To be is to be touched

I can remember the presentations that guest speakers used to give to us second- and third-graders. The subject was the distinction between “good” and “bad” touches. By my recollection, there would have been red slashes over pictures of “inappropriate” touches–a man’s hand, say, en route to a young woman’s crotch–and circles around “good” touches like hugging and hands on shoulders.

Both terms, it turns out, were ill-freighted and misconceived, “bad” having been larded up with “illegal,” “harmful,” and “wrong”; “good” identified exclusively with certain kinds of behavior. Yet, understood only as kinds of behavior, a hug, a kiss, a fuck needn’t be good touches at all–any hug can be nasty or diaphragm-sucking–whereas a hand on the crotch may be just the thing.

I think we don’t help ourselves in the least by linking touching to sex, good, bad or indifferent, not because sex doesn’t involve touching but because it is only one kind of touch and not the commonest kind at that. Someone may not want sex per se; she may want to be touched with gentleness and gentle knowing. In which case, we do far better to say, more phenomenologically, that “to touch and be touched (well) is to exist.” Touching is being finite beings, being at home in our own skin.

Last week was a heavy week for me. I heard about a man who hadn’t been touched by his wife in three decades and who didn’t know how to touch or be touched by his daughter. I heard from a woman living, for a few months, like a hermit, a woman in want of human touch. I talked to another who longed for genuine propinquity. I met a man of a former wife at a get-together and thought he lacked élan. Ubi sunt: where had all the graceful touching gone?

I have been thinking that many of our epistemic questions are best understood in phenomenological terms. “How do we know the world?” We get in touch with it by picking grass, by being warmed by the sun, by opening ourselves to the ineffable. “How do we know another?” We touch and get in touch with him, with her, with them, but only if they are kindred spirits well-versed in the art of touching. “How do we know ourselves?” By means of the other, the other’s touch, we get in touch with ourselves.

I remember reading Paule Marshall’s novel, Soul Clap Hands and Sing, in school. In one of the final scenes, an old black woman, a Brooklyn transplant if I recall, has returned to the Caribbean island where she was born and allows herself to be touched with hands and bathed in oil by an even older woman. She cries.

Imagine someone who has never been touched. Does this person exist? I think of the voiceless woman of In the Heart of the Country who is existentially alone, without words, dried out, untouched by the fullness of being. Imagine someone who has only ever been touched poorly, touched in the wrong way by the wrong persons with the wrong intentions. This woman would exist but only barely and may muse about the deliciousness of not-existing. (If we stroke her hair just so, then surely she will come back to us.)

If to be is to touch and be touched well, then touching cannot simply be a behavior (nix all the sex ed health talk, therefore) but must be an ethical art. In compassion, I touch you with learned grace. My kindness is felt in your slackening shoulders. Our warmth radiates, reviving, enlivening, enveloping. Our skin is flush, pink-hued, gold-tipped.

‘I can’t believe it’: Awakening to philosophical life

Yesterday evening amid the falling coolness–yesterday only a week shy of the time we’d first met two months prior, yesterday also only one week before her 30th birthday, yesterday of the stern stalked tulips with their playful, velvety heads, yesterday therefore so close to death–we were walking out of the Conservancy Garden when she told me a story about being awoken with a start. She awoke one morning last week to a man shooting “Fuck” and to a woman replying, perhaps in a tone of despair, “I can’t believe it.” She did not see the man or the woman, only heard their voices and later saw, outside her apartment window, men and women walking to work in a hurry.

She awoke and looked while others remained in bed. In the quarter-turn from an unforeseeable, life-altering event to the mumbling of unintelligible words, we awake for the first time to philosophy. The passersby in the stream of life will keep on their way, immersed in their habits, clinging to sleep, the habits of sleep so familiar. The passersby will go on, going faster and faster toward their destination. Then too the woman who shrieks in despair will, unless she is fully awakened from her dogmatic slumber, will blanch, then shrink from the scene of horror, returning quickly to her affairs. Two further stories my conversation partner related brought this latter point home, both stories being about acquaintances who approached death (one who actually died) and who remained unchanged, fast asleep till the end.

But will my conversation partner, this beautiful woman looking out the window at horror and disbelief, gazing at the wreckage of life, will she turn her face to philosophy? Will she become alive to life? She already has.

How can we awaken to philosophical life?

We can learn to love our fate (amor fati). This life-altering event we affirm with all our courage and love. By affirming it, we aver that it cannot be otherwise. “It is so; it cannot be otherwise.” Or, as with Ecclesiastes, we grant that the season of change is ever upon us.

Or we can let our reason follow the postulate of sufficient reason. Each event, never in the end surprising, fits somehow or other into an order of things: something or other has brought it about, and it is headed toward somewhere or other. Falling in with the flow of the river rather than being pulled down or under, we can come to understand how we fit with genesis and persistence, with persistence and perishing, with perishing and natality. In this way, our lives come to have reasons for being and becoming, hanging together like a well-made sheet.

Or our lives, as if for the first time, can be finally up to us. Not another’s, not our mother’s, but ours. When our life is up to us, we can inquire about how we would have to be in order to be open to radiance. Recognizing the life-altering event as a call to live otherwise than how we have lived, recognizing that we must grant the event its reality while sorting out how what we can live-believe more lovingly, we seek a life–for the first time our own–that can be lived according to our understandings and commitments. We seek a life that we can live, that fits us, that we can make our own. Awakened to life, our own, we aspire to believe that this is happening to us, to make of ourselves into believable beings, to find a home that we can believe in. How to do this we do not know. That we can and must–that we know full well.

‘Their philosophy is for others; I need one for myself’

In Interview 139, the soft-spoken gentlemen at Philosophy Bites finally got around to asking professional philosophers what it is they do with their time. What, they queried, is philosophy? Some said that philosophy is the analysis of our concepts. Others said that philosophy is the examination of the presuppositions underlying what we normally take for granted. One man cited the late Wilfred Sellars who offered, rather nicely, that philosophy is concerned with “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” So there you have it.

The answers I liked most came during moments of laughter. One old fellow said that philosophy was the pursuit of wisdom but, laughing, said that that wasn’t the kind of thing we do much anymore. His honesty really got me, as did his way of putting things.

You see, for all their differences, what is clear (though, to be sure, not to the uninitiated) is that all of the above answers share a theoretical orientation toward philosophy. On a theoretical conception, philosophy involves thinking hard about very hard questions, it is said; or it is about thinking clearly, it is averred–systematically, it is seconded. But only a few mentioned, and then only with a smile, that philosophy could be oriented toward the Good, turning its face to the project of self-cultivation.

So while the answers are generally good and decent, they already presuppose a conception of philosophy that I cannot see myself in, that we cannot see ourselves in. And I want, as my conversation partners also want, to see myself in philosophical life. With this in mind, I want to try my hand at a conception of philosophy that is oriented toward the Good. I will venture that

Philosophy is the search for the most excellent ways of being in the world.

If “the most excellent ways of being in the world” can be glossed, in a word, as radiance, then it follows that

Philosophy is the search for radiance.

For now, I leave things here because a definition cannot do justice to a life that is devoted to walking along the path of inquiry.

*

Below, I offer a short excerpt from Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, a puzzling book that is two parts rant, one part apologia, and one part reverie. This particular clipping is cut from the opening pages of the Third Walk (also translated, in a more haughty-taughty fashion, as the Third Promenade). Rousseau is a self-conflicted figure. I am not sure that he ever really found himself at home in the world, not for a long enough spell. I am convinced, however, that he found a few moments of great contentment while living on a small island in the middle of the Lac de Bienne, a lake that is not far from Bern, Switzerland. I point you to the magical Fifth Walk.

*

It is from this time that I can date my complete renunciation of the world and that great fondness for solitude that has never left me since. The work that I was undertaking could only be accomplished in absolute isolation; it called for the kind of long and undisturbed meditations that the tumult of society does not allow. That forced me for a time to adopt a different way of life, which I was subsequently so glad to have done that, having since then interrupted it only against my will and for short periods of time, I returned to it most readily and limited myself to it quite easily as soon as I could, and when men later reduced me to living alone, I found that by isolating me in order to make me miserable, they had done more for my happiness than I had been able to do myself.

I set about the work I had undertaken with a zeal in proportion to both the importance of the task and the need I felt for it. I was living at the time among modern philosophers who resembled very little the ancient philosophers. Instead of removing my doubts and resolving my uncertainties, they had shaken all the certainties that I thought I had about those things which I considered most important to know: since, as ardent missionaries for atheism and very imperious dogmatists, they could not abide without getting angry with anyone daring to think differently from them on any point whatsoever. I had often defended myself quite feebly because I hated debate and was far from adept at it; but I never adopted their wretched doctrine, and this resistance to such intolerant men, who moreover had their own aims in mind, was not the least of the causes that stoked up their animosity toward me.

They had not persuaded me but they had made me anxious. Their arguments had shaken me but without ever convincing me; I could not find a good response to them, but I felt there must be one. I considered myself guilty less of error than of incompetence, and my heart answered them better than my reason.

I finally said to myself: Shall I allow myself to be forever tossed about by the specious arguments of the eloquent whose opinions, which they preach and which they are so keen for others to accept, I am not even sure are their own? Their passions, which determine their opinions and their interest in making people believe this or that, make it impossible to discover what they themselves believe. Can one look for good faith in the leaders of parties? Their philosophy is for others; I need one for myself. Let us look for it with all my strength while there is still time, so that I may have a fixed rule of conduct for the rest of my days. Here I am in my mature years, at the absolute height of my understanding. I am already nearing decline. If I wait any longer, I shall not have all my strength at my disposal in my later deliberations; my intellectual faculties will have lessened their activity, and I shall do less well than what today I can do as well as I ever shall: let us seize this propitious moment; it is the time of my external and material reform, so let it also be the time of my intellectual and moral reform. Let us fix once and for all my opinions and my principles, and let us be for the rest of my life what careful thought will have shown me I should be.

On my becoming cozily parochial

I believe that the modern moral question concerning what one should do is off the mark, and I believe the ancient ethical question of how my life is to fare is apropos and wisely worded. I am getting settled with the thought that self-cultivation is what matters to me most such that I have become happily quietistic about a morality grounded on a simple principle (or on any principle for that matter). I stand aside from principle, turning my head, walking away, keeping my mouth for breathing.

Modern moral philosophers have taken quite a liking to thought experiments concerning our moral lives. Here is how the experiment is supposed to work. The hypothetical scenario is meant to motivate the underlying principle, revealing to us how our moral intuitions point us toward greater moral commitments and obligations. (Or, as in the trolley problem, it is supposed to show us the muddle in our moral considerations, as we puzzle through our vacillations between Kantianism and consequentialism.) The idea is that if this is the sort of thing we are obliged to do in this scenario, then it is also the sort of the thing we are obliged to do in any similar scenario. The experiment therefore hinges on the movement from particular case to universal principle, from “at least once” to “always so.”

Peter Singer, one of the most prominent utilitarian philosophers living today, has come up with a particular thought experiment to make more perspicuous our broader commitments to supporting international aid efforts. In one version of the story, Singer asks you to suppose that you have recently purchased a pair of expensive shoes. You are now walking along the road and come upon a shallow pond. You see that a young child has fallen into the water and that he appears to be drowning. If you jump in after him and rescue the child, you will ruin your expensive shoes. He asks, “Do you have any obligation to rescue the child?”

Surely, many of us would nod our heads in agreement. Of course, we would say, the cost of ruining the shoes would be small in comparison with the benefit of saving the child. Very good. But does it matter, Singer asks further, whether the child lives in this town or country, or could he also have lived halfway across the world or wherever? He answers,

Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world. (my emphasis)

So it seems that we are all obliged to help any child who is also facing certain but preventable death, wherever that child may be.

I do not think so. I have become baldly literal-minded, altogether unclever and mildly daft, during the early years of the third decade of my life. I want to ask a simple question: “Who is this child? Do I know him?”

Or, rather, with the late Bernard Williams I want to say that this is all one thought and perhaps one question too many. I see this child of mine and I jump right in. I do not ask whether I would rescue him and I certainly do not think, within the scenario or afterward, whether I have an obligation to save him. I save him.

I needn’t remind myself that t am walking through my neighborhood. (I am living simply, so I did not purchase expensive shoes in the first place.) I see this child–her name is Marilynne–this child who is the child of my friend Sarah. I know her, know them both. I see that Marilynne is in trouble now; I jump in to save her.

Did I have an obligation to save her? How dare you ask me that. Do I have obligations toward strangers, that is, toward those whom I have never met and do not know? I do not think so. Or, rather, I remain silent when faced with the question. If this child from Botswana is drowning in the Jackie O. Reservoir not far from where I live and if I see her drowning and if I can do something about it, then I will jump in to save this child, this child here, this child of mine, as surely as I will greet my neighbor with a smile.

*

I do not know whether you are following me. It may seem that this is all for the nonce, but there is rather a lot at stake. For I am becoming quiestic about all questions of a universal stamp: about the legitimacy of the state, human rights, civil rights, international treaties, climate change, species extinction, Occupy movements, universal health care, carbon footprints, oil reserves, you name it. I am not becoming quietistic out of callowness or cynicism (a side note: the ancient Cynics were the first cosmopolitans, i.e., citizens of the world) but rather out of a desire to live according to nature. I am becoming lovingly parochial, loving myself and my own, my friends and lovers, my neighbors and guests alone. About the rest I remain uninterested and agnostic.

I have stopped reading the paper, and I think this a good thing.

I do well by this friend here, to this tree out my window, to the large park over yonder. If John comes to my philosophy practice in the right spirit, then I mean to do well by him. If Karen, a guest, knocks on my door in the spirit of humility and in need, then I mean to be hospitable to her. When this woman on this street asks me for directions to that location, I walk her to her destination. Beyond this my mind no longer strays or ambles, no longer considers or puzzles.

I have no (or, more likely, only a few) principles, but I do exercise good judgment. I follow few rules, relying mainly on rules of thumb. Do I keep my promises? Yes, but that is an oddly formulated question. I suppose, as a rule of thumb, I keep these promises to my friends. But something could come up and the world, being so precarious during this unsettled time, could change its course. And then also I do not make promises to strangers or enemies.

Tell me then: is the general principle to “love your friends and ignore your strangers”? No, I love this friend in this way for this reason today. I hope to do the same tomorrow, come what may, should I be around another day. From this perspective, it could be said that I am all loving all day.

In my rising parochial un-worldview, my polis consists of friends, lovers, conversation partners, and neighbors. They have become my common good, my cares, my reason for being.

What a body can do

In the past three decades, my body has changed its size and shape and look many times. There was my baseball body, my weight lifting body, my 10-year rock climbing body. There is my meditative running body. I have been blessed to always have a beautiful, lean body, regardless of exact size or shape. Above all, I have been blessed by movement, by the edifying nature of a body functioning properly.

I want to examine what a body can do in order to transform our understanding of “beautiful body.” My thesis will be that a body engaged in virtuous (i.e., excellent) activity, where this activity is self-sustaining, just is a beautiful body. This thesis should strike us as counterintuitive but should nonetheless have considerable appeal.

Let’s consider our intuition. Our misguided starting point is to look at the body as if to say that the beautiful body can be regarded by the camera. The woman who poses nude give us our first intimation of this regard; the model who stands rail thin before the accommodating camera gives us our second. From this understanding of the beautiful body as a Still Frame, we then ask how our body can conform to this external standard, how it can approximate itself to this model.

When, on this misguided understanding, a body does not look attractive or appealing, it is said to be distended, overweight, disgusting, vastly underweight, unappealing, shameful, gross, and so on. It is usually at this point that medical terminology makes the rounds: at the point when we start talking of “normal” or “abnormal,” “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Even a more moderate standard measurement or norm makes the same mistake by allowing a more elastic Still Frame to be the guide. To the degree that the Still Frame is the standard unit of measurement, to that degree men and women will continue to strive to approximate the Still Frame. And then we will hear more railing about ‘beauty’ and even more nauseating talk of ‘health’ and ‘illness.’

The grand edifice of ‘nutrition science,’ ‘dieting,’ stomach surgery, ‘body image,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and whatever now comes into view. Perhaps the whole thing has gone off course, yes?

Let’s try again. Let’s ask not what a body looks like but rather what a body can do when it does something well. I am inviting us to think of a body not as a static object but as a moving being, a being moving in a certain kind of way, a being moving toward an immanent end, an end intrinsic to an activity. My body cooks, cleans, runs, sings, dances, jumps, loves.

In this connection, we might observe how different an excellent runner’s body is from an excellent swimmer’s body and that would be a fine thing to do. But, while observing them, we would not want to say that a runner’s body is beautiful whereas a swimmer’s body is ugly. Nor would we want to compare a runner’s body at rest with a swimmer’s body at rest. What good would that be? (Who cares what a runner’s body looks like while it reclines in a chair?) Instead, we would want to attend to the evolution of a runner’s body as he went from being a novice to a trainee to an adept. We would notice, if the runner is running long distances, that his chest and back appear to hollow inward, that his arms grow thin, his legs grow thin–in fact, his body seems to get smaller, more intact, more compact until it reaches a form where it can work properly, maximally. Of course, one runner’s body may look considerably different (albeit falling within some kind of range set by “being human”) than another runner’s body. There would doubtless be room for variety. And that would be fine and intelligible and nice.

What goes for a runner’s body also goes for a swimmer’s, a sport climber’s, a pole vaulter’s, a builder’s, and so on. Our attention, recall, is focused on the transformation of each person’s body in and through virtuous activity to the extent that the body is slowly reshaped in order to actualize its capacities to the fullest. The conclusion is that the ‘look’ of the body is the product of the ongoing activities that fundamentally shape and reshape that body. If a body looks a certain way, it is because the body has made its way toward maximal functioning. Yet our eyes, once again, should fall largely on how the body performs when it is in motion, when it is at its best, neither overworked nor underworked but moving swimmingly, effortlessly along like water.

So far, I have said nothing about the nature or kind of activity, but now I want to add a further thought that some activities will, just in virtue of being the kinds of activities they are, degrade the active nature of the body. I think cage fighting too brutal and vicious, a few moments of walking too precious. I think most people do not know how to walk properly. Furthermore, if an activity makes other regular activities difficult to perform, then this activity can also be ruled out. I think body building is one such on the grounds that one cannot walk or sleep with ease or elegance. I do not believe that these activities can possibly qualify as being self-sustaining where the latter means at least “capable of carrying one on perpetually into the future.”

(My speculative claim, which I leave aside for now, is that only certain activities that accord with the Way (Dao) can count as being self-sustaining. Only activities, say, that flow like water.)

Let’s attend to the best swimmer’s body we know of. Michael Phelps’ body, it seems to me, would count as a beautiful swimmer’s body because it functions at its utmost. Phelps is showing us one beautiful thing the body can do. I do not see why we couldn’t call his body beautiful in virtue of its functioning at its utmost.

What is interesting about my story of what a body can do is that it gives us some direction concerning how we might better understand ourselves. The argument against being too fat or too skin, by my reckoning, is not narrowly moral or medical but uniquely aesthetic: the very thin man and the very fat woman are both missing out on learning what their bodies could do were these bodies to be put to good use. The very fat woman cannot walk properly, let alone jump and dance properly. Perhaps the proper emotion to feel for her is pity. Perhaps these are best comprehended as aesthetic cautionary tales.

On this understanding of learning what a body can do when it does something well, we now have license to try to act excellently in the way a dancer, a walker, a runner, a kite flyer does and, so long as we ongoingly act excellently, we will notice how our body changes its shape and size so as to perform what it performs best with greater finesse, agility, and strength. My body has been like the seasons of life. My love is the love of unfolding. It seems to me that we have every reason in the world to call our properly moving bodies exquisite, beautiful, and graceful. I watch the woman walking well and I am thereby enchanted.