I can't write a Philosophy Weekend blog post this weekend. I've been working too hard on some tech changes to the site that will finally launch on Tuesday or Wednesday ... and I'm also too broken up about the final show of the final season of my favorite TV show, "The Office".
So, instead of a thoughtful existential blog post, here's one of my old favorite scenes from that show, the Nobody But Me lib dub that opened season 7.
The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.
What do you buy a morose Danish philosopher who invented Existentialism for his 200th birthday?
It doesn't really matter anymore, since Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is dead. He died at the young age of 42, already at this time a mostly broken man, an obsessive writer, a lonely bachelor, and a frequent subject of popular ridicule. Like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (with all of whom he shares some sensibility), he died at a low point of literary success, without much reason to expect that later generations would rediscover his work and call him a genius.
But I believe Soren Kierkegaard died a happy man, because he was that rare philosopher who found answers to the hardest questions he asked, answers that satisfied him completely. The questions were of religion, and of how to live a good life, and his answer involved the "leap of faith" or "leap to faith" (a phrase he invented). Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian, but he defied the philosophical norms of his age by expressly refusing to try to justify his belief with reason or logic. The power of religious faith, he pronounced, was in believing without reason or logic.
His belief in Christianity made him a great religious writer. What made him a great Existential writer was the implicit principle that underlies his argument for religious faith: the principle that we human beings regularly think, live and make decisions without reason or logic.
This was as much a "eureka" moment for Western philosophy as Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum two centuries before. Though Kierkegaard had to struggle to explain his ideas to his bewildered Danish and European intellectual peers during his life, his idea of religion as a leap to faith would spring incredible gardens of original modernist thought: inheritors of Kierkegaard include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Paul Tillich, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre and many more.
I don't have much of a Philosophy Weekend post for you this weekend. I'm working on some technical improvements to the website, and I'm also pondering some big themes for the next few weekends. But all I've got to show you today is a clip from a 1993 movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein that I only discovered myself recently.
The always fascinating Derek Jarman lays out the philosopher's story in fairly straight fashion, with Chancy Classay playing the role of the groundbreaking philosopher. I particularly like the part of this clip in which Wittgenstein explains to an impudent student that he really can't absolutely know for sure whether or not he just slapped his own face. If he could know for sure, then the word "know" would not need to exist. I'm not as completely convinced by Wittgenstein's famous statement, also played out in this scene, that "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him". (But then, I've always had an affinity for cats, and I sometimes think I understand them better than I understand humans. Maybe Wittgenstein was a dog person.)
(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
There have been big headlines this week about an Internet phenomenon called Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an open source peer-to-peer virtual money system, unsupported by any government or bank or underground vault stacked with gold bars. It works on the basis of simplicity and transparency, and is backed only by the fact of its own existence. The surprising news about Bitcoin is that people are using it and it works: the peer-to-peer system manages to provide complete transactions without any of the presumed requirements for a currency platform.
Bitcoin is an experiment, obviously, in applied economics, created by ambitious techies. The existence of an extra-governmental open source currency system suggests a new way to define our relationship with governments. In this sense, it's an extraordinarily exciting idea, and certainly an idea with a big future. Does the open communication of the Internet age offer us a new capability to rethink the role, shape and substance of money in our lives?
This is an appealing idea for an age in which economics often seems like an evil science, rife with hidden hazards, drenched in corruption, besotted by noisy and near-hysterical political debate. The clean simplicity of an alternative digital currency system seems to present the eventual possibility of a global financial system reboot. The idea should catch the attention of both conservative libertarians concerned with the power of central government and progressive liberals concerned with economic justice and corporate/Wall Street corruption -- and to anybody, really, who isn't happy with the questionable economic systems and practices (remember 2008, anyone?) that still define the status quo today.
The media coverage of Bitcoin, unfortunately, has been inane. As Bitcoin experiences its first blush of fame -- it is expanding greatly as we speak -- it is being confronted by a gigantic barrage of negative media coverage, based mainly on the fact that a few people seem to have made instant profits by trading on Bitcoin, while others have lost their investment or may lose it soon, and by the ridiculous fact that the Winkelvii are involved. As if any of this mattered.
By evaluating Bitcoin as a get-rich-quick scheme (which it was never meant to be), the media can dismiss the experiment with a laugh and avoid the responsibility to take it seriously. (This is a familiar pattern in the tech field, since this was how major media outlets treated the entire Internet/World Wide Web communications revolution during the first dot-com era: they hyped it as a get-rich-quick scheme, then damned it when it failed to deliver on those terms.)
I am ignoring the inane media coverage and following Bitcoin with great interest, because I have long wished for more public experimentation with alternative economic systems. Why is there so little public awareness of the possibility of alternative economics? We live in an era of (hopefully) positive change, but our culture freaks out at the very thought of changing the basic principles of our economic structure. Hell, we're suddenly managing to accept gay marriage, which is great -- and yet the topic of alternative economics is still absolutely taboo. Our thinking about money is stuck in the dark ages.
Religious faith is not something one can rationalize, or shove into a semantic corner, or elaborate in words. It's about the mystery of existence, our place in the cosmos, the nature of life, the inevitability of physical death. Are there any subjects more all-consuming than these? Even atheists ponder these subjects with, yes, near-religious fervor. Much of this seems like common sense, but common sense often balks when it encounters the first inklings of religious zealotry. Even people who consider themselves religious (whatever exactly that means) turn into eye-rolling cynics when evident "wackos" of different faiths appear, and those who regularly blame religion for humanity’s myriad ills are always ready with the I-told-you-so’s.
This is the sort of throat-clearing one needs to do when talking about, say, Scientology. Two new books shed some light into the dark corners where this church, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950, resides.
(Actually, 1950 was the year Hubbard’s groundbreaking book Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health (English) was published; the Church of Scientology was officially opened for business in 1952).
One book is a firsthand tell-all expose of the excesses of the organization by a former insider. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige-Hill. What gives this book a little more oomph than previous exposes of Scientology—and there are countless testimonials to corroborate the revelations herein floating around the Internet, too many, in fact, for even Scientology to snuff out—is that the author is the niece of the current head of the church, David Miscavige. This church leader is, by most accounts, an unaccountable tyrant who tolerates no dissension in the ranks. In short, he is like the head of all religious organizations, from Mullah Omar and the Ayatollah to the Pope and Jim Jones and Sri Rajneesh. Cross them at your peril.
(A few weeks ago, guest blogger Tim Hawken wrote about Immanuel Kant's aesthetic theory. Here's his second Philosophy Weekend piece, on a related subject. Hawken lives in Australia and is the author of 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'.)
You arrive at a contemporary art show with a friend. Excited about the new and interesting things you’ll see, you hurry toward the entry. Out in front there's a stunning installation. It’s a car with pummelled-in sides. Red and white paint is flaking off the doors to reveal rusted panels underneath. The bonnet, however, is flawless blue. The sheen of the paint almost glows with newness. Standing, admiring the work, you say to your friend that perhaps it’s a commentary on America’s motor industry: embattled, but still turning out quality work. The featured artist for the evening emerges from the front door. You’re about to praise his vision, when he smiles sheepishly, indicating the car, “perhaps if I sell some pieces tonight, I’ll be able to fix it up a bit more. It’s still just a heap of junk right now. I’d better get it out of the way before anyone else arrives.” Taking his keys out of his pocket, he jumps in, struggles to start it and rumbles off to the car park.
Embarrassed, you look down to your feet. So, that wasn’t art? Just a few moments ago you were sure it was brilliant. Does it stop being art now that the ‘artist’ called it junk? Or is it still art because you made it so in your mind? Your friend shakes her head at you and walks inside. The question you want to yell after her chokes on your tongue: What makes art, ‘art’ anyway?
I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing: