Nikolai Berdayev On Philosophy’s Therapeutic Function

In Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography (Macmillan, 1950) Nikolai Berdayev writes:

It has been said that ‘green is the tree of life and grey the theory of life.’ Paradoxical though it may seem, I am inclined to think that the reverse is true: ‘grey is the tree of life and green the theory thereof.’…What is known as ‘life,’ however, is as often as not an embodiment of the commonplace and consists of nothing but the cares of workaday existence. ‘Theory’ on the other hand, may be understood as creative vision, as the Greek theoria, which raises us above the habits of daily life. Philosophy, ‘the green theory of life,’ is free of anguish and boredom. I became a philosopher and a servant of ‘theory’ that I might renounce and be relieved of this unspeakable anguish. Philosophical thinking had always freed me from life’s ugliness and corruption. To ‘being’ I have always opposed ‘creativity,’ that is to say, not ‘life,’ but the breaking through and flight from ‘life’ into ‘existence,’ from the finite into the infinite and transcendent.

In making note here of Adorno and Horkheimer’s commentary on the ideological convergence of art and science, I had pointed out how a realistic art serves a conservative and reactionary function: it merely faithfully reproduces ‘workaday existence.’ So do the injunctions that bid us concentrate on life and praxis and disdain theory: they confine our attention to the here and now, they bid us not look away at alternative possibilities and fantasies and imagined reconfigurations of the existent–all of which might have political import. The suggestion or claim that life is colorful while theory is pallid now stands exposed as an ideological maneuver too, one that makes us disdain the pleasurable indulgences of theoretical speculation, daydreams about how what is may morph into the what may be.

Berdayev makes note of the therapeutic function of philosophy in this context: it relieves us from the ‘anguish’ of ‘workaday existence’: ‘the longing for another world, for what which is beyond the boundaries of this finite world of ours.’ (We should hear echoes of Tolstoy‘s complaint in A Confession that his perplexity–which ended in his choosing faith–arose from his attempts to reconcile ‘the finite with the infinite.’)  Theory and philosophy accomplish this function because they embody ‘creativity,’ a departure from the here and now. It is this movement that for Berdayev has true vitality, the kind that can promise deliverance and exhilaration. Perhaps akin to the kind I made note of here in another post on the inspirational effect of two paragraphs by J. D. Mabbott--which introduced me to the work of the philosopher in terms of the exalted view it provided of the everyday world. In making these observations we should keep in mind, of course, Nietzsche’s contempt for philosophical speculation that breeds contempt for this life, this now, in favor of an afterlife and a hereafter. Keeping these two views in a creative tension of sorts may be the most fruitful, if not the most difficult, intellectual maneuver of all. We shouldn’t expect any less.

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

Crying For Anna Karenina

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone; I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway. Once.

A dozen or so years ago, I was making my way through a long-postponed encounter with Anna Karenina. I knew what fate held in store for Anna; the novel could not provide me with novelty–far too many had written about Anna’s death. But even then, I pressed on; Tolstoy is a rich and rewarding read regardless of foreknowledge of plots. As I did so, and as I approached Anna’s terminus, I found myself, as I often do, on a train, tome in hand.

By now, Anna’s physical and mental decline had begun; her love with Vronsky is contaminated by anger and bitterness and jealousy and mutual recriminations. She is sleepless and anxious; she has lost home and has not found another. She is an exile, at home, in society; her precious child may no longer be hers. The walls have come down.

As Anna’s fate approaches at the station, as I realized I was finally in the presence of the denouement whose contour had revealed to me by busybodies like myself–chattering away about the novel’s presence in their lives–I felt myself overcome by a curious and complex mix of emotions. Perhaps I felt pity for Anna; perhaps I sensed I knew how she felt–torn between a home that could not be hers ever again and one that was promised her but could not be. Perhaps I was horrified by the thought of a human being taking their own life–the most devastating of its possible resolutions. Perhaps, suddenly, I was afraid for this woman, for what she was going to do to herself. Perhaps I sensed the desperation that was hers was ours too, that her actions were not mysterious aberrations but entirely explicable.

So as Anna falls, as she is consumed, as her life comes to an end at–where else?–a train station, tears sprang to my eyes. I closed the book–a chapter had come to an end–and leaned back in my seat. I closed my eyes for a second and looked up to see a man sitting across from me, gazing curiously at me. I stared back, blinked furiously, and put my book away. I would not, and could not, read for a while.

Camus On The Death Penalty And The Right To Make Amends

In Reflections on the Guillotine Albert Camus writes:

Deciding that a man must have the definitive punishment imposed on him is tantamount to deciding that that man has no chance of making amends….none among us can settle the question, for we are all both judges and interested parties. Whence our uncertainty as to our right to kill and our inability to convince each other….Now, we have all done wrong in our lives….There are no just people merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us to discover this and to add to the sum of our actions a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgment. But pronouncing the definitive judgment before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man’s right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely.

The strongest ‘practical’ i.e., quasi-consequentialist argument against the death penalty is that it it is irreversible. No amends, no reparations can be made to the condemned if the sentencing is incorrect; the price that might be paid for the satisfaction of the impulse to seek retribution is too high.

To that familiar argument, Camus adds two interesting embellishments. First, there is the Biblical ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’, which indicts the accusers and condemners of inevitable hypocrisy and sanctimony (there is an interesting echo here of Tolstoy‘s reading of the Gospels’ ‘Judge not, condemn not’ in My Religion).

And then there is a ‘right to live, which allows a chance to make amends’ for past wrongdoings, which Camus describes as a ‘natural right of every man’. The denial of the right to live, to make amends, amounts to a premature condemnation, a denial of the right to live  a ‘moral life.’

These are novel rights. (They might especially seem novel in the context of an agent accused of a crime terrible enough to warrant consideration of the death penalty.) But their grounding seems clear enough: we are condemned to be free, to bear the burden of our actions’ consequences, to live a life of trials, of making choices. There is no afterlife; this is all there is, the here and now. This world is the only one in which our wrongs may be redressed by us. And since we are all together, condemned to the same fate, the same imperfections present in varying degrees in each of us, we owe a duty to our fellow beings to allow them this chance at redemption.

Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.


1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Christopher Buckley and Dipsomania: Apparently Hard To Let It Go

The writers of great literature often supply us mere mortals with memorable lines, especially if they serve as the openers for their works. Thus, for instance, Tolstoy‘s Taxonomy of the Family, which kicks off Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This serves as raw material for endless variations which then embellish our own–lazy–conversation and writing:

All successful sports teams are alike; every unsuccessful sports team fails in its own way


All good movies are alike; every bad movie is terrible in its own way.

And so on. You catch my drift.

Or to consider another example, consider Jane Austen‘s unforgettable opening for Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Armed with this line, one can, with some facility, provide a suitable response to Christopher Buckley‘s homage to dipsography, the art of drinking, and, as it turns out, his drinking buddies, the slogan for which reads, ‘Alcohol makes other people less tedious. And food less bland.’ (‘Booze as Muse‘, The New York Times, 30 June 2013):

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boring drunk’s boring drunk friends will write chapter and verse–boring ones–about their drinking exploits and their love of the bottle.

In this tedious jaunt through the flagon-and-Boy’s Club-infested shelves of his life, Buckley describes ‘three-martini lunch’ dreams involving Tom Wolfe, writing assignments involving Bloody Mary recipes, works in the obligatory Kingsley Amis reference (among several others to–mostly male, I think–writers), before leading up to what surely was the central motivation for writing this piece, the opportunity to let us readers know that he, too, like many before him, had tried to, but failed to keep pace with, that writer’s writer, that drinker’s drinker, Christopher Hitchens:

I mentioned Christopher Hitchens a moment ago. It seems fitting that he should provide our nightcap. He and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he made a solid case for liquidity.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

Unfortunately, very little could have made less tedious the increasingly unhinged rantings of Hitchens as his expiry date loomed, and on the evidence available to us, the same goes for this considerably-less-than-novel paean to alcohol of Buckley’s. Men musing about their alcoholic recipes and proclivities is boring enough, but my tolerance runs out especially quickly when confronted with boastful tales of consumption marathons in the company of equally uninteresting hacks.

The next time Buckley feels the ‘entheos’ to write about his alcoholic adventures and adventurers, he should respond to it in the only way possible: drink himself to sleep, and spare us the details.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.


But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.