Sustaining life is not the good life

I write this post after spending time this morning contemplating the nature of things. This post is not a ‘product’ of that contemplation.


In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor has some remarkable things to say about the disappearance of the higher forms of the good life during the passage to modernity. He argues that the life of contemplation as well as that of civic participation were replaced, for the most part, by the ‘affirmation of ordinary life.’ What is distinctive about modernity is not just that for the first time in human history individuals have come to affirm the spheres of production (work) and reproduction (family) but also that ‘the good’ has come to be regarded as manifesting itself fully through work and family. Once we are alerted to this strangeness, we cannot but feel bewildered.

I do not think this move toward the affirmation of ordinary life is warranted, and the reason is that it seems to me a form of ‘passive nihilism’: it can answer the question, ‘How to go on living?,’ yet it cannot possibly furnish an answer, let alone acknowledge the question, ‘What is a reason for living?’ Sustaining life is not identical with leading a good life.

My negative thesis is that the affirmation of ordinary life amounts to passive nihilism. My positive thesis is that a philosophical version of a gift economy recuperates the proper relationship between life and the good life, the lower and the higher, the material and the intelligible.

Let us see how this two-part argument unfolds.

Continue reading “Sustaining life is not the good life”

On first words, last lines, and final thoughts

It was while lying in bed beneath the flowered sheets that I’d read to her the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway and we’d loved. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And it was while lying on the grass beside the northern spring lake that she’d read, less enthusiastically, the opening lines of To the Lighthouse. “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

I can remember lying on top of the sheets and reading that line to her. On the beach, we opened the book and already had in mind the idea that the next first line must shimmer, must shimmer as radiantly but also in its own way, had all this mind and then found Mrs. Ramsay’s words wanting by comparison. I think we had wanted to love those lines just as much as we’d loved Clarissa’s, but then we couldn’t work ourselves up to the business.

In the years since we parted, I’ve mused about those opening lines: the invitation to a dinner party, the unforeseeable end of childhood. Here are cut flowers, stalks stout, eyes raised up from the table, welcoming all, and there the lark flying, its extravagant song, its flitting farewell to boyhood. In the years since, I’ve read the first lines of stories, essays, and books with an eye to… well, with an eye to an inexplicable something.

She said she’d pick up the flowers herself. Yes, but you’ll have to be up with the larks. Compare with Gopnik (Adam–not his sister) from his book on winter for which I am to write a review: “I recall my first snowstorm as though it were yesterday, though it was, as it happens, November 12, 1968.” After that sad start, it took some courage to read on.

(A note: the awkwardness of first lines: to be lived with, smiled about. An image, a real one: clinking teeth for a first kiss.)

The delicacy of first lines, like warm greetings, has led me to think about the pallor of last words. On his deathbed, Wittgenstein reportedly said, “Tell them it’s been a wonderful life.” Before then, nobody who knew him could have had any idea that Wittgenstein could manage to tell a joke. Though maybe, after having tried to build the perfect house–white, sharp, without eros–for his sister who’d spared no expense and after having failed miserably, he finally–I don’t know–felt maybe that lives were nothing like modernist buildings or engineering projects. Or maybe he wasn’t telling a joke after all; perhaps he really meant it.

Whatever it is he said or meant, I realize that, in interpreting his words, I am, as it were, talking over him, not letting him have the last word–his final words. And this all along has been my weakness: the desire to put in the last words. The desire to get in there in the nick of time, to be so clever till the very end. The stillborn dream of the clever one is to make the end his own. These, my dear, are my terms. Don’t you love my mastery? Can’t you see that this world I have made, with these words, my own?

Only a few days ago, I wrote to a beautiful woman about this problem: “Something I’ve learned over the past year or so is how to let the other have the last word. When I’ve done this, sometimes I’ve heard the other’s last word resound. I think there’s a restraint involved, at least initially, but after a while a learning to listen and let be.” All well and good apart from the fact that I’d managed, once again, to talk over her when I’d written these lines about final lines. (Open parenthesis. In this case, I wanted to give her praise. Is this exculpation by another name? Close parenthesis.)

In my philosophy practice, I am now, or so I would like to think, much more attuned to letting the welcomed one have the first and final lines. At least I want her to have them. Want to give her the opening she needs in order to say the opening words and make the parting gesture. (Do you see how alluring that idea is? And do you see a radiant life just here: in all the giving all others the first and final words and in the not feeling as if you’ve merely settled for a few good words in between?)

Maybe the idea is to let every other have the first words and the last lines. And then, when it comes time, to be silent, letting the gods have the final thoughts.

The alien and the American discuss modern work life (P.S. It’s a joke)

So the alien has scheduled an appointment with the American in order to compare notes about work life on their respective planets. This is what they said.

Alien: On my planet, we have ‘companies’ that occupy physical spaces known as ‘office buildings.’

American: Yeah, we have those too.

Alien: Also. On my planet, we have ’employees’ who work in ‘official buildings.’ These ’employees’ file what we term ‘reports.’ They go to ‘meetings’ held in ‘board rooms.’ Some of them ‘make schedules’ and ‘field inquiries.’ We used to call them ‘secretaries,’ but now, after all the fucking PC bullshit, we have agreed to refer to them as ‘subspecialty-executive administrators-in-subservience-training-for-perpetuity.’

American: Yup, we’ve got them too. Sort of.

Alien: But listen, friend. I am not finished. On my planet, we also put some in charge of ‘examining budgets’: ‘accountants.’ And some we put in charge of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’: ‘managers.’ And some who are in charge of hiring new ’employees’: ‘alien waste management.’

American: OK, yeah, OK, yeah. I follow you. But who are the aliens who run the show? I mean, how do you call them?

Alien: Oh, yes, them. Them we call ‘assholes.’

American: Well, yeah, this is, ya know, really interesting, really really enlightening because I can see that we really have a lot in common. I mean there’s a lot of common ground here between your people and mine, between you and me, right here, right here between us. I see a lot of convergence.

Alien: I sense that too, friend. You have a halo of ethereal shit hovering high above you, and it puts me at great peace. And let us not forget that it is always important for collaborators like you and me to work toward a common vision for the sake of maximizing stakeholder returns.

American: Um, yeah. Exactly. And–right–so what I was about to say was that I think the main difference is essentially linguistic. You see what you call ‘accountants’ and ‘managers’ and all that we call ‘laptops.’

Alien: Ah ha. Very interesting.

American: And what you call ‘board rooms’–well, those we refer to as ‘Skype chats.’

Alien: I am taking notes as you speak, so please bear with me. You must know that I’m totally with you, bro.

American: Now then: what you used to call ‘secretaries’–the ones who get the coffee and make the appointments and, well, do all the scut work around here–on our planet these people, who by the way usually wear these really sexy hip glasses even though they have near-perfect vision, also work for free in exchange for ‘resume building’ and a couple of useless college credits–I’m referring, of course, to ‘interns.’

Alien: Ah, I see. That is very, very interesting. The Martians call that ‘exploitation’ but don’t mind them. They’re out there on the fringe left. In the mainstream political process, they have virtually no pull. But now aren’t we missing something? Something basic. You haven’t told me what you call an ‘office building.’

American: Oh, right. That’s ‘Starbucks.’

On the art of translation and a sense of a style

On the Art of Translation. Of David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (New York: Faber & Faber, 2011), a reviewer at The New Yorker observes, “In the English-speaking world, translation is mostly understood as [here quoting Bellos] ‘the transfer of meaning from one language to another,’ a sense derived from the Latin root, which means ‘to bear across.’ Other cultures describe translation as an act not of transferral but of change, more akin to alchemy; in ancient Babylon a translator was eme-bal, a ‘language turner.'”

On Montaigne’s Sense of Style. The following is an excerpt from Eric Auerbach’s magisterial midcentury work of literary history, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1957). The book, the Copyright page perceptively notes, was “[w]ritten in Istanbul between May 1942 and April 1945.” In Istanbul, Auerbach lucubrated while ignorant armies clashed by night. Originally published in German, the book was translated by Willard Trask and printed in the US in 1953. My brown copy comes courtesy of Henry Reed, author of the definitive history of the New York Public Library.

Auerbach’s august style is, it should be noted, deceptively simple. His dry paraphrase, so unlike Montaigne’s meaty directness, limns Montaigne’s tightrope-walking self with the scintillation of an executive summary. I hope you will also fall in love with point 7. Please enjoy.

1. I depict a lowly and unillustrious life; but that is of no consequence; even the lowliest life contains the whole of things human.

2. In contrast to others I depict no specialized body of knowledge, no special skill, which I have acquired; I present myself, Montaigne, in my entire person, and I am the first to do so.

3. If you reproach me with talking too much about myself, I reply by reproaching you with not thinking about yourselves.

4. Only now does he formulate the question: Is it not presumptuous to wish to bring so limited an individual case to general and public knowledge? Is it reasonable that I should offer to a world which is only prepared to appreciate form and art, so undigested and simple a product of nature, and, to make matters worse, so insignificant a product of nature?

5. Instead of an answer he now gives these “extenuating circumstances”: a) no one has ever been so fully versed in his subject as I am in mine; b) no one has ever gone so deeply into his subject, so far into all its parts and ramifications; no one has ever carried out his purpose so exactly and so completely.

6. To achieve this I need nothing but unreserved sincerity and of that I have no lack. I am a little hampered by conventions; at times I should like to go somewhat further; but as I grow older I permit myself certain liberties which people are inclined to excuse in an old man.

7. In my case one thing at least cannot happen, as it does in the case of many a specialist: that man and work are not in accord; that one admires the work but finds the author a mediocrity in daily life–or vice versa. A man of learning is not learned in all fields; but a whole person is whole everywhere, including where he is ignorant. My book and I are one thing; he who speaks of the one speaks easily of the other. (259-60)

On getting kicked in the teeth: A letter to a friend

The following is a letter I wrote to a friend of mine a few days ago. The names have been changed and the personal information removed.

September 14, 2011

Dear Sarah,

Yes, John is a strange fellow. The bad thing is that he’s boorish and dull. The good thing is that he understands the importance of serendipity. Breaking up couples who would otherwise sit together is a charming idea. Unfortunately, my set was tedious–there was a garrulous, sentimental woman on my left, an ex-pat seated directly opposite whom, as of yet, I can’t make much of, a girl who’s nice and ruddy but not much else, and a father whom I’ve already described as boorish and dull–but such, after all, is the risk of serendipity. You wince some, you cringe some…

Since our lunch on Day Day, I’ve been kicking around the idea (pun intended) of the importance of “getting kicked in the teeth.” It’s an apt expression: I’m on the ground, my mouth is open, and in this vulnerable state people keep on hurting me. But what does the expression mean? To acknowledge human frailty and dependence. More: to experience the fear of death. For the one who gets kicked in the teeth knows, first-hand, that no one else can die my own death; that death is mine and mine alone; it is for me and no one else. The significance of this expression is that I recognize that death is me-focused, me-directed, and the insight is that I must turn back toward life.

In turning back toward life, toward a life that is and must be mine, I ask what matters most. To ask, “What matters most,” is to set myself on a path toward working out a table of life values. Among my values, perhaps foremost among them, is a certain being-there-in-life: being there before others, being there in my life. I am held to account before some authority. I’m more than a denizen of the world; I’m there-there in a world of others, standing before and present to others, held to account.

You can tell who hasn’t been kicked in the teeth because they lack a certain earnestness. Those financially and morally supported from Day 1 are missing something. Their lives are lived less intensely, less thickly, less densely. In my experience, they are motivated, if they are, by mild anxiety and lukewarm enthusiasm. They are–or can be–indiscriminately nice, moderately kind, and the good ones generally mean well. But their eyes, come to think of it, don’t shine, and it’s hard to see how they who’ve never been kicked in the teeth and we who have been so kicked could occupy the same moral universe, let alone the same dinner table. And that’s because we don’t. We eat venison and taste–the blood.

Rohmer’s film Love in the Afternoon (1972) is, I wager, about a couple that has been kicked in the teeth. In this his 6th and final Moral Tale, Rohmer believes that the conflict between bourgeois blandness (the marriage state in the late 60s and afterward) and bohemian aestheticism (represented by the afternoon rendezvous) can be overcome. Rohmer’s is a mature vision and one that can’t come without raising self-control, his as well as hers, up to something higher: to beatitude perhaps.

As for getting together on Day Day, that may work out well. I’ve an appointment earlier in the day, but I imagine being free after 2:30 or so. Are you free then? If so, whereabouts shall we meet?