The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.

 

Subway Buskers And Life’s Soundtrack

This morning, as I alighted at a subway station, I was greeted by music and song and melody. A subway station busker–one of New York City’s most familiar residents and features–was holding forth with instrument and vocal chord; his chords and notes and full-throated voice floated up and around and over me as I made way for myself past the incoming hordes at the door and began my walk out and up to street level. As I walked past those who were headed to work, to play, to other destinations and occupations unknown, I felt, yet again, the presence of a familiar feeling: that this scene, this tableaux, being presented to me, one of humans like me engaged in their daily endeavors, each living life as best as they could, each dealing with inner joys and sorrows as best as they could, had found its perfect soundtrack–a song that seemed to speak in tones of acceptance, of love and striving and the perennial puzzle of life. I could not even make out the lyrics distinctly, but I did not need to; the voice and melodies were enough. I was set up to receive its ‘message;’ I was listening to it in ‘the right place,’ seeing ‘the right things’ as I did so.

Once again, a subway busker had effortlessly provided a soundtrack that turned my weekday traveling in the subterranean domain that lurks beneath the city into a zone of revelation.

I’ve lived in the city for over twenty years now; in that time, I’ve heard many, many subway buskers. I’ve taken many moods and preoccupations with me into subway stations; the subway buskers have often found, without needing to communicate explicitly with me, the right notes to play as accompaniment to these. Sometimes, I find my mood lifted by the sheer performative brio of a busker, sometimes I smile because I hear a familiar song rendered anew, sometimes a dance performance makes me stop and stare. (There are a few duds, of course, folks who make me cover my ears and run, but they are few and far in between.) The earphone-in-the-ears musical device has long been prized for its ability to provide entrance to a private musical zone; the subway busker does the same in a space within which our personal boundaries are already aggressively patrolled. Because listening is an interactive business we add our own colors and flavors to the busker’s music; we draw from it what we need as musical garnishing for our moods. Sometimes, as we head to ‘confrontations’ the busker’s beat adds a little urgency to our onward movement; sometimes melancholia or wistfulness finds itself echoed or comforted by the busker’s work. (Sometimes, young lovers find a busker playing that little love song that prompts them to hold hands just a little more tightly and to trade kisses all over again.)  And, of course, late on a winter night, the busker provides solace and even a kind of warmth.

We emerge, all too quickly, blinking rapidly, out into the street; or, our train arrives, and we hustle to find a seat; the busker’s notes fade away. But we now have a soundtrack to inform our next steps.

 

A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.

‘Westworld’ And Our Constitutive Loneliness

The title sequence to HBO’s Westworld is visually and aurally beautiful, melancholic, and ultimately haunting: artifacts–whose artifice is clearly visible–take shape in front of us, manufactured and brought into being by sophisticated devices, presumably robotic ones just like them; their anatomies and shapes and forms and talents are human-like; and that is all we need to begin to empathize with them. Empathize with what? The emotions of these entities is ersatz; there is nothing and no one there. Or so we are told. But we don’t need those emotions and feelings to be ‘real’–whatever that means. We merely need a reminder–in any way, from any quarter–about the essential features of our existence, and we are off and running, sent off into that endless mope and funk that is our characteristic state of being.

The robot and the android–the ‘host’ in Westworld–is there to provide bodies to be raped, killed, and tortured by the park’s guests;  we, the spectators, are supposed to be ashamed of our species, at our endless capacity for entertainment at the expense of the easily exploited, a capacity which finds its summum malum with a demographic that is controlled by us in the most profound way possible–for we control their minds and bodies. 1984‘s schemers had nothing on this. And the right set-up, the right priming for this kind of reaction is provided by the title track–even more than the many scenes which show hosts crying, moaning with pleasure, flying into a rage–for it places squarely in front of us, our loneliness, our sense of being puppets at the beck and call of forces beyond our control. (The loneliness of the hosts being manufactured in the title sequence is enhanced by their placement in a black background; all around them, the darkness laps at the edges, held back only by the light emergent from the hosts’ bodies; we sense that their existence is fragile and provisional.)

We have known for long that humans need only the tiniest suggestion of similarity and analogy to switch on their full repertoire of empathetic reactions; we smile at faces drawn on footballs; we invent personal monikers for natural landmarks that resemble anatomic features; we deploy a language rich with psychological predicates for such interactions as soon as we possibly can, and only abandon it with reluctance when we notice that more efficient languages are available. We are desperate to make contact with anyone or anything, desperate to extend our community, to find reassurance that this terrible isolation we feel–even in, or perhaps especially in, the company of the ones we love, for they remind us, with their own unique and peculiar challenges, just how alone we actually are. We would not wish this situation on anyone else; not even on creatures whose ‘insides’ do not look like ours. The melancholia we feel when we listen to, and see, Westworld‘s title sequence tells us our silent warnings have gone unheeded; another being is among us, inaccessible to us, and to itself. And we have made it so; our greatest revenge was to visit the horrors of existence on another being.

Nietzsche’s Six Methods For Combating Facebook Distraction

Nietzsche has something to say about everything. Including Facebook Distraction, an ‘impulse’ whose ‘vehemence’ we seek to combat, and for which he has found ‘not more than six essentially different methods.’ (‘The Dawn of Day‘, trans. JM Kennedy, Allen Unwin, 1924, Section 109)

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The Comforts Of ‘Abide With Me’

Legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi adored Abide With Me, “a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte most often sung to English composer William Henry Monk‘s…’Eventide‘.” I learned of this particular proclivity of the Mahatma long after I had first heard the hymn’s notes as a child attending or watching the Beating Retreat ceremonies, which marked the end of the Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital New Delhi where it was “played by the combined bands of the Indian Armed Forces.” But that experience had little impact on me; the tune was one of many unfamiliar ones that I heard on that evening (the closing of which was always the melancholy, haunting performance of Taps by a bugler.) Matters changed when I attended a boarding school in India’s north-east, where, as I’ve noted, “I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required.”

There, during our daily service in the mornings, I joined in the singing of hymns with the school congregation–ably backed up by our schoolboy choir, which came with a full complement of sopranos, tenors, and basses. The congregation’s singing was trained by our school music master, Mr. Denzil Prince, a man whose love for music and passion for teaching was all too visible in his interactions with us. He transformed, slowly and patiently, an incoherent band of squawkers into a harmonious assemblage of voices. Even a recently disillusioned former believer like me could not but be thrilled at those moments when it seemed we had achieved some sort of divine harmony with the beauty of the Himalayan ranges that lay outside our chapel.

Among the hymns I sang and listened to was Abide With Me. It’s opening verse, and in particular, its opening line,was instantly memorable for someone whose melancholic bent had found–in the beauty of the Himalayan evenings and approaching sunsets, and in my separation from my mother–yet another forum for expression. But I did not miss the presence of God in my life; that particular train had long departed the station. I missed my mother. When I heard school choir sing ‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me/, the comfort I sought was only forthcoming from one entity, and it was not divine. My desire and longing for that missing presence though, felt to me as deep as I imagined that of any believer to be. I was thirteen years old, and I was supposed to be away from home for nine months. Letters, not phone calls, not occasional visits, were supposed to be sustenance during this period. It was not enough. But standing there, in that chapel, or sometimes, outside, listening to the choir’s evening practices, listening to those haunting lyrics and notes, sent soaring up into our chapel’s rafters and through our bodies, it was possible to begin to address some of that gaping absence.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Mountains Of The Mind

A few years ago, while visiting my brother in India, I browsed through his collection of mountaineering books (some of them purchased by me in the US and sent over to him.) In Robert MacFarlane‘s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, I found the following epigraph:

O the mind, mind has mountains  – Gerard Manley Hopkins c. 1880

It wasn’t the first time I had read Hopkins’ immortal line. And my first reaction to it, and its embedding in the poem in which it features made me question MacFarlane’s deployment of it as an epigraph to his book, and indeed, in its title.

MacFarlane’s book is, as an excellent critical review on Amazon notes, “a series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the “mountains” and exploring the mountains.” Man is fascinated by the mountains; bewitched and bewildered, we seek to climb them, hoping to find on their slopes and summits nothing less than our true selves, brought forth and revealed by adversity. Or perhaps mountains will grant us access to the key to this world’s mysteries; visions will be induced in our journeys that will pull back the curtains and reveal what lies beneath the surface and appearance of reality. Mountains have many roles to play in our projects of self-imagination and construction–in MacFarlane’s narrowly conceived Anglocentric sphere. (This last critical point is the primary focus of the review linked above.)

But what is Hopkins’ line doing, serving as an epigraph to such a book? Hopkins’ poem is about melancholia; indeed, it might be one of the most powerful and moving explorations of the mind’s travails. Here is how I read his line: our mind is capable of entertaining thoughts and feelings which contain within them chasms of despair, points at which we stare into a dark abyss, an unfathomable one, with invisible depths. These are our own private hells, glimpses of which we catch when we walk up to the edge and look. The effect on the reader–especially one who has been to the mountains–is dramatic; you are reminded of the frightening heights from which you can gaze down on seemingly endless icy and windswept slopes, the lower reaches of which are shrouded with their own mysterious darkness; and you are reminded too, of the darkest thoughts you have entertained in your most melancholic moments.

In MacFarlane’s book, the fear that mountains evoke in us is a prominent feature of man’s fascination with mountains (this suggests too, the interplay between terror and beauty that Rilke wrote about in the Duino Elegies.) But melancholia does not feature in MacFarlane’s analysis. MacFarlane seems to quote the line as saying that our fascination with mountains stems from the fact that our mind itself contains mountains, that some part of our primeval sense responds to them. This is not what Hopkins was writing about. He uses mountains as an image to convey the depths visible from their heights, as a symbol of how far we may fall in our melancholia. Fear is present for Hopkins but in a wholly different manner; we dread the depths to which we may sink in our ruminations. That is not the kind of fear MacFarlane addresses; it is related only peripherally.