchased goods; together, we consume this society’s various offerings–art, culture, sports, entertainment–all needing to be purchased for. Every ‘hang-out session’ needs to be paid for–because, let’s face it, we don’t just go on aimless walks with friends. (The walk in the park with a friend is, I think, a rare indulgence these days.) We cannot afford to be friends with some people; their tastes are too expensive. Some people cannot afford to be friends with us; our tastes are too expensive. (In  my graduate school years, there were friends whose dinner invitations I always turned down; they would pick restaurants which I could not afford. And indeed, their failure to recognize my financial situation, by way of their oblivious invitations, never failed to anger me for their insensitivity.)

So accusations of failures of generosity are, in a society like ours, underwritten by a particular urgency; the pinch of the tightening belt all too often animates the anger with which we lash out at those who would abuse our beneficence. A friend who lightens your wallet excessively or who does not lighten his in turn for you is no friend. For we are keenly aware that this relationship seems to have impoverished us in this society’s most crucial reckoning of our worth: our bank balance. We struggle to find the right balance between being a miser and a spendthrift in our relationships with our friends; they struggle accordingly. Indeed, those supposed purveyors of unconditional love, parents, often find themselves hurling accusations of ingratitude at their children: “Do you have any fucking idea how much money I spent on your goddamned college education?” (One friend confided to me that he couldn’t wait for his kids to move out of his house so that he could start spending his money on himself. He groaned as he said this, because he knew, like I did, that matters were not so simple, that his children could, and would, continue to make both emotional and financial demands on him.)

The need to balance the budget makes accountants out of all of us, even when interacting with loved ones. It casts a very particular interpretive lens over actions and words, causing us to evaluate and judge accordingly. That forgetful friend of yours, the one who forgets to reciprocate the coffee you bought for him, the one who forgot to offer to pay for the gas when you gave him a ride? He doesn’t appear innocently absent-minded anymore. All too easily, he’s easily transformed into a malevolent destroyer of your financial future. (I exaggerate but you catch my drift.)

The converse aspect of the situation described above is that relationships that start off as transactional have little chance of blossoming into friendships. On that more, anon.



Haircuts And Mindfulness In The Barbershop

My patient wait over, I rise to take my turn, ready to exchange a few pleasantries and then sink into silence. It is time for my haircut. Very soon, I will close my eyes and let myself be taken over: by the sounds of battery-powered clippers that cut my hair down to the scalp, of scissors that click away next to my ears, trimming and shaping, of the pop music emanating from the ‘light FM station’ that is always playing in my barber shop, of the Italian and Spanish and Russian spoken in my neighborhood; by the touch and feel of hairs being tugged, falling around my shoulders, ears, and on my shirt front, of hands gently moving my head one way or the other, of razors scraping my skin. I am not disturbed or distracted, no one calls for my attention or help. My phone occasionally quivers with messages being delivered, but it is far away, in my backpack, and I cannot reach it–deliberately. Occasionally, the barber will check in to see if I want some amendment to my cut, to check to see if things look ‘OK’; I reassure him quickly so that he can get back to work–and I can get back to being silent, with my eyes closed. This is a genuinely self-indulgent state of being, a retreat from ‘the madding crowd,’ one to be savored. (A few days ago, I heard a friend say that he actively discourages his barber from speaking to him during his haircut just so he can enjoy this rare moment of solitude. I do not have to issue any such warnings; my barber is a taciturn Ukrainian gentleman who is only curious about when my semester begins and ends. And my satisfaction with the haircut and/or beard trim he has just given me.)

The haircut in the barber shop is, truth be told, a genuinely meditative moment. It offers opportunities  to be genuinely mindful; sit straight, close your eyes, and yield. Curious trances, sometimes accompanied by time dilation, result. So do naps, obviously. (The haircut is worth its price in gold just for that deliverance–as indeed, is the afternoon meditation sit that turns into an extended head-nodding session.) We have taken time out for ourselves, an act of self-directed kindness, to attend to our ‘needs’ in the midst of a busy daily schedule; and we know it. We have stepped out into a diversion; here, at the ‘tender mercies’ of our tonsurers, we sit, losing hair, but gaining considerable peace of mind. The shedding of hair is a crucial part of the experience; our hair, a symbol of indolence and disorganization, represents a burden we are here to rid ourselves of, and here we are, setting things right, casting off its baggage, ready to move on. Skinheads took this sensation to the extreme; the shaved head represented a cutting loose, a ‘getting closer to the bone,’ to the unmediated reality that lurks beneath all the cover-ups. Sitting quietly with eyes closed in a barber’s chair is the right way to think about what that entails.

Vale Rohin Kushwaha (1999-2019)

The diseases which afflict the young are particularly fearsome; they take the soaring bird in flight, bringing home the indifference of this world to our fates and fortunes vividly. Rohin Kushwaha, who passed away last week on Friday, January 11th, was not yet twenty years old; he had but completed a year of studies beyond high school, commencing that learning that seemed destined to bring his undeniable and visible talents fully to fruition. His intellectual ambition was vast, speaking of a vision and a scale not normally associated with one so young: he studied computer science and dreamed about writing a different kind of video game, complex, based on rich narratives with complicated characters; he would bring his own novels and stories to life with the games he wrote. He had completed work on one novel and had begun work on another; he was talented and prolific and organized and hard working, the perfect artist. He was comfortable with both science and literature, with both technique and emotion, a marriage he worked to realize in himself and his writing. In school, besides the usual complement of classes and activities, he played tennis and guitar; he made many loyal friends, a cohort bound by shared interests and talents. At home, he mentored his many cousins with patience and affection; he sparred affectionately with his doting and loving parents and sister, who were well aware they had a gem on their hands.  He was quiet and determined, impatient with the social niceties that forced him into predetermined patterns of behavior; he wanted to be his own person.

That he certainly was. He lived his brief life on his own terms with dignity and fortitude, qualities especially on display once his formidable foe, a glioblastoma multiforme stage IV tumor in his brain, was diagnosed. He bore his many onerous treatments with patience and good humor; he trusted his caretakers, his parents and his sister, would do right by him. They did; they fought as hard as they could, with him, for him.  He underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, electrode-based treatments, and cannabis tinctures; they were all of limited efficacy. He observed the effects of these treatments on himself (and those around him) quietly; he was well aware, at some important level, of what was underway and what its almost unfathomable consequences were. As the end approached, and as his body gave way, he remained strong and calm and collected; his strength reassured those around him.

When he finally passed away last week, a merciful deliverance from his discomfort, he was mourned deeply by his family and friends all of whom gathered with his parents and sister to reassure them of their love, to reminisce about a life that was too short, and yet that touched so many, in so many ways, with so much love and intelligence. I will miss you Rohin, you were a great kid, one of the best, and I looked forward to talking more with you as you went along on your own adventure in this world. You won’t be forgotten. With all my love, Samir Chacha.

Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.