Learning From Injuries

An injury is always a learning experience. Most straightforwardly, if you are an active type, you acquire the dreadful knowledge of the precipitous drop in mood that follows one. There is also the terrible castigation, the self-flagellation that is the inevitable accompaniment to such disasters: there is always, in retrospect, some decision that was fatal, some fork that should not have been taken, there is always some moment you wish you could have back to dispose of all over again, that fatal instant before you hurt yourself. And even if you aren’t an active type, you very quickly encounter the most basic, and of course, valuable, lesson of all:  privation makes more precious the ordinary, the mundane, the weekday. Experience pain, and pain-free existence appears miraculous, salubrious, the most pleasurable state of being of all; you look back upon your pain-free times as halcyon days, hopefully to be revisited in the near future. You realize how terrible the suffering of those must be who live in a state of chronic pain; as you sense your mental fabric unravel, you wonder how they keep theirs together.

You learn about the essential automaticity of the body; on the occasion of an injury, there is little for ‘us,’ for ‘me’ to do, but sit back, and let the body do what it does best i.e., figuring out, how, given the resources available to it, it can get back to locomotion and physical activity as soon as possible. I pulled my calf this past Sunday; a limp appeared out of nowhere, unbidden and unprompted, and attached itself to my gait; my body had calculated the precise amount of pressure my left leg could bear and had made the appropriate adjustments elsewhere in my biomechanical frame; mess with that boundary even fractionally, and a sharp, agonizing pain in my calf muscle applied an immediate correction; there was no messing with my own personal taskmaster, the one that knew best how to accommodate any undisciplined silliness on my part. The body has a pace all its own, a method to its madness; there is accumulated wisdom here, acquired slowly and painfully through an evolutionary history. We now have occasion again to pay witness to it in action.

Lastly, you acquire knowledge about a new kind of euphoria, one that appears as hints of recovery make an appearance. As a spasmed muscle first begins to release, as pain provides the first indicators of a slow recession, we sense deliverance; we grasp at straws; we are grateful. We know we are merely destined to return to a state which we had been willing to scorn previously as merely ‘normal,’ but that destination now appears as the most desired of all. Sobbing with relief, we reassure ourselves we will be appropriately grateful for our daily blessings from now on; we will not take for granted what has been revealed to be a rare and precious treasure. We do this even as we know that we will not; that we will all too quickly return to the blasé acceptance of our fortunes. Till the next misfortune.

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.

The Most Valuable Philosophical Lesson Of All

I’m often asked–by non-academics, natch–if anything in my philosophical education has been of value to me in the conduct of my lived life. I have found this question hard to answer in the terms my interlocutors demand, largely because is because posed to me in what I call ‘lock-key’ form: is there a lock you have been able to open with a philosophical key? The locks and keys of our lives and education do not quite match up in the way that is imagined here.

Still, if pressed, I will say that one philosophical lesson whose value and import seems to me to be considerable, and one which I have with only limited success tried to integrate in my daily conduct is quite simple. Its basic form can be found in the following lines often attributed to the Stoic, Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
This simple ‘ancient’ wisdom is not to be found in Epictetus–or the Stoics–alone; the Buddha’s sermons include many variants of it, it arguably forms the heart of existentialist philosophy, and further afield, in poetry, Cavafy’s ‘City’ and Milton’s Paradise Lost point to it as well. (You can even find it in Buckaroo Banzai: ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’) It’s lesson is not easy to internalize for the radical agency it grants us is simultaneously empowering and frightening: we make of this life what we will.
Still, having found over the years that I would come across it again and again, its import was undeniable, and I have sought to integrate it into my daily living. This has been a non-trivial task, but I can at least say that I have succeeded to the extent that I can feel its presence acting as a constraint on my inner and outer reactions on the most important of occasions: those times when I am tempted and ready to curse and rail against circumstance or misfortune or another person for having denied me material or psychological comfort and  happiness. It is then that I often find myself pulling up short, and putting a brake on my tongue and mind: is there blame to be assigned here to an externality, or is there rather, an opportunity for me to think and do things differently?
As I noted above, this is not an easy lesson to take to heed. Certainly, many who know me–friends and family–will not think that I have been very successful in my efforts thus far. I remain, like most humans, all too easily inclined to imagine my happiness, my psychological and affective state of being, is at the mercy of the world ‘outside’–events, material objects, people’s actions. But in my more lucid ‘philosophical’ moments, I see through this misapprehension. And I resolve again, to keep that vision close by, at hand, ready to be summoned up when I am tempted again. I think we can ask no more of our philosophy–that it worm its way into our hearts and minds, reminding us again and again, of its relevance for our life.

Chaucer’s Knight As Stoic Philosopher

In How to Read and Why (Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 281), Harold Bloom invokes ‘The Knight’s Tale‘ from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and writes:

The Knight sums up Chaucer’s ironic ethos in one grim couplet:

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene
For al day meeteth men at unset stevene

Bloom continues:

My friend the late Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson paraphrased this superbly:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

Among the most haunting passages in Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007)–which describes the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at home–are the ones on its very first page:

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

Didion writes that she considered editing the lines above so that they would read as follows:

Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what happened, I considered adding those words, ‘the ordinary instant.’ I saw immediately that there would be no need of adding the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the remarkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way from home work–happy, successful, health–and then, gone”….In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside.

Rare is the remarkable disaster that provides advance intimation; even the most drawn out of all deadly diseases begins with the most innocent signals–perhaps the test result obtained during a routine medical exam, perhaps the lump that makes its presence felt during a routine palpitation of the skin. All around us, misfortune stalks the unwary, even as we imagine it will pass us by today, and continue to do so in the future.If every day is the first of the rest of our lives–an inspirational homily we are only to happy to dish out to others–then it is an elementary deduction that one such day will be the last too. But this is an inference we are often unwilling to draw until it is time to have its grim conclusion forced upon us.

Chaucer’s Knight then, is bidding us be good Stoics, fully prepared, with a kind of sensitive indifference, for this world’s eventualities, not all of which bring glad tidings to our door. It is the oldest lesson of all, one which we are destined to have imparted to us again and again, for the facts about the nature of our existence that it brings to our attention are not easily accepted.

Turgenev’s Hamlet And Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man

This semester, I’m running an independent study on existentialism with a pair of students from the English department here at Brooklyn College. Our reading list includes seven novels, four plays, and extracts from several philosophical texts. We kicked off our readings two weeks ago with Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground. Because my students had purchased the Norton Critical Edition (second edition) of Notes from Underground, I did so as well. This Critical Edition–like others on Norton’s list–includes some background and sources, examples of work that are inspired by, or are imitations of the novel under study, and finally some critical notes. While reading it, I found a fascinating foreshadowing of Dostoyevsky’s themes in Turgenev.

Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches includes the story ‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District,’ in which “the narrator spends the evening at a party of a landowner.” His roommate for the night considers himself cursed by his lack of “originality” even as he is considered an “original” by his contemporaries:

“My dear sir,” he exclaimed. “I’m off the opinion that life on earth’s worth living only for originals: only they have the right to live. Mon verre n’est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre [My glass isn’t large but still I drink from it], someone said. You see” he added in a whisper, how good my French pronunciation is. What does it matter to me if your head’s large and capacious, and if a person understands everything, knows a great deal, keeps up with things–but knows nothing of his own particular individual self! There’s one more storeroom for leftover luggage in the world–what good’s that to anybody? No, it’s better to be stupid, at least in one’s own way! Have your smell, your own smell, that’s what! And don’t think my demands are too great…God forbid! There’s no end to such originals: wherever you look–there’s an original; every living person’s an original, but I have yet to be counted in that number!

Underground man, of course, considers himself just such an ‘original,’ a fact he sets out to establish in excruciating and agonizing detail, much to the discomfiture of not just his fictional companions, but also his readers. Turgenev’s character, like him, has made introspective self-knowledge central to his life’s projects, acknowledging in his case that all the worldly knowledge of libraries and the commerce of men will be of little use if this self-knowledge is lacking. (A classic Stoic, Buddhist, and existentialist dictum.) If the ‘facts’ uncovered in this inwardly directed journey of exploration turn out to be unpleasant, well then, so be it. Better the ‘originality’ of the odious than the inauthenticity of the ostensibly socially desirable.

Crucially, Turgenev’s character points out that the fact of this ‘originality’ is already manifest “wherever [we] look”: we cannot help but be ourselves, even as we struggle, under the misapprehended weight of social expectation, to be someone else. This conflict, this discordance, cannot but be destructive.  The price for this discordance, as the underground man’s companions find out, is shared with others.

Teaching Self-Evaluation For The Semester That Was (Almost)

Classes for the fall semester ended last week; finals and grading lie ahead of me. It’s time for another self-evaluation of my teaching. As usual, I find myself earning a mixed grade for my efforts.

This semester I taught three classes: Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, and Introduction to Philosophy. (Interestingly enough, this is the first time in my thirteen years at Brooklyn College that I’ve taught Introduction to Philosophy.)

Let me get the bad news out of the way. I do not think I did a good job in my Philosophy of Law. I was unable to make headway on the oldest problem of all: getting students to do the assigned readings. And neither was I, by sheer dint of effort and pointed interactions with my students, able to get a robust discussion going in class. I was also too easily distracted and put off by some of the body language on display–bored expressions, slumped posture. It was all too clear to me I was not being able to make the material interesting or engaging and as the semester wore on, my sense of futility grew; I could sense my interest in the class lessening. My students and I were not helped by a classroom that was alternately too hot and too noisy. In an effort to shake things up, I changed the seating arrangement in class, going from the traditional ‘teacher-in-front’ to a square configuration with me sitting down with my students. It did not work. Perhaps I gave up too easily; I should have been more unconventional, and I should have tried individual interventions–by email, or in my office hours–with some of the students most clearly in need of one.

In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I adopted an unconventional tactic to introduce students to philosophy: I would do so via the Stoics. My syllabus consisted of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; through their writings I would introduce students to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy. I would begin each class by asking my students to write a brief reaction to a verse/chapter/section from the assigned reading; we would then use their responses as the foundation for the class discussion. I had mixed results in this project. I was teaching at night, in one of those terrible 150-minute slots, which are a pedagogical disaster. My students were tired, and sometimes unable to summon up the energy to participate in class discussion. They did, however, find plenty to provoke and intrigue them in the Stoics, and by virtue of connecting Stoic nostrums for a good life to their own personal experiences, I was often able to evoke vigorous responses from, and interactions with, them. Many students spoke with a great deal of feeling about how Stoic insights resonated with them; these responses would, in turn, provoke other students to speak up. Thanks to the Stoics, I was also able to introduce the students to Buddhism (they found the Buddha‘s ‘no-self’ theory of self utterly fascinating.) In retrospect, I would say that I could have dropped one of Seneca or Epictetus and brought in some other readings to supplement this unrelenting diet of the Stoics. I look forward to conducting a class like this again with a modified syllabus.

My Political Philosophy class was greatly aided by a classroom which featured a seminar table, thus automatically introducing a more informal, less hierarchical spatial structure to the class discussion. I was also aided by interesting and provocative readings, by the idiocy on display this election season, and by many students being diligent about the assigned readings. I stayed very close to the texts, and read aloud many passages in class, stopping again and again to discuss them with my students. These class discussions were easily the best I had all semester in any of my classes.

I continued to struggle with grading writing assignments but was happy to note that at least on a couple of occasions students took advantage of my offer of resubmission opportunities and came to see me with revised papers, after working on which they secured higher grades. Some of these personal interactions were very rewarding as I could sense students were able to learn something about the difficulty and the pleasures of the writing process by working with me.

Thus endeth another semester of teaching. (Grading remains though.) More mixed results; more food for thought for the future.

Hegel’s Stoic and Prison Literature

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll notes that,

With great sociological and psychological insight Hegel says that “stoicism, the freedom which goes back into the pure universality of thought, could appear as a general form of the world spirit only in a time of general fear and servitude but also of general education, which had taught men to think” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 153). The point seems to be that the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration. Where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought. Hegel seems to suggest that the stoic’s freedom is what Freud might call a substitute gratification.

While Soll goes on to argue–in the very next sentence–that,

However, this suggestion, interesting and true as it may be, is not completely consonant with the genesis of stoicism in the Phenomenology. Although stoicism arises from servitude rooted in fear, it does not arise because the servant is not allowed to act freely, but because all action proves ultimately futile.

it is still worthwhile to think about why this “insight” of Hegel might be thought perspicuous independent of the particular theoretical standing of “stoicism” in Hegel’s system.

This perspicuity is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress etc–is truly staggering and populated with luminaries–Boethius, John Bunyan, Marquis De Sade, Jean Genet etc–seemingly beyond count. Here, constraint becomes conducive to creativity; the slamming door of one gate is merely the prompt to the unlocking of another. It is not a conceptual necessity associated with the act of confinement, but rather, a very particular, contingent reaction by some. For this actor, confinement does produce the search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and, to continue to use Freudian language, the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not so appropriately, powerfully, and masterfully, directed towards the substitute activity of alternative expression it can, of course, become pathologically repressed instead. (The Nietzsche of the second essay of The Geneaology of Morals would nod his head at this point, I think.)

The prison writer is, like the Hegelian stoic, still a seeker of freedom but, unlike the Hegelian stoic, not one that considers all action futile. Rather he has come to see that actions are still available to him, even if not those that had previously been available to him as a fuller mode of physical expression. So, like the Hegelian stoic, he has moved from considering freedom to being a purely practical affair to being a “peculiarly theoretical and epistemological one” (Soll, 30) but one still grounded in the activity of writing.

Those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for the oppressor: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to as much totality as possible.

Update: Just chatting with Corey Robin over on Twitter, who suggested adding Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn and Bukharin to the genre of prison literature, and also noted the relevance of Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism to my last sentence.  Good points of course; my small list above merely scratches the surface, and I would even supplement Arendt with the Orwell of 1984.