A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Camus’

So What?

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers on March 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Russo's new memoir

Russo’s new memoir

I heard Richard Russo comment last night that the writer of a memoir must ask himself “So what?” Russo, a Mainer, and holder of a Pulitzer for his novel Empire Falls, has a new book out, a memoir, Elsewhere. (I own the book, but haven’t picked it up just yet.) He continued by saying that simply because the writer grew up in a rural environment, escaped to elsewhere, and wrote a book about it does not make, necessarily, for an interesting book. Hence the challenge: So what? I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz‘s comment that, “Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publication.”

I walked home from Russo asking myself, So what?

Here I am, the next day, sitting at my desk, wondering still, So what? So what does it matter that I sit here day and after day and compose my thoughts and frame my questions? The question, So what? puts the kill to any good writer’s buzz, trust me. This is an honest question–and not just for the thinker in his loft on a snowy Maine afternoon. It is a question the pilgrim of any journey must ask.

Here’s what I think. I think that the very question carries its answer. By asking So what? one has engaged a degree of attention that makes the difference. It’s when we don’t ask that a soul-sucking vacuum is created. Intention verses mindlessness. I have my mother to thank for the question, What are your motivations? There is deep intention in that question and just in asking it one cannot escape the consequences. What are your motivations holds a response to So what?

The publishing writer, Russo, must ask the question So what? He is engaged in an act of commerce, as well as art. That must weigh in his motivation. Certainly, if he doesn’t ask the question his publisher or his editor will. So what?, in this instance, must be answered in a manner that includes dollars and cents. But to the self-publishing writer-blogger, to the diarist, to the lone photographer, to the home musician, to the elderly watercolorist, the laborer, the thinker, the question So what? carries a profound nuance.

Camus: "A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world."

Camus: “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”

Without the weight of commerce associated with it, the question So what? is fraught and imposing. I cannot answer the question of So what? for you. But I can suggest that in the very question you will find a kernel of an answer; that the question alone poses a threat to the mindless action, the thoughtless gesture, the perfunctory exercise of existence. To paraphrase Camus, without asking So what? a person is just a wild beast loosed upon the world.

My breakfast with Michael.

In Creativity, Mythology, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’m away from home, back in Maryland, where I used to live, and have just finished breakfast with one of my oldest and best of friends, Michael. I’ve written before about Michael, specifically our climbing life together, as well as the question he once put to me, “Is that all there is?” He is, to state it candidly, a constant source of interest. He has a keen mind that is curious to exhaustive degrees. Too, he exhibits a natural and uncanny ability to make unique and surprising observations. This from a man without  a lot book reading or higher education. He is one of those rare raw individuals that addresses life without the pretense most of us, for one reason or another, construct around our existence.

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Socrates, instigator of “the examined life.”

Upon sitting he declared that he was keenly pursuing “the examined life.” I was not aware that he was a member of “…the house…” and he smiled broadly at the declaration. An hour into our conversation he had a revelation. Our conversation had roamed widely: tribalism, religion, Stoicism, biology, creativity, evolution, Zen. We were off and running when he had a unique and creative thought.

I saw the idea unfold in front of me. “Like you,” he said, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason.” He said he found this notion, though comforting to so many, to be nothing more that a self-imposed fashion of mind-control. “I don’t believe in the mystical either,” he declared. “Yet,” he continued, “there is a place not mystical but beyond irony. I don’t have a name for it.” I put up my finger. “Wait,” I said. I thought out loud: “Beyond irony?” I was captivated by that idea, though I had no inkling of what it meant. “…but short of mysticism.” He smiled. I smiled. I asked if he could give me an example. There was a long silence, accompanied by head holding.

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Sisyphus

We had been talking about Camus’s take on the story of Sisyphus. Was it beyond irony, I asked, that Camus, the saint of the absurd was killed in a car crash after declaring that he was afraid of cars? We didn’t think so. That was just coincidence too close to simple irony. Perhaps it was like a Zen koan, I suggested: a thing that cannot be explained with the rational mind, but yet can be known intuitively? We agreed that that was closer. And so the conversation continued without resolution. We parted ways with Michael promising to come up with an example.

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In search of the land north of irony, south of mysticism.

An example–what is beyond irony but short of mystical?– would be nice and I will be thinking toward one as well. But more I like the notion that the thing is ineffable–which is not to be mistaken with the mystical. Although I want to explore this territory beyond the land of irony that stops at the foothills of mysticism, I was more energized by the process of our discussion than the construction of a new idea.

We began our conversation bemoaning the atrophy of creativity in our lives, then launched into one of the most creative of dialogues, resulting in a thing or two worth pondering. The point is, at least as it settled on me, that the things we value–in this instance creativity–do not exist without our effort to sustain them. To sit and moan over a loss that can be, indeed was, reversed–is that not perhaps a thing “beyond irony?”

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-“Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

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The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

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Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

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So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D

Enter Stage Left.

In Creativity, Family, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writing on September 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Scene: Bruns kitchen, about 6:45pm. Pandora station streaming (Mumford and Sons in the background).

Characters: Doug and Carole

Action: Doug prepping dinner, sipping a cocktail. Carole in a chair reading.

____________

Doug: “I’m feeling a particular depth of emptiness.”

Carole (incredulously): “Depth of emptiness?”

D: “Yeah. You know, the ennui of modern existence and all that…”

C: “Did you just use the word ennui?”

D: “Yes. It means boredom.”

C: “I know what it means. I just can’t believe you used it. Nobody uses that word.”

D: “Fine.”

C: “But I know what you mean, I think.”

D: “Pound referred to the ‘domination of modern life.'”

C: “First you use ennui, then you quote Pound. I can’t believe you quoted Pound.”

D: “I’m a cliché. What can I say? Anyway, I think moderns have a tough time of it. Maybe the species was always troubled this way, but it’s more acute in modern existence, I think.”

C: “And your thesis, professor? Why do you think it’s more acute?”

D: “For two millennium the species had distractions. There were predator beasts to escape. Food to find. Weather to survive. Tribal warfare–all that stuff. For a lot of us, at least those of us in the rich Western countries, those things are no longer factors. Lack of distraction equals too much time facing the void.”

C: “How much have you had to drink?”

D: “No really. It’s the plague of modernity.”

C: “And what do we do about it?”

D: “We have to create a way out of the wilderness.”

C: “Too dramatic.”

D: “Yeah, I get that way, you know. But, really, Camus said we have to create meaning. No one’s gonna hand it to you.”

C: “Lots of people try.”

D: “Indeed. But we’re independent thinkers.”

C: “Maybe we’re just cynical.”

D: “That too. I embrace the cynical, gateway to fresh horizons…”

C: “Okay, you’re officially cutoff.”

D: “Fine. Dinner in ten.”

Philosophy and a cast-iron skillet

In Curiosity, Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 6:00 am
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Breakfast

We have been toting around Carole’s grandmother’s cast-iron skillet, unused, for over thirty years. A few weeks ago, inexplicably, I took it on a camping trip to New Brunswick. I liked cooking on it over the fire. Once home, I cleaned it up and put it on the stove. Then I did a little research.

It is stamped a Wagner Ware skillet. Amazingly, the Wagner company, started in 1865, is still in business. My wife’s people come from Oklahoma. They were homesteaders. We don’t know the history of this skillet, but I picture it strapped to the side of a canvas-covered wagon toiling its way across the sunsetting American plains. And now it rests on my cook-top range. The history of my imagination.

I’ve done a bit of research and the argument for cooking with cast-iron is convincing. The heat radiates evenly, there are no non-stick chemicals that fleck off, the food tastes better, and one gets a wee bit of iron added to one’s diet. You don’t even need soap to clean it. But that’s not what interests me, really.

As readers here, you know of my mission to build meaning into existence, brick by brick, atom by atom. As I’ve confessed, I subscribe to Camus’s observation that life is absurd and meaning is not something inherent in our existence. We are left to create it. Hence the skillet.

When I cook with this skillet I am linked to a fragile thread that stretches over my shoulder and disappears into a murky history. What hands that have worked this utensil? What foods have simmered here? Mystery is satisfying in its emptiness–an emptiness you can heave yourself into.

There is significance in tradition, and meaning might well reside there. Modern existence is so very bereft of tradition. There is no tradition to a silicon chip, to an e-book, to a digital image. Apprenticeship is dead. Are we not daily, purposefully, yet unwittingly, severing ourselves from that which has delivered us to this very place, rendering us orphans in the process? Is that not a method of madness, severing the tenuous link tethering us to the fog from which we arose, where the heart beats?

I grow dramatic. Sorry. We are, after-all, talking about a skillet.

Yet, you must understand me, yes?

I resist the pull forward and peer back at that which is disappearing…that which fades into the void…and attempt to find a handhold.

Coffee or Tea?

In Books, Happiness, Life, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on April 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

I need to shake things up. I am contemplating a switch from morning coffee to tea. Don’t laugh. This might not seem significant, but trust me, it has subtle philosophical implications.

I have a deeply nurtured routine. Until now it was not subject to alteration. Upon getting up I light a fire under the tea-pot to boil water. I take the espresso beans I ground the previous evening and pour them into the french press. When the water boils it goes into the press. I set the timer for four minutes, and so forth. Making coffee to my taste is a skill I have developed and I believe that to have a skill, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, is to know what counts as meaning in a certain domain.

William James observed that the individual “who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention…will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him.” It’s in that concentrated attention I find the occasional burst of meaning. Mindfully making coffee is the way I begin that daily practice. The rutted path leads to the comfort of the barn. I shy from the word spiritual. Making coffee is as close as I get.

There is a tradition that tea plants grew from the eye lashes of the Buddha. Siddhartha, in an effort to stay awake while meditating, plucked his eye lashes. As they fell to the ground, plants blossomed and from the leaves of those plants tea was discovered. It is no coincidence that the tea ceremony is at the heart of the zen tradition, where focus is centered upon the paying of attention.

I was raised with the idea that life has intrinsic meaning; however, I abandoned that notion as a young man. I drifted in the direction of Camus, where meaning is a thing to be developed, not discovered–an idea I still embrace. To that end, I experience glimpses of meaningfulness in simple life activities. Last summer I read a book that shed light on my coffee routine specifically.

The book is All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (I mentioned this book in a post earlier this year, My Window.) It’s written by two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (The subtitle to their blog is: Luring back the gods.) There is one idea Kelly and Dreyfus explore that pertains to my meanderings here: making coffee. Imagine my surprise to discover this sentence, “…the coffee-drinking routine that recognizes no distinctions of worth is a routine in which the coffee drinker becomes exchangeable: assimilable to all of the millions of others who are sleepwalking through the same generic routine.”

My daily challenge is to resist the condition of becoming exchangeable, to avoid slipping into the sleepwalking state. I do not wish to live generically and have built habits and cultivated stimulus to mitigate this. Making morning coffee is one such example. But now my instincts are to step it up and challenge even that routine.

And that is why switching from coffee to tea is such a big deal.

Thanks for reading.