Posts Tagged ‘kierkegaard’

This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?

A few years ago, I had a lot of things going on inside me that no one else knew about. I needed to talk it out, but I didn’t have anyone I saw frequently that I felt comfortable talking with, so I started a blog instead. It was exactly what I needed. Writing for my own benefit helped me to realize what changes were happening in me, and where I was going with them. A few people read it, and we became friends. This past spring I realized that I wasn’t that person any more, and I didn’t want to hang onto a persona that I had outgrown, so I pulled that site down and started writing here instead.

Our protagonist Anton Mallick writes for a similar purpose. He’s writing a journal addressed to his multi-great grandfather, who left Hungary in 1830 and moved to Spain. Vidor Mallick has turned into a family legend, so he seems like a good confidential friend to talk to. Unlike me, though, Anton is not really that open. I’ll talk about anything. I’m trying not to keep a lot of secrets, but even without an intended readership Anton keeps his cards close to his vest. There are hints dropped from time to time, but there are some pretty important life events that he doesn’t mention explicitly until the book is nearly over, like the death of his little brother back when they were toddlers. Sometimes he even laughs at us, telling us that we’ll never know whether he went out to sleep with the blonde dog walker or not.

Our story begins in the middle of a panic attack.

Not for the first time, something happened to me today, something horrible and absurd, something that brought on another of my overwhelming anguish attacks. To begin with I was me but, suddenly, I wasn’t, I was someone else, and ended up in the strangest state of not-being-me and yet still being inside my body – all in the middle of a bookshop jampacked with people. Then, terrified, rooted to the spot, as the cashier stared at me uncomprehendingly, unsure whether she should scream or call security, the thought popped into my head that my Hungarian ancestor’s name meant “happy,” and, on top of that, that he swore he was indeed happy, and then I came back to myself, I was me again, Antón, and it was in that moment that I decided to overturn my woeful destiny.

Enough is enough. I don’t want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.

And from there we move forward and backward, as he tells us about the situation that led to the attack and his journey toward happiness, or optimism. I think these are separable states of being, but he spends most of the book treating them as a single goal. Why is he having a panic attack? Well, talking about that would give away a few too many of the secrets that generate the suspense that makes the plot interesting. A small part of it, though, is that he meets a woman he slept with once when he was too drunk and high to remember whom he was with, and there in the line at the bookseller’s she tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. That might seem pretty huge, but the situation is a lot more complex than that.

In order to become an optimist, he sets out reading books. He writes a little about the things that he reads, and after he’s read a book he uses quotations from it as chapter epigraphs. Or at least, he does this with the books he likes. At first he goes to his older brother Zoltan, a psychologist who’s hooked on his patients’ medications. Zoltan tends to lord it over his younger siblings because he was raised in the United States while Bela and Anton spent their childhood in Spain with Uncle Juan, and just because he’s the oldest. He gives Anton a number of insufferable self-help books. Anton reads them all, but hates them.

Fortunately, he mentions the quest for optimism to his sister Bela, and she sends him some much better books. Under Bela’s guidance, Anton makes a survey of Western philosophy on the subject of happiness, starting with the ancient Greeks and Boethius and running through Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Those last two are memorable because he likes them – he tends to hate most books about being happy. As he rightly points out, most philosophers are trapped in binary thinking, so instead of pursuing happiness they’re just trying to avoid sadness. Not-sad and happy aren’t the same thing. There are all sorts of gradations between those two extremes. As it is, most of the philosophy and self-help books promote this vapid sort of quietism, where the person doesn’t really feel much of anything, saving himself from sadness by forfeiting the chance for joy. That’s not happiness, it’s clinical depression.

Strangely, if I go back over what I’ve read up until now, from the pre-Socratics to Russell, the whole idea of happiness or optimism is a way out, a fleeing from reality, a juggling game – interesting or depressing, depending on the person putting it forward. My Annus Horribilis is about to come to an end, and I refuse to hide: I still want TO LIVE.

The Buddhists recommend beginning here, finding the things that make you suffer and eliminating them, but they also go on to recommend that you find the things that make you happy and do them.

What things make me happy, what do I enjoy a lot? Drinking half a liter of orange juice every morning. Putting things in order and throwing them away. Running. Going for a stroll. Cooking. I’ve found that I ought to rediscover my hands again, action, doing things, not just thinking of them. It doesn’t overly matter how well you do them, or if they seem ridiculous when you tell others about them, or they aren’t going to get me anywhere in the long term. It’s about enjoying the immediate experience. Maybe, that way, I’ll find a way (nothing of course definitive, but liberating, refreshing).

Orange juice doesn’t make me that happy. If it’s the cheap stuff, even one small glass can be acidic enough to give me stomach cramps for a few hours. And I hate the kind of running that he does – sprinting is fun, but the distance stuff not so much. I do enjoy putting things in order, which makes me feel effective and in control, and throwing things out, which gives me a clean, renovated feeling.

Nothing in the world makes me feel a charge of optimism like getting rid of a book I can’t bear, and feeling not a jot of guilt, only pleasure. Who ever said we shouldn’t throw books in the trash? Who ever said there’s anything that isn’t better off in the trash?

I like strolls and doing things with my hands. I haven’t ever trashed a dishonest private investigator’s apartment on Christmas Eve, but I can see how I might enjoy it as much as Anton does. Cooking is only enjoyable for me if I’m doing it for someone else. That’s something I run into a lot: I love doing things for people, but people rarely want anything from me. I end up giving lots of unwanted advice because my need to help is unsatisfied.

Along with all the turmoil in his personal life, Anton writes insurance policies, and he spends the duration of the book working on this policy for a satellite. I didn’t know that all the world’s Sputniks were insured, but it makes sense that they would be. This job requires him to travel from his home in Madrid to Paris, London, and New York – I really liked Paris and New York when I was in them. I felt an immediate comfort, a sense of belonging that comes more slowly in small towns. Anton also likes New York, but he gets into a little more detail about why he likes it so much.

To start with, if you’ve been there a few times, you come to believe that you own it. It reveals itself to you immediately, it guides you along her streets, her avenues, her symbols; it makes you believe it’s easy to read. It’s been called the lighthouse of the West. Rather, I think of it as the West’s best work of fiction, the most elaborately wrought. Like a good book, first of all it grabs you and then it deceives you, for your own good, leading you to a place where your horizons will widen and grow. It transmits life, and life just is, it can’t be questioned, much as we try to explain it. It can be read in infinitely different ways, and though it never ceases to transmute, in essence, it’s always the same, there’s no alteration to the text. Hers is the sweetest trap, because she doesn’t claim to provide answers, rather to make you ask yourself better questions. And that’s why, like good books, it can also destroy you if you aren’t ready to be alone, which is the one irrefutable truth. No book will ever make your dreams come true. No city will give you something for free. Not even New York, that work of fiction.

Maybe that line about aloneness can explain the strange contradictions in the New Yorkers’ sense of community. They seem to remain locked within themselves, oblivious of what’s going on around them, unless there’s something important going on. In times of tragedy, there’s no better place to be – all New York will hold you as you all suffer together. That shared identity pulls them through the really bad stuff, but during normal business hours it’s all group isolation, like a hermits’ convention. People just sit quietly, trying not to make eye contact. People talk about the dangers, but I once wandered home on an unfamiliar subway route at two am, drunk off my ass and clutching a paperback copy of Gone with the Wind, and no one messed with me. They actually kept their distance, though I am far from imposing and that high level of drunkenness makes me even less likely to initiate contact with strangers. That experience is probably one of the reasons I disagree with statements like

The world we live in pretends to be better than it really is. Countries, governments, businesses, products, people, everyone and everything only put their best foot forward (and all the same it’s appalling, outrageous, sick). Here on planet earth our prime concern is to sweep the shit under the carpet and carry on regardless. If we explained to future generations what life’s really like and then asked them if they still felt like joining us, none of them would choose to be born, or only the worst kind, the masochists, the dimwits, the scatterbrains, or the saints, who definitely come within this sorry confederation. And? Well might you ask, Vidor. Where’s this little speech of mine headed? I, a twenty-first century individual who’s already here, who was never consulted about wanting to be born, am making an effort to be an optimist, and the point I’m coming to is that maybe that isn’t so strange. It’s the appropriate, the elegant thing to do.

If we all put our best foot forward, isn’t that proof that we want the world to be a good place? And isn’t that enough to make it a good place? Yes, sometimes there are school shootings and suicide bombings, but I think those are aberrations, not the rule. And in all of these tragedies, there is one sick person surrounded by dozens of people who try to minimize the damage and heal the wounded. Even the bad things strengthen my belief that the world is a good place full of good people.

One of the things that I appreciate about Anton Mallick is his attitude toward homosexuals. He learns that someone he’s getting to know is a lesbian, so Bela offers to introduce him to her hot lesbian friend and her partner so that he can get some insight into the concept. He refuses, though. I think he’s right; Bela’s friends are fifteen years older than the girl he’s meeting, and even without the age gap, there’s no guarantee that any two people are going to have similar experiences of homosexuality. Sure, there are probably a few things that all lesbians have in common, but other than a taste for women, I’m not sure what they are. I’m friends with five or six, more if you count the bisexuals, and they’re all individuals who break stereotypes in one or more directions. Asking one about her life will not really give me useful information about another’s. Or, as Anton puts it,

“I find lesbians, as lesbians, neither interesting nor uninteresting,” I said. “I have the same thing with them as with heterosexuals, or with hermaphrodite insects, if you see what I mean. Individuals are what interest me. When it comes to Leia, I’m interested to know what she’s like, to see if we can get on. Full stop. Shall we go and catch a film?”

When I listen to the LGBT community, this seems to be what most of us really want: not to be seen as a label, but as a complete human being. Being gay is only part of that. It’s an important part, but still only a part.

One of the parts of myself that’s claiming more attention lately is the depression. I think that I’ve been thinking about it wrong. I think of myself as a hopeful, optimistic sort of person, just two red pigtails shy of being totally Pollyanna, but then there’s this weird thing with my body chemistry that makes me depressed. The depression feels alien to me, like there’s some large, dark mammal breathing heavily on my thought processes, so they sound like this:

I can’t and don’t want to think. I can’t sleep and I want to. I can take a pill and I don’t want to. I can drink a couple of whiskys and I want to and do. I can leave the house and go to a bar and look at the people and I don’t want to. I can’t run into the plump blonde dog walker and fuck her in the middle of the street and I want to. I can and I don’t want to, I want to and I can’t.

I’ve been thinking of the depression as an animal because I can see it fighting for its right to live. I think that exercise will help me feel better, so the depression keeps me from having that kind of energy for a few months. I think that getting enough sleep will help, so I spend all night dreaming of plane crashes. I try to eat right, but then I seem to be gaining weight, but only on the left side, so I’m all lopsided and weird, so it’s probably better not to eat and see if that evens me out. I try to play the guitar a bit, and I get frustrated with my still-low level of skill. I try to apply for a new job, and the internet crashes for an entire week (I can’t blame that on my depression, but sometimes the universe seems a bit spiteful). Think that getting on some meds might help you? Ha! Now you’re terrified of any (legal) drugs that affect the brain, and a little afraid of all the others for good measure. The more I fight against this mental beast, the stronger it gets.

I think a better solution will be to stop thinking of depression as a foreign element. Okay, so yes I am naturally disposed to optimism and happiness, but if depression is caused by body chemistry, then that’s natural too. Anton eventually finds peace in accepting and integrating the different parts of himself, letting himself grieve for those who are dead, accepting relationships as they present themselves, accepting his own desires instead of feeling guilty for them. He even accepts the fact that he’s a pessimist, and after he finally stops trying to force himself to be optimistic he’s a happy pessimist. I don’t think that we can be happy by partitioning and rejecting various parts of the psyche. I can’t hate the part of me that is depressed and still love myself. I need to accept that my depression is mine, and maybe if I stop attacking it, it won’t fight back so much.