Category Archives: philosophy

The Crystal Palace Unmanned.

I came to the end of Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, and feel that my engagement with the author and his theses has barely begun. The insights about eternal human longings down through the ages, and even small details about the lives of individual thinkers, will be rattling around in my mind for a long time to come, and I hope to refer to some of them in the future.

In the meantime, I wanted to share here a few paragraphs from the concluding Part 4, “Integral vs. Rational Man.” The goal of the existentialists is here named as integration; not irrationality, as the book’s title might have led us to think. I’m sure the title Integrated Man would not have been nearly as memorable, and unfortunately, at least a couple of existentialists have descended into such irrationality that they were certainly insane.

William Barrett

“Existentialism is the counter—Enlightenment come at last to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond anything else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, abstract, and therefore dangerous. (I say its “ideology,” for the practical task of the Enlightenment is still with us: In everyday life we must continue to be critics of a social order that is still based everywhere on oppression, injustice, and even savagery—such being the peculiar tension of mind that we as responsible human beings have to maintain today.)

Martin Heidigger

“The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is perhaps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man will always exist in untruth as well as truth. Utopians who still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dispersed and mankind will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Palace will find this recognition disheartening. But on second thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; for utopianism — whether the brand of Marx or of Nietzsche — by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves human beings here and now, as well as all mankind up to this point, without their own meaning.

“If man is to be given meaning, the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the whole tradition of Western thought. The realization that all human truth must not only shine against an enveloping darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its own darkness may be depressing, and not only to utopians. But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery from which the glittering world of his technology estranges him, but without which he is not truly human.”

-William Barrett in Irrational Man, 1958

A good portion of the book can be found: here.

Touring a house of endless rooms.

BOOKS

From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night;
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.

I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.

I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.

I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.

I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;
when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boys and his sister receding into the words.

-Billy Collins

Johan van Hell – Boekenstalletje

This poem was the perfect one for me to find right now, because I myself have been acting out all the verbs: following, straining, hearing and touring… and listening hard, to the humming of a choir. This choir of authors aren’t all consciously “singing” in harmony, or even intending to write about the same things, but their voices, the sounds, the crumbs I am following “across a page of fresh snow” all seem to be parts of a whole. The rooms I am touring are all in one house; it must be the place where the human soul lives.

My “circles of light” sometimes seem like a 60’s light show, beautiful and confusing, when I am waiting rather for illumination and clarity. So many authors have shined their little lights out into the world, but how many reveal the reality of things?

Over the last several months I have been reading a lot, with no resulting book reviews and few even small illuminations of the sort I might write about here. The Eucharist was very focused and wonderful and I do want to say some things about it eventually, but instead of stopping for that I kept working my way through Irrational Man, which is such a tour de force that it’s hard to know what to say about — everything.  It mostly makes me want to read more books that William Barrett reminds me of.

Like Flight From Woman by Karl Stern, which I read some years ago and thought brilliant; but at the time I knew I needed to read it a second time to digest it. Barrett explains the duality of selves in Sartre’s philosophy, how he considers not the “fruitful, excessive, fruitful blooming nature” to be the true self, but only that of the radically free and active man who has projects. Now I want to go back and read Stern on this topic.

But I am determined to finish a couple more books first. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is like another long chapter, maybe the closing chapter, of Western Philosophy, so it will be good if I can move right on to finishing it after Barrett.

On my recent road trip I listened to Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson, a title so embarrassing on several fronts that I considered leaving this accomplishment unrecorded. But even this book, which was about as deep as I could go on all that freeway driving, provided a few revealing glimpses of how ideas from the other books I mentioned play out in real life, especially the central one: What is the self?

About halfway through The Cross of Loneliness I began to have a difficult time knowing what these two men were talking about, but I will finish that book, too, before long. My really easy, small book to read under the covers right now is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I found in the little free library up at the lake.

And then, the sweetest, which will be easy to finish, as it’s like swimming slowly through a small and refreshing pond to the other side: The Scent of Water, which our book club is reading together. It is coming to an end way too fast.

Oh, yes, there are a dozen more sitting nearby, that I plan to continue with eventually, but they are not at the moment as current as these, these rooms full of delicious crumbs that I trust are leading me always to brighter places.

In regard to my own life and reading, I don’t relate to the progression of Collins’s poem, in its hearkening back to the experiences of childhood and youth, and the mood of evening and shadow descending. I am just very thankful for all the good writers I have at my disposal, and for the lovely song that they are trying to learn and to sing.

Areas in which human moods are present.

When I for the hundredth time renew my efforts to be civilized, to sit at the table while taking time to eat my meal, it gives me the opportunity to make progress in one of the print books I am in the middle of. If reading while eating is uncivilized, there is no hope for me.

Today it was Irrational Man, by William Barrett. Since I began reading it I’ve probably acquired a dozen more books, several of which I feel somewhat urgent about. But I’ve noticed that as days and months go by, this intensity of feeling shifts from one book to another, and waxes and wanes, often shrinking away completely to be replaced by an indefinable mood of summer that rules out urgency. The thoroughly warmed state of my bones is a contributing factor. We humans are composed of many parts not to be discounted. As Barrett says in the first chapter,

“Philosophers who dismissed Existentialism as ‘merely a mood’ or ‘a postwar mood’ betrayed a curious blindness to the concerns of the human spirit, in taking the view that philosophic truth can be found only in those areas of experience in which human moods are not present.”

This is a theme in Irrational Man. I may have already reported that some reviewers called Barret an anthropologist. He is also psychologist enough to want to present his own analysis of the whole man, whichever philosopher he is talking about, to help us in “the endless effort to drag the balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience.” According to my own Orthodox Christian understanding, he is often insightful. As a true anthropologist, though, he tries to be objective in assessing the “culture” of his subjects, so it is hard to know what his personal religion and beliefs might have been, apart from his voicing them when applicable to his subject. They were probably in flux, too.

I know — I hope — I will keep talking about this book, or at least will keep posting interesting quotes about things I can’t claim to know much about. I appreciate that the author has a vast knowledge of history from which to compose his own thesis, but of course he is nonetheless limited by what has been written down and by his own finite mind and life.  In any case it’s wonderful to me that he could accomplish this book, which does seem to be an act of love. And I repeat, his prose is a joy.

For now, my own time to think and synthesize is severely limited, and I probably should not have even taken so long to write this intro to the quote that is what I wanted to share today, from the chapter on Nietzsche:

“…godless is one thing Nietzsche certainly was not: he was in the truest sense possessed by a god, though he could not identify what god it was and mistakenly took him for Dionysus. In a very early poem, ‘To the Unknown God,’ written when he was only twenty years old, he speaks about himself as a god-possessed man, more truthfully than he was later, as a philosopher, to be able to recognize:

“‘I must know thee, Unknown One,
Thou who searchest out the depths of my soul,
And blowest like a storm through my life.
Thou are inconceivable and yet my kinsman!
I must know thee and even serve thee.’

“Had God really died in the depths of Nietzsche’s soul or was it merely that the intellect of the philosopher could not cope with His presence and His meaning?

“If God is taken as a metaphysical object whose existence has to be proved, then the position held by scientifically-minded philosophers like [Bertrand] Russell must inevitably be valid: the existence of such an object can never be empirically proved. Therefore, God must be a superstition held by primitive and childish minds. But both these alternative views are abstract, whereas the reality of God is concrete, a thoroughly autonomous presence that takes hold of men but of which, of course, some men are more conscious than others. Nietzsche’s atheism reveals the true meaning of God – and does so, we might add, more effectively than a good many official forms of theism.”

-William Barrett in Irrational Man

 

Art credit: “Summer Wine” by Diane Leonard

The simple science of Hell.

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognizing the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; but for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition.'”

-How the senior devil explains things to his nephew, in The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis