Archive for November, 2011
A classic! (with Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort)
The philosopher, therefore, is a passionate animal. His passion exhausts itself not in the accumulation of data, however, but in questioning. The fierceness of his inquiry determines his order of rank. A passion for unanswerable questions, and an inability to remain indifferent and distanced from them, is the mark of a true thinker.
–from Leslie Paul Thiele, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study in Heroic Individualism, p. 116.
This morning, as it happens, I am standing, puzzled, in the kitchen, with a little book set down before me. I am in the midst of one of those moments where the folly of my solitary undertaking takes hold of me and, on the verge of giving up, I fear I have finally found my master.
His name is Husserl, a name not often given to pets or to brands of chocolate, for the simple reason that it evokes something grave, daunting, and vaguely Prussian. But that is of little consolation. I believe that my fate has taught me, better than anyone, to resist the negative influences of world thought. Let me explain: if, thus far, you have imagined that the ugliness of ageing and conciergely widowhood have made a pitiful wretch of me, resigned to the lowliness of her fate – then you are truly lacking in imagination. I have withdrawn, to be sure, and refuse to fight. But within the safety of my own mind, there is no challenge I cannot accept. I may be indigent in name, position, and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.
Thus Edmund Husserl – and I have concluded that this is a name fit for vacuum cleaner bags – has been threatening the stability of my private Mount Olympus.
–the thoughts of Renée the concierge, from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, pp. 53-4.
It’s not a calling, there are choices, the field is wide. You do not take up philosophy the way you enter the seminary, with a credo as your sword and a single path as your destiny. Should you study Plato, Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, or even Husserl? Esthetics, politics, morality, epistemology, metaphysics? Should you devote your time to teaching, to producing a body of work, to research, to Culture? It makes no difference. The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite – for this turns the university into a sect.
–from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, p. 252.
For getting in the mood to learn about John D. Caputo’s Against Ethics.
By coincidence – or, if the subject of one of them is to be believed, by design – we saw two plays this weekend with themes of God, truth, love, loyalty, friendship, family, freedom, slavery, and redemption from a Jewish perspective.
New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656, by David Ives, wonderfully performed at the Lantern Theater, tells the story of philosopher Baruch (“Bento”) de Spinoza (1632-1677), his trial for heresy, his expulsion from Amsterdam, and his excommunication from the Jewish people. Was Spinoza an atheist, or was he the most God-drenched of men? He saw God and nature as the same (“Bento’s Rule”: Never just say “God;” always say, “God, that is to say, nature…”.) He deemed sacred scripture to be superstition meant to direct the actions of people in a certain manner, and not as a conduit to truth. He advocated a determinism that struck his accusers as fatalism and the undoing of all ethical life. He believed the “peace” accord struck by the Jewish community and the “tolerant” Dutch protestants came at too high a price, and although he protested unceasingly his commitment and love for the Jewish people, he was unwilling to renounce his freedom to think his own thoughts. This made his love for a Christian woman and the loyalty of friendship impossible for him (the former in his refusal to convert to Christianity, the latter in his friend’s willingness to inform on and testify against him). The question that haunts me in this story – magnificently acted all around – is this moral and political one: Should Spinoza have been excommunicated? Spinoza himself, on his own views, could not really answer this question. Could we?
The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez, performed at the Arden Theatre, tells the story of a seriously wounded and on-the-run Confederate soldier returning to his home at the close of the Civil War. He, Caleb, is a Jew, and he finds one of his slaves, an older man named Simon, still occupying his home, both of their families (slave owner and slave) gone away. Another young now-former slave, John, enters the story, and he also seems to be on-the-run. The former slaves are Jews, too, having been raised and educated as Jews in the Jewish slaveowner’s home. A recurrent question is: Are we Jews or are we slaves? Scripture teaches that Jews could have slaves but not Jews as slaves. So what is the truth of their status (or former status)? The situation and context of the play provides ample space to pursue the intricacies of slavery, freedom, religion, family (the twists and turns of the plot are dizzying at times, as evidenced by vocal reactions from the audience at points). The older man, Simon, has kept the faith, despite intense trials, but the young Caleb has lost his belief in God. He saw the horrors of war, and fell into despair. John, who has been looting the abandoned homes in the area, is also troubled by his past, wanting explanations that are not forthcoming. Both Caleb and John, intertwined in a classic master/slave dialectic, are seeking their freedom by demanding certainties. “Two peas in a pod.” Simon tells them, in effect, that our freedom does not consist in having the answers but in being able to ask questions. To lose the ability to ask questions – especially about ourselves – is to lose our freedom.
Spinoza would have agreed.
The Whipping Man ends in silence, in a situation in which nothing meaningful can be said. But the characters must live on, despite the deep uncertainty, guilt, failure. The play left me thinking that we are John and Caleb. We cannot un-live our own histories, cannot wrest free from our past, cannot really know what to make of all our intentions and entanglements. But we must live on, find love when love is in question, help each other when we don’t really know ourselves. It is our only hope.