A Rarely Realized Classroom Ideal

Last night, in my graduate seminar–which carries the snappy title ‘From Schopenhauer to Freud (Via Nietzsche): Depth Psychology and Philosophy‘–my students and I spent the entire two hours of our class meeting time reading and discussing Section 354 of Nietzsche‘s The Gay Science. We each had a copy of the section in front of us; I read its text out aloud in class, pausing to offer commentary and elucidation and inviting similar interjections from my students. In the closing half-hour or so of class time, we discussed a pair of written responses to the section 354. (My students write responses to the assigned reading every week; this week while the primary readings were all secondary sources on Nietzsche, I had asked my students to base their responses on the primary Nietzsche texts invoked in these sources.)

It is no secret. to me at least, that the class meeting I described above comes close to an imagined ideal for a philosophy class meeting: I assign a text to be read; my students do the reading and have intelligent responses to it; in class we ‘work through the text’ diligently and patiently, reading every single word carefully, bringing out the texts many meanings and allusions and implications. Rarely is such an ideal realized; that is precisely what makes its rare occurrences even more pleasurable. Once, over the course of a semester in an undergraduate Social Philosophy class, my students and I achieved this ideal repeatedly; the secrets of that ‘success,’ were that my reading assignments were short and my class included a few ‘bright lights’ who came to class prepared and ready to dig into the material with me.

The reasons why such a class meeting represents an ideal for this teacher of philosophy should be evident from my descriptions above. My students and I ‘encounter’ the text in the way its writer intended it to be: sympathetically. This does not mean eschewing criticism of the text, but rather, “by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying.” From a personal perspective, as I’ve noted here previously, my understanding of a philosophical text is considerably enriched by these discussions with my students. A good  discussion with my students always lets me know there is more going on in the text than I might have imagined.

Our task was made easier, of course, by the text and its writer. Nietzsche always repays close attention and his language is extraordinarily rich (and to think that we were reading him in translation!) As he almost always does, Nietzsche sends out a message to all future writers and philosophers: if you want to read be with such attention and care, you would do well to follow him–in your own way!–on his chosen path. Write clearly and joyfully, letting your readers know that your writing represents a genuine attempt on your part to work through the problem at hand–which should always, always be a problem for you too, and not an idle academic pursuit.



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.

Narnia’s Pevensies And Personal Identity

Readers of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe will remember the novel’s dramatic ending: Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, now all grown up and ruling as noble and just kings and queens of the land of Narnia, set out to hunt a mysterious stag; their hunt leads them into the woods, toward ‘the lamp post’–the one that had brought them to Narnia in the first place, and then suddenly, as Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan find themselves back in ‘the wardrobe’ all too soon, they are back in England, back in the here and now, and barely an instant has passed. (Many Narnia years you see, only amount to a second or so of Earth time. Indeed, it is not clear at all that any time elapses while the children are in Narnia; the two timelines are disconnected.)

Of course, because only an instant has passed, the children are children again–they are not adults any more. They have shrunk, physically. But presumably they have shrunk psychically too; after all, back in Narnia, they were adults, and their growth into adults would have involved progression in the physical and psychological dimensions. Interestingly enough, the children remember their experiences in Narnia; which means they have memories of their growing up, their transformation into adults. This journey back to ‘the real world’ is likely to be far more disruptive, then, than C. S. Lewis lets on; Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, are, on their return to earth, facing possibly one of the most hallucinatory of all experiences: years and years have passed by, and then, one day all of a sudden, you find yourself a child again, but  this is not any ordinary child, this is a child with memories of having been an adult once. So, even if this child does not have its physical child capacities any more–perhaps they pre-pubescents again–it still remains an open question whether this child remembers its adult responses in the emotional and psychological dimensions. Does the child now behave as an adult might? What is the effect on the Pevensies as they continue their lives, with these memories reminding them of what they once were? Note that had the children gone to Narnia, and spent say, a few months there, and then been shot back through the wardrobe to land up back in England in the same way as before, these questions would not have arisen. They arise only because Lewis insisted on giving the Pevensies a full-blown reign in Narnia, a long and prosperous one of fifteen years.

Lewis has thus created a tricky situation for the Pevensies. As they grow up here on Earth, they will slowly become adults but they will not be the adults they were in Narnia; after all, Earth is not Narnia: its lands and peoples are significantly different. The Pevensies will have different experiences, encounter different circumstances and react differently. Of course, since they carry around their memories of their psychological growth, they might use those as inputs into their development in this ‘new life’ but they will still certainly not be identical to their Narnia selves. They will have multiple personalities of a sort–perhaps akin to that of the immigrant, who remembers an older world, an older self, older ways of behaving and responding to the world’s offerings. Their friends and lovers and family might find their repeated invocations of their past irritating and bothersome at times, but also of singular interest; the Pevensies for their part, if they play their cards right, will ‘enjoy’ having lived two lives–once again, much like the wise immigrant does, who considers himself fortunate to have experienced ‘two worlds for the price of one’–even if such experiences do bring their own fair share of heartbreak. (The novels featuring the Pevensies themselves span nine years–from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle.)

A budding writer could do worse than to write a novel that tracks the Pevensies’ developments as adults, back here on Earth, when they are done with the Narnia phase of lives, but with those Narnia memories animating their hybrid selves.

Wittgenstein’s Lion And Solaris

Kris Kelvin, Snow, Gibrarian, and Sartorius are all puzzled and perplexed; as other educated and intelligent residents of Station Solaris–a sophisticated scientific laboratory–have been before them. They are stumped and bewildered by their interactions with the planet Solaris, with the ocean that covers its surface, the one that plays host to mimoids and symmetriads and asymmetriads and vertebrids extensors and fungoids and other strange and wondrous physical forms, which seems to be able to conjure up, out of its own chosen raw materials, facsimiles of the human form–like Kelvin’s former, dearly beloved, and now sadly departed love–that are good enough to induce genuine confusion about their identity on the part of those who would interact with them.

Does the ocean live, is it conscious, does it have a body or a mind? Is it intelligent? Is it communicating with human beings? Does it speak a language? Does it possess knowledge of mathematics or computation? Does the surface of the ocean on Solaris engage in computations; is that what the changes in its physical form signify?Are these human forms, the ones that look like the ones we love, are they forms of communication on the part of the planet? Has it scanned our brains, discovered our obsessions and physically realized them in an attempt to establish contact with us? Has it performed a series of vivisections on our brains and psyches, treating us flippantly like objects for experimentation–the way we have treated physical materials and other species on this planet?

The planet is, of course, Wittgenstein’s lion. It has spoken and we do not understand it. All that the scientists on Station Solaris can bring to bear on their interactions with the planet is their knowledge of themselves and other human beings–and their interactions with each other; this knowledge–of their particular ‘forms of life’–forces them into a particular interpretive stance with respect to the planet, one whose prisoners they remain, and which does not afford a unique and determinative understanding of what the nature of the planet is, and or what it might be trying to say–if it is trying to say anything in the first place. The planet has its own ‘form of life‘ that regulates and determines the form and content of its interactions with the human beings engaged with it; there is little guarantee that this communication is set up to enhance, or even make possible, understanding on the part of its human interlocutors.

Kelvin and Snow and Sartorius and Gibarian have come to realize that these concepts they trade in–life, mind, consciousness, thought, persons, intelligence, brain, language–find their meaning with respect to a particular form of life and being–they do not transcend it. They do not allow for the determination of whether the planet, a ‘being’ perhaps radically similar or dissimilar to them, traffics in similar concepts, or anything like them. If they were to ascribe a ‘life’ or a ‘mind’ to Solaris, it would be an asterisked one–‘life as we know it’–and perhaps that’s all we can or should aspire to.

Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Some Philip Roth Moments

Philip Roth is dead. I read many of his books over the years. Here, in no particular order, are some recollections of those encounters:

  1. I discover Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school. This, I’m sure you will agree, is a strange time for someone to ‘find’ Roth, especially when you consider that the person doing the ‘finding’ is a thirty-something Indian man, undergoing a career change from being a systems analyst to a graduate student of philosophy. I found Portnoy’s Complaint hilarious, side-splittingly so; its depiction of an unabashed psychosexual insanity curiously sanity-inducing; the Jewish mother was someone I could recognize, and even love from afar. I did not think that I would find resonances with my life here, in this text, written by this person, in that time and place. But I did; it was one of the most American moments of my many years in America.
  2. I turned my girlfriend onto Portnoy’s Complaint; she went ahead to read Goodbye Columbus and told me she loved Roth so much that she would read anything and everything he wrote; I was possessed by jealousy for a few moments (fine, a little longer than that), but it soon passed. He could write.
  3. Roth could be very insightful; he could also be very tedious. The Human Stain was the most tedious of his works. It was too long by about two hundred pages. I recognized the attempt for the story-telling to be capacious in it, but it did not work.
  4. The women in Roth’s novel often made me uncomfortable; they fucked a lot, they had lots of good lines, but they seemed, not in a good way at all, to be figments entirely of Roth’s imagination. They seemed to be as he wanted women to be, desperately: sexually voracious, uncomplicated, roughly and strongly accepting of the stupidity and cruelty and blindness of the men in their lives because they saw past all of that to the hurt, the fear, the desperate desire to be alive in their own uncompromising way that was very often the hallmark of the Roth man. For Roth, their sexual appetites made them alive; more alive than those who claimed to speak for them or protect them from writers like Roth. For all that, they still seemed to hew close to cliche.
  5. Once, in my own classic ‘Jewish encounters in Brooklyn’ story I met a young man at my gym whose father also lifted weights here. The father was loud and profane and strong; he was a dirty old man who liked asking about other mens’ partners in ever-so slightly leering ways. His son was proud of him, perplexed by him. His father was not as observant as his mother; his mother was orthodox. The young man’s girfriend was a shiksa; his father liked her but wanted his son to date a Jewish woman so that it would make his mother happy. The young man loaned me a lot of his Roth collection; I finally read Goodbye Columbus thanks to him. We talked about tribalism; we talked about identity. He was half my age, but very thoughtful, and I don’t think it was accidental that the bridge between us was Roth’s writing.

James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?