• Tag Archives existentialism
  • Externally, We Swim In the Same Ocean, but…

    Winter                                              Waning Moon of the Cold Month

    “Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment and learn again to exercise his will — his personal responsibility.” – Albert Schweitzer

    Schweitzer was a favorite of both my mother and my father, his “reverence for life” must have rung loudly in the ear of the WWII generation.  I find his Christianity, though unorthodox, still too orthodox for me these days.  This quote seems to lean against the interrelatedness voiced by MLK and quoted here recently and put that inflection point back on the individual.  In most ways I agree with it from  a personal perspective, a focus on the existential predicament decided by emphasizing personal choice rather than the web of influences from genes and nurture.

    As I’ve reflected on the notion of interrelatedness over the last month or so, and commented on it by using the idea of inflection, that is a mental tick by the perspective most important at the moment, this dialectical, tension of opposites approach, seems more and more sound to me.  What I mean is that, yes, we are in this together and that, yes, the fate of even the most vulnerable and neglected bears on our own, while at the same, yes, we live alone and will die alone, never really bridging the gap between our interior and that of the Other.  Externally we swim in the same waters as one larger organism, a sort of super-0rganism, while internally, we paddle alone in our single kayak traversing the vast expanse of the inner world.

    On a less abstruse note, well, a bit less abstruse anyhow, I did very well on my Latin session today.  I’ve decided it takes me 4-6 hours to get through a Wheelock chapter and the particular grammatical points presented there, along with exercises.  Greg said that was about right.  So, I might as well lean into it and learn it right the first time.  Then, he says I have to read, read, read.  I’m thinking about picking up some Caesar and maybe some Tacitus since they write in prose and that’s easier than the convoluted word order of poets like Ovid and Virgil.  I’m sticking with Ovid as my Northstar in all this, but reading some stuff where I’m not stumbling over words and phrases lines apart that belong together might be fun.

  • The Self

    Samhain                                                   Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

    Woollies at Stefan’s house tonight.  Bill, Frank, Warren, Stefan, Scott, Tom, Mark, me.  Paul was there for a bit before he left to have dinner with his daughter Clare.

    Topic tonight was what role a higher power plays in your life, if any.  We wandered here and there, but came back to a few themes:  some found matters of this sort best expressed through loss of the ego, others found the idea of a higher power important for their journey.  A few of us focused on the self, the authentic self or the integrated self or the deep self, a self that is sufficient to itself for worth, but eager to belong:  to belong to the earth, to each other, to a past, to a family, but in that belonging still the self remains what it is, validated and grounded in an accidental combination of genes that is unique and separate, yet also a part while remaining apart.  The key element to this perspective then becomes personal responsibility, willingness to make choices and accept their consequences.

    We touched on the notion of the sacred as a created sense of belonging, of a self located in a context, a place, a family, a cemetery, a house.

    Some found this perspective a product of aging, of graceful self-acceptance, of knowing who we are, warts and all, and loving that self, not an ideal self that others or external systems would have us mold ourselves toward.

    We have different toe holds on our reality, on what we need to feel whole and authentic, but we agreed long ago to take this journey together, and we’ve accepted responsibility for the ride.

  • Oh, You’re So Pragmatic.

    Summer                                    Full Strawberry Moon

    “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” – William James

    Pragmatism and pragmatists are an original American (US) contribution to the history of Western philosophy.  Since I can’t get my hands around it well, I’ll not try to explain it, though on its on my list.

    But.  William James was among its founders and early proponents along with Charles Saunders Pierce and John Dewey.  He was also an early American psychologist as was Dewey.  So.  James is an important guy in philosophy, psychology and the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

    His quote above is disarmingly simple.  On the face of it you might say, well, yeah.  Whatever, old dude.  If you took that perspective, you probably skipped over two important words:  I agree.  Now, I’m not going to get into the free will debate, very complicated at this moment in cognitive science, so I interpret this as our attention will go where we intend for it to go.  It’s the intentional nature of the I agree that I want to lift out and underline.

    Why?  It reminded me of a dilemma I spoke with Kate about just this week, “Kate, there are several things, for example, pragmatism, Taoism, aesthetics, the Enlightenment that I would like to explore in greater depth.  The problem is that to do it I have to have sit down time, lots of it, to read complicated material and absorb it.”

    “Yes,” she said, “There are just aren’t enough hours in a day.”

    Just so.  We have a limited amount of time, that’s a given, both day to day, and in this finite trip, life.  How I agree to direct my attention will determine the nature of my experience.  If I choose to garden, I will not be reading Dewey’s Reconstruction of Philosophy.  If I choose to do Latin and translate the Metamorphosis, I cannot, at the same time, read Chuang Tzu.  If I use time writing this blog, I cannot use the same time to write a novel.  And so on.  And on.

    Just using those examples I have chosen to direct my experience toward the garden, the soil and complex interactions within them both.  I have chosen to fill some of my experience with Latin grammar and vocabulary and learning how to translate.  I choose to write this blog and so have the experience of an ongoing journal/diary/weblog.

    Is there anything bad about these choices?  No, at least not in my opinion.  I do, though, have to reckon with what James identifies.  Each of those choices makes other choices if not impossible at least less likely, therefore directing my stream of attention and with it my experience in one direction and not another.

    The point here is that you decide the type and quality of the experiences you have and those experience not only shape your life, they are your life.  So, choose well.  And know what your choices mean.

  • The Self & The Other

    Beltane                                Waxing Strawberry Moon

    Finally, some sun.  That’s good for the bees, good for the veggies and good for the spirit.

    I collect articles on certain subjects:  art, aesthetics, philosophy, political theory, modernism, individualism for instance.  Over the last few months there has been an interesting increase in the number of articles I’ve found with new takes on individualism.

    Let me give you an example.  You might think of the existentialist as one end of the continuum, radical individualists, almost, sometimes actually, solipsistic.  That’s me philosophically and in terms of deep belief about matters often called religious.  On the other end you might consider the Asian cultures in which the individual has no unique identity except as they function within the family or the state.  You might be the second son, the first wife, a citizen of a particular city or region.  Feudalism, too, had a class based view of the person.  Peasants were a large, amorphous group who worked the land, did jobs like tanning, blacksmithing, weaving, but whose individual qualities were of little obvious merit.

    It’s not surprising that the enlightenment with its focus on reason, blended with the Renaissance emergence of the individual as a psychological reality had such a powerful and corrosive affect on feudal culture.  It moved away from class based political and social structures toward more democratic and meritocratic ones.

    Anyhow, here’s the interesting piece I read the other day.  Those of us, like me, who believe in the inviolable isolation of our Self, forever walled off from the rest by the flesh and our peculiar, ineluctably unique internal world have it wrong.  The Self, in this view, is socially constructed.  We are who others see us to be, or, said another way, we see ourselves in the way that others see us.  In this perspective the political libertarian, the leave me alone and let me do it my way Rand Paul crowd, denies the very nature of the system within which they live.  That is, at one level, it is a system made of up of intimately connected parts, parts that could not be without the other.   There is, from this perspective, no alone; we are always apart of, perhaps not in the more rigidly defined feudal or Asian family way, but in a manner much closer to them than to the live alone, die alone types like me.

    In fact, this article goes on to compare the socially constructed self and the democratic state with love, a bond in which we are only who we are in relation to each other.  This makes us, if we deny this bond as libertarians do, jilted lovers when our dependence on the state and each other is revealed.

    Politically, I find this argument compelling, explaining as it does the Tea Party anger as the anger of lovers in denial.

    Personally, the socially constructed aspect of the self cannot be denied.  Even the stance of the existentialist comes from reading, say, Camus or Sartre or Kierkegaard, a fellowship of lonesome strangers.  Yes, the fingers of the other does reach into the interior, switching on certain perceptions, switching off others.  Yet, this much is still true:  no one knows my inner world.  No one except me.  No one has lived my life.  No one but me.  No one else will die when I wink out.  No one.  These radically separate realities keep me on the existentialist end of the bell curve.  At least for now.

  • Leaving Denver

    Winter                          Waxing Cold Moon

    The decompression has begun.  My suitcase awaits only my dopp kit to be ready to go.  A shower, final packing and I’ll be ready.  Ready, that is, to drop off the rental car before noon then spend three hours at the Denver Airport before my 3:00 pm flight back to the Twin Cities.  When I arrrive around 5:45, I’ll still have one more leg to go:  Super Shuttle, in a ride on which I will be the last one delivered home.  All in all it will probably be between 7 and 8 hours before I get home after leaving the hotel.

    I’m reading a book called Stealing the Mona Lisa, discussing it comes next, at a gathering of docents, dining at the Namaste Restaurant.  I would describe it as a difficult book, written by a psychoanalyst for whom style seems an afterthought and clarity a bother.  Having said that though, it is a profound book, digging deep into the meaning of art and, surprisingly, into the meaning of art’s absence.

    Why I mention it this morning is an aha from the section I read over breakfast.  In describing psychoanalytical attitudes toward drives the author, Darian Leader, makes clear that sublimation is NOT a replacement for the act of sex, fucking as he so baldly puts it, rather it is an expression of the individuals need to fulfill the same desire as sex fulfills, that is, in Freudian terms, a return to the pleasure of direct bodily manipulation, pleasures lost as we adapt to cultural definitions of who and what we are.

    Also, and most interesting to me, for Lacan, drives are an attempt to get to the state Freud describes as pleasuring the body, but Lacan describes as The Thing, a vast emptiness that exists just outside our capacity to reach.  Therefore our drives are attempts not to fill this emptiness, but to reach it, to find it, to discover what was lost when we became creatures of culture.

    Lacan’s emphasis on emptiness as the defining state for our humanness, and as a state forever beyond our reach, yet felt and desired in every moment, struck me as a link to both existentialism on the one hand and Taoism on the other.

    In existentialism we admit the reality of this emptiness, admit it’s definition of life as meaningless, then proceed to construct our life both in spite of and because of this emptiness.

    In Taoism, we recognize the creation of the universe to have come from emptiness, the Tao, and we also recognize it as a vivifying impulse behind each moment.  It may be that Lacan’s more tortured and dark view of emptiness as The Thing exactly misses Taoism’s great point about emptiness as the very reason for a door, a cup, a vase.

    There is, too, one other important thread that I don’t find so far in the book and that the is the realm of rationalist philosophy.  In this idea we construct our reality through sensory data, but our sensory data is not reality in the same way that a map is not the territory.  This means, according to Kant, that we can never know reality, the ding an siche, the thing-in-itself.  Sounds pretty Lacanian to me.

  • Hard Battles

    Winter                                   Waning Moon of Long Nights

    “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato


    I have, over my life time, found this hard to remember, but oh so true.  Even the admired, the successful, the beautiful, the quick and the bright have their doubts, their relationship problems, their perceptions of bodily imperfections, their concern about the future.

    Just a quick survey of folks in my life right now would include the neighbor with M.S. who went off the deep end and dragged his wife and daughter with him.  Little Gabe and his parents trying to figure out hemophilia.  Frank who finds the bitter cold hard on his heart condition now has trouble with his hip.  Kate’s back is better, but her hips are worse.  One docent friend has a daughter with lung cancer.  Another Woolly and his wife care for her aging parents in their home.  My first cousin, Melissa, 40 years old with a young son, died  suddenly of a blood clot.  As Plato points out, these are not the exceptions, they are the rule.

    We are fragile creatures, beset with doubt and aware of our end.  The short span between birth and death contains tragedy, affliction and woe for everyone.

    Albert Camus, more my spiritual father than Plato, talked about us all headed toward the great river of death, the equalizer.  He believed it was our responsibility to make the journey toward death as peaceful and compassion-filled as possible, for everyone.

    In this sense Plato did not go far enough.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle that they will lose.

    Here is the wondrous thing.  Once we know the truth, our condition, and everyone’s condition, our existential predicament, we can break free from confining cultural mores, from the demands of religion or custom.  We can break free and act as the independent agents we are.  We can take arms against the sea of troubles and if not end them, then we can at least link arms with each other.

    We can choose to be  kind.  We can choose to resist evil.  We can work to heal illness.  We can enfold the dark emptiness of death and make it part of our life, a reminder and a prod to do what we can, while we can.

  • The Judgment of the Universe

    There are times when the judgment of the universe becomes inscrutable.  At best.  The complex interplay among our nature, our nurture and the actual facts muddies the whys of life.  Always.  It is no wonder that humans seek answers, we are pattern seekers, probers, wonderers, wanderers.  Yet, there may be no answers.

    I know a family, a small nuclear family.  A man, a woman, a daughter.  Since January the full weight of heaven has fallen on their home.  The man, in his fifties, a government employee, a sailor, an astronomer, a fixer.  The woman, also in her fifties, a quirky domestic with an honesty and unflinchingness that marks her as  unusual.  The daughter, bright, also quirky, a maker of angel wings.  A student of costume.  A lover of the
    Renaissance.  Finished college early with a degree in history.

    In January the man had a spell, a stroke they thought at first.  Some improvement.  Another spell.  An MRI.  Neurological.  Holes appeared.  Demylenation, a stripping away of the insulating layer of the nerve fibers.  At first, a guarded diagnosis.  After a second and third episode.  MS  Multiple Sclerosis.

    Various treatments, but none working very well.  Then, again some improvement physically.  With the realization though that work had come to an end and life as he knew had vanished over night.  The man has become sad, angry, depressed.  He hits the dog with his cane.  The dog will go to a new home this week.  He wakes up at 4 in the morning and wants to argue.  Considers suicide.  Has gone from a detail guy, a traveler and friend to an invalid and a miserable invalid.

    Then.  Continue reading  Post ID 9249

  • The Tragic Sense of Life

    51  bar falls 29.82 4mph SSE dewpoint 28 Spring

                   Waxing Gibbous Moon of  Growing

    “To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be.” – Miguel de Unamuno

    Unamuno has slipped from awareness, it seems, but this Spanish existentialist, poet and author speaks truth even when it is uneasy and unpleasant.  Here’s some brief information about him:

    Spanish philosopher. In Del sentimento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos {at Amazon.com} (The Tragic Sense of Life) (1913) {at Amazon.com}, Unamuno described human existence as torn between the irrational hope for immortality and the rational expectation of death. Since faith can never outweigh reason, Unamuno supposed, the best we can achieve is a life of authentic struggle with the human predicament.

    Recommended Reading: Miguel De Unamuno, Three Exemplary Novels, tr. by Angel Flores (Grove, 1987) {at Amazon.com}; Victor Ouimette, Reason Aflame: Unamuno and the Heroic Will (Yale, 1986) {at Amazon.com}; and Gemma Roberts, Unamuno: afinidades y coincidencias kierkegaardianas (Colorado, 1986) {at Amazon.com}.

    The house party for the Power 2 Change campaign had three attendees:  Frank Broderick, Bill Sutherland, and Ann, a former school teacher.  Jessica, a Sierra Club worker, attended to explain the campaign.  She fell into a trap the young activist often does, asking too little of her audience.  She kept referring to the things that were easy:  talk to a friend, sign the petition, read the literature, volunteer at the Sierra Club for a phone bank.  George Bush made the same disastrous mistake after 9/11.  He reassured us and asked to go shopping.  That’ll show’em.

    People want to sacrifice, to do the difficult thing.  Why?  Because when we sacrifice, or do something that stretches us, we become engaged.  We know in our gut; this is important.  If it’s not important or significant, don’t bother me with it.  If it is important, figure out a way I can take action.  Help me find others, then assist us in getting our handles on the levers of power.  That’s the way change happens. 

    As often happens to me, as I write this, especially with Unamuno dangling just above these words, the pointed finger takes on an impossible curve and aims straight at my chest.  I know in my gut that climate change and the energy issues are important, perhaps the important issues of my generation and certainly ones in which we are culpable and therefore responsible.  So, in addition to the work I need to do on other writing projects and at the MIA, I need to pick up this challenge, too, as I agreed to do last September in Iowa.  I’ve done too little and I can do more. 

    Kate’s snacks and party layout, on the other hand, were delicious and beautiful.

  • Making Room for New Work

    34  bar steady 30.10 3mph NNE dewpoint 10 Spring

                   Waning Gibbous Moon of Winds

    “Our power is in our ability to decide.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

    Since long ago college days, I have found primary life guidance from the existentalist perspective.  The existentialists believed, as do I, that we are responsible for our actions and always have a choice.  I know there are Buddhists and cognitive scientists who might differ with seeming clarity of the I in this case and, even, with the notion of free will it implies. Who knows? They may be right.  Until they convince me, (a circular notion if you think about it) I will continue to act as if I am acting.

    Kate and I had our business meeting at the IHOP nearby.  Gourmet breakfasts for seniors.  Omlettes and pancakes.  Yum.  After concluding that we’ve done well of late, except for that excess in Hawai’i, we drove to Wells Fargo Bank where I got a medallion seal on a letter to Vanguard adding Kate to my account and putting the assets of the account in our living trust.  We set up the trust last October and I’m glad we’ve both lived long enough to finish moving our assets into it.

    Ever since Monday I’ve been on a tear, getting this and that done.  Got a loan.  Got the beneficiary stuff completed.  Filed tax stuff.  Cleaned out my in-box.  Sent an e-mail to Headwaters Parish about my upcoming preaching assignment there on April 13th.  Set up the hydroponics and am into the third chapter of the large Permaculture Design book by Bill Molison.

    All this deck clearing provides, eventually, room for new work.  Perhaps a novel, certainly outdoor work later this month, more reading in Taoism and art history.  Whatever.