Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.

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This is the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.

 

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.

When reading the works of Milan Kundera, it helps to have some knowledge of, or at least interest in, three subjects: philosophy, European history and politics, and sex.

I’ve read this novel before, focusing on plot and character and letting the philosophy wash through me. But having read Sartre recently, I understood the philosophy better, so I paid more attention to it. The title and first two chapters introduce some of the important concepts. Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: existence happens in cycles, patterns of behaviour that are repeated within a person’s lifetime, throughout cultures, and on the global scale as well. Many books read this way, including the Old Testament (referenced quite a few times in the text). If this moment is bound to happen again and again, it is infinitely important that we make the right choices because we, and everyone else, are bound to repeat this choice over and over. This sounds like an easier-to-swallow version of Sartre’s idea that what choices we make define humanity. The responsibility for our choices and the awareness that they affect everything in time and space feels like a weight, and this heaviness is roughly equivalent to Sartre’s meaning of the word anguish. On the other hand, the Germans have an old saying, einmal ist keinmal, or, once is never. If something only happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Kundera seems to champion the belief that life is a series of discrete moments with little connection to each other. Without these causal connections, there is no grand responsibility for the world, no weight. There is an incredible lightness, in which nothing we do matters because we are powerless to affect anything. Hence the unbearable lightness of the title.

Personally, I think lightness and weight are two extremes, and the truth is a blend of the two. There are certain clear causal links between my behaviour and the events in my life. However, I am not responsible for the choices of other people. Kundera only presents the two possibilities, that either events return and we always choose the same thing or events never return and every decision is irrevocable. I think that similar choices recur in our lives, so that we do have the opportunity to change our minds, to choose to be something other than we have always been. We are constantly recreating our identities, and if we want to be different, we can act differently and choose something new. I think this is what Sabina is getting at with her fixation with betrayal of betrayals; choosing something new that contradicts her choices in the past, she has a compulsion to do and be differently than she has done and been. She keeps in the middle between lightness and weight, and you notice she’s the only main character to live through the book.

As with philosophy, Czech history is not my forte. It’d be interesting to read this book in close juxtaposition with Milosz’s The Captive Mind and other books about the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century. Nearly all of my knowledge of European history comes through its literature, and, as with most novels, you don’t have to understand it all in order to follow the story, so again as with philosophy, I let the history wash through me and piece together a more complete understanding with time.

The aspect of the political situation that I identify with most strongly is the fear of observation. I’ve always been a little paranoid about being watched and judged, and living in a country with strict anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t help. I don’t want to overthrow any specific government; I think the whole idea of government is flawed, but it sure beats having to walk around with a gun all the time. I do object to being asked which books and films I bring into a country, though. Stories are very important to me, and I get heartily offended at the implication that some are unwelcome in an entire country.

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

Yes, all of this, yes. This was me as a kid, but I recognized the old-fashionedness of it because I read old-fashioned books. I went all out for it, with huge mutton chop sideburns and pocket watches and bowties and stuff. I don’t mind feeling a little anachronistic at times. The first time my ex saw me naked she said I looked like a Victorian gentleman.

Persons who are uncomfortable with sex should never read Kundera. Sex is very important to him, so he puts lots of it in his novels. Sometimes it’s very graphic, like the clockwork orgy scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I welcome it, but I don’t discuss Kundera with my mother. I may not have a ton of sexual experience, but I do have a vivid imagination and a tendency to think about it a lot. I analyze my experiences and fantasies to understand myself, and what things I’d like to try in the future. Kundera discusses the vision of Paradise in terms of unattainable ideals, but two of his characters have an experience that approximates mine. They laugh and suddenly the joke turns into sex.

What could have excited them so? A moment before, the hat on her head had seemed nothing but a joke. Was excitement really a mere step away from laughter?

Yes. My vision of Paradise is the memory of my favourite sexual experience. My laughter is often misunderstood because I don’t laugh at things that are humourous. At funny movies, I remain silent because I’m afraid of missing something. I laugh when I am delighted with the world, or a certain person in it. When I feel a rush of love for someone, I laugh because I’m so happy. Sometimes that makes it seem like I’m laughing at their problems or distress, as at funerals, but that’s really not it at all. So one night I was so happy leading into sex that I started laughing for no apparent reason, and the ex started laughing too, then suddenly we were fucking hard and fast, and when it was over we burst out laughing again. My vision of perfection is this combination of love and joy, where the partner is a source of intense physical and emotional delight, perhaps not constantly, but regularly. Lately I’ve been meeting guys who seem really great and delightful, but once they take their pants off they become violent. I’d prefer to sleep with someone who’s not going to call me a bitch, slap me around, or choke me. That doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, but it is proving harder than it looks.

As I move through the world gaining experience, I realize more and more just how separate love and sex really are. Our culture tells us that they’re the same thing, or that one is a sign of the other, and we even refer to sex as making love. It’s all a big lie. I prefer to use the phrase ‘making love’ in the sense that Jane Austen uses it, when two people talk to each other with the purpose of inspiring or encouraging positive feelings between them. Love can be accompanied by physical actions, but we hardly have sex with everyone we love. With nearly all the people I love, I would feel extremely uncomfortable with the implication that they desired a sexual relationship with me. I try to love all the people I come into contact with, so there’s usually at least some involved when I have sex, but I can’t say that I’d want any of my partners back again. I wish them well in future romantic endeavours, so long as they don’t involve me. Love is a patterned emotional response, but sex is a behaviour. It’s great when the two come together, but they don’t always. Intellectually, I can understand the behaviour patterns of the characters in the novel, but I don’t envy Tomas his promiscuity. When two people commit to sexual fidelity, I think they should honour that commitment. I see marriage as a promise of faithfulness; if you’re going to live with one partner while following several others, I say don’t get married. His affairs upset me almost as much as they do his wife.

One of the differences between characters is how they define themselves. What makes me different from other people? How do I know that I am uniquely myself? Tereza has a real problem with her body; she sees the physical bodies of all people as being roughly equivalent, so she only feels herself when clothed. Her self is her soul, that difficult-to-define entity. Her unique combination of intellectual and emotional patterns, I guess you could say. But those are so tied into the body, electrical impulses moving through biological matter, that I don’t see the distinction. Soul and body are so much a part of each other that I can’t imagine a realistic post-death life where they are separate.

For Tomas, on the other hand, a woman’s individuality is made clear in her sexual behaviours. When he meets a woman, he wonders,

How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

Even when I meet someone I’d like to sleep with, I don’t spend time on these questions. My concerns are a little different. Is he interested in me? Is he still going to be nice to me after I drop my pants? Is he going to kick me out immediately afterward? Would he be good with my kids? If we’re watching a video on the couch, would he rather put his arm around my shoulders or have mine around his? Will he let me kiss him in public? What would he look like in a kilt? It may seem as though I’m making moral judgments against Tomas, but I don’t feel that I am. According to the culture I was raised in, Tomas’s questions are much more masculine, and since I’m a man, I feel I ought to be somewhat more like him. But then I remind myself that I’d rather be me, and that I’m okay as I am.

Kundera defines kitsch several different ways in this novel. Art is inseparable from the discussion, but it encompasses the body, politics, and philosophy as well. Kitsch is an aesthetic mode that denies the existence of the unpleasant. The first unpleasant thing is shit. We do distance ourselves from our own feces, and consider it an oddity if someone makes a habit of looking at it. But what is shit? Indigestible material we’ve consumed, mixed with waste from the body. Our cells are constantly replicating because they are also constantly dying and being expelled from the body: our shit is composed of the influences on our body that we can’t use any more. It seems like a healthy thing to me to examine what emotional or intellectual influences we’re holding onto and to release those that no longer serve our growth. What happens if we don’t release that shit? Blockages, cancer, regurgitating the same old shit again and again. Kitsch enables the eternal return of unchanging ideologies. Another unpleasant thing kitsch denies is death. We’re all going to die; that’s the only real end to any of our stories; it’s my evidence that nature always overpowers humanity eventually. Much of twentieth century art consciously distances itself from kitsch by embracing shit, death, and ugliness, which is why you rarely see it outside of specialist galleries.

But political movements rely on kitsch, perhaps not bad art itself, but the idea of it. We ignore the unpleasant realities of an ideology in order to convince people to join us; as such, there’s a kitsch for every ideology. Kundera calls liberalism’s kitsch The Grand March – a protest march with fists punching the air, slogans chanted in unison; all that’s missing are the uniforms and the goose-step. Those of us who find a comfortable home for our identities in the humanities can get easily sucked into it, and lose sight of the conformity we are demanding. Everyone should compost for their container gardens and recycle their identically low-BHA plastic bottles. Good ideas, of course, but people can be just as judgmental and controlling about liberal politics as they can be about conservative politics. Eventually Kundera calls kitsch the opposite of individuality. What makes us unique? Our shit, our death. Our faults and failures. What we discard. Perhaps what makes me me is which shit I am willing to forgive myself for.

A quick word on plot structure: This is not a linear story. Each part focuses on a specific person. Part I is for Tomas and is about the lightness and weight above. Part II is for Tereza, and covers approximately the same period of time as the first, but seeing the same events from her perspective instead of his. Tereza focuses on questions of soul and body. Part III is for Sabina and Franz and all their miscommunications. The exact timing re Tomas and Tereza wasn’t clear to me. During or after. Part IV we’re back with Tereza, mostly after Part II, and Part V is Tomas during the same time again. Part VI is Sabina and Franz, now separated, after Part III and at least partially during the time of Parts IV and V. Part VII is back to Tomas and Tereza but focuses on their dog, before the end of Part VI. So, don’t get upset when people die; you’ll probably hear more of them later anyway. If it seems hard to follow, take breaks between sections. We hear stories from people in real life this way, but not all at once. We constantly revise our understanding of people, sometimes based on things they do now, sometimes on things they did in the distant past. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably will after we have better information. Treat it with the patience that you do reality and it’s not too hard to follow.

I feel that I should preface this discussion with a disclaimer. I am not well read in philosophy; my field is literature. What does this mean? Every discipline has a unique set of assumptions and specialized vocabulary. When Sartre uses the word project, I feel as if I ought to know more specifically what he means because it seems to have a different meaning than when I use that word. I also know Kant and Marx by reputation rather than by a direct knowledge of their works, so I feel like I’m on the edges of Sartre’s conversation instead of a direct participant. It’s like I’m eavesdropping on Sartre talking to someone else who has read the same books that he has. I feel a little rude, a little out of my depth, and almost entirely out of place. [To be better prepared, I should have read Kant and Marx, possibly also Gide and Comte.]

Ever since I was in high school I’ve been meaning to read more philosophy, only to be defeated by the incredible density of their texts. Long sentences, long paragraphs, intensely meaningful short phrases – for someone who reads primarily fiction, it’s daunting. I have to spend most of my reading time looking away from the book, working out what he means and deciding whether I agree with it. Fiction usually elicits a less rational response. However, this text is significantly more approachable than the philosophy I’ve tried to read in the past. The occasion for writing demands that it be so – this is the text of a speech Sartre gave to clarify his position for a non-specialist audience. Audience is particularly important for him here because he sees his audience as changing; philosophers of previous eras could write exclusively for other philosophers and the mass of humanity left them alone, while his ideas get into the common press and existentialism becomes a meaningless buzzword. When uneducated people start confronting his texts, he doesn’t assume they’re all morons and carry on writing above their level; he interacts with his audience as they are even though he can’t choose who they are. As an uneducated reader (in his field), I really appreciate the effort.

There were some things that I really liked about this text, and others I objected to. The primary difficulty I have is Sartre’s absolutism. He assumes that what is true for him is true for everyone, including the tendency to make sweeping generalizations about humanity based on what is true about himself. My ex has a similar tendency to universalize, and as I was reading I could hear echoes of her arguing at me: “Well then obviously . . .” followed by a statement about my motives or reasoning that was patently untrue. So, maybe my tendency to feel combative toward Sartre has nothing to do with him, but that’s not going to stop me.

I felt particularly combative when he referred to The Mill on the Floss. I think that Maggie Tulliver is more complex than “the very incarnation of passion.” Such a phrase will give modern American audiences entirely the wrong idea about her. But that’s not as bad as his characterization of Lucy Deane, whom he does not even name. She’s “a very ordinary young girl,” which may be true, but that doesn’t make her worth less than Maggie, nor does it mean that Maggie herself is so very singular. He also calls her Stephen Guest’s “silly goose of a fiancée,” which is ridiculous. Lucy Deane is an intelligent, capable woman, albeit with some ignorance of human psychology. She believes the best about the people she loves, and we can’t blame her if her manipulations backfire. Stephen and Maggie are very careful to hide their feelings for each other from her and from everyone else. Lucy is very trusting, but what experience does she have of deceit? If a girl’s society protects her from certain harsh realities, we can hardly condemn her for not noticing them.

According to Sartre, the essence of his thought is the idea that ‘existence precedes essence’; or in other words, we exist first, and then we determine what we are. To some extent this is true, but I don’t believe that any child is actually a tabula rasa. We all have to cope with biological, genetic elements that are beyond our control. For a long time, I chose a heterosexual life, complete with marriage and children; however, my body has a noticeable physiological response to the sight, smell, and thought of other men. In this case, no matter how much I wanted to determine my essence, I couldn’t alter my own biology. To give a less politically motivated example, I have an unfortunate genetically determined response to gluten. I identify myself as someone with coeliac disease every time I choose what to eat or drink. If I don’t, if I choose an identity that contradicts my biology, then in a couple of days I (and everyone around me) will notice a change in my brain chemistry due to malabsorption of essential nutrients: depression, anxiety, rage, mood swings, inability to concentrate, and night blindness. Therefore, I think that Sartre is only partially right here. We can determine a lot about ourselves, but I think that an important part of living happily is accepting the limitations that ‘the accident of our birth’ place on us.

My next disagreement is summed up in his statement,

We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.

First, we do not always choose the good. Some people, of the type of Sartre and my ex, always have to rationalize their actions to themselves before they can do anything. I don’t. My ex could never understand or quite accept this about me. I can do something that I know to be wrong and even enjoy the wrongness of it. She can’t. I suspect Sartre couldn’t either. Second, embracing my own homosexuality doesn’t mean that I think everyone should be gay. Accepting coeliac disease doesn’t mean that I want to ban wheat from supermarkets. I can see that heterosexual marriage makes my friends happy; I think that’s great. But it wasn’t the right thing for me. I see the value of bread for other people, even though for me it’s poisonous. Sartre’s combined statement seems to imply that hypocrisy is impossible, but I’ve seen enough to know that people are fully capable of acting one way and insisting that everyone else behave in an opposite fashion.

I think that Sartre uses the word hope imprecisely. This may be an issue of translation. When he is explaining anguish, abandonment, and despair, all he really means is that we accept responsibility for our actions and situations without expecting someone else to come save us. So while he says,

We should act without hope.

He means we should act within the realm of our own responsibilities instead of expecting a supernatural force to intervene on our behalf. It is the specific hope for a deus ex machina that Sartre is teaching against, not hope in general. I don’t believe any of us perform any action without hoping for a certain outcome. Sometimes the hope is very small indeed, but it’s still there. As such, I don’t believe that any human is in a condition of complete despair; even the man committing suicide is hoping for the end of his life, or hoping that someone will care enough to save his life. In another place, Sartre insists that existentialism is the most optimistic of philosophies, and I see his point. If I am responsible for myself, my life, and my choices, and if I determine what defines all of humanity, then I have far more power than I understand. I’m not so much an ant who occasionally has to dodge the focused rays of God’s magnifying glass, but a bull in the china shop of my own being. Therefore, it’s worthwhile for me to hold still and examine what I’m doing from time to time.

Sartre acknowledges that this emphasis on personal responsibility can seem harsh to people who don’t feel like their lives are successful. It does. I generally assume that I haven’t done shit with my life, particularly when I think about high school reunions. But then I tell people that I used to teach in the Middle East, or I did a couple years of mission work in Brazil, or I have three sons, and they always act like I’ve had the most amazing life. In some ways, I suppose I have. But I consider my step-brother. He’s always lived in the same area. He’s spent his life building houses, hanging siding, replacing windows, fishing, the type of work that produces tangible results. He can point to a concrete benefit in the life of every person he’s worked with. I envy that sort of career, even though it seldom gets the recognition it deserves, even though I’m not making any steps toward reshaping my life in that direction. I’m the type of person who likes staying home, and I don’t think that’s likely to change; instead, I move my home all over the place, scouring the earth for something familiar.

The author doesn’t spend a lot of time on intersubjectivity in this discourse, but this was a point where I metaphorically sat up and paid attention, even though there’s only one paragraph on it. You see, if every person redefines the human race according to his own self-perception, that would seem to imply that there are as many humanities as there are humans. But there’s only one. The definition of humanity is infinitely variable; we negotiate that meaning with the people we come in contact with. We work together to create meaning; while this is an essential part of my teaching philosophy in terms of working with text, I like the idea that it also holds true for identities, particularly the definition of our own shared nature. Sartre spends so much time distancing himself from Communism that he often ignores the necessity of living in communities. It’s possible that he explains more about that in other places, but most of this speech seems to champion a sort of Emersonian self-reliance that I find unrealistic.

My favorite part was the end. Sartre spends a lot of time insisting that existentialism is basically an atheistic philosophy, but that’s tempered in the conclusion:

Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference – that is our point of view. It is not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence; what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of God.

This demonstrates the problems that Sartre gets into by using words imprecisely. It is also the most succinct explanation of the personal philosophy that I have been shaping in the last few years. I once called it ‘apatheism,’ because I don’t find the question of God’s existence interesting or useful. In my opinion, the real question is not, Do you believe in God? Or, Have you been saved? The question is, What are you doing about it? How are you working at becoming your best self? Sartre would say that by becoming my best self, I’m helping to make all of humanity better. I think that personal integrity does inspire others to work toward the same, so maybe Sartre is right. But even if it didn’t, I would still try to be my best. I would still work on speaking the truth and acting in love. And regardless of personal creed, I think that’s a definition of human ethics that most of us can agree on.

A COMMENTARY ON THE STRANGER

Yes, I did reread Camus the other week so that I’d remember it well when I got to this article, which this publisher uses to pad the volume. But I do wish I had also read The Myth of Sisyphus because Sartre treats the two books as a single project explaining Camus’s ideas on the absurd, and seems to quote from The Myth a little more often. A clever publisher would bind The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus in a single volume with Sartre’s article as the preface. I don’t know the copyright issues involved, but I’d sure spend ten bucks on a paperback of two Camus works prefaced by Sartre.

As before, I disagree with Sartre’s absolutist statements.

He was happy, he did as he liked, and his happiness does not seem to have been affected by any inner gnawing so frequently mentioned by Camus in his essay, which stems from the blinding presence of death.

I don’t see Meursault as happy. I wouldn’t say that he does as he likes because he doesn’t seem to like anything. I may be projecting my feelings onto him, universalizing as Sartre discusses in the lecture above, but I read Meursault as full of inner gnawing that he doesn’t choose to tell the reader about. What makes Sartre think that Meursault is such a reliable narrator? He occasionally alludes to a feeling or event and says, “But I don’t like to talk about that.” Which begs the question, what else is Meursault not telling us? Probably a great deal of suppressed emotional turmoil, which Sartre implies that Camus’s essay says ought to be in the novel.

Sartre says that this book is an exemplum of the absurd, and finally someone has defined that term for me. People throw it around all the time when they teach twentieth-century narrative, but they don’t always explain what it means. According to my understanding of Sartre’s interpretation of Camus, the absurd describes the struggle produced by the incongruity between a person’s worldview and the world he actually views. Yes, I would agree that the novel relies heavily on this struggle. Yes, I know that incongruity is often a source of humor. However, they aren’t quite the same thing; incongruity can be represented without actually being humorous. Presenting a series of images without explaining the causal connections is not a humorous technique unless what’s being left out is funny. There are some humorous moments in the novel, but Sartre and I disagree about which ones they are.

Sartre quotes someone as saying that The Stranger is like Kafka written by Hemingway, and I can appreciate that comparison. It also lets me know that the things I wrote about style last week are accurate to the original French and not just an accident of translation. I also really appreciate Sartre’s comment on the novel’s style as a method of representing silence, which I had not considered before.

On the whole, I’d say that my first foray into Sartre was a success. I don’t agree with him wholeheartedly, but I understand what he’s saying, and that’s a big step forward for me. I’d like to read more.