Thursday, December 18, 2014
I am wondering--in this cold, comforting winter evening--if we know how to be sad anymore. A strange question, that. Are we not a nation, a people, a world--in the grip of an epidemic of depressive disorders? Have we not stared into the face of existential angst and grinned, spat, screamed, and run away? Do we not have a severely over-taxed social services system trying and failing to deal with the sadness of millions and their consequent "coping" behaviors?
But I am not talking about clinical depression or philosophical anxiety. I am talking about being sad--sadness that is not floating free but is a direct and reasonable response to loss, disappointment, or wounding. This is a passion, among the many passions we flash all over social media, that seems shameful. We hide it; we sublimate it; and we joke about it. Thus, those "coping" behaviors are actually evidence that I am onto something.
I have no studies to cite nor even explanations to offer. I only notice that the Hebrew Bible saw fit to include a book of Lamentations, perhaps so that people had some words in which to address their sorrow to the Divine, amongst their fellow sorrowers. And we have Facebook. I see far more people joking about needing another drink, or a weapon, than I see people honestly saying, "I am sad." Speaking out of the ugly roots of my own experience, I fear that this is how we deal with sadness now. Perhaps we seek medication or therapy, or perhaps we medicate ourselves. Or perhaps we stuff it all down into the narrow little pressure cooker that is anger. The first solution can be appropriate, in certain contexts and for certain disorders. Sorrow, however, as a response to a reasonable cause, is no disorder. Yet even of this sorrow, I fear, we run away in fear.
Spinoza defined sadness as the passion by which the mind passes to a lesser perfection. When we are sad, he believed, we feel our power of acting decreased. This is undoubtedly true: to be sad is to feel weak and vulnerable, as if the hard shell of armor one has spent a lifetime building has been ripped away by violence. Here, perhaps, is an explanation of our fear. But if the armor can be ripped off--and this must be possible if one is to be human--then it was really illusory to begin with. Sadness therefore shows us something profound and true about ourselves, and about those other people we have been protecting ourselves against. Invulnerability in human life is a lie, and its sentimental accoutrements are more often than not cruel. In embracing sorrow, we embrace an emotion that the youngest children and oldest survivors share. Mass hiding of a feeling does not make it disappear. So, passing through sorrow--feeling its wounding, crippling attack--might actually increase our power of acting in the long run, insofar as it brings us closer to that most helpful of creatures--other human beings.
I take it this was part of Wilde's point. "Clergymen," he says, "and people who use phrases without wisdom, sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation. One discerns things that one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint. What one had felt dimly through instinct, about Art, is intellectually and emotionally realized with perfect clearness of vision and absolute intensity of apprehension."
Such apprehension is precious. Perhaps we ought to resist the urge to flee from it. It is not really so frightening. Sorrow has a natural lifespan. As Montaigne says, "evils have their life and limits, their sickness and their health." Should sorrow attempt to usurp the time of our whole lives, that is when to seek help of a different kind. But it is not in itself an illness, and it will not alone destroy us. It may be time to step out of costume, and let ourselves feel an emotion that wears no mask.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
In my experience, this quotation fits nearly everyone* who teaches at a church-related university, or preaches to a public, or posts about faith on Facebook, or blogs about it. I make no exception for myself.
Fellow teachers, preachers, posters, and bloggers, I would love to know what you think. If you're moved to post in the comments here, or on your own preferred forum, you will have my admiration—and I do not mean that ironically.
*There is a class whom the quotation does not describe. This is the cynical "pragmatist" who burns with no spiritual intensity at all. But he has learned that if he simulates such a person, playing a role, he can acquire power for himself by exploiting those who do feel the contradiction.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Saturday, October 26, 2013
We geeks love to track stuff, and put numbers on the stuff we track. We humans love to think about ourselves. So, it should be no surprise that human geeks have invented the "quantified self" movement, which promises to improve our health, our self-control, and our very lives, by making us aware of every aspect of what we are doing every moment of the day and night.
Its Conceit: "Because they failed to contemplate these infinities, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her. Strangely enough they wanted to know the principles of things and go on from there to know everything, inspired by a presumption as infinite as their object. For there can be no doubt that such a plan could not be conceived without infinite presumption or a capacity as infinite as that of nature" (Fragment 199).
Again, we can learn much about ourselves through tracking our vital statistics, but we may become far more ignorant in a Socratic sense, as we proceed to convince ourselves that we know things that we cannot possibly know. There are apps, I understand, that actually presume to tell their users when they will die. Putting aside the misleading implication that medical science has evolved to a state at which it is able to predict life expectancy with such precision, fortune has a nasty way of giving the lie to these kinds of predictions. The healthiest of habits are tragically no match for drunk drivers, new diseases, or acts of violence.
Its Obvious Danger of Producing Anxiety: "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical" (Fg 21).
Those who ignore reasoned medical advice, who never think about how their behavior affects their well-being, indeed play a silly roulette with their lives. But those who have experienced serious illness--or who have feared that they or a loved one might be experiencing such an illness--know all too well the danger of believing that information can cure. The relentless search for information, without experience or wisdom to help one process it, is a very bad healer. It is excellent, however, at exponentially increasing one's misery, as the pleasures life still has to offer fall victim to its imaginary, specter-like predictions, fears, and insistent drive to feed on itself; which brings us to . . .
Its Excellence at Diverting One from Life: "We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so" (Fg 47).
Once again, I am sure there are people involved with the quantified self movement who manage to track all their information, put it in a little box, and move on with their productive, well-adjusted, and optimized lives. But the details of what one can track are a little disturbing. Evidently, it is now possible to analyze your own excrement, electronically inform your computer when you are having sex, and moreover publicize this information online for the world to see. This is all, of course, evidence of our own brilliance--not only in inventing the devices that make such things possible, but in doubling and trebling our experiences into the moment, the record of the moment, and its faint, eternal, electronic trace. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a device that allows us to do this without sloughing off the intensity of the original. This is a marvelous anesthetic if one does not wish to feel life very intensely, but the fulfillment of such a wish can only be a sadly mixed blessing.
One might well reply that Pascal himself was no happy character--that he was tortured, obsessive, and no model for the flourishing life. With this retort, I cannot disagree. But what does this mean? That he knew suffering profoundly, from the inside, and knew very well what did not cure it. To read Pascal in a time of despair is to lift the veil of isolation and destroy the infinity between one and none that Nietzsche found between having one friend and utter solitude. It is to know, in other words, that no human being must suffer alone, because at least one other has suffered from the very depths. This sort of consolation, so much worth seeking, cannot be quantified. We need not share all of Pascal's commitments to find in him this kind of friend, and to suspect that, particularly in his gentler moments, he had some insight to share.
Friday, October 4, 2013
[Neri] happened to be nearby when the pope was informed that a nun in the vicinity of Rome was attracting attention because of her many remarkable spiritual gifts. Neri was commissioned to investigate the validity of these tales. He immediately mounted his mule and, in spite of very bad weather and roads, soon arrived at the convent. On being admitted, he conversed with the abbess, who was thoroughly convinced of these tokens of grace, and gave him all the details about them. The nun was summoned and entered, but his only greeting was to extend his muddy boot to her, indicating that she should pull it off. The pure, holy virgin started back in horror, and with angry words expressed her resentment of this impudence. Neri rose quite calmly, climbed back on his mule, and returned to the pope much sooner than expected; for Catholic confessors have very precise, significant precautionary measures prescribed to them for the testing of such spiritual gifts. While the church concedes that such spiritual favors are possible, it does not admit their authenticity without the most punctilious examination. Neri briefly communicated the result to the astonished pope: “She is no saint,” he cried, “she performs no miracles! For she lacks the main attribute, humility.”
Naples, Saturday, May 26, 1787
(From Goethe’s Italian Journey, tr. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons [Princeton University Press, 1989], pp. 259-260.)
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Sunday, August 4, 2013
What was so striking about Brasil? First, the sensation of being in a land with very few English-speakers. Had we gone to Rio or São Paolo, things might have been different. But the site of the conference was Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. BH (bay-ah-GAH, as the locals call it) is Brasil's third largest city, but not exactly a tourist destination. Because of this, I hazard that BH gave me something more akin to "the real Brasil," as distinct from the side of the country carefully prepared for tourist consumption. Not that I exactly blended in. That my dress and my demeanor screamed "Americano!" from miles away, I have no doubt. ("You'll be marked as a tourist the moment you get there," an old friend of Peruvian heritage assured me.) And my Portuguese has very little going for it, beyond my general willingness to take some risks and make a fool of myself. (The brasileira at the airport thought I was trying to buy chocolate on credit, rather than proposing to use my credit card. The fault was certainly mine...) But the locals were so warm and so receptive to my bumbling efforts, that after a while I found myself spontaneously exclaiming "Amo Brasil!" This had the double merit of being true and being ingratiating. When the true and the useful coincide in this manner, one can only feel grateful.
Another unforgettable thing about Belo Horizonte—the sidewalks. Here in the States, or at least where I live, the sidewalks are mostly charmless paths of dull and drab concrete. In Belo Horizonte, they were typically colorful mosaics, with fascinating and unpredictable patterns. I wish I could describe these better. One of the more remarkable patterns was a hopscotch (see photo below).
Quite a large proportion of the local buildings, as well as the streets, are named after famous writers. On the first day, I found Montaigne and Stendhal. The last day presented me with a building calling itself "Edifício Montesquieu." There was also a condo (I think) sporting the name "Federico Fellini," as well as a salon called "Nixon," which I can only assume was not named after the former U.S. President. But it's difficult to be sure.
Anyone who appreciates food should certainly try the Brazilian cuisine. The buffets are generally much better than the typical American buffet. Our second night, Margaret and I went to a restaurant called "Amadeus." In addition to offering all the cheeses, fruits, and meats we could dream of, as well as the most splendid array of desserts I'd ever seen, Amadeus featured a wine cellar that we were able to personally inspect. Perhaps my favorite type of Brazilian restaurant is the rodizio. A rodizio invariably begins with an antipasto bar, full of olives, fruits, cheese, nuts and other delectables. Here the trick is to eat about half as much as you'd like to, since you need to leave room for the main courses. These consist of "endless meat." The server brings one kind of meat after another, about every seven minutes, and carves it for you at the table. He does not stop visiting your table, armed with juicy meat begging to be consumed, until he is explicitly instructed to do so. The rodizio we visited was a Lebanese place—"Vita Araba." I managed to stay just this side of the famous "meat coma."
Scenery, architecture, food—such are the standard fare of travel writers. No experience of travel should be without them. But how to write about them vividly, with imagination and flair? Obviously, I've got no idea. My strategy in the above paragraphs was to pick relatively two non-obvious items of interest—buildings with strange names and sidewalks with strange patterns—before debauching into the usual discourse about food. It would be a mistake, however, to leave you with the impression that scenery, architecture, food were what made Brasil for me.
What did make Brasil for me, if not the impressive scenery, buildings and cuisine? The answer: its people.
I love Brasil—but what I really love are brasileros and brasileiras. In every location in which I encountered Brasilians—whether at the conference, restaurants, shops, museums, gelaterias, or the airport—they were some of the warmest and most welcoming people whom I've ever met, in any country. They were so willing to converse with a none-too-impressive American who tried, however poorly, to speak their language. Seeing my somewhat confused look in a bookstore, an employee approached me. After we talked a little, partly in English and partly in Portuguese, he led me to two sections. "Here are some classics in Portuguese!" he said proudly. "And here are some books"—gesturing to another shelf—"in your language." When I (sincerely) told him I was far more interested in the former, he looked at me with a mixture of surprise and respect, and proceeded to ask me where I was from and what my name was. After purchasing an inexpensive Portuguese edition of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, I decided it was time for some chocolate. The chocolate was fine. But what I really remember was the woman behind the counter beaming when I told her that her English was good, after she had asked me which state I was from. When I give a true answer to this question (i.e. "Texas"), I am no longer surprised when I receive a look of contempt. None of the Brazilians whom I encountered exhibited any such small-minded nonsense. They are not so provincial as to believe that Texans are just one thing.
My encounters with brasileros and brasileiras on the streets and in the shops were a daily source of joy. I should add that the Brazilian academics at the Hume Society conference were equally lovely. Professor Livia Guimarães, of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), did an excellent job coordinating the conference as a whole. Though I had met her only once, Livia remembered me and embraced me (literally) as if we were old friends. Particularly memorable was the Hume Society's banquet, held the last night of the conference. I was quite fortunate to be seated next to two Brazilian academics, Luiz Eva and Cecília Almeida. Margaret and I had met Luiz the day before, and so knew that he and I both love Montaigne. Luiz spoke excellent English, and in a distinctly American accent, perhaps because he spent half a year at Johns Hopkins on a post-doc. Now he teaches at the Universidade Federal do Paraná. We spoke about everything from the style of philosophy most influential in Brasil, to why more people don't fathom that Montaigne is a philosopher, to why Hume remains a figure of interest and fascination, to the impossibility of translating the Portuguese term "saudade." After a while, Cecília joined our table. From what I gather, Luiz and Cecília had both studied philosophy in São Paolo. Cecilia is also interested in French skeptical writers—she specializes in Pierre Bayle—and recently accepted a position in the philosophy department at the Universidade de Brasília. In addition to encouraging my fledging efforts at Portuguese—her English was so much better than my Portuguese!—she gave me invaluable advice about where to travel next time we're in Brasil. (Not trusting my own ability to remember, I asked her to write it down, which she did.) Cecília also mentioned the prospect of yours truly coming to Brasilia to give a lecture. This I did not get in writing, but I am optimistic that it will happen. In any case, Margaret and I will be making another trip to Brasil.
In conclusion … but I won't conclude, since my time in Brasil has hardly concluded. In lieu of a conclusion, here are some photographs.