Aesthetics, ethics, and justice ask to be brought into harmony

Beyond my bedroom window: pigeons atop a barren tree amid the autumn drizzle.

*

Beyond the living room window: a birch tree, leaves burnt by fire, hoary frost unworldly.

Brief Reflections

1. To see an object properly, discriminatively, is to be attentive to its demands.

2. The object asks to be loved. Will you love it?

3. Seeing that the other is wounded immediately entails acting to make amends.

4. Aesthetics, ethics, and justice ask to be brought into harmony. Will you heed the request?

 

On Anne Page’s courage

The woman was beautiful and strong but sad. Doubtless she married badly. Evidence for this can be perceived in her slightly downcast left eye; in her stilted, rigid left hand; in the spine that gives the impression of needing to be held up by strength of will. To one with her aesthetic temperament, life had to have grown, or had to have always been, cold.

It could, of course, be objected that Anne Page was merely an amateur and that the long hours of sitting would have worn on her. She was not used to this, it could be observed. Doubtless, it was tedious business, this appearance of naturalness. In addition, it is not inconceivable that Dennis Miller Bunker could have been a real bore, singular in his occupation, attentive to his subject while inattentive to this woman.

Still, to explain Anne’s exhaustion by appealing solely to the immediate situation is to close off imagining her inner life: her austere widow peak; her playful left ear; her dark eyes that confront us, asking something of us, revealing something of her inner resolve. There is also in her black dress and her pale beauty the conceit of life holding on amid the quiet despair. Like Madame Bovary, like Hedda Gabler, she must have hungered. Like them, she must have demanded, from this life, to be alive to all, to put all in her mouth. At some blank point (“pain has an element of blank,” writes Emily Dickinson), she must have seen that for her erotic vitality there would be no one.

She will never be at home. This she knows. Courage, she whispers, whispers so loud as to be audible. With this word, she draws me back to her eyes, into her hands. I stand with her for minutes; I long to stay with her until I forget all apart from her.

Note

“Portrait of Anne Page” (1887) is on view at Crystal Bridges Museum as part of its permanent collection.

The latest version of my short public bio

It’s not a bad time to think amid the unsettled restlessness. After a plane from New York deposited me somewhere in the South. As the grass lies yellow and the moors I don’t see but imagine settle in. Might not be a bad time, then, to return to where we’ve begun, to add a few more daubs of paint.

“What now? Where to?”

Allow me to clarify. For a couple of years, I’ve been working through a life-puzzle: how to write a short public biography that “unhands” me from earlier forms of legitimacy and that “transvalues” my conception of a successful life. Last summer, I put the puzzle this way:

Are all public bios, those one to two paragraph haikus, true but misleading?

Before offering my latest version, I want to give some reasons for thinking that rewriting our public bios may be vital today.

A Short List of Criteria for What Counts as a Good Public Bio

1. The virtues should receive top billing. Spotlight on accuracy, honesty, truth-telling; on courage, resilience, and judgment, and the rest.

2. Modern forms of legitimacy should be ‘unhanded.’ No appeal, then, to institutional affiliation, social distinction, number and kind of degrees, prestige, ‘expertise,’ who’s who, etc.

3. We should laud a dignified person. Not, therefore, someone who confesses in public, not the person who is caught in a tabloid, not the individual who presents an overly professionalized brief.

4. We must transvalue our conception of success. From public reputation, social recognition, public accolades, happiness as feeling good just now to a radiant vision of a well-led life.

The Latest Version of my Public Bio

I’m a philosopher at home in New York. I wasn’t always at home. I was raised in a family of gentle virtues but modest concerns, I almost married a woman who was beautiful and strong but sad, and I abandoned an academic career just before it began. When I ask myself whether I’ve learned to love what’s gone without wishing for its return, I can now say yes: yes without reservation. In my present life, I seek to lead, and to help others lead, a virtuous, radiant existence. We set out together to make life work. For us, life is sweet.

Postscript

On Dec. 21, NYT Philosophers’ Stone included a link to one of my short essays, “Public Philosophy and Our Spiritual Predicament.” If you’d like, have a look.

On being in debt up to your ears (but in a good way)

On Philosophy as the Love of Giving

“In gratitude,” the note said. Inside the box was a book by Seneca, Epistles 1-65 of the Loeb Harvard Edition. The old man Seneca is writing to his younger philosophical friend and pupil Lucius, a Roman knight and civil servant. The letters were meant both to educate Lucius in the ways of Stoic philosophy, “the stern nurse of heroes during the first century of the Empire” (ix), writes Richard Gummere, and to be essays addressed to the general reader about the art of living. (Oh but how, in each line you write, to catch the personal and impersonal both?)

My note, which said “In gratitude,” was signed by one of my conversation partners. It damn near made me cry. “A small token,” he said later. Let me share a little with you.

Letter 34. On a Promising Pupil

“I grow in spirit and leap for joy,” writes Seneca to Lucius, “and shake off my years and my blood runs warm again, whenever I understand, from your actions and your letters, how far you have outdone yourself; for as to the ordinary man, you left him in the rear long ago. [Damn straight, I add.–AT] If the farmer is pleased when his tree develops so that it bears fruit, if the shepherd takes pleasure in the increase of his flocks, if every man regards his pupil as though he discerned in him his own early manhood,–what, then, do you think are the feelings of those who have trained a mind and moulded a young idea, when they see it suddenly grown to maturity?

[…]

“You know what I mean by a good man?” Seneca continues. “One who is complete, finished,–whom no constraint or need can render bad. I see such a person in you, if only you go steadily on and bend to your task, and see to it that all your actions and words harmonize and correspond with each other and are stamped in the same mould. If a man’s acts are out of harmony, his soul is crooked. Farewell.” (241-3)

On the Joys of Always Being in Debt

The worst part of my philosophy practice is that if I’m not indebted to one conversation partner, then I’m invariably indebted to another. In revenge tragedy, payback is assumed, demanded, for an instant it’s bloody sweet, but then cosmic justice (dike) can never be restored. Where revenge tears at the fabric of being, law seeks amends. Law–pale-eyed Athena–was invented so that dues, in principle, could be repaid. Only for the one who’s wounded there’s always a hang-up: something further always remains. The law, all too human, fails to make whole, and that is its flaw. But in Christian forgiveness, the beautiful dream is that the slates shall be wiped clean. Someday, it is said.

I own a business, this philosophy practice, this one down here, but it’s clearly not a good one.  Because a good business bootstraps it from day 1, thereafter operating in the black. Well, I do and I don’t. So, mine has to be abysmal, “ass backwards,” says one conversation partner. My first thought–this, I think, being one of Zeno’s lost paradoxes–is that I’m always behind and can never catch up. Oh well.

Farewell, my friends. I’ll be leaving New York later today. Not for good. By plane.

Of this ineffable

My mother covering me, wholly, from the man with the gun. That was the dream. Being at home in the world. Fuck you, Freud.

I spoke to my friend and former lover after she’d returned from South Sudan. This would have been about a week or so ago. Life was hard there, she said. Her handler was a wreck and left her things in a wreck. Doctors without borders.

She told me a story of loss: of food, weight, routines, sickness, things. In the midst, so much was gone, so much pared back and down, so much taken and taken away, all the everydayness of things laid bare. She likened the experience to the Book of Job, to having very little, then almost nothing. And then? And then there was the turn.

She said, “To have everything taken away and to see what’s left.” What’s left: not nothing, not the darkness of the eternal night, not terror, but union, oneness, communion. (She said, “Oneness and whatnot.” “Just take out the ‘whatnot,'” I quipped, “and then see what’s left.”) Without having experienced this–this all ineffable–she wouldn’t have made it. Worse, she wouldn’t have been able to see how to help.

As I wrote this, I remembered two lines from a lullaby I’d written one early morning about a warm night in April.

In the midst of the mist of the night, my friend, did you feel the warmth of the night?

And was it then that you opened up your heart, was it then that you felt whole?

Addendum on the Ineffable

I’m of the view that conceptuality goes all the way down and all the way up. The ineffable, accordingly, is not that which is unsayable in principle but that which we have poorly said. It is rather like a stutter. I canvass this view in two places: in the final section, “The Dialectical Character of Experience,” of “Unbounded Naturalism,” Cosmos and History; and more generally in “Adorno and the Question of Metaphysics.” If you’re interested in reading the Adorno, feel free to drop me a note in the Contact form, and I’ll send you an offprint copy. Caveat lector: Both essays are written for academic audiences.