Shhh! Philosophy

This feels almost like a confession of something I try to hide. It disturbs my public persona, my masks, the roles I play. It’s worse than admitting to a consuming passion for collecting butterflies (although it did Nabokov no harm) or collecting public health pamphlets of Wisconsin between 1923 and 1929 (which were, in fact, significant years to connoisseurs of these artefacts).

It seems to be a final severance from the good sense of the many. Some may find it indecent or at least downright impolite. I know that it will reduce my followers by at least fifty percent (that is, from four to two). Yet some madness seizes me and forces me against all prudence and respectable rectitude to unleash my secret.

Unleash? Rather to lash myself with it. Perhaps even in my isolation the prevalence of advice about journalling from many sources, including advisors to great business leaders and all those pursuing worldly success may aid me now. As well as greatly improving managerial efficiency and identity promotion, it is also said that writing is a good way to stay sane and to clarify what you are thinking. As Marilyn Monroe cleverly phrased it, ‘to think in ink’. Thus shall I proceed, at once a voce and listener to the voice.

It is Philosophy, my secret is Philosophy. It is that which brings everything together. My writing, my reading, my thinking, my wonder.

I return to acceptable discourse

When I was young I had an interview at a university to become a Philosophy undergraduate. I failed. What the learned academics understood by philosophy differed greatly from my understanding which was based upon having read the first twenty or so pages of Satre’s Nausea. Shortly afterwards I was accepted by a university which had a broad base understanding of education (it was Scottish) rather than a precipitous commitment to one subject. I began to study English, Psychology and Philosophy. After eighteen months I studied Philosophy and English with a view to a Joint Honours degree. I kept up with Philosophy for three years but dropped it as it was seriously taking time from my leisure pursuits which centred around concupiscent hedonism. In any case, the philosophy I was taught was strictly analytic, had no time whatsoever for metaphysics or indeed anything that could not be logically analysed as ‘sound’. Such philosophy sniggered at the names of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. So I graduated after four years with a degree in English.

Yet, an abject exile from Philosophy, I found in literature the very philosophy I had sought. ‘Philosophy will clip and angel’s wings,’ wrote Keats in the face of the tsunami of ‘Enlightenment’ thinking. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson: surely they were philosophers? My university succeeded in deepening my love of literature. Over many years since my extraordinarily great good fortune to be a lover of literature has enabled me to acknowledge without doubt that I am a lover of wisdom, a bibliophile and a sophiephile.

Of course, many known first as philosophers are also among the greats of literature. Irish Murdoch, Camus and Sartre. Yet the boundaries between disciplines are merely arbitrary borders, made the more rigid by those with the power to do so who want to keep their own territory clean from contamination.

Isn’t philosophy about life and humanity and aren’t all the arts about this too? Aren’t we fascinated by good and evil (ethics), how to live the best life (psychology, ethics, religion, politics, ‘the meaning of life’), how vain is all our knowledge which ‘signifies nothing’ or ‘brings us nearer our ignorance’ (epistemology), our love of beauty (aesthetics). Yet, I think it was Ayer who said that philosophy is simply ‘a branch of logic’.

I find great philosophy and literature inseparable in the many books of that great library, the Bible, in the Vedic texts, in various renderings of Daoist or Buddhist texts, in Moby Dick, in Jack Kerouac, in James Kelman, in Dante and Chaucer, in Homer and Zola. And, of course, to read Bergson, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer not with the cold eyes of a logician but with the joy of the reader of literature is an incalculable gift, incalculable because quality, value are not part of the calculating mind.

Here Endeth my Confession

I’d like to end with a piece from Tolstoy’s A Confession:

“I felt,” says Tolstoy, “that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence, in one way or another. It cannot be said exactly that I wished to kill myself, for the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, more general than any mere desire. It was a force like my old aspiration to live, only it impelled me in the opposite direction. It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life.

“Behold me then, a man happy and in good health, hiding the rope in order not to hang myself to the rafters of the room where every night I went to sleep alone; behold me no longer going shooting, lest I should yield to the too easy temptation of putting an end to myself with my gun.

“I did not know what I wanted. I was afraid of life; I was driven to leave it; and in spite of that I still hoped something from it.

“All this took place at a time when so far as all my outer circumstances went, I ought to have been completely happy. I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved; good children and a large property which was increasing with no pains taken on my part. I was more respected by my kinsfolk and acquaintance than I had ever been; I was loaded with praise by strangers; and without exaggeration I could believe my name already famous. Moreover I was neither insane nor ill. On the contrary, I possessed a physical and mental strength which I have rarely met in persons of my age. I could mow as well as the peasants, I could work with my brain eight hours uninterruptedly and feel no bad effects.

“And yet I could give no reasonable meaning to any actions of my life. And I was surprised that I had not understood this from the very beginning. My state of mind was as if some wicked and stupid jest was being played upon me by some one. One can live only so long as one is intoxicated, drunk with life; but when one grows sober one cannot fail to see that it is all a stupid cheat. What is truest about it is that there is nothing even funny or silly in it; it is cruel and stupid, purely and simply.

What is this then? Philosophy? Literature? Psychology?