How many ways have we learned not to awaken? Reflections on the use of metaphors for Superstorm Sandy

A storm is no neutral thing. Can we count the metaphors? Before the later-named Superstorm Sandy struck the eastern seaboard, journalists reported of citizens bracing. As it churned and grinded, cities like New York were summarily bashed, battered, pummeled, punched (as in packing a…), pounded (e.g., into submission). In the aftermath, the city, though burdened, is recovering, with businesses back and running and commuters returning to work. Everyone is slowly return to normal, to business as usual, to their everyday lives.

What, philosophically, is at stake? According to the Kantian philosopher Susan Neiman in her excellent book Evil in Modern Thought, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 marked a passage into modernity. As the earthquake struck and decimated the city, it raised anew and with especial rawness the problem of evil, with some Christian theologians tracing “natural evil” back to “moral evil” and many Enlightenment apologists rejecting this ‘superstition.’ This event, the former said, was the result of man’s sins and hence was a sign of God’s punishment. However, this medieval synthesis between natural and moral evil–or, more generally, between the natural order and the man-made order–was severed when Enlightenment thinkers held more convincingly that the natural order was value-neutral while the human order was value-laden.

This argument ushered in a new way of experiencing. During the rise of mechanism, nature would come to function solely according to physical laws, leaving room only for human beings to be purposive agents. (For more on this line of thought, see my “Following Nature’s Course,” Dark Mountain: Issue 3.) Consequently, events such as Sandy would be figured as “natural disasters” and thus would have no moral significance and, apart from ‘what to do’ and ‘what is to be done in the aftermath,’ would come to bear no relation to the moral life.

The joke about Sandy is that nature is re-animated, only to keep us asleep. (Thoreau: “To be awakened is to be alive.”) The metaphors journalists use to describe Sandy presume that nature has human-like qualities. In this regard, their descriptions are more ‘poetic’ than value-neutral. According to this story, human beings, so often the masters of nature, are here the victims of a massive force that is beyond their control and that inflicts upon them great suffering, possible punishments. Hence, a more animistic account of natural forces returns during such moments.

The joke goes further, however, due to the fact that ‘the technical’ quickly closes most people off from philosophical inquiry into the question of what matters most. By technical, I mean, for instance: whether levies should be built, how the clean-up can be made more efficient, at what point power and subway service will be restored, which insurance companies will cover what, when will the public schools be reopened, etc. These, and others, are  ways of closing us off from–strategies of blinding us to–the individual and communal confrontation with mortality, human fragility, and (in this instance) the contingencies and hubris of industrial civilization. What is a proper relation between humans and the natural world? Of the Buddha Jaspers wrote that “all existence is suffering and the essential is redemption from suffering.”

‘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.