Here is a passage from Thomas McGuane, Nothing but Blue Skies, Houghton-Mifflin, 1992, pp. 201-202, to which I have added hyperlinks.
He [Frank Copenhaver] turned on the radio and listened to an old song called "Big John": everybody falls down a mine shaft; nobody can get them out because of something too big to pry; Big John comes along and pries everybody loose but ends up getting stuck himself; end of Big John. Frank guessed it was a story of what can happen to those on the top of the food chain.
On to an oldies station and the joy of finding Bob Dylan: "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend." No one compares with this guy, thought Frank. I feel sorry for the young people of today with their stupid fucking tuneless horseshit; that may be a generational judgment but I seriously doubt it. Frank paused in his thinking , then realized he was suiting up for his arrival in Missoula. In a hurricane of logging trucks, he heard, out of a hole in the sky the voice of Sam Cooke: "But I do know that I love you." Frank began to sweat. "And I know that if you love me too, what a wonderful world this would be."
Yesterday I said I was opposed to ". . . misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression." An example of the last-mentioned follows.
Here is a famous passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" rarely quoted in full:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. (Ziff, 183)
People routinely rip the initial clause of this passage out of its context and take Emerson to be attacking logical consistency. Or else they quote only the first sentence, or the first two sentences. An example by someone who really ought to know better is provided by Robert Fogelin in his book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (Oxford UP, 2001). Chapter One, "Why Obey the Laws of Logic?," has among its mottoes (p. 14) the first two sentences of the Emerson quotation above. The other three mottoes, from Whitman, Nietzsche, and Aristotle, are plainly about logical consistency.
It should be clear to anyone who reads the entire passage quoted above in the context of Emerson's essay that Emerson’s dictum has nothing to do with logical consistency and everything to do with consistency of beliefs over time. The consistency in question is diachronic rather than synchronic. A “little mind” is “foolishly consistent” if it refuses to change its beliefs when change is needed due to changing circumstances, further experience, or clearer thinking. It should be clear that if I believe that p at time t, but believe that ~p at later time t*, then there is no time at which I hold logically inconsistent beliefs. Doxastic alteration, like alteration in general, is noncontradictory for the simple reason that properties which are contradictory when taken in abstracto are had at different times. My coffee changes from hot to non-hot, and thus has contradictory attributes when we abstract from the time of their instantiation. But since the coffee instantiates them at different times, there is no contradiction such as would cause us to join Parmenides in denying the reality of the changeful world.
Belief change is just a special case of this. Suppose a politician changes her position for some good reason. There is not only nothing wrong with this, it shows an admirable openness. She goes from believing in a progressive tax scheme to believing in a flat tax, say. Surely there is no logical contradiction involved, and for two reasons.
First, the property of believing that a progressive tax is warranted is not the contradictory, but merely the contrary, of the property of believing that a flat tax is warranted. (They cannot both be instantiated at the same time, but it is possible that neither be instantiated.) Second, the properties are had at different times. A logical contradiction ensues only when one simultaneously maintains both that p and that ~p.
Emerson’s sound point, then, is that one should not make a fetish out of doxastic stasis: there is nothing wrong with being ‘inconsistent’ in the sense of changing one’s beliefs when circumstances change and as one gains in experience and insight. But this is not to say that one should adopt the antics of the flibbertigibbet. Relative stability of views over time is an indicator of character.
Before leaving this topic, let's consider what Walt Whitman has to say in the penultimate section 51 of “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Here it appears that Whitman is thumbing his nose at logical consistency. If so, the Emersonic and Whitmanic dicta ought not be confused. But confuse them is precisely what Fogelin does when he places the Emerson and Whitman quotations cheek-by-jowl on p. 14 of his book.
I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
FALSE APHORISMS are not as rare as one might think. More significant than Wilde's, on account of its influence, is Marx's dismissal of religion as "the opium of the people." For this implies that religion is adopted purely for its ability to soothe the wounds of society, and that there is some other condition to which humanity might advance in which religion would no longer be needed. Both those implications are false, but they are boiled into a stock cube as tasty as any that has been seen on the intellectual menu. How many would-be intellectuals have dissolved this cube into their prose and given their thought, in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, a specious air of wisdom?
Permit me a quibble. Should we call a striking formulation lifted from a wider context an aphorism? I don't think so. An aphorism by my lights is a pithy observation intended by its author to stand alone. Accordingly, Marx's famous remark is not an aphorism. The wider context is provided here.
Today is The International Day of Translators and in my blog I dared to use one of your thougts from your blog, to show how difficult it can get to translate some thoughful ideas into another language.
Your statement I have borrowed was, "Silence is a grating clangor to the unwhole man."
I also suggested a translation and encouraged the readers to provide their critical analysis and possible (better) translation variants.
The blog post has received a very good following so far, people especially speculated about the poetic figure of "grating clangor" and the philosophical aspect of the "unwhole man."
Somebody also suggested a reversed translation of one of the Slovak versions into English: "Silence is a scratch and clangor in the ear of a man lacking inner integrity."
If your time allows, can you please let us know, whether this is close to your original idea, or is it absolutely ridiculous?
Thank you very much,
Dear Mr. Šebo,
I am glad you enjoyed my aphorism and found it stimulating. I wrote it on 3 January 1972 while a young man living in a garret in Salzburg, Austria. When I opened the skylight in the bathroom I got a view of the Salzburg Festung, 'fastness' being a nice old poetic English word for Festung.
As for your reverse translation, I would say that it conveys the idea that I was trying to express, but does so in a way that violates one of the rules for a good aphorism. The good aphorist aims at economy of expression. A good aphorism is terse. "Scratch and" is superfluous, as is "to the ear." Clangor is a loud ringing sound; sounds are perceived through the ears; so there is no need to add "to the ear." 'Clangor' has the added virtue of sounding like what it means. The 'resonance' of the word is diminished by the addition of "scratch and." "Unwhole man" is a more poetic and economical way of saying "man lacking inner integrity." But that is what I meant.
At the time I wrote the aphorism I may have been reading Max Picard who wrote a book entitled The World of Silence. Here is something about Picard.
This is Danny Lanzetta. I saw your blog posting in response to my piece in the Huffington Post last week, "In Defense of Jack Kerouac..." Thanks for reading.
In your reaction, you wrote of my link to that famous OTR passage: "Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening."
I went back and looked at the passage in question. Your reading of it could not be more correct. That is absolutely what I wrote. However, it is not what I meant. My point was supposed to be that Kerouac's "madness" sometimes led to the most beautiful and ecstatic writing one could ever read (thus, the link), while at other times it led to the mess that became his personal life (such as his terrible treatment of his daughter, Jan). After countless proofreadings and going through my piece with a fine-toothed comb, I simply missed the way that sentence read. A simple adjective, appropriately placed, could've saved me. Alas, I missed it. I apologize for the confusion.
I'd be grateful if you could pass along my apologies to your readers. Luckily, it was only a case of bad writing (my own) and not what would be an egregious denouncement of one of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper.
Well, Danny, there is certainly no need to apologize. If you had meant that the famous OTR passage was the sort of purple prose an over-excited sophomore might write, that would have been a defensible claim. But I am glad that is not what you meant. In any case, it is very easy for a writer to fail to say what he means.
I must say I was very impressed at your willingness to accept criticism.
I have discovered the aphorisms of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec via a reference in a book by Josef Pieper. Here are a few that impressed me from More Unkempt Thoughts (Curtis Publishing, 1968, tr. Jacek Galazka), the only book of Lec's I could easily lay hands on.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. (9)
Why can't you believe in paradise on earth when you know there is hell on earth? (10)
When they blow the horn of plenty this loud, it must be empty. (15)
In him there is a void filled to the brim with erudition. (18)
Do not greet people with open arms. Why make yourself easier to crucify? (19)
Take good care of yourself: Property of the State. (22)
Cannibals prefer men who have no spines. (28)
To keep fit fame needs the massage of applause. (31)
Ladies, do not complain about men: their aims are as transparent as your clothes. (36)
The strongest brakes fail on the path of least resistance. (37)
Percussion wins every discussion. (38)
You cannot rely on people to remember, or, alas, to forget. (42).
In some countries life is so open you can spot the Secret Police everywhere. (42)
Not every shi- can age gracefully and become valuable guano. (48)
When men a dangerous disease did 'scape Of old they gave a cock to Aesculape Let me give two, that doubly am got free From my disease's danger, and from thee.
Ben Jonson (1753?-1637) from Epigrams and Epitaphs (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 27.
At the very end of the Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, Socrates is reported by Plato as saying to Crito, "I owe a cock to Asclepius; do not forget to pay it." (tr. F. J. Church) Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. Presumably, Socrates wanted to thank the god for his recovery from the sickness of life itself.
Nietzsche comments at the the beginning of "The Problem of Socrates" in The Twilight of the Idols:
Concerning life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths -- a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live -- that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster." (tr. W. Kaufmann)
But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
— Umberto Eco
The world is a play of phenomena, an enigmatic play of appearances beneath which there is no reality. Harmless in itself, the world is made terrible by us when we make the mad attempt to lay bare an underlying truth it fails to possess. Part of Eco's thought, I take it, is that those who seek the world's underlying truth fool themselves into thinking that they have found it, and having convinced themselves that they are now in possession of it, feel entitled and perhaps even obligated to impose it on others for their own good. But these others, naturally, resist the imposition and react violently. Hence the pursuit of the truth leads to contention and bloodshed. Better to live and let live and admit that there is a variety of perspectives, a diversity of interpretations, but no God's Eye perspective and no final interpretation, let alone an uninterpreted reality in itself, a true world hidden by the world of appearances. The world is interpretation all the way down. Being has no bottom.
The line of thought is seductive but incoherent. If the world is an enigma, then it is true that it is an enigma. If it is harmless, then it is true that it harmless. If it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it, then it is true that it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it. If our attempt is mad, then it is true that our attempt is mad. And if it has no underlying truth, then it is true that it has no underlying truth.
If that is the truth, then there is after all an underlying truth and the world cannot be a play of relativities, of shifting perspectives, of mere interpretations. If the world is such-and-such, then it is, and doesn't merely seem.
Kerouac's work is undoubtedly sophomoric at times. He is hopelessly naïve about people, which sometimes leads to this and other times just comes off as laziness, a selfish desire to write the way he wanted to write and live the way he wanted to live, collateral damage be damned.
The first link is to this OTR passage:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!"
Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening. But although too often quoted, it is passages like this that grabbed my attention and gave me shivers back in the '60s and that still do now in my 60s. My 'beatitude' is considerably more measured these days, and it's a good thing too: too much 'madness' leads to an early grave. Jack's prodigious quaffing of the joy juice caught up with him in '69 at the tender age of 47, and his hero Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of On the Road) was found dead on the railroad tracks near San Miguel Allende, Mexico the year before a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.
But it is for the hyper-romanticism and the heartfelt gush & rush that some of us read Kerouac still despite his many literary flaws, not to mention the mess he made of his life and the lives of others. He was no cool beatnik. He was mad to live, to talk, to feel, to know, to be saved. He was a restless dreamer, a lonesome traveler, a dharma seeker, a desolation angel passing through this vale of tears & mist, a pilgrim on the via dolorosa of this dolorous life, a drifter on the river of samsara hoping one day to cross to the Far Shore.
For all his claims of erudition, Vidal suffered the wages of the public autodidact. I noticed he quoted Latin ad nauseam — and nearly always with his nouns and adjectives not just in the wrong cases (especially the confusion of the accusative and ablative in preposition phrases), but predictably in the fashion of those who like to copy down Latin phrases but cannot read a complete Latin sentence. By his sixties, Vidal had degenerated into a conspiracy theorist, and his embarrassing late-life infatuation with Timothy McVeigh caught the eye of the goddess Nemesis.
At any given time I am reading twenty or so books. One of them at the moment is Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012. In the midst of a lot of stuff, there are some gems. Here is one:
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. (512)
The last line is the best. There is something plebeian about argument. The thought is pure Nietzsche. See "The Problem of Socrates" in Twilight of the Idols (tr. Kaufmann):
Section 4: Socrates' decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty . . . .
Section 5: With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of dalectics. [. . .] What must first be proved is worth little. Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon . . . . Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously . . . .
Whether or not argument is plebeian, it has no place in an aphorism. As I put it:
An aphorism that states its reasons is no aphorism at all. But the reasons are there, though submerged, like the iceberg whose tip alone is visible. An aphorism, then, is the tip of an iceberg of thought.
Aphorisms and poems have this in common: neither can justify what they say while remaining what they are.
The Sontag-Nietzsche view seems to be that one needn't have reasons for what one aphoristically asserts; mine is that one should have them but not state them, leastways, not in the aphorisms themselves.
Addendum, 4:30 PM: That indefatigable argonaut of cyberspace, the ever-helpful Dave Lull, librarian non pareil, friend of bloggers and the just recipient of their heart-felt encomia, sent me a link to a post by James Geary entitled Susan Sontag on Aphorisms.
Geary rightly demolishes the silly conceit of another blogger who, commenting on Sontag, characterizes aphorisms as "the ultimate soundbitification of thinking." That is truly awful and deserves to be buried in the deepest and most mephitic nether regions of the blogosphere.
But Geary says something that contradicts my claim above that argument has no place in an aphorism:
And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though.
It appears that Geary is confusing a statement with an argument. Consider Nietzsche's "Some men are born posthumously." This is a declarative sentence but certainly no argument. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. To argue is to support a claim with reasons. Nothing like this is going on in the one-sentence aphorism just quoted.
I purchased Edward Abbey’s posthumous collection of journal extracts entitled Confessions of a Barbarian (ed. Petersen, Little, Brown & Co., 1994) in April of 1997. Here are some journal jottings inspired by it.
From the notebooks of Paul Brunton to the journals of Ed Abbey – from one world to another. Each of us inhabits his own world. You're damned lucked if in a lifetime you meet two or three kindred souls who can enter, even if only a few steps, into one's own world. The common world in which we meet with many is but the lowest common denominator of our private spheres of meaning.
Abbey bears the marks of an undisciplined man, undisciplined in mind and in body. A slovenly reasoner, a self-indulger.
Paul Brunton, Ed Abbey, Whittaker Chambers, Gustav Bergmann . . . mysticism, nature, politics, ontology . . . . The wild diversity of human interests and commitments. It never ceases to fascinate and astonish me.
Ed Abbey: a romantic, the makings of a quester, but swamped by his sensuality. Held down by the weight of the flesh. The religious urge peeps out here and there in his journals, but his crudity is ever-ready to stifle any upward aspirations.
Abbey: the sex monkey rode him hard night and day. But did he want to throw him off? Hell no! Augustine wanted to be chaste, but not right away. Abbey did not want to be chaste. Can an incontinent man gain any true and balanced insight into the world and life? Lust, like pride, dims the eyes of the mind, and eventually blinds them.
The sex monkey in tandem with the booze monkey, a tag team tough to beat.
Which is more manly, to battle one’s sensuality like Augustine, or to wallow in it like Abbey? Is it cock and balls that make the man? Clothes? Social status? Money? Political power? Big truck? (Abbey: "The bigger the truck the smaller the penis.") Or is it that weak little Funklein, the fragile germ of divine lght that we carry within?
The crudity of Abbey, the elevation of Thoreau.
Abbey: a tremendous sensitivity to the beauties of nature and music, but larded over with an abysmal crudity. Half-educated, self-indulgent, willful. But he knows it, and a tiny part of him wants to do something about it, but he can’t. His base soul is too strong for his noble soul. Goethe’s Faust complained, “Zwei Seelen, ach, wohnen in meiner Brust, und der einer will sich von den anderen trennen!” Abbey could have made the same complaint about two incompatible souls in one breast.
Abbey: proud of his sensuality, his big dick, his five children whom he thinks are just darlings while meanwhile holding that others should not be allowed to procreate. A misanthrope – but not when it comes to himself, his family, and his friends. A tribalist of sorts.
The battle between the noble and the base. In Ed Abbey, the base usually wins.
Ed Abbey made a false god of nature. There is no god but Nature, and Abbey is her prophet.
As for his writing, I'll take it over the social phenomenology of suburban hank-panky served up by East Coast establishmentarians such as John Cheever and John Updike.
The novel is about a famous philosopher who, midway through his career, suddenly finds himself (as Dante did) lost. He feels he has failed his wife and family (the wife has left him), feels he has betrayed his earlier promise and the values of his Wisconsin Lutheran background, has lost interest in his students and has ceased to care about philosophical questions, has lost faith and hope in democracy (and owes a large sum of money to the IRS), scorns the university where he teaches and the unsophisticated town in which it is situated, and has good reason to believe he is losing his mind. He cuts himself off fom his university community by buying a huge rotting house in the country, which turns out to be haunted (if he can trust his wits), and he finds himself up to the neck in evils he never before dreamt of -- middle-of-the-night dumpings of poisonous wastes, witchcraft, backwoods prostitution, a mysterious string of murders, and more. (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 141.)
On Becoming a Novelist is an excellent book, just unbelievably good. And the above described novel ain't no slouch either. But Gardner, being a damned fool, got himself killed in a motorcycle accident at the tender age of 49. A serious loss to American letters.
Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), p. 58:
All in all, being without any need to play a role was preferable to the friction and agitation and conflict and pointlessness and disgust that, as a person ages, can render less than desirable the manifold relations that make for a rich, full life. I stayed away because over the years I conquered a way of life that I (and not just I) would have thought impossible, and there's pride taken in that. I may have left New York because I was fearful, but by paring and paring and paring away, I found in my solitude a species of freedom that was to my liking much of the time. I shed the tyranny of my intensity -- or, perhaps, by living apart for over a decade, merely reveled in its sternest mode.
Embarked as they are upon a life of exploration rather than representation, novelists, like philosophers, may find irksome, confining, and perhaps even impossible the playing of roles. Role-instantiation engenders a richness of relations, and with that comes fullness of life, but these relations are willingly renounced for a solitude austere, cold, but free.
Near the end of Richard Weaver's essay, "Life Without Prejudice," he quotes Milton:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary.
The passage bears comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's remarks about being in the arena.
I like especially the last sentence of the Milton quotation. We are born corrupt, not innocent. We are not here (mainly) to improve the world, but (mainly) to be improved by it. The world's a vale of soul-making. Since this world is a vanishing quantity, it makes little sense to expend energy trying to improve it: when your house is burning down, you don't spruce up the facade. You don't swab the decks of a sinking ship. It makes more sense to spend time and effort on what has a chance of outlasting the transitory. This world's use is to build something that outlasts it.
But this will, pace Milton, require some flight from the world into the cloister where perhaps alone the virtues can be developed that will need testing later in the world.
When I began to read your “Who doesn't need philosophy?” post, I immediately started to think of reasons why adherents of religious and nonreligious worldviews need philosophy as inquiry. Indeed, one can think of many good reasons why such adherents (especially the dogmatic ones) need philosophy.
However, as I continued to read, I noticed the irony of your post (particularly the final paragraph). It seems at least possible that your entry is a dialectic antiphrasis to make the point that we all need philosophy as inquiry, including sincere believers and religious and nonreligious dogmatists. Humanity needs to inquire because humanity needs truth. As Aristotle put it in the first sentence of the Metaphysics, all humans by nature seek to know.
Over the weekend, I found myself wondering whether your post is antiphrastic or literal. Do you really think philosophy as inquiry is unnecessary for the religious person? Or do you think the religious person should philosophize? I think the latter; I am curious to know what you think; either way I appreciate the thought provoking post.
To answer the reader's question I will write a commentary on my post.
Philosophy: Who Doesn't Need It?
The title is a take-off on Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It? Rand's rhetorical question is not intended to express the proposition that people do not need philosophy, but that they do. So perhaps we could call the question in her title an antiphrastic rhetorical question.
Who doesn't need philosophy?
I don't approve of one-sentence paragraphs in formal writing, but blogging is not formal writing: it is looser, more personal, chattier, pithier, more direct. And in my formal writing I indent my paragraphs. That too is a nicety that is best dropped in this fast medium.
People who have the world figured out don't need it. If you know what's up when it comes to God and the soul, the meaning of life, the content and basis of morality, the role of state, and so on, then you certainly don't need philosophy. If you are a Scientologist or a Mormon or a Roman Catholic or an adherent of any other religious or quasi-religious worldview then you have your answers and philosophy as inquiry (as opposed to philosophy as worldview) is strictly unnecessary. And same goes for the adherents of such nonreligious worldviews as leftism and scientism and evangelical atheism.
The first two sentences are intended literally and they are literally true. 'Figured out' is a verb of success: if one has really got the world figured out, then he possesses the truth about it. But in the rest of the paragraph a bit of irony begins to creep in inasmuch as the reader is expected to know that it is not the case, and cannot be the case, that all the extant worldviews are true. So by the end of the paragraph the properly caffeinated reader should suspect that my point is that people need philosophy. They need it because they don't know the ultimate low-down, the proof of which is the welter of conflicting worldviews.
(The inferential links that tie There is a welter of conflicting worldviews to People don't know the ultimate low-down to People need philosophy as inquiry all need defense. I could write a book about that. At the moment I am merely nailing my colors to the mast.)
He who has the truth needn't seek it. And those who are in firm possession of the truth are well-advised to stay clear of philosophy with its tendency to sow the seeds of doubt and confusion.
Now the irony is in full bloom. Surely it cannot be the case that both a Communist and a Catholic are in "firm possession of the truth" about ultimate matters. At most one can be in firm possession. But it is also possible that neither are. There is also the suggestion that truth is not the sort of thing about which one side or the other can claim proprietary rights.
Those who are secure in their beliefs are also well-advised to turn a blind eye to the fact of the multiplicity of conflicting worldviews. Taking that fact into cognizance may cause them to doubt whether their 'firm possession of the truth' really is such.
The final paragraph is ironic. I am not advising people to ignore the conflict of worldviews. For that conflict is a fact, and we ought to face reality and not blink the facts. I am making the conditional assertion that if one values doxastic security over truth, then one is well-advised to ignore the fact that one's worldview is rejected by many others. For careful contemplation of that fact may undermine one's doxastic security and peace of mind. (It is not for nothing that the Roman church once had an index librorum prohibitorum.) Note that to assert a conditional is not to assert either its antecedent or its consequent. So it is logically consistent of me to assert the above conditional while rejecting both its antecedent and its consequent.
The reader understood my entry correctly as "a dialectic antiphrasis to make the point that we all need philosophy as inquiry, including sincere believers and religious and nonreligious dogmatists."
In saying that I of course give the palm to Athens over Jerusalem. But, if I may invoke that failed monk and anti-Athenian irrationalist, Luther: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.
Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Indiana University Press, 1967), pp. 49-50. Originally appeared in 1954. Emphasis added. The most distinguished recent example of imaginative prose in philosophy is certainly George Santayana. Santayana was no man's copy, either in thought or in style. He consistently refused to adopt the prosaic medium in which most of his colleagues were writing. To read him is to be conducted in urbane and almost courtly fashion about the spacious house he occupies, moving noiselessly always on a richly figured carpet of prose. Is it a satisfying experience as one looks back on it? Yes, undoubtedly, if one has been able to surrender to it uncritically. But that, as it happens, is something the philosophical reader is not very likely to do. Philosophy is, in the main, an attempt to establish something by argument, and the reader who reads for philosophy will be impatient to know just what thesis is being urged, and what precisely is the evidence for it. To such a reader Santayana seems to have a divided mind, and his doubleness of intent clogs the intellectual movement. He is, of course, genuinely intent on reaching a philosophic conclusion, but it is as if, on his journey there, he were so much interested also in the flowers that line the wayside that he is perpetually pausing to add one to his buttonhole. The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.
There is no reason why a person should not be a devotee of both truth and beauty; but unless in his writing he is prepared to make one the completely unobtrusive servant of the other, they are sure to get in each other's way. Hence ornament for its own beautiful irrelevant sake must be placed under interdict. Someone has put the matter more compactly: "Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the hat."
It seems to me that far too much Continental philosophy is plagued by the same "divided mind" and "doubleness of intent."
Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979), pp. 336-337, in a letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey dated 21 June 1959:
I haven't read the article in PR [Paris Review?] or the beat writers themselves. That seems about the most appalling thing you could set yourself to do -- read them. But reading about them and reading what they have to say about themselves makes me think that there is a lot of ill-directed good in them. Certainly some revolt against our exaggerated materialism is long overdue. They seem to know a good many of the right things to run away from, but to lack any necessary discipline. They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It's true that grace is the free gift of God but to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial. I observe that Baron von Hügel's most used words are derivatives of the word cost. As long as the beat people abandon themselves to all sensual satisfactions, on principle, you can't take them for anything but false mystics. A good look at St. John of the Cross makes them all look sick.
You can't trust them as poets either because they are too busy acting like poets. The true poet is anonymous, as to his habits, but these boys have to look, act, and apparently smell like poets.
This is the only reference to the Beats that I found in The Habit of Being apart from the sentence, "That boy is on the road more than Kerouac, though in a more elegant manner." (p. 373)
And I wonder what Miss O'Connor would say had she lived long enough to read that book by the Holy Goof, Neal Cassady, entitled Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison 1958-1960? (Blast Books, 1993) Grace Beats Karma: what a wonderful title, apt, witty, and pithy! I shall have to pull some quotations before October's end.
Arguably, the central figure of the Beat movement was not Kerouac (OTR's Sal Paradise) but Neal Cassady (OTR's Dean Moriarty).
Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published 54 years ago in September, 1957. Joyce Johnson remembers. Excerpts:
Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day? [. . .]
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman sacrificed his life to a fruitless pursuit of the American dream; Kerouac's two protagonists acted as if that dream was of no importance. On the Road followed Sal and Dean through three years of frenetic transcontinental movement in the late 1940s. Their main goal in life was to "know time," which they could achieve by packing as much intensity as possible into each moment. [. . .]
The two ideas, beat and beatnik -- one substantive and life-expanding, the other superficial and hedonistic -- helped shape the counterculture of the '60s and to this day are confused with each other, not only by Kerouac's detractors but even by some of his most ardent fans. [. . .]
Beatniks were passe from the start, but On the Road has never gone without readers, though it took decades to lose its outlaw status. Only recently was it admitted -- cautiously -- to the literary canon. (The Modern Library has named it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.) Fifty years after On the Road was first published, Kerouac's voice still calls out: Look around you, stay open, question the roles society has thrust upon you, don't give up the search for connection and meaning. In this bleak new doom-haunted century, those imperatives again sound urgent and subversive -- and necessary.
He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac's writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.
I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.
The last line of this quotation parodies the first line of Allen Ginsberg's Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . . .
And as for Kerouac's "living at home with his mother," which Dalrymple intends as a slight, the truth is rather that Kerouac's mother lived with him, and with him and Stella Sampas after the two were married on 18 November 1966. (See Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe, p. 670 ff.) Kerouac was ever the dutiful son, a conservative trait that Dalrymple misses.
How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery.
Excellent except perhaps for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.
Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)
An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.
To be is to be cornered. (93)
Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)
Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)
Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), originates in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology. The ideologue has answers, or thinks he has. And so his conversation is either apologetics or polemics, but not dialog. The philosopher has questions and so with him dialog is possible.
Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)
This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.
There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)
A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.
Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)
An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.
Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not nothing.
“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)
This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Is all production vain and shameless? Perhaps not if one keeps one's productions to oneself. But writing books, articles and blog posts is not just production, but publishing, making public. Is publishing mere vanity and self-promotion?
In given cases it can be. And whether one of those cases is my case is not for me to decide. But surely it would be absurd to claim that all publishing by anyone is mere vanity and shameless self-promotion. Take the books of John Searle. He thinks he has solved the mind-body problem. He has done no such thing. Yet his books are enormously rich and stimulating despite some error and confusion. I am glad he has written his many books and made his contribution to our common ongoing philosophical quest. He has given me many hours of pleasure and elevated thought.
All living is self-asserting. But there is self-assertion and there is self-assertion. Personal assertion in the service of the impersonal truth is more than mere personal assertion. Thereby is vanity substantiated and shamelessness redeemed.
Flannery O'Connor, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction" in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), pp. 40-42:
All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality. Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances. If the novelist is in tune with this spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that he feels control his destiny. Such a writer may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision.
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward towards the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves -- whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.
I was struck by this passage because in philosophy too there is a similar distinction. There are those philosophical speleologists who are content to describe and explain the furnishings of Plato's Cave seemingly oblivious to its being a cave, and there are those who are always pushing their own limits outward towards the limits of mystery. For the latter, philosophy's technical minutiae are meaningless unless in the service of a transcending vision.
Those of us who pursue the ethereal should never forget that it is blood, iron, and lead that secure the spaces of tranquillity wherein we flourish.
I found the following in a gun forum: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” It was attributed to George Orwell.
I don't know whether Orwell wrote those exact words. I rather doubt that he did. But he did write, in Notes on Nationalism, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf." The thought is essentially the same, and a good and true thought it is.
Pacifism is for angels. But we are mixed and mixed-up beings, half animal, half angel.
You should never trust any unsourced attribution you find on the Internet .
The following beautiful line of Henry David Thoreau is routinely misquoted:
In wildness is the preservation of the world.
Again and again, people who cannot read what is on the page substitute 'wilderness' for 'wildness.' People see what they want to see, or expect to see. Here is an example of double butchery I found recently:
In wilderness is the preservation of Mankind.
(Warren Macdonald, A Test of Will, Greystone Books, 2004, p. 145.)
Thomas Mann, Diaries 1918-1939, entry of August 5, 1934:
A cynical egotism, a selfish limitation of concern to one's personal welfare and one's reasonable survival in the face of the headstrong and voluptuous madness of 'history' is amply justified. One is a fool to take politics seriously, to care about it, to sacrifice one's moral and intellectual strength to it. All one can do is survive, and preserve one's personal freedom and dignity. I don't endorse Mann's sentiment but I sympathize with it. Hitler came to power in 1933. Imagine the effect that must have had on a man of Mann's sensitivity and spiritual depth. You witness your country, the land of Kant and Schiller, of Dichter und Denker, poets and thinkers, in Heinrich Heine's fine phrase, transformed into a land of Richter und Henker, judges and hangmen.
My response to Mann would be along these lines: It precisely because men of the spirit must survive and survive to create that they must be concerned with politics and with those who can kill and suppress them. You escaped to the USA, but what if there were no such country to which to escape because all of the people of high quality practised your cynical egotism, your selfish limitation to the personal?
One can take politics seriously and do one's bit without sacrificing one's moral and intellectual strength to it. The latter, I agree, would be folly.
Here. I have the book in my library (but of course!) but this site offers among other things information about the people and places mentioned by the good Pepys as he records the quotidiana of an existence unremarkable except for the insight it affords into those far-off times.
How can one not love the 'Net and the love labors of those who toil in its vasty deeps?A peep into the deeps of Pepys.
Bukowski was my last binge, literarily speaking. I feel a Flannery binge in the offing. How's that for catholic tastes? I found a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, in a used bookstore back in December while on the hunt for Bukowski materials. But I just recently started in on it. Repellent and boring at first, dismal and gothic, but she is clearly a talent of a very high order -- unlike Buk -- so I will press on.
My best piece of scribbling during my Bukowski binge was Charles Bukowski Meets Simone Weil. I note that Flannery was intrigued by Simone, which is not surprising, and discusses the latter in her letters. That will have to be looked into. All in good time. Study everything, join nothing. Nihil humanum, et cetera.
Some write because they like the idea of being a writer. It's romantic or 'cool' or something. Others write to say something that they need to express. Most combine these motivations. The better the writer, the stronger the need to express something that not just needs expression for the psychic health of the writer, but that is worthy of expression.
Charles Bukowski wrote from genuine need. (See so you want to be a writer?) It was his therapy. He could not have believed in the early days of his scribbling that he would ever be able to make a living from it. But from what I have read of him so far, what he wrote is not worth reading except in the way that his writing was worth doing for him. What do I mean?
His writing was self-therapeutic; our reading is motivated by something like the pathologist's interest. We read him to learn about diseases of the mind and spirit.
Through Charles Bukowski I discovered John Fante who I am now reading (Ask the Dust, Black Sparrow, 2000, originally published in 1939) and reading about (Stephen Cooper, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, North Point Press, 2000). Here is Bukowski's preface to the Black Sparrow edition of Ask the Dust in which Buk recounts the day he stumbled upon Fante in the L. A. Public Library.
Both lived in and wrote about Los Angeles, which explains part of my interest in both. And then there is the Catholic connection, stronger in Fante than in Bukowski, and the Italian resonance in Fante. Ten years before Kerouac broke into print, Fante's writing had that mad, onrushing, intoxicated Kerouac quality as witness the following passage three pages into Ask the Dust:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya, hya,; there's a place for me, too and it begins with B., in the B shelf, Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, but I'd be there to sort of bolster up the B's, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame. Gala day, gala dream!
George Orwell's humanity is on display in the following passage from "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1943), reprinted in A Collection of Essays (Harvest, 1981), pp. 193-194:
Early one morning another man and I had gone out to snipe at the Fascists in the trenches outside Huesca. Their line and ours here lay three hundred yards apart, at which range our aged rifles would not shoot accurately, but by sneaking out to a spot about a hundred yards from the Fascist trench you might, if you were lucky, get a shot at someone through a gap in the parapet. Unfortunately the ground between was a flat beet field with no cover except a few ditches, and it was necessary to go out while it was still-dark and return soon after dawn, before the light became too good. This time no Fascists appeared, and we stayed too long and were caught by the dawn. We were in a ditch, but behind us were two hundred yards of flat ground with hardly enough cover for a rabbit. We were still trying to nerve ourselves to make a dash for it when there was an uproar and a blowing of whistles in the Fascist trench. Some of our aeroplanes were coming over. At this moment, a man presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at âFascistsâ; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a Fascist, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don't feel like shooting at him.
Isn't there a scene in Homage to Catalonia in which the same or a similar fascist is caught with his pants down at the latrine when all hell breaks loose? In death and as in defecation, all distinctions dissolve to reveal us as indigent mortals made of dust and about to return to dust.
A good aphorism should swim suddenly before the mind fully formed. If you have to piece it together it will show its seams. Grunts of effort rarely produce good ones. Bukowski's "Don't try" finds application here. The good ones are grantings -- from Elsewhere. Be grateful for them, on Thanksgiving, and every day.
October's scrounging around in used book dens for Beat arcana uncovered Barry Miles' biography of this laureate of low life. It has been holding my interest. Bukowski, though not an associate of the Beat writers, is beat in the sense of beaten down and disaffected but not in Kerouac's sense of beatific. A worthless fellow, a drunkard, a lecher, a misogynist, a shameless user and betrayer of his benefactors, Bukowski (1920-1994) is nonetheless a pretty good scribbler of poetry and prose. (I call him a worthless fellow, but child is father to the man, and Bukowski had a terrible childhood.) If I need an excuse to poke into the particulars of his paltry life, there is my masthead motto, "Study everything, join nothing," and the Terentian homo sum, nihil humani, etc. The other night I read about him in bed, a mistake, since the night mind should be primed for its nocturnal preconscious ruminations with ennobling rather than debasing images. In compensation I read Simone Weil in the predawn hours of the next day. A comparison of the two would be an interesting exercise.
The Dean of Dissipation versus the Red Virgin. A celebration of the base, sordid, cheap, tawdry, depraved, degraded, of the complete abdication of the spirit to the flesh and its lusts, versus an anorexic asceticism bordering on nihilism.
How wild the diversity of human types! How impossible to be bored in a world so populated. How should we live? There is no substitute for finding your own path.
The despairing section X of Book Thirteen of Vanity of Duluoz which I quoted yesterday is followed immediately by this:
Yet I saw the cross just then when I closed my eyes after writing all this. I cant escape its mysterious penetration into all this brutality. I just simply SEE it all the time, even the Greek cross sometimes. I hope it will all turn out true.
It is fitting to conclude Kerouac month with the last section of Jack's last book, a section in which, while alluding to the Catholic mass, he raises his glass to his own piecemeal suicide:
Forget it wifey. Go to sleep. Tomorrow's another day. Hic calix! Look that up in Latin, it means "Here's the chalice," and be sure there's wine in it.
Vanity of Duluoz, Book Thirteen, X, pp. 274-276, ellipses and bold emphases added:
. . . .Mad Dog creation has a side of compassionate mercy in it . . . we have seen the brutal creation send us the Son of Man who, to prove that we should follow His example of mercy, brotherly love, charity, patience, gave Himself up without murmur to be sacrificed. Otherwise we would have taken his example lightly. Seeing that He really meant it right down to the cross, we are impressed. [. . .] But we cant be redeemed "unless we believe," it says, or follow His example. And who can do that? Not even Count Leo Tolstoy who still had to live in a "humble hut" but on his own lands even tho he had signed over his "own lands" of course to his own family, and had the gall then, from that earthly vantage point of vaunt, to write The Kingdom of God is Within You. If I, myself, for instance, were to try to follow Jesus' example I'd first have to give up my kind of drinking, which prevents me from thinking too much(like I'm doing in awful pain this morning), and so I'd go insane and go on public debt and be a pain to everybody in the blessed "community" or "society." And I'd be furthermore bored to death by the knowledge that there is a hole even in Jesus' bag: and that hole is, where He says to the rich young man "Sell everything you have and give it tothe poor, and follow me," okay, where do we go now, wander and beg our food off poor hardworking householders? and not even rich at that like that rich young man's mother? but poor and harried like Martha? Martha had not "chosen the better part" when she cooked and slaved and cleaned house all day while her younger sister Mary sat in the doorway like a modern beatnik with "square" parents talking to Jesus about "religion" and "redemption" and "salvation" and all that guck. Were Jesus and young Mary McGee waiting for supper to be ready? While talking about redemption? How can you be redeemed when you have to pass food in and out of your body's bag day in and day out, how can you be "saved" in a situation so sottish and flesh-hagged as that? (This was also the hole in Buddha's bag: he more or less said "It's well for Bodhisattva sages and Buddhas to beg for their food so as to teach the ordinary people of the world the humility of charity," ugh I say. No, the springtime bud I talked about with rain dew on its new green, it's the laugh of a maniac. Birth is the direct cause of all pain and death, and a Buddha dying of dysentery at the age of eighty-three had only to say, finally, "Be ye lamps unto thyselves" -- last words --"work out thy salvation with diligence," heck of a thing to say as he lay there in an awful pool of dysentery. Spring is the laugh of a maniac, I say.
I'll prove it. Take this test. No search engines. 1. Name the one and only Kerouac novel that contains a chess diagram. Extra credit: Does it represent a legal position? 2. On which nationally known talk show did Kerouac make a reference to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite? 3. Kerouac gave a pretentious literary subtitle to one of his novels. Name the novel and name the subtitle. 4. Kerouac applied the derogatory moniker 'Reinhold Cacoethes' to whom of his acquaintances? 5. Which of Jack's friends compiled a list of popes from A.D. 64 to 1958? 6. Which branch of the service was Kerouac in when the above picture was taken? 7. Name the neocon who took Kerouac & Co. to task in "The Know-Nothing Bohemians." 8. The phrase 'ball the jack' has fallen into desuetude. To the best of my knowledge, the phrase is employed in only one of Kerouac's novels. Name the novel and explain the phrase's meaning and origin. 9. "But it was that beautiful cut of clouds I could always see above the little S. P. alley, puffs floating by from Oakland or the gate of Marin to the north or San Jose south, the clarity of Cal to break your heart." From which short piece is this passage excerpted? And what does 'S. P.' stand for? 10. "Since beginningless time and into the never-ending future, men have loved women without telling them, and the Lord has loved them without telling, and the void is not the void because there's nothing to be empty of." From which novel?
During his years of unsuccess, when he was actually at his purest and best, an "unpublished freak," as he describes himself in a late summer 1954 letter to Robert Giroux, living for his art alone, Kerouac contemplated entering a monastery: "I've become extremely religious and may go to a monastery before even before you do." [. . .] "I've recently made friends in a way with Bob Lax and I find him sweet -- tho I think his metaphysics are pure faith. Okay, that's what it's supposed to be." (Selected Letters 1940-1956, ed. Charters, Penguin 1995, p. 444.)
And then on pp. 446-448 we find an amazing 26 October [sic!] 1954 letter to Robert Lax packed with etymology and scholarly detail which ends:
I'm no saint, I'm sensual, I cant resist wine, am liable to sneers & secret wraths & attachment to imaginary lures before my eyes -- but I intend to ascend by stages & self-control to the Vow to help all sentient beings find enlightenment and holy escape from sin and stain of life-body itself [. . .] but thank God I'm a lazy bum because of that repose will come, in repose the secret, and in the secret: Ceaseless Ecstasy.
"Nirvana, as when the rain puts out a little fire."
See you in the world,
For information on the enigmatic hermit Robert Lax (1915-2000) , see here and here.
When On the Road finally saw the light of day in 1957, fame proved to be Kerouac's undoing. William Plummer writes insightfully:
For nearly a decade he hungered for recognition, but when the public at last chose to take notice it would choose to measure the least part of him. In forums and on talk shows, he would be queried about drugs, kicks, promiscuity. No one would understand or care to credit the spiritual underpinnings of On the Road; interviewers would regard him quizzically when he suggested that his life and work constituted a single effort to force God to pull back the veil and show Himself in the althogether. (The Holy Goof: A Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, p. 104)
Vanity of Duluoz, pp. 176-7:
Pascal says it better than I do when he says:"WHAT SHALL WE GATHER FROM ALL OUR DARKNESS IF NOT A CONVICTION OF OUR UNWORTHINESS?" and he adds to show you right path: "There are perfections in Nature which demonstrate that She is the image of God" -- Timmy [Jack's dead cat] sittin like a lion, Big Slim in his prime, Pop in his prime, me in my careless 1943 youth, you, all -- "and imperfections" -- our decay and going-down, all of us -- "to assure us that She is no more than His image." I believe that.
"God is dead" made everybody sick to their stomachs because they all know what I just said, and Pascal said, and Paschal means Resurrection.
From a February 1950 journal entry (Windblown World, p. 262):
There's a noise in the void I hear: there's a vision of the void; there's a complaint in the abyss -- there's a cry in the bleak air; the realm is haunted. Man haunts the earth. Man is on a ledge noising his life. The pit of night receiveth. God hovers over in his shrouds. Look out!
Here is a review of Windblown World by Gerald Nicosia.
How I admire W. C. Fields! -- What a great oldtimer he was. None like him. I'll write something about him soon, my personal ideas. "Ain't you got no Red Eye?" "Ain't you an old Follies girl?" "I snookered that one." "Those Grampion hills." "Mocha-java." "The enterprise I am about to embark upon is fraught with eminent peril, and not fit for a young lady of your tender years." "Don't you want to wear diaphanous gowns? And get enough to eat?" With his straw hat, his short steps, his belly, his wonderful face hid beneath a bulbous puff of beaten flesh, his twisted mouth, his knowledge of American life, of women, of children, of fellow-barflies, and of death ("the fellow in the bright night-gown.") His utter lovelessness in the world. Bumping into everything blindly. Making everybody laugh. The line he himself wrote, addressed to him" "You're as funny as a cry for help." How he blows foam off a beer, an Old Mad Murphy of time; how he is alone among foolish people who don't see his soul.
Shakespeare never was sadder.
A hounded old reprobate, a clown, a drunkard of eternity, and "Man."
(Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, ed. Douglas Brinkley, Viking 2004, p. 236, entry of 14-16 October 1949.)
Lest I lead astray any young and impressionable readers, I am duty bound to point out that this month's focus on Kerouac is by no means to be taken as an endorsement of him as someone to be imitated. Far from it! He failed utterly to live up to the Christian precepts that he learned as a child and the Buddhist precepts he assiduously studied in the mid-1950s. Not that he was a hypocrite; he was just a deeply flawed human being. I just now recall a critique of Kerouac by Douglas Groothuis from some years ago. (Old Memory Babe ain't got nothing on me.) Ah yes, here it is. I am in basic agreement with it.