Thursday, February 14, 2008

Existential Interlude

There are so many things we might do, except that life just keeps on interrupting them.  The old proverb often on my mother's lips when she was "compos mentis" viz., "man proposes and God disposes" comes to mind.  I remember many years ago when I first went to college and had started to read philosophy at the tender age of 18 - a lot of it was lost on me, though in hindsight I'm all the richer for all the books I read on the subject - that some wag had written on the toilet wall the following piece of hackneyed graffiti: "God is dead! - Nietzsche... Nietzsche is dead! - God."; Or again a old story told by one of our then professors that went along the lines: "One day a famous Professor of Philosophy who had written many erudite and profound books and articles on many diverse topics was due to give a lecture on the topic of death.  However, a porter came in right before the lecture with the news that Professor X was dead."  The point of this wee story for the lecturer in question was just that - life just has a habit of interrupting us in our deliberations and in our fancied self-importance. (For me death is part of life - seamlessly interwoven with it, so I include death by implication when I say that life keeps on interrupting us in our pursuits.) I did advert to this fact in my last post that one of the essential faults of humankind and of the cultures we have created is the fact that we probably do overestimate our own importance in the scheme of things.  A philosophical question worth asking surely is:  Are we really that important at all?  Are our ideas that important either?  I shan't offer any answers because I have always believed that good questions are more important than simple or trite answers.

One of the things I constantly refer to in these posts is the celerity at which life seems to be passing me by.  The years are accumulating inexorably.  At my Uncle Ted's funeral recently - Ted was one of my mother's younger brothers who died there just in the New Year at the age of 72 - I found myself saying in my mind about a first cousin, who is about 2 years younger than I, something like: "Wow, Brenda looks so old - She's practically an old woman!"  I knew instinctively that she was saying in her mind: "Wow, Tim looks so old - He's practically an old man!"  Apologies, Brenda if you're reading this, but I think you'll understand the existential point rather than the baldness of a seemingly impolite thought - (Can thoughts be impolite? Feelings or thoughts are neither good or bad.  Actions and behaviours definitely are!)  Anyway, such is our existential state in the world that we seem to notice the decline in others before we realise the all too apparent (to others) diminution in the powers of own bodies.  Yes, we do need reminding, don't we?  If we don't remind ourselves often of these blunt facts (by meditation or other spiritual or psychotherapeutic helps) then life bloody well will anyway!  The stuff in brackets, while it won't solve our problems, will definitely lessen their impact! Also let's not get blown away by our own perceived importance and our own biased hubris.  That's why I really love the comment by Stephen Hawking that I have quoted many times in these posts.  It does bear repeating here and I'll block-quote it for emphasis:

"One has to be grown up enough to realise that life is not fair.  You just have to do the best you can in the situation you are in."  Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science (White and Gribben, Viking 1992, 293)

This is a wonderfully simple philosophy which is almost Buddhist in its psychological implications.  I keep returning to this harsh teaching when I feel any wee sense of cloying self-pity(that horribly nonsensical, irrational and most wasteful of feelings), call it "tough love" if you will, for its simplicity and profundity at one and the same time, and above all for its utter practicality.

Anyway, continuing my Camus-like existential theme, there I was today in TCD going to an appointment with a lecturer in the Department of Mental and Moral Sciences (i.e., The Philosophy Department) and I happened to bump into several people whom I have known over the years.  This is what ran through my head on meeting one of these old friends:  "My God you are so old and really bad on the pegs.  You can just about shuffle along!"  Needless to say, I did not appraise him of my secret thoughts.  Then another friend whom I met seemed as if he had just crawled out of bed and looked decidedly more decrepit than the last time I had the privilege of meeting him.  However, they both greeted me cheerily and cheerfully.  I then met a woman I had known quite well.  She's still attractive.  I won't write here the thoughts that were going through my head.  I'll leave those to your imagination.

Anyway, I have called this post an "existential interlude" and with reason.  I read a whole chapter on Camus in Hodges Figgis before going to my appointment in TCD.  That's me and bookshops.  I often read whole chapters.  I hasten to add that this is no cheap read phenomenon as I almost always leave at least 100 € in this bookshop every time I go there as I did today.  Books are my addiction.  Anyway two of my early reads in philosophy were books by Albert Camus, namely, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Outsider.  The last one mentioned here was the one to really get under my skin.  Then, like my mates in Mater Dei, I loved the fact that Albert Camus had been a working journalist who had played in goal for the Algerian soccer team.  Albert was the real thing for us in our late teens.   Anyway The Outsider has always stuck in my mind, haunting me almost.  I remember thinking at the time "how can this man be so harsh on his relatives, on his mother for God's sake, so harsh on himself even?"  I had been schooled by the Irish Christian Brothers who had taught us "right and proper" courtesy and "right and proper" behaviour.  We were coming from a structured world which formed us as unquestioning young men.  At college, in Philosophy and English Lit., we were greeted with a mind-blowing array of different ideas which we had never dreamed of at school.  However, over the years I had gradually come to see what our man Camus was at.  He had managed at an early age to be far more objective an observer of life than I.  In short Camus told it as it was, as it is, or as he saw it!  Camus seemed to me to have pared away all the "fluff", all the "fog", all the "cream", all the "icing" from off the "cake" of life if I may use a rather over-stated and inelegant metaphor.

I have always been haunted by the opening pages of this wonderfully well-told tale of modern mythic power and simplicity. I can still see the author in my mind's eye observing his mother's funeral cortege.  Then he sees an old man hobbling along behind her coffin, her lover he tells us, decrepit like my old friend today.  I think of T.S. Eliot's wonderful, if bleak lines from his wonderful poem "The Hollow Men" and they reflect Eliot's interpretation of Western culture after World War I.

The final stanza of this poem may well be the most often quoted of all of Eliot's poetry:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Other bleak lines from this wonderful modernist poet (a Nobel Laureate like our friend Camus) are from his equally magisterial "The Wasteland" poem which go: "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many."  In a way these are feelings that the young Camus expresses in his graphically written and potent wee book The Outsider (1942, in other words this was the work of a young man only 29 years of age.)  I have got out my old copy of this book which has been stored away in my attic.  I have always had the inelegant and rather boorish habit of annotating texts as I read them - a habit attributable to Bart Doyle, M.A., R.I.P., who taught me in the early seventies in O'Connell Schools.  Anyway the following are some quotes from this book:

How about this for a powerful opening sentence?

" Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure."


Or again from later in the book, try this for measure:

" Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter."

Then we have his quarrel with the priest which is worth quoting at some length:

" It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I'd lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind levelled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn't he see, couldn't he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too."


Later again, near the end of the book, we read:

"Gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe."

One can hear many undertones of Nietzsche in much of the above quotations.  I read somewhere in this latter philosopher's work a sentiment along the following lines that the universe is completely indifferent to our moods. I remember saying to myself - how true Ruskin was in his definition of "pathetic fallacy" in arguing only  for the  "seeming" rather than "real" human  characteristics of the elements of nature.  After all he did see it as a fallacy in so far as man was only projecting his feelings unto nature and that nature in no way shared them.  Of course, those of a Romantic or Wordsworthian predilection would not agree with these thoughts here.  They would feel that nature communicates something to them either by pantheism or panentheism.

Anyway, Camus has been my spiritual guide today.  He seems to be the gadfly I need to wake me from my more dogmatic slumber.  He was my Hume to my Kant so to speak.  We do need to wake up, to come alive, to stop living like the walking dead that many modernist and even post-modernist writers write of today.  It is so important to question old certainties, to shake the tree of tradition, as it were, so that all those riper and even rotten apples will fall to the ground.

When I left TCD I brought my bag of books with me (from Hodges Figgis) and read from one or two on the way back to Howth where I had my car parked.  In the harbour I spotted the hulk of an old rust bucket of a ship which was undergoing some very necessary repairs to allow it some last few years  respite before resting in the breaker's yard or in a more watery grave elsewhere.  It became a suitable metaphor for the way I'm feeling and for the break I need from teaching before I do have to, as the Bard of Avon was wont to say, "shuffle off this mortal coil."  Like my friends above I do hope I won't be shuffling or "shuffling off" too soon.

Above I have uploaded the rust bucket of a boat, a fitting metaphor for my soul, which I took with my phone at Howth today.

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