Archive for the ‘existential’ Category


Booklog: I and Thou

September 10, 2007

I and Thou
Martin Buber
Read: 8.17.07
Rating: Good

This being my third attempt at I and Thou, I decided for a reason (hence lost to me) to begin without reading the Prologue. I don’t have a rule about reading introductions or prologues, typically just acting on whim, so this isn’t unusual. The Prologue to I and Thou is atypical, however, in that it has a title of it’s own, “I and You,” and is written by the translator (Walter Kauffman) in a style similar to the text itself. It begins: “Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold” — a response to Buber’s opening sentence: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.” This beginning led me to believe that the Prologue was a work unto itself, one that was more a response to or continuation of Buber’s text — so I ignored it and dove right in.

Had I read the Prologue, this following translator’s note, which Kauffman placed on page 164, a mere four pages from the book’s conclusion, would not have struck me as a revelation:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their whole attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disbelieving it.

An odd translator’s note, this. I imagine that Kauffman must have been tempted to unleash it much earlier in the text, but managed to hold off until he nearly reached its conclusion. Had I read the Prologue, in which Kauffman deals at length with the difficulty of the book’s language and the near impossibility of discerning what numerous passages mean, I would have been spared the trouble. It was liberating to discover, on page 164, and subsequently in the Prologue, that the translator thought of the book in much the same way I did: that the obscurity of I and Thou‘s language is tantalizingly difficult, almost excitingly obtuse, but all too often simply impossible.

One of the easiest things to grasp is the basic outline of the book’s vocabulary: the “twofold” world mentioned in the first sentence. Buber splits the world into two different “word pairs”: I-It and I-You. I-It is the world of experience, objects, content and information (“O piling up of information! It, it it!”). I-You is the world of relation, and it is described in mystical terms: unquantifiable, it approaches but cannot be approached, it arrives but cannot be sought, etc. I-it is anchored in the past, I-You is always present. Buber’s split is not the separation of the world into “matter” and “ideas” or something similarly Platonic; both of these would fall into the It world. The world of “I-You” is not transcendent in terms of location, but it is similarly separate from everyday experience. It is certainly supernatural — it is important to keep in mind that Buber is a religious mystic, and the state (relationship) that he attempts to describe is one that lacks content. Here is a typically beautiful passage:

There are moments of the secret ground in which world order is beheld as present. The the tone is heard all of a sudden whose uninterpretable score the ordered world is. These moments are immortal; none are more evanescent. They leave no content that could be preserved, but their force enters into the creation and into man’s knowledge, and the radiation of its force penetrates to ordered world and thaws it again and again. Thus the history of the individual, thus the history of the race.

These ideas (the mystical ones), as expressed by Buber, are very appealing from the perspective of the creative process and the creation of art. Buber describes art as a process in which “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him,” a process of actualization of an eternal form that confronts the artist. This is a familiar description, one that I’ve always liked, and one that was all over Gaddis’s The Recognitions, so I was excited by the possibility that Buber was really onto something. Unfortunately, as I read on I didn’t see how much he was actually contributing to this idea with his framework. For many people, fitting a theory about the creative process into one about religious experience is very important; for me it’s the other way around, so Buber wasn’t quite the fit I was initially hoping for.

My favorite part of Buber’s twofold paradigm is how it speaks to the individual’s existence in the world, and his relations to other individuals. Where Buber strays into the territory we typically associate with existential philosophy, he’s brilliant. Buber believes that relations to other people can be, and on a level always are, I-You relationships, because there is something eternal and unquantifiable about each member of the encounter. He sets the act of love against mere experience and utility. This is my favorite passage in the text:

Feelings one “has”; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or its object; it is between I and You. Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses. Love is a cosmic force. For those who stand in it and behold in it, men emerge from their entanglement in busy-ness; and the good and the evil, the clever and the foolish, the beautiful and the ugly, one after another become actual and a You for them; that is, liberated emerging into a unique confrontation.

For similar reasons, the book’s Second Part is the best of the three, for it concerns the question of the individual and his relationship with the world. Buber eloquently regulates and demotes the typical “saviors” of man, especially the societal and governmental, to the It-world. Experience, the piling up of information, hardly helps, for it takes a man farther from the world of relation. There are no solutions in this section, just the tearing down of worldly idols. Here is Buber’s conclusion: “Thus feels man in the hours when he collects himself: overcome by horror, pondering, without direction” — a classic case of alienation.

What will help is relation to the “eternal You,” that is, God — “the supreme encounter” of mystical experience. Buber makes his intentions clear early in the Third Part (the God Part). He does not believe that it is possible to say what is needed, at least not by way of prescription. Rather, things need to be given up: self-affirmation, the love of things, all that is particular. What I like best about Buber’s mysticism is that it is decidedly not an escape; it is not even a search: “in truth, there is no God-seeking because there is nothing where one could not find him.” There is only longing and encounter. No flight from the world is necessary. This is a fine line for Buber to walk, considering his It-You dichotomy, but I believe he pulls it off, and I think this is pretty impressive.

If and when an encounter with the eternal You does occur, it involves “the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. It is guaranteed. Nothing, nothing can henceforth be meaningless. The question about the meaning of life has vanished.” No content is conveyed, so it cannot be expressed or even experienced, but no definition is necessary. The meaning here is not otherworldly, “but that that of this our life, not that of ‘beyond’ but of this our world.” The end result of such an experience is only manifest in actions:

We cannot go to others with what we have received, saying: This is what needs to be known, this is what needs to be done. We can only go and put to the proof in action. And even this is not what we “ought to” do: rather we can — we cannot do otherwise.

This is where understanding runs into a wall, probably the very one Buber describes. For much of the book’s Third Part, Buber is explaining what it is like to have a religious experience, something that he clearly is familiar with. He insists that there is no prescription, that the relation has no content, but this is the very problem with attempting to describe ones own mystical encounters. Buber uses some wildly creative and beautiful language in his attempt to do so, but I eventually return to:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their whole attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disbelieving it.

This brings me back to the question of art, specifically writing, for what Buber is attempting to do is bring the form of his encounter into words. It’s not as abstract as a novel or a sculpture, but the basic attempt is the same. How does one form an experience, one that lacks content, into a string of words so that the meaning (content?) is conveyed to the reader?

Two novels I’ve read recently tackle this problem directly. Gaddis, in The Recognitions, treats what Buber would call the “world of I-It” with ruthless disdain, using satire and bitterness to destroy the reader’s faith in things he would typically turn to for meaning. The book’s protagonist, Wyatt, calls for an entirely new way of thinking and talking about what is good and true, and attempts to capture it in his paintings. Also, the “recognitions” that populate the book are extremely similar to the description Buber gives of art. On a different level, Virginia Woolf, who I believe is, like Buber, concerned with mystical experience that takes place firmly in the world and not out of it, searches for unity in Jacob’s Room. If man is to achieve unity, despite the alarming number of particulars that occupy his existence, it will only be through attention to detail and impression, truly occupying the present, and putting into words the fleeting moments of almost mystical unity that are more than just experience, but something much greater and more fulfilling.

I love Buber’s attempt. I don’t find it wholly successful, partly because I am disinclined towards religion, but mostly because his writing, though it is occasionally beautiful, is too often impenetrable. Problematically, when it is penetrable, it frequently disintegrates into platitudes. Buber has more than his share of brilliant flashes, but I don’t think their brilliance is sustainable.


Booklog: The Catcher in the Rye

June 20, 2007

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
Read: 6.17.07
Rating: Excellent

This is the fifth or sixth summer in a row that I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, and that’s in addition to my canonical reading in high-school, so by now it feels a lot like meeting up with a friend I only see once a year: I notice how I’ve changed since the last encounter, and even how the text itself reads differently each time. Many of you likely read this book as a teenager or student, and found yourself identifying with Holden Caulfield in a way that was both exciting and a little frightening. As a result of so many people having this experience, the text has acquired a connotation that I really don’t think it deserves, that of being synonymous with “teenage angst” or some other such foolishness. Those who come to it with a more critical eye tend to realize that Holden, in addition to being a uncertain teenager, is mentally unstable and clearly suffering from heavy depression (don’t forget that he clearly mentions that he is writing from a sanatorium at both the very beginning and very end of the book — something that is easy to forget as he tells his actual story); this reading, The Catcher in the Rye as a chronicle of depression, is, I believe, equally dismissive and unhelpful.

A good exercise when reading The Catcher in the Rye is to distinguish between the things Holden says and does that display signs of depression and those where he is simply unable to cope with someone or something being phony and unbearable. In the latter case, Holden is deconstructing social norms and exposing them for the exercises in affectedness they really are. For example, having to say “Glad to have met you” to someone you’re not at all glad to have met. Most of us are able to do and say things that we know to be phony without any trouble: either because we’re not thinking about it, or because we know that “that’s just what you do.” Any of you who were even mildly rebellious teenagers know that once you start fully understanding why adults act the way they do, it’s hard not to get really upset about it and want to forge into a new way of being.

Further, it’s helpful to think of Holden’s struggles with “phonies” as an example of the trouble we all have — young people especially — of dealing with the problem of “other people.” How do we know what others are thinking? Are the really saying what they mean? Usually, it’s best not to overanalyze, but once you start thinking about motivations and the masquerades that hide them, it’s not hard to cast every action and word into a cynical light. Then there is the problem of trying not to do or say anything phony yourself — and the confusion that results when you do — as you learn how to see yourself in the eyes of another, combined with the rather low opinion of yourself that results, and you have a hell of muddle. No wonder Holden is depressed.

Many of things about himself and the world that Holden does not understand could be easily dismissed by a detached, analytic viewer (not that this would help him feel any better). To take a simple example: it’s not mystery why he necks with girls he considers “terrific phonies,” even after promising himself he won’t do it again — he’s a teenage boy. More meaningfully, his attachment to his sister Phoebe and his life-dream of being “the catcher in the rye” who saves kids from falling off a cliff, is clearly a psychological result of his younger brother Allie dying not too long ago (Holden himself almost seems to recognize this). It wouldn’t be hard to view the entire novel through this lens: Holden is overly attached to childhood and its innocence, and can’t get along in the adult world until he achieves some sort of “closure” about his brother’s death. Fair enough, but this reductionist view — and others similar to it — is not very edifying, and it certainly doesn’t begin to explain why the novel is so incredibly good.

For, as you read, you can’t help but agree with Holden and his observations: surely boys at pep schools are really mean, headmasters do favor rich parents over poor ones, and the way people act when going to see highly-regarded theater is completely absurd. You and I know this, but we don’t take it as hard as Holden, because he’s depressed. Holden’s unreliability and lovability as a narrator are inseparable. Sure, he’s deeply depressed, but he’s also deeply perceptive, and right about the world more often that not. The trouble, obviously, is his reaction to it.

At the end of the book, Holden receives a lecture from his old teacher, Mr. Antolini, in which he encourages Holden to go back to school and become a scholar:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused or frightened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, many of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

Indeed. Mr. Antolini’s words may seem a little trite, but they’re probably just the right thing for Holden’s teenage ears. Neither deep depression nor the certainty that everyone is a ruthless phony is a new idea; the truth, as Holden is right on the verge of knowing, is much more complicated, and irreducible. It’s a lesson we could stand to learn, too.


Storylog: “Investigations of a Dog”

February 23, 2007

Story: “Investigations of a Dog”
Franz Kafka
In Selected Short Stories of Frank Kafka
Rating: Excellent

Dorothy’s post on Sebald linked to an interview with the author, in which he had some exciting things to say about Franz Kafka’s story story “Investigations of a Dog.” For some reason, I became exceedingly enthused about reading this story, rushing down to the basement to find my old (1952) Muir translation of Kafka’s stories — I sat down to read it mere minutes later. It did not disappoint.

Sebald’s description of the story is as follows:

So metaphysics, I think, shows a legitimate concern. And writers like Kafka, for instance, are interested in metaphysics. If you read a story like “Investigations of a Dog,” it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn’t grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn’t know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we. So it’s quite legitimate to ask—and, of course, it can become a kind of parlor game—as these philosophers said, “Are we sure that we’re really sitting here now?”

“Investigations of a Dog” is a tale of understanding and its limits, with a extraordinary existential slant. The scope of the dog’s investigations are, in context, massive: he wants to know where food comes from, cutting against the accepted indifference of his compatriots. His unending desire to question and investigate puts him at odds with the other dogs, who are seemingly content in their unexamined existence. This forces the dog into the position of outsider, so familiar in Kafka’s writings:

Why do I not do as the others: live in harmony with my people and accept in silence whatever disturbs the the harmony, ignoring it as a small error in the great account, always keeping in mind the things that bind us happily together, not those that drive us again and again, as though by sheer force, out of our social circle?

The questions Kafka’s dog asks are disruptive and unwelcome: he wants nothing more than to suck at the very marrow of life. The dog is the clearest expression I have yet encountered of Kafka’s ability to rip the world and our accepted interpretation of it to shreds. Kafka upsets the order and the falsehoods of life, assailing the traditionally praised accomplishments of culture. As Kafka show us, historical progress, for all its achievements, rarely help us in the living of our actual lives; truths communicated to us through history help society progress, but they do not communicate meaning to the existing individual who needs a meaning for his life.

True, knowledge provides the rules one must follow, but even to grasp them imperfectly and in rough outline is by no means easy, and when one has actually grasped them the real difficulty still remains, namely, to apply them to local conditions — here almost nobody can help, almost every hour brings new tasks, and every new patch of earth its specific problems; no one can maintain that he has settled everything for good and that henceforth his life will go on, so to speak, of itself, not even I myself, though my needs shrink literally from day to day.

“Investigations of a Dog” is, most specifically, an exploration of the gaps that exist between knowledge and application — it is one thing to “know” a truth and quite another to infuse your life with that truth. The dog’s quest for a truth that will settle his distress and his questioning is an impossible one. He wants to “escape from this world of falsehood,” but has no means by which to do this. All he can do is search for more knowledge, looking for a truth or an event that will apply to his “local conditions,” namely the life that he lives from day to day.

Kafka’s short story is a magnificent dive into the deepest questions and problems of examined existence. Its distinctive style is not quite an allegory, which is perfect for this story’s mix of penetrating explorations and existential yearning.

Here are there we catch a curiously significant phrase and we would
almost like to leap to our feet, if we did not feel the weight of
centuries upon us.


Booklog: Sartor Resartus

February 20, 2007

Sartor Resartus
Thomas Carlyle
Read: 2.20.07
Rating: Good

While reading the TLS recently, I was very amused by one reviewer’s critique of a book of popular philosophy, in which the book’s author was accused of “chewing off more than he can bite.” This succinctly sums up how I feel about Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. I began reading it with great expectations, and continued reading with some patience despite my curtailing interest, held off by some excellent passages and chapters. However, once I reached a certain point I realized this book wasn’t going to be what I wanted it to be, and no longer felt like it was worth the effort I had to invest to understand its meaning and purpose — a meaning that was simultaneously twisted and repetitive. It took me two weeks to read the last ten pages.

This being said, Sartor Resartius is inspiring at intervals, and certainly humorous. Carlyle’s goal is to poke fun at, overcome, and offer an alternative to what he considers the excessively materialistic and mechanistic spirit of his age. Carlyle is writing at a newly post-Christian point in intellectual history, and his hope is that man’s old religious longings will be filtered into a newfound wonder at the joys of life, as opposed to utilitarian “motive-grinding.”

Sound’s great, right? That’s what I thought.

However, Carlyle’s method is overly ornate, especially to those reading this text 175 years later. The conceit of the book is this: the narrator, an Englishman, is presenting to the English public the contents of a collection of notebooks composed by a German professor, Teufelsdrock, who has developed an all-inclusive “clothes-philosophy” that covers all of life. Sartor Resartus alternates between the professor’s high-flying, poorly organized missives, and the explanations and apologies of the book’s narrator/editor. Typically, I love this type of indirection — Kierkegaard is one of my favorite writers, and the approach Carlyle takes is eerily similar. Sadly, Carlyle is simply not Kierkegaard, and his indirect style is not as rewarding or as enjoying as Soren’s. The result is that the point’s central point, that Man is a spiritual animal, and yearns for the infinite beyond the finite, is prepared, danced around, repeated, and summarized throughout the text. I’m sure that if I was reading this text 150 years ago, I would find its style more charming and original, and its points more revolutionary — but the essence of a classic is it’s ability to re-present seemingly obvious truths in exciting new ways, and I don’t think Sartor Resartus comes close to meeting this mark.

That being said, some passages are lovely, and do translate across the years in a fresh, dynamic way. Here are three which nicely encapsulate the book’s overall scheme and act as good examples of Carlyle’s fanciful style.

1 – on the “motive-millwrights” and their mechanistic philosophy:

Fantastic tricks enough man has played, in his time; has fancied himself to be most things, down even to an animated heap of Glass: but to fancy himself a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on, was reserved for this his latter era. There stands he, his Universe one huge Manger, filled with hay and thistles to be weighed against each other; and looks long-eared enough. Alas, poor devil! spectres are appointed to haunt him: one age he is hag-ridden, bewitched; the next, priest-ridden, befooled; in all ages, bedevilled. And now the Genius of Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did; till the Soul is nigh choked out of him, and only a kind of Digestive, Mechanic life remains. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else: the world would indeed grind him to pieces; but cannot he fathom the Doctrine of Motives, and cunningly compute these, and mechanize them to grind the other way?

2 – on those who think they understand the “system of nature”

To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and Monsoons, and Moon’s Eclipses; by all which the condition of its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (unmiraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a minnow is Man; his Creek this Planet Earth; his Ocean the immeasurable All; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the mysterious Course of Providence through Aeons of Aeons.

3 – on the sense of wonder we should have in the face of life-itself, despite our ability to categorize and understand its mechanisms:

That the Thought-forms, Space and Time, wherein, once for all, we are sent into this Earth to live, should condition and determine our whole Practical reasonings, conceptions, and imagings or imaginings, seems altogether fit, just, and unavoidable. But that they should, furthermore, usurp such sway over pure spiritual Meditation, and blind us to the wonder everywhere lying close on us, seems nowise so. Admit Space and Time to their due rank as Forms of Thought; nay even, if thou wilt, to their quite undue rank of Realities: and consider, then, with thyself how their thin disguises hide from us the brightest God-effulgences! Thus, were it not miraculous, could I stretch forth my hand and clutch the Sun? Yet thou seest me daily stretch forth my hand and therewith clutch many a thing, and swing it hither and thither. Art thou a grown baby, then, to fancy that the Miracle lies in miles of distance, or in pounds avoirdupois of weight; and not to see that the true inexplicable God-revealing Miracle lies in this, that I can stretch forth my hand at all; that I have free Force to clutch aught therewith? Innumerable other of this sort are the deceptions, and wonder-hiding stupefactions, which Space practices on us.


Kafka’s Confusion

February 8, 2007

Via the amazing Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1923 site, an account of Kafka’s visit to one Dr. Steiner, a disciple of theosophy who Kafka heard speak a few days before this entry.

I feel as if a large part of my being is drawn to Theosophy, but at the same time I have the greatest fear of it. I’m afraid of it bringing a new confusion, which would be terrible for me, seeing as my present unhappiness consists of nothing but confusion. The nature of the confusion is this: my happiness, my abilities and any possibility of using them have always lain in literature. And here I have even experienced states (not many) which in my opinion lie very close to the clairvoyant states that you describe, Herr Doctor, in which I lived entirely within each idea, but also fulfilled each idea, and in which I felt myself not only at my own bounds but at the bounds of all humanity. Only the ecstatic peace which may be unique to the clairvoyant was missing from these states, though not quite entirely. I leave out of this that I have not written my best work in these states. — Currently I can’t devote myself entirely to these literary pursuits, as I should, and for various reasons. Apart from my family situation, I couldn’t live from literature alone because of the slow development of my work and its particular character; in addition, my health and my character prevent me from devoting myself to a life that is uncertain at best. So I have become an office worker at a social insurance institute. Now these two professions could never tolerate one another and accept a shared fortune. The least good fortune in one is a great misfortune in the other. If I have written something good one evening, the next day in the office I am on fire and can’t get anything finished. This back-and-forth is getting steadily worse.

I am reminded of the words of Kierkegaard:

What I really need is to come to terms with myself about what I am to do, not about what I am to know, except insomuch as knowledge must precede every act. It is a matter of understanding my destiny, of seeing what the Divinity actually wants me to do; what counts is to find a truth, which is true for me, to find that idea for which I will live and die.


The Varieties of Religious Experience II: “Circumscription of the Topic”

January 25, 2007

(This is the second of a planned twenty part journey through William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience lectures).

In his second lecture, “Circumscription of the Topic,” James aims to set down exactly what he means when he talks about “religion.” Like the first, this lecture is introductory in tone, as James outlines his general scheme and establishes a clear method of considering his subject. At the very end, James promises that in his next lecture he will “abandon the extreme generalities” and “begin our actual journey by addressing ourselves directly to the concrete facts.” If this means that the next lecture is going to be even better than this one, than you can color me excited.

The primary point of lecture two is to define the word “religion” in a way that will allow James to talk about the aspects of it he finds most interesting, namely, the intense religious experiences of those who think they are in touch with the divine. James explains that he is not interested in determining what the “essence” of religion is, since he does not think this to be a plausible goal; religion, of all things, is not easily reduced to a single trait, as “such different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arise doubt as to whether it possibly can be one specific thing.” To help in this regard, James again explains that he is going to ignore the institutional aspects of religion in their entirety, hoping instead to “confine myself as far as I can to personal religion pure and simple.” With this in mind, James sets down his working definition:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

The slippery word here, as James immediately recognizes, is “divine” — what does this mean? He insists on holding to a broad definition of the divine, which will umbrella religions such as Buddism, which recognizes no personal deity, and Emersonian idealism, which focuses primarily on a law or force which inhabits the universe. In short, even if a religion has no gods, it still falls under James’s conception: “we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.”

Coming at it from a different angle, James defends his choice of definition by claiming that “religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”

Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?”

The next part of the essay makes distinctions between different ways of reacting to the totality of existence, and whether or not different stances qualify as religious. Voltaire’s scoffing attitude, the “all is vanity” approach, is certainly not religion. An ironic stance towards the whole is not religion; religion nearly always indicates a serious frame of mind. Even tragedy has value from the religious point of view, for it it is considered a purging force that paves the way to deliverance. Coming back to the definition of the divine, James says: “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.”

With this in mind, James returns to the point he made in his first lecture, that religion can best be understood by considering the most extreme examples of it. The common sense plea James makes resonates with truth:

Hesitation as to whether a state of mind is ‘religious,’ or ‘moral,’ or ‘philosophical,’ is only likely to arise when the state of mind is weakly characterized, but in that case it will be hardly worthy of our study at all. With states that can only by courtesy be called religious we need have nothing to do, our only profitable business being with what nobody can possibly feel tempted to call anything else.

At this point in his lecture, James turns to a subject that holds great weight, and proves to be deeply fascinating: distinguishing between a “moral” stance towards existence and a “religious” one. Recognizing that there could very easily be some blurring between the two, James attempts to determine the critical difference, and succeeds admirably. Explaining that “at bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” James points out that morality is concerned with acquiescing to the universe, while religion is concerned with embracing it. It is a difference of mood: the moralist (represented here by Stoicism in general and Aurelius specifically) consents to his place in the universe, and even submits to it, whereas “the Christian God is there to be loved” — “the difference of emotional atmosphere is like that between an arctic climate and the tropics.”

James then moves deeper into this territory, hoping to identify what about religion makes it distinct from morality. Strangely, James shifts back and forth between Christianity and religion without explanation, using the two terms nearly interchangeably in the last portion of his lecture. This serves his purpose, and allows him to make the points he clearly wishes to make, but it is a weakness in his argument, and attention must be paid to it. What James says next about the sacrificial, self-abasing aspects of religion apply very well to Christianity, but not so well (to use James’s earlier example against him) to Emersonian idealism. Take this passage which describes the comfort religion gives to those who feel the shortcomings of their “decaying organism”

But whereas the merely moralistic spurning takes an effort of volition, the Christian spurning is the result of the excitement of a higher kind of emotion, in the presence of which no exertion of volition is required. The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well — morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.

This is a long quote, but essential to understanding what comes next. James claims that the crucial aspect of religion — and its chief value — is how it “comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands.” Religious feeling adds a whole new level of experience to a person’s life: “when the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which would otherwise be an empty waste.”

I want to stop the summary here and draw attention to the fact that James is here portraying a very pessimistic view of life and death. True, our lives are a struggle with death and decay, for which we often need solace and explanation. However, I think it’s worth it to advance another view: that life owes nothing to us, and that we should be happy to be here at all. This, bastardized, is the view taken by Carlyle’s professor Teufelsdrock in Sartor Resartus (see this post).

In the next to last paragraph, James writes:

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute

To this I say: yes, we are all dependent on the universe, and religion does provide an answer to the seemingly brutality of this fact, in that it promises that there is another, greater, meaning, even — usually — promising eternal life beyond our short earthy voyages. In this view, renouncing the earthly has clear benefits. However, if there is no eternal life, nothing beyond what we see and experience on earth, then the comfort and “extra level” that religion offers is misleading, false, and detrimental to true happiness.

If you believe that there is another life, then renouncing the less pleasant elements of this one makes sense. If you don’t, and are convinced that this life is the only experience you will ever have, then renunciation holds no purpose, whatever its value for your happiness may be. My chief criticism of James’ point is that our being “dependent on the universe” is not a strong enough reason to renounce it. James thinks that “we shall have to confess to at least some amount of dependence on sheer mercy, and to practice some amount of renunciation, great or small, to save our souls alive.” I agree with the first half of this proposal, but denounce the second; I have no choice but to depend on the universe, but I can choose to affirm it, regardless of whether or not it has a total meaning, because I am convinced that there is nothing more to it that what it gives me and what I can take from it.



January 10, 2007

If what’s anthologized in the Norton is any indication, I’ve just read the central chapters of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. The Second Book consists of the autobiography of the hero, professor Teufelsdrock; chapters 7-9, “The Everlasting No,” “The Centre of Indifference,” and “The Everlasting Yea,” form the climax of the professor’s tale, as he experiences an epiphany (as a young man) that greatly changes his outlook on life. I think Carlyle’s really onto something in the final section. It will take some explanation (and lots of quotations from Carlyle — which will be delightful) to get there, but I think it’s worth it.

“The Everlasting No” consists of the professor’s journey into unbelief and his attempts to escape from it. He recognizes that the old systems of religion (Christianity in particular) are no longer viable to him intellectually or personally. Faced with the dominance of the scientific outlook and its inability to provide answers to his yearnings (“Soul is not synonymous with Stomach”), the professor sees nothing but meaninglessness:

Thus has the bewildered Wanderer to stand, as so many have done, shouting question after question into the Sibyl-cave of Destiny, and receive no Answer but an Echo. It is all a grim Desert, this once-fair world of his; wherein is heard only the howling of wild beasts, or the shrieks of despairing, hate-filled men; and no Pillar of Cloud by day, and no Pillar of Fire by night, any longer guides the Pilgrim. To such length has the spirit of Inquiry carried him. “But what boots it (was thut’s)?” cries he: “it is but the common lot in this era. […] The whole world is, like thee, sold to Unbelief; their old Temples of the Godhead, which for long have not been rain-proof, crumble down; and men ask now: Where is the Godhead; our eyes never saw him?”


To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.

A difficult place, indeed — and one with which I’m sure we’re all more or less familiar. Eventually, after “smoldering in sulphurous slow-consuming fire” (you can see how well Carlyle can turn an unwieldy phrase) the professor has his first of two epiphanies. The language in the paragraph describing it is deeply symbollic; the professor comes to a realization “over pavements hot as Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace,” asking himself what exactly it is that he’s afraid of. He decides that Death is the fearmonger, and to simply deny that he’s afraid — the “EVERLASTING NO”

Death? Well, Death; and say the pangs of Tophet too, and all that the Devil and Man may, will or can do against thee! Hast thou not a heart; canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and, as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Tophet itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? Let it come, then; I will meet it and defy it!’ And as I so thought, there rushed like a stream of fire over my whole soul; and I shook base Fear away from me forever. I was strong, of unknown strength; a spirit, almost a god. Ever from that time, the temper of my misery was changed: not Fear or whining Sorrow was it, but Indignation and grim fire-eyed Defiance.

The language in the passage, and the general fire of his rebellion, make it clear that the the similarity is to Satan’s “non serviam,” famously depicted in Milton (and Joyce). Carlyle is clearly placing his character in this frame, but only as a stepping stone to get to the “Yes” which will come later.

The chapter between “No” and “Yea,” “The Center of Indifference,” is suitably dull. The professor explains that the world, now that he is not afraid of it, is hardly worth his concern. His mood is one of world-weary detachment, watching events pass with great indifference — hence the chapter’s title. I don’t think it’s terribly important to the book’s overall meaning, or to the final epiphany, besides the mere fact that it sits squarely between the “No” and “Yea” chapters. It’s more a formal narrative necessity than anything else.

So onto “Yea.” The epiphany comes, suitably, on a mountaintop. Carlyle begins the chapter by having the professor move back into one of the book’s main concerns, the conflict between the banal desires of the body and mind, which can be explained by science, and the higher yearnings of the human soul. This, I would say, is the prime concern of the book. Carlyle is writing from a decidedly post-Christian perspective, yet he is still convinced that each person has divinity (or the Infinite, or God) in them, and that this part yearns for greater purpose than can be explained materialistically. For example:

Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force: thus have we a warfare; in the beginning, especially, a hard-fought battle. For the God-given mandate, Work thou in Well-doing, lies mysteriously written, in Promethean Prophetic Characters, in our hearts; and leaves us no rest, night or day, till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom. And as the clay-given mandate, Eat thou and be filled, at the same time persuasively proclaims itself through every nerve,–must not there be a confusion, a contest, before the better Influence can become the upper?

This is from the first paragraph of “The Everlasting Yea,” setting the stage for what’s to come. A little further on, we have the scene of the epiphany: the professor sits on a mountaintop and gazes upon the towns beneath him. He senses the beauty of his surroundings, and is awestruck by the beauty of Nature: “Or what is Nature? Ha! why do I not name thee God?” This is lovely, but fortunately he doesn’t stop there — it’s only the first pang of beauty that awakes him from his indifference. The yearning for beauty awakens in him an understanding of the “vain interminable controversy” in every soul, which he describes in glowing terms (this passage is gorgeous):

Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose.

Here we have the first kernel of the construct: man is unhappy because he is Great, and longs for nothing less that perfect happiness. The infinite nature of the longing means that it cannot be satiated.

This leads man to believe that the Universe, and therefore his Life, owes him something: he wants perfect happiness, and thinks that it can be attained. “By certain valuations, and averages, of our own striking, we come upon some sort of average terrestrial lot; this we fancy belongs to us by nature, and of indefeasible rights.” We want more things, in the hopes that acquiring more with lead to greater happiness. This goes beyond mere materialism and the accumulation of goods; we also want more of the less tangible qualities — love, contentment, happiness. This leads to envy, as man is lead to believe that there is a certain amount of happiness in the world, and that when others get some that means there is less for him. The professor’s answer to this is simple, but I think it’s quite striking the context Carlyle has created:

“So true is it, what I then said, that the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my Algebra deceive me, Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity. Make thy claim of wages a zero, then; thou hast the world under thy feet. Well did the Wisest of our time write: ‘It is only with Renunciation (Entsagen) that Life, properly speaking, can be said to begin.’

“I asked myself: What is this that, ever since earliest years, thou hast been fretting and fuming, and lamenting and self-tormenting, on account of? Say it in a word: is it not because thou art not HAPPY? Because the THOU (sweet gentleman) is not sufficiently honored, nourished, soft-bedded, and lovingly cared for? Foolish soul! What Act of Legislature was there that thou shouldst be Happy? A little while ago thou hadst no right to be at all.

First of all, I love how this is formed as an equation — what an indirect way of saying: “stop thinking about being happy!” The professor then moves on to explain how the key is to focus on what you’re doing, mind the actuality, etc:

Yes here, in this poor, miserable, hampered, despicable Actual, wherein thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal: work it out therefrom; and working, believe, live, be free. Fool! the Ideal is in thyself, the impediment too is in thyself: thy Condition is but the stuff thou art to shape that same Ideal out of: what matters whether such stuff be of this sort or that, so the Form thou give it be heroic, be poetic? O thou that pinest in the imprisonment of the Actual, and criest bitterly to the gods for a kingdom wherein to rule and create, know this of a truth: the thing thou seekest is already with thee, ‘here or nowhere,’ couldst thou only see!

These words are very similar to a passage — also an epiphany — from J. S. Mill’s Autobiograpy, which I posted a while back on my other blog.

What Carlyle is advocating here, more or less, is that being Blessed (namely, being alive at all) is more important that being Happy. This sentiment is awfully close to platitudes we hear often in our lives: make the best of what you have, you only have one life to live, be present in the moment, etc. One of my favorite aspects of “existential” literature of the sort Carlyle is writing in Sartor Resartus is that it turns thoughts that would otherwise feel banal into epiphanies — by telling it well, by telling it new, by making it deeper, wider, and more beautiful. The professor’s path through defiance, indifference, and affirmation is one which seems hardwired into human life. Some of us may go through it once, some us may go through it every day. Many of us read books like Sartor Resartus just to remember.