Light laughter and genuine curiosity

There are two connected attitudes toward living a well-led life that cannot be adopted by anyone who believes that the mind is inherently sickly and prone to illness. (The sickly mind is consistent with the metaphysical view of the world as being bad and ugly.) These attitudes are light laughter and genuine curiosity, and both spring from a common source: the affirmation of life.

Yesterday, I opened a letter to one philosophical friend,

Our conversation began lightly, proceeded lightly, something that is only possible when the atmosphere of the world, the world perceived resplendently is light. Perceiving the world in itself lightly and beautifully, one responds immediately by smiling and laughing lightly. Only by affirming the world as basically good and beautiful does laughter come forth. I take this to be the logical point of the Book of Genesis: God created the world in its essence as good. Not this bit or that bit but the whole. Yet once this world in itself is no longer disclosed and darkness settles in, drawing our attention to some of its darkening parts, enveloping us in the particulars, the ‘ignorant armies clashing by night,’ laughter can no longer come forth. 

There is no light laughter, only aggression, cruelty and empathy elevated to an ascetic ideal, when the mind is held to sick and ill thoughts of itself, of other minds.

Nor is there curiosity as Vico understands it. In New Science, he elaborates,

Curiosity–that inborn property of man, daughter of ignorance and mother of knowledge–when wonder awakens our minds, has the habit, wherever it sees an extraordinary phenomenon of nature, a comet, for example, a sundog, or a midday start, of asking straight away what it means.

Ignorance comes from astoundment with what there is, how it is, and why it is. Perplexed or fascinated, we surround the occurrence or the phenomenon with plentiful questions. The world magnificently, deliciously reveals itself to be a more interesting place than we had conceived of or imagined. Experimenting, essaying, probing, inquiring, hypothesizing, postulating, meditating allow us to become better acquainted with the world. Then, a practice may emerge in which we inquire and meditate time and again so that the curiosity is channeled, educated, refined, cultivated into a way of thinking.

Light laughter deepens one, giving rise to silent appreciation. Curiosity, cultivated well, becomes a desire for wisdom.

On the meaning of sighs: A philosophical conversation followed by a lullaby

The following is a short excerpt from a philosophical conversation I had recently with one conversation partner. Afterward: an afterthought, an extra thought, a lullaby of a kind.
She wrote,
I sigh.
Yes I sigh.
The cosmic breath, of all men, of all women
Of more creation, loss and love to come.
 
I replied,
First, “I sigh”: The sigh is the quiet laugh of the tragic:
I.e., it is an acknowledgement of a life and a death that is no one else’s but mine.
It follows that no one else can take my death from me.
 
Second, “the cosmic breath”: The sigh is a mark of my stepping back from the brink.
The sigh implies that I am viewing life as if from above.
It follows that the sigh is sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”).
 
Third, the puzzle: How can the sigh be at once above me (infinitude) and about me (finitude)?
The solution: The sigh is a sign that the life of which I am a part I am not, finally, apart.
Conclusion: With the sigh, I have overcome despair. Whence the wise final line re: “loss and love to come.”

*

A Memory, a Lullaby

December 25, 2009. I sighed, yes I sighed. I was busy making the world’s shittiest hot chocolate. There was no milk in the refrigerator, the stove was half-warm and wouldn’t heat up, and I was in a fucking hurry. The end result was a chalky mess which I rushed out to hand to my former girlfriend–a beautiful woman, with dark hair and dark eyes, “nothing like the sun”–who stood forlornly beside her Mini. It had been a miracle, I suppose, that the SUV that had crunched the right front fender hadn’t also collected my right femur, tibia, and ankle in the bargain. The car was fucking mangled, and, what’s worse, the hot chocolate was undrinkable. (I drank it later.) Because I could walk, I could still make shitty hot chocolate. She turned from me, my dark lady. Here–Exhibit A–was salvation, light amusement for the mischievous gods.

I nudged (if that’s the word) the Mini onto the side road. Then, I slowly unloaded my boxes back into my old apartment. A dingy place I’d subletted–yes–from a writing friend who was away in South America working on the next great American novel. (We live our cliches, don’t we?) Luckily, I didn’t have much to haul. Half the boxes were filled with books. The other half with a wasted life.

Later that evening, I bought a one-day unlimited Metro card. It was 12 subway rides there and back before I’d managed to stack all the boxes in the Park Slope apartment I’d end up sharing for 3 months with a hipster bartender and a guy working for a start-up (This, of course, was before we got kicked out by the new landlord named Joe.) That night and for the next 3 months, I would sleep on an air mattress next to my philosophy books. The air mattress had a pin-sized hole in it. A memory of lost time: Alone walking home.

Home now. 2 years later. Upper East Side. Here I type beside the morning light, the birdsong, the birch trees, the church bells which should be set to ring in about an hour. Home now, my god. Omphalos. Now I laugh, yes I laugh. To me, life is sweet.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “The Latest Version of my Short Public Bio”

On good humor and good thinking

1

The story goes that Plato is giving a lecture in the Academy on the essence of man. “What is man?” he asks. His pupils listen intently. “Man,” he answers, “is a featherless biped.” It is these properties that, conjointly, distinguish us from the mere brutes.

At which point, Diogenes of Sinope bursts into the room and plunks down a plucked chicken. “Man!” he blares and cackles hysterically. “There is man!”

The rest of the day Diogenes spends enveloping himself in philosophical contemplation: masturbating openly in the marketplace.

2

Theories of laughter propose to tell us what makes something funny. For example, the Superiority Theory, espoused most famously by Thomas Hobbes, holds that we laugh in order to demonstrate that we are superior to the object of derision. “Look here, my friends. What fools. What clowns!” Other theories advance different solutions. The Incongruity Theory, which gets top billing in The New Yorker, states that we laugh when there is some kind of incongruity between our expectations (a subway scene) and reality (alligators sitting and chatting leisurely). Yet none of these theories of humor seek to explain why we humans have a sense of humor at all.

Matthew Hurley, in his book Inside Jokes, claims to have an answer to this more fundamental philosophical question.  According to a recent book review that appeared in The Boston Globe,

Hurley and his coauthors begin from the idea that our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes.

Enter mirth, a little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humor is the lure that keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality. As “Inside Jokes” argues, much of what we consider comedy takes advantage of this cognitive reflex, much as McDonald’s taps our evolved taste for high-energy food.

Laughter, Hurley thinks, is our reward for detecting errors in our reasoning. Every day we make assumptions about ourselves and others. Some of these assumptions are plausible; others less so; others not at all. When I laugh, I’m rewarding myself for identifying faulty reasoning (the cat, it turns out, is not in the hat), for making invalid inferences (Australia is not the capital of Luxembourg), and uncluttering my foggy thinking (my falling on the sidewalk reminds me that I’m not so graceful). Laughter mends and repairs. Laughter eases up our claims, “unexaggerating” them.

This theory would explain 3 key points about my life: one, why I take so much pleasure in not taking myself so seriously; two,  why Jane Austen’s novels contain such immense wisdom; and, three, why I laugh at, and make my fair share of, bad jokes.

3

Me: Wow, she’s got everything I’m looking for. Beauty, grace, style. Exquisite cheekbones, neck, jawline. We’re going out this Friday night. [Shows friend the picture]

Friend: Yes, she’s beautiful–striking profile she has–but you know that that’s Ingrid Bergman. And I might just add that dear Ingrid’s been dead now for 20 years.

Me: But she sounded so lively over the phone.

[Ba dum!]