Here. (An entertaining video clip, not too long, that sums up his main doctrine.)
Alan Watts was a significant contributor to the Zeitgeist of the 1960s. Just as many in those days were 'turned on' to philosophy by Ayn Rand, others such as myself were pushed toward her by, among other things, Alan Watts and his writings. But early on I realized that there was much of the pied piper and sophist about him. He once aptly described himself as a "philosophical entertainer" as opposed to an academic philosopher. Entertaining he was indeed.
I heard him speak in the last year of his life on 17 January 1973. He appeared to be well into his cups that evening, though in control. Alcohol may have been a major contributor to his early death at age 58 on 16 November 1973. (See Wikipedia) What follows is a journal entry of mine written 18 January 1973.
I attended a lecture by Alan Watts last night at El Camino Junior College. Extremely provocative and entertaining. A good comparing and contrasting of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Chinese views.
At random: One must give up the desire to be secure, the desire to control. Ego as totally illusory entity which is really nothing but a composite of one's image of oneself and certain muscular tensions which arise with attempts to achieve, grasp, and hold on. The self as opposed to the ego is God, God who forgot who he was. The world (cosmos) as God's dream. Thus the self-same Godhead reposes in each individual. There is no spiritual individuality. And therefore, it seems, no possibility of relation.
Consider the I-Thou relation. It presupposes two distinct but relatable entities. If there is only one homogeneous substance, how can there be relation? But perhaps I'm misinterpreting the Wattsian-Hindu view by thinking of the Hindu deity as substance rather than as function, process. Watts himself denies the existence of substance. Last night he made the well-known point as to the linguistic origin of the notion of substance. [This is of course not a "well-known point."]
Denial of the ego -- i.e. its relegation to the sphere of illusion -- would seem to go hand in hand with denial of substance. [Good point, young man!] Watts seems very close to as pseudo-scientific metaphysics. He posits a continuum of vibrations with the frequency of the vibrations determining tangible, physical qualities. Yet he also says that "We will always find smaller particles"; that "We're doing it"; that the fundamental reality science suppsedly uncovwers is a mental, a theoretical construct.
Thus, simultaneously, a reliance on a scientific pseudo-metaphysics AND the discrediting of the scientific view of reality.
Let me start off by recommending Jim Ryan's infrequently updated but very old (since 2002!) Philosoblog, the archives of which contain excellent material worthy of the coveted MavPhilSTOA (stamp of approval). The following entry (originally posted February 2005 at my first blog) is in response to my query as to why Ryan left university teaching.
JR: Well, here's my story, thanks for asking: I've always taken learning to be almost sacred, scholarship to be transcendent, books sublime. Given this disposition, I was unable to stomach teaching that 20% of my students who were there to get by by hook or by crook (avoid class, avoid the book, succumb to cheating, etc.). I realized at 37 that I would become a bitter old man if I taught for another 30 years. I liked the other 80% of my students, and I liked my research, but these weren't enough to get me through the bitter part. So, having a reasonable math and science background I boned up on chemistry during my last year of teaching and hustled a job in the Chem department at U. of Virginia. That was two years ago, almost. It's been fun, but now I'm thinking of moving into the business world, so that I can make more money and have more time with my kids.
What about your story, Bill? How'd you come to quit?
BV: Learning sacred, scholarship transcendent, books sublime. I can see we have something in common, a commonality that is also part of the reason why I gave up teaching. The average run of students would dismiss your sentiments and mine as bullshit, as some kind of empty self-serving rhetoric that could only be spouted by some weirdo who fills his belly by spouting it. Most people have no intellectual eros, could not care less about scholarship, and place no value whatsoever on good books.
Proof of the latter point can be found by scouring the used bookstores in a locale like Boston-Cambridge. Take a book off the shelf that was assigned in a course, note the underlining or 'magic marker mark-up' and how it extends maybe three or four pages and then stops -- great for me, of course, who gets a relatively pristine copy for pennies, but indicative of the pointlessness of reading assignments.
Most teaching is like trying to feed people who aren't hungry. Pointless. Of course, I had some great students and some great classes. But not enough of either to justify the enterprise.
Then there is the problem of stimulating colleagues. It is easy to end up in a department without any, in which case you are on your own, and you may as well be an independent scholar. Isolation? Not any more. Not with the WWW and the blogosphere in particular.
But the main reason I quit was to be able to do philosophy full time and live a more focused existence. It had been something I had been thinking about for a long time. I see philosophy as a spiritual quest, not an academic game. I had tenure, and I had enjoyed it for seven years. I had enjoyed a two-year visiting associate professorship, and I could have returned to my tenured position, but I was ready to take the next step in my life. The catalyst was my wife's being offered a great job in a beautiful place. Being a Westerner, I had served enough time in the effete and epicene East and was ready to get back to where mountains are mountains and hikers and climbers are damn glad of it.
Here. Millstein's NYT review brought Kerouac fame, but fame contributed to an early death at age 47 just a bit more than 12 years after the review. Fame brought death, but no fortune, leastways not for Jack. Last I checked, his heirs were battling over his estate.
By the way, the Telegraph article to which I have just linked gives the year of Keroauc's death incorrectly as 1968. Kerouac died in his beloved October, in 1969. I remember the day he died and my annotation in my journal.
Neal Cassady, Keroauc's hero and friend, the Dean Moriarty of On the Road, died in February of 1968, also of substance abuse, having quaffed a nasty concotion of pulque and Seconals, on the railroad tracks near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Legend has it that Cassady had been counting the ties and that his last word was "64, 928." (Cf. William Plummer, The Holy Goof: A Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, pp. 157-158.)
In the news this morning a story about a young man, 18, who lived not far from here in Apache Junction, whose body was found dead near his abandoned SUV in the woods of southern Oregon. According to his father, Johnathan [sic] Croom was "a young man who had a broken heart." He was grieving the end of a relationship with "someone back in Phoenix."
"He was a young man who had a broken heart and headed out to try to find himself," the elder Croom said. "We're looking forward to finding out exactly what happened."
[. . .]
Hutson said Croom also talked to his parents about Christopher McCandless, whose journey to Alaska was documented in the book "Into the Wild." McCandless gave up his worldly goods to live in the Alaska wilderness, only to die there, perhaps from eating wild potatoes.
A book can change your life. J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is an even better example. It changed countless lives, some in very bad ways.
The last-mentioned ends like this, with some good advice for the young and in search of themselves:
In McCandless' case, the scorn for security, his fleeing a living death, led to a dying death. In an excess of self-reliance he crossed the Teklanika, not realizing it was his Rubicon and that its crossing would deposit him on the Far Shore. Be bold, muchachos, be bold; be not too bold.
The tale of how this semi-literate Siberian peasant insinuated himself into the highest precincts of throne and altar in imperial Russia is told by Joseph T. Furhmann in Rasputin: The Untold Story (John Wiley & Sons, 2013). It held my attention to the last page.
Contrary to popular belief, Rasputin wasn't a monk and, though hard to kill, was dead by the time he was dumped into the icy Neva.
If a 'holy man' takes money or sex from his disciples, that is a reliable sign that he is a fraud.
I am reminded of the famous and rather more recent cases of Rajneesh and Chogyam
Trungpa. According to one report, ". . . Trungpa slept with a different woman every night in order to transmit the teaching to them. L. intimated that it was really a hardship for Trungpa to do this, but it was his duty in order to spread the dharma."
With apologies to the shade of Jack Kerouac, you could say that that gives new meaning to 'dharma bum.'
The Superstitions are not called the Killer Mountains for nothing. Many a man has been lured to his death in this rugged wilderness by lust for gold. A few days ago, what appear to be the remains of Jesse Capen were finally found after nearly three years of searching. Another obsessive Dutchman Hunter in quest of a nonexistent object, he went missing in December of 2009.
I've seen the movie and it ain't bad. And of course any self-respecting aficionado of the legends and lore, tales and trails of the magnificent Superstitions must see it. Tom Kollenborn comments in Lust for Gold I and Lust for Gold II.
. . . to live well, a man needs a quest. Without a quest, a life lacks the invigorating "strenuosity" that William James preached. But if he quests for something paltry such as lost treasure, it is perhaps best that he never find it. For on a finite quest, the 'gold' is in the seeking, not in the finding. A quest worthy of us, however, cannot be for gold or silver or anything finite and transitory. A quest worthy of us must aim beyond the ephemeral, towards something whose finding would complete rather than debilitate us. Nevertheless, every quest has something in it of the ultimate quest, and can be respected in some measure for that reason.
Escapism is a form of reality-denial. One seeks to escape from the only reality there is into a haven of illusion. One who flees a burning building we do not call an escapist. Why not? Because his escape from the fire is not an escape into unreality, but into a different reality. The prisoner in Plato's Cave who ascended to the outer world escaped, but was not an escapist. He was not escaping from, but to, reality.
Is religion escapist? It is an escape from the 'reality' of time and change, sin and death. But that does not suffice to make it escapist. It is escapist only if this life of time and change, sin and death, is all there is. And that is precisely the question, one not to be begged.
You tell me what reality is, and I'll tell you whether religion is an escape from it.
There is a nuance I ought to mention. In both Platonism and Buddhism, one who has made "the ascent to what is" (Republic 521 b) and sees aright, is enjoined to return so as to help those who remain below. This is the return to the Cave mentioned at Republic 519 d. In Buddhism, the boddhisattva ideal enjoins a return of the enlightened individual to the samsaric realm to assist in the enlightenment of the sentient beings remaining there.
To return to the image of the burning building. He who flees a burning building is no escapist: he flees an unsatisfactory predicament (one dripping with dukkha as it were) to a more satisfactory condition. Once there, he reconnoitres the situation, dons fire-protective gear, and returns to save his cats. A little cute, a little crude, but it makes the point.
Both the Cave and the samsaric realm are not wholly unreal, else there would be no point to a return to them. But they are, shall we say, ontologically and axiologically deficient.
About four or five years ago you wrote about an American writer and thinker, perhaps an academic philosopher, who published, I believe, two books and seemed to disappear. You had difficulty finding information about him online. I believe you said he had an interest in East Asian thought. His “career” was eccentric by conventional standards and he seemed to be something of a loner.
This post examines Richard C. Potter's solution to the problem of reconciling creatio ex nihilo with ex nihilo nihil fit in his valuable article, "How To Create a Physical Universe Ex Nihilo," Faith and Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 1, (January 1986), pp. 16-26. (Potter appears to have dropped out of sight, philosophically speaking, so if anyone knows what became of him, please let me know. The Philosopher's Index shows only three articles by him, the last of which appeared in 1986.)
I don't know whether Potter is the man Kurp had in mind, but the former does satisfy part of Kurp's description. In any event, the Richard Potter story is an interesting one.
I recall talking to him, briefly, in the summer of 1981 at Brown University. I was a participant in Roderick Chisholm's National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar, and Potter, who I believe had recently completed his Ph.D. at Brown, sat in on a few sessions. My impression was he that he was unable to secure a teaching position. I also recall a slightly derogatory comment I made about the Midwest and how one might have to go there to find employment. Potter's mild-mannered reply was to the effect that he preferred the Midwest over other geographical regions. His name stuck in my mind probably because of a paper on the paradox of analysis he co-authored with Chisholm and because of the F & P article mentioned above. See here. But then he dropped out of philosophical sight.
A few years back, I did a search and he turned up again as a George Reeves and Superman aficionado. So here is part of the rest of the Potter story. Here is Potter's George Reeves site.
Zelda lived and died for fashion, collapsing at age 95 in the front row of a fashion show. Dolores, though starting off in the vain precincts of glitz and glamour, gave it up for God and the soul. This life is vain whether or not God and the soul are illusions. Should we conclude that to live for fashion is to throw one's life away for the trinkets of phenomenality, the bagatelles of transience? That to die while worshipping idols at the altar of fashion is a frightful way to die? These mere suggestions will elicit vociferous objection from some, for whom it is self-evident that to retreat to a nunnery is to throw one's life away for an escapist fantasy. But that is but another indication of the wild diversity of human types. The case for the vanity of human existence is well made in Ecclesiastes. See A Philosopher's Notes on Ecclesiastes, Chapters 1-2.
The Internet is, for loners, an absolute and total miracle. It is, for us, the best invention of the last millennium. It educates. It entertains. It transforms. It facilitates a kind of dialogue in which we need not be seen, so it suits us perfectly. It validates. It makes being alone seem normal. It makes being alone fun for everyone.
And so it has its critics. They claim it keeps kids from playing healthy games outdoors. They say it is a procurer for perverts, a weapon in hate crimes. Underlying all of this, of course, is the real reason for their dismay: the Internet legitimizes solitude. The real problem is not that kids don’t play outdoors, but that they do not play with other kids.
I’ve read the whole of this book, and I recommend it. It's not a great book, but it is worth reading. Click on the title above to read some positive and negative reviews.
Dennis E. Bradford sent me three comments via e-mail on my recent Butchvarov post. I omit the first and the third which are more technical in nature, and which I may address in later posts. Bradford writes,
Second, and this separates me from Butch, Larry [Blackman], and you, I reject your assumption concerning the narrowness of philosophy. You mention a conceptual impasse that is “insoluble on the plane of the discursive intellect, which of course is where philosophy must operate.” I object to the “of course.” To be a philosopher is to be a lover of wisdom and who says that our only access to wisdom is via the discursive intellect? In fact, I deny that. As far as I can tell, the Buddha was the greatest philosopher and the wisest human who ever lived, and his view was that limiting our examination only to the domain of the discursive intellect prevents one from becoming wise.
Actually, I don't disagree with this comment. It is a matter of terminology, of how we should use the word 'philosophy.' For me there are at least four ways to the Absolute, philosophy, religion, mysticism, and morality. This post provides rough sketches of how I view the first three. I end by suggesting that the pursuit of wisdom involves all three 'postures.' (Compare the physical postures in the three pictures below.)
Philosophy is not fundamentally a set of views but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to know the truth, applies discursive reason to the data of life in an attempt to arrive at the ultimate truth about them. Discursive reason is reason insofar as it articulates itself in concepts, judgments, arguments, and systems of argument. As the etymology of the term suggests (L. currere, to run), discursive reason is roundabout rather than direct -- as intuitive reason would be if there is such a thing. Discursive reason gets at its object indirectly via concepts, judgments, and arguments. This feature of discursive reason makes for objectivity and communicability; but it exacts a price, and the price must be paid in the coin of loss of concreteness. Thus the oft-heard complaint about the abstractness of philosophy is not entirely without merit.
Note that I define philosophy in terms of the activity of discursive reason: any route to the truth that does not make use of this ‘faculty’ is simply not philosophy. You may take this as a stipulation if you like, but it is of course more than this, grounded as it is in historical facts. if you want to know what philosophy is, read Plato. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says somewhere, "Philosophy is Plato, and Plato philosophy." (I quote from memory!) And there is this from Keith's blog.
The nearest thing to a safe definition of the word "philosophy", if we wish to include all that has been and will be correctly so called, is that it means the activity of Plato in his dialogues and every activity that has arisen or will arise out of that.
(Richard Robinson, "Is Psychical Research Relevant to Philosophy?" The Aristotelian Society, supplementary volume 24 : 189-206, at 192.)
This is in line with my masthead motto which alludes to the famous observation of Alfred North Whitehead:
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. [. . .] Thus in one sense by stating my belief that the train of thought in these lectures is Platonic, I am doing no more than expressing the hope that it falls within the European tradition. (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, The Free Press, 1978, p. 39)
Discursivity, then, is essential to philosophy as a matter of definition, a definition that is not merely stipulative but grounded in a possibility of our nature that was best realized in Plato and what he gave rise to.
Thus Jesus of Nazareth was not a philosopher, pace George Bush. If you insist that he was, then I will challenge you to show me the arguments whereby he established such dicta as "I and the Father are one," etc. I will demand the premises whence he arrived at this ‘conclusion.’ Argument and counterargument before the tribunal of reason are the sine qua non of philosophy, its veritable lifeblood. The truth is that Jesus gave no arguments, made no conjectures, refuted no competing theories. There is no dialectic in the Gospels such as we find in the Platonic dialogues. This is not an objection to Jesus’ life and message, but simply an underscoring of the fact that he was not a philosopher. (But I have a nagging sense that Dallas Willard says something to the contrary somewhere.) Believing himself to be one with the Father, Jesus of course believed himself to be one with the ultimate truth. Clearly, no such person is a mere philo-sopher, etymologically, a lover of wisdom; he is rather (one who makes a claim to being) a possessor of it. The love of the philosopher, as Plato’s Symposium made clear, is erothetic love, a love predicated on lack; it is not agapic love, love predicated on plenitude. The philosopher is an indigent fellow, grubbing his way forward bit by bit as best he can, by applying discursive reason to the data of experience. God is no philosopher, thank God!
Agreeing with Bradford that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom, I yet insist that he is a lover and pursuer of wisdom by dialectical means, assuming we are going to use 'philosopher' strictly. This use of terms does not rule out other routes to wisdom, routes that may prove more efficacious.
Indeed, since philosophy examines everything, including itself (its goals, its methods, its claim to cognitivity), philosophy must also examine whether it is perhaps an inferior route to truth or no route to truth at all!
Religion (from L. religere, to bind) is not fundamentally a collection of rites, rituals, and dogmas, but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to live in the truth, as opposed to know it objectively in propositional guise, seeks to establish a personal bond with the Absolute. Whereas philosophy operates with concepts, judgments, arguments and theories, religion proceeds by way of faith, trust, devotion, and love. It is bhaktic rather than jnanic, devotional rather than discriminative.The philosophical project, predicated on the autonomy of reason, is one of relentless and thus endless inquiry in which nothing is immune from examination before the reason’s bench. But the engine of inquiry is doubt, which sets philosophy at odds with religion with its appeal to revealed truth. If the occupational hazard of the philospher is a life-inhibiting scepticism, the corresponding hazard for the religionist is a dogmatic certainty that can easily turn murderous. For a relatively recent example, consider the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (This is why such zealots of the New Atheism as Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, et al. are not completely mistaken.)
The philosopher objects to the religionist: "You believe things for which you have no proof!" The religionist replies to the philosopher: "You sew without a knot in your thread!" I am not engaging in Zen mondo, but alluding to Kierkegaard’s point that to philosophize without dogma is like sewing without a knot in one’s thread. The philosopher will of course reply that to philosophize with dogma is not to philosophize at all. Here we glimpse one form of the conflict beween philosophy and religion as routes to the Absolute. If the philosopher fails to attain the Absolute because discursive reason dissolves in scepticism, the religionist often attains what can only be called a pseudo-Absolute, an idol.
The reader must of course take these schematic remarks cum grano salis. It would be simple-minded to think that cold impersonal reason (philosophy) stands in simple and stark confrontation to warm personal love (religion). For philosophy is itself a form of love –- erothetic love -- of the Absolute, and without the inspiring fervor of this longing love, the philosopher would not submit himself to the rigorous logical discipline, the mental asceticism, without which serious philosophy is impossible. (I speak of real philosophers, of course, and not mere paid professors of it.) Good philosophy is necessarily technical, often mind-numbingly so. (The reader may verify that the converse of this proposition does not hold.) Only a lover of truth will put up with what Hegel called die Anstrengung des Begriffs, the exertion of the concept. On the other hand, religious sentiments and practices occur in a context of beliefs that are formulated and defended in rational terms, including those beliefs that cannot be known by unaided reason but are vouchsafed to us by revelation. So in pursuit of taxonomy we must not fall into crude compartmentalization. The philosopher has his devotions and the religionist has his reasonings.
Turning now to mysticism, we may define it as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately, which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the most direct way possible: by intuiting it. ‘Intuition’ is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. You should think of the the Latin intuitus as used by Descartes, and the German Anschauung as used by Kant. The intuition in question is of course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical ‘faculty’ is that of intellectual intuition. The possibility of intellektuelle Anschauung was of course famously denied by Kant.
The ultimate goal for a human being is wisdom which could be characterized as knowledge of, and participation in, the saving truth. One who attains this goal is a sage. No philosopher is a sage, by definition. For a philosopher, as a lover (seeker) of wisdom, is not a possessor of it. One does not seek what one possesses. The philosopher's love is eros, love predicated on lack. At most, the philosopher is a would-be sage, one for whom philosophy (as characterized above) is a means to the end of becoming a sage. If a philosopher attains the Goal, then he ceases to be a philosopher. If a philosopher gets a Glimpse of the Goal, in that moment he ceases to be a philosopher, but then, after having lost the Glimpse (which is what usually happens) he is back to being as philosopher again.
At this point a difficult question arises. Is philosophy a means to sagehood, or a distraction from it? I grant that the ultimate Goal cannot be located on the discursive plane. What one ultimately wants is not an empty conceptual knowledge but a fulfilled knowledge. Some say that when a philosopher seeks God, he attains only a 'God of the philosophers,' an abstraction. (See my Pascal and Buber on the God of the Philosophers.) The kernel of truth in this is that discursive operations typically do not bring one beyond the plane of discursivity. One thought leads to another, and another, and another . . . and never to the Thinker 'behind' them or the divine Other.
And so one might decide that philosophy is useless -- "not worth an hour's trouble" as Pascal once said -- and that one ought either to follow the path of religion or that of mysticism. That is not my view, for reasons I will need a separate post to explain.
For now I will say only this. Philosophy is not enough. It needs supplementation by the other paths mentioned. Analogy. You go to a restaurant to eat, not to study the menu. But reading the menu is a means to the end of ordering and enjoying the meal. Philosophy is like reading the menu; eating is like attaining the Goal.
But it is also the case that religion and mysticism require the discipline of philosophy. There is a lot to be said on these topics, and it will be the philosopher who will do the saying. The integration of the faculties falls to philosophy, and an integrated life is what we aspire to, is it not? We seek to avoid the onesidedness of the philosopher, but also the onesidedness of the mystic, of the religionist, of the moralist, not to mention the onesidedness of the moneygrubber, the physical fitness fanatic, etc.
How wildly diverse the concrete solutions to the problem of life that each works out for himself!
There was Leon Trotsky the professional revolutionary who worshipped life-long at the altar of politics. Politics was his substitute for religion. (If religion is the opiate of the masses, revolutionary politics is the opiate of the intellectuals.)
And then there was Trotsky's secretary and bodyguard Jean van Heijenoort who, after finally seeing through the illusions of Communism after years of selfless service to its cause, renounced politics entirely and devoted himself to mathematical logic, becoming a distinguished historian of the subject. One is struck by the extremity of this turn away from something of great human relevance to something of almost none. A retreat from messy reality into a realm of bloodless abstractions. An escape from the bloody horrors of politics into the arcane. At the same time, a turn from devotion to a great but ill-conceived cause to bourgeois self-indulgence in sex, 'romance,' and love affairs. Sadly, his fatal attraction to Ana Maria Zamora got him killed in the same place, Mexico City, where Trotsky met his end at the point of an ice axe wielded by a puppet of Stalin. Zamora shot van Heijenoort with her Colt .38 while he slept . From revolutionary to bourgeois professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. But he was never so bourgeois as to respect the bourgeois institution of marriage.
Dr. George Sheehan's escape was into running to which he ascribed a significance it could not bear. He was an inspiration to a lot of us with his 1975 On Running. But then came a string of rather more fatuous and portentous titles, starting with Running and Being. As if der Sinn von Sein is poised to disclose itself to the fleet of foot. All due praise to running, but homo currens qua currens is not on the way to Being.
And then there are those who went from politics to religion. Unlike van Heijenoort who moved from leftist politcs to mathematical logic, Simone Weil went from leftist politics to religion. "The great error of the Marxists and of all of the nineteenth century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one had mounted into the air." Exactly right.
Edith Stein, another very bright Jewish philosophy student, went from philosophy to religion. Seeking total commitment she fled to a Carmelite monastery. She was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz as Trotsky was murdered by the long arm of Stalin in Mexico City. When I say that Stein went from philosophy to religion, I do not mean that she abandoned the first for the second: she wrote weighty tomes in the convent, Finite and Eternal Being and Potency and Act, to name two. But they were written under the banner, philosophia ancilla theologiae.
It is fruitful to compare Weil and Stein. The former, despite her attraction, kept her distance from the Roman church -- Kenneth Rexroth speaks of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church" -- while the latter embraced it in the most committed way imaginable. There is a 'logic' to such commitment, one that is operative in the lives of many a convert, Thomas Merton being another example: if it is The Truth that one has found, then surely it demands and deserves total commitment. Religion really embraced and made existential make a totalitarian claim -- which is why the totalitarians of the Left must make total war on it.
But these days I've been reading the slacker poet, Charles Bukowski, so perhaps he deserves a place in this little incomplete catalog. His epitaph reads, Don't try." He avoided bourgeois mediocity, no doubt, but along a path that cannot be recommended: one of piecemeal physical and spiritual suicide. Whatever you say about Trotksy, van Heijenoort, Sheehan, Weil and Stein, they were strivers. They understood that a life worth living is a life of relentless effort and exertion and self-overcoming. It is about subduing the lower self, not wallowing in it.
When I was a young man I came to the conclusion that I had three choices, three paths: suicide, mediocrity, striving. A lifetime later I verify that my choice of the third was best.
Both refused to live conventionally. The Laureate of Low Life and the Red Virgin. Both said No to the bourgeois life. But their styles of refusal were diametrically opposed. Both sought a truer and realer life, one by descent, the other by ascent. For one the true life, far from the ideological sham of church and state and family values, is the low life: drinking, gambling, fornicating, drug-taking, petty crime like busting up a room and skipping out on the rent, barroom brawling. Not armed robbery, rape, and murder, but two-bit thievery, whoring and picking fights in dingy dives. Nothing that gets you sent to San Quentin or Sing-Sing.
For the other the true life is not so readily accessible: it is the life in pursuit of the Higher, the existence and nature of which is only glimpsed now and again. (GG 11) The succor of the Glimpse -- this is indeed the perfect word -- is unreliable, a matter of grace. One is granted a glimpse. A matter of grace, not gravity. It is hard to rise, easy to fall -- into the the bed of sloth, the whore's arms, the bottle. The pleasures of the flesh are as reliable as anything in this world. In that reliability lies their addictive power. Satisfaction of crass desire breeds a bad infinity of crass desires. Desire is endlessly reborn in each satisfaction. One is not granted the rush of the lush-kick by a power transcendent of the natural nexus; it is a matter of determinism once you take the plunge. Drink, snort, shoot and the effect follows, which is not to say that one does not freely decide to drink, snort, shoot. The point is that the free agent's input sets in motion a process utterly predictable in its effect. Not so with the "lightning flashes" (GG 11) that reveal the Higher.
At best, one positions oneself so as to enjoy the gusts of divine favor should any come along. Like al-Ghazzali in search of a cooling breeze, you climb the minaret. There you are more likely to catch the breeze than on the ground, though there is no guarantee. One cannot bring it about by one's own efforts, and the positioning and preparing cannot be said to be even a necessary condition of receipt of the divine favor; but the creaturely efforts make it more likely.
Bukowski versus Weil. The Dean of Dissipation versus the Categorical Imperative in skirts. Self-indulgence versus self-denial as opposed paths to the truer and realer life. Dissipation versus concentration, versus Weil's attention. "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer." (Gravity and Grace, p. 106)
The low life (Buk) will not renounce but dives head first into the most accessible goods of this world, the lowest and basest and commonest. The angel in him celebrates the animal in man thereby degrading himself and 'gravitating' towards food and drink, sex and drugs. You just let yourself go and gravity does the rest. The fall is assured. No self-discipline in matters of money either. Our man worships at the shrine of Lady Luck, betting on the horses at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park, all within striking distance of his beloved Los Angeles.
The spiritual aspirant who aims high and beyond this life, though tempted by booze and broads and the whole gamut of the palpable and paltry, seeks the Good beyond all finite goods. Pursuit of the Good demands detachment from all finite goods (GG 12 ff.).
The Aporia. Positivistic dissipationism versus a concentrationism that is hard to tell from nihilism. Self-loss via dissipation, the dive into the diaspora of the sensory manifold versus self-loss by absorption into a Transcendence that cancels individuality. Salvation of the self by annihilation of the self. ". . . the object of all our efforts is to become nothing." (GG 30)
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.
Originally published in 1896 by Gelett Burgess in The Lark, the following curiosity I found on the inside front cover of Albert Parry, Garretts and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America, 1933, rev. 1960 with a new chapter "Enter Beatniks" by Henry T. Moore (New York: Dover Publications). The Book Gallery on Mesa Arizona's 1950s-reminiscent Main Street wanted ten dollars for this 50 year old paperback, but I gladly paid it particularly because of the 'new' chapter. I was disappointed, however,by the exiguous coverage of Joe Gould on pp. 148 and 346.
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.
Reader Ray Stahl of Port Angeles, Washington, kindly mailed me a copy of Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others. It is a work of sociology by a maverick sociologist, academically trained, but decidedly his own man. I wasn't aware of it or him until a few days ago. The preface already has me convinced that this is a book I will read and digest. A writer who writes like this is a writer to read:
Many readers of this book will feel that I object to the views of other scholars in terms that are overly fierce. These days the more usual mode in academia, thronged as it is with arrivistes aspiring to be gentlemen, is to voice such objections oleaginously. But luckily I cut an eyetooth on that masterpiece of English prose, A. E. Housman's introduction to his edition of Manilius, and so am forever immune to the notion that polemical writing and scholarly writing shouldn't mix. I believe that polemical scholarship improves the quality of intellectual life -- sharpens the mind, helps get issues settled faster -- by forcing genteel discussion to become genuine debate.
(Hyperlinks added. Obviously. But it raises a curiously pedantic question: By what right does one tamper with a text in this way? Pedantic the question, I leave it to the pedants.)
Polsky died in 2000. Here is an obituary. You will have to scroll down to find it.
I have a longstanding interest in 'marginal types': the characters, oddballs, misfits, Thoreauvian different-drummers, wildmen, mavericks, weirdos, those who find an adjustment to life, if they find it at all, at the margins, on the fringes of respectability, near the edge of things. Those who were not stamped out as by a cookie cutter, but put their own inimitable stamp on themselves. The creatively maladjusted and marginal who do duty as warnings more often than as exemplars.
Joe Gould, Greenwich Village bohemian, is an example. His story has been told by that master of prose, Joseph Mitchell. More on Gould and Mitchell later. Here you can read Dorothy Day on Max Bodenheim, another luminary in the firmament of early 20th century Greenwich Village bohemia.
I am now reading Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (HarperCollins 2009). Over 700 pages. The author's name is hardly donnish, but he is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University. There is a chapter entitled "The Appeals of Communism," and in it I came across a reference to Douglas Hyde:
For some who joined the Communist Party, a search for belief and a craving for certainty were important parts of their psychological make-up. One English Communist, Douglas Hyde, moved from being a young Methodist lay preacher, with an interest also in other religions, to becoming a Communist activist for twenty years, finishing up as news editor of the CPGB party newspaper, the Daily Worker, before resigning from the party in 1948 to become a proselytizing member of the Catholic Church. Although Hyde's political memoir, I Believed, written in the late Stalin period, is also a reasoned attack on Communist Party strategy and tactics, it holds that a majority of those attracted to Communism in those years were 'subconsciously looking for a cause which will to fill the void left by unbelief, or, as in my own case, an insecurely held belief which is failing to satisfy them intellectually and spiritually.' (p. 125)
People have strong doxastic security needs. They need a system of belief and practice to structure their lives. Few can tread the independent path. In the 2oth century many bright and earnest young people sought meaning and structure in Communism. In the 21st century radical Islam fills a similar need. Both snares and delusions, of course. It is arguably better to have no ideals rather than the wrong ideals, no beliefs rather than false and pernicious ones.
The Superstition Mountains exert a strange fascination. They attract misfits, oddballs, outcasts, outlaws, questers of various stripes, a philosopher or two, and a steady stream of 'Dutchman hunters,' those who believe in and search for the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. This nonexistent object has lured many a man to his death. More men than Alexius von Meinong's golden mountain, for sure. Adolf Ruth, for example, back in the '30s.
Such appears to be the case once again this last week. Three Utah prospectors, their brains addled by gold fever, entered this wild and unforgiving inferno of rocks and rattlesnakes unprepared and appear to have the paid for their foolishness with their lives. Here is the story.
Or at least that is the story so far. But there has to be more. Why July when the temperature approaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the monsoon humidity adds a further blanket of discomfort? It is not as if they haven't been here before. A couple of them were rescued last year.
And how do you get lost, if you are not totally stupid? The central landmark of the entire wilderness is Weaver's Needle depicted in the first shot above. It is visible from every direction, from the Western Sups to the Eastern Sups. To orient yourself, all you have to do is climb up to where you can see it. And then head for it. To the immediate west and east of it are major trails that lead to major trailheads.
And why was no trace of them found despite intensive searching with helicopters and dogs? It is possible to fall into an abandoned mine shaft. But all three at once? Their plan, supposedly, was to search by day and sleep in a motel at night. But then they wouldn't have gotten very deep into the wilderness and the chances of finding them dead or alive would have been pretty good.
Maybe it was all a scam. Maybe they never entered the wilderness at First Water. They left their car there and hitchhiked out in an elaborate ruse to ditch their wives and families and their pasts. But I speculate. (If a philosopher can't speculate, who the hell can?)
I've hiked out of First Water many times, winter and summer. I know a trail that you don't and is not on any maps that leads to Adolf Ruth's old camp at Willow Springs. I've got half a mind to take a look-see . . .
Walter Morris may count as an early bourgeois bohemian, a 'BoBo' to adopt and adapt a coinage of David Brooks. Morris is an exceedingly obscure diarist, known only to a few, but a kindred spirit. An e-mail from a distant relative of his caused me to dip again into the stimulating waters of his journal.
I have already presented his thoughts on solitude. That post also provided some information on the man and his writings. What follows is part of an entry from 8 February 1947. (Notebook 2: Black River, limited edition, mimeographed, Englewood NJ, 1949. It contains journal entries from 25 June 1942 to 3 August 1947.)
The Bohemian way of living has its points, but I am unable to appreciate Bohemia at full tilt. I have never had it that way and, except for a very youthful period, I have never much wanted it that way. I like cleanliness of body and living quarters, not a fanatical 100% cleanliness, not a sterile and perfect order, but such cleanliness as is compatible with normal comfortable living. I dislike messy emotional relationships and all kinds of exhibitionism. I dislike vomiting drunks, people with the monkey on their backs, flaunting homosexuality, financial dishonesty, irresponsibility, and puerile minds posing as advanced and liberated. This is the measure of my Respectability and middle-classness. Otherwise -- in being devoted to my own pattern, in quietly ignoring some White Cows instead of ostentatiously mounting a rebellion -- I don't mind at all being called Bohemian. Our family dish, as a matter of [f]act, could stand a dash of that kind of sauce. (p. 206)
I recall a quotation from Gustave Flaubert along similar lines: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
The mountains attract misfits, oddballs, outcasts, outlaws, questers of various stripes, and even a few 'philosophers.' Here is the story of one of them, one of many who found his way into the mountains but never found his way out. He who marches to the beat of a different drummer, in the famous phrase of Henry David Thoreau, runs certain risks. He may march himself right into Kingdom Come. But the very same Thoreau also observed that a man sits as many risks as he runs.
Which risks to sit and which to run is for the individual to decide. There is no algorithm.
Living as I do in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, I am familiar with the legends and lore of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. And out on the trails or around town I sometimes run into those characters called Dutchman Hunters. One I came close to meeting was Richard Peck, but by the time I found out about his passion from his wife, Joan, he had passed away. Sadly enough, Joan unexpectedly died recently.
Joan had me and my wife over for dinner on Easter Sunday a few years years ago, and my journal (vol. XXI, pp. 34-35, 28 March 2005) reports the following:
Joan's dead husband Rick was a true believer in the Dutchman mine, and thought he knew where it was: in the vicinity of Weaver's Needle, and accessible via the Terrapin trail. A few days before he died he wanted Joan to accompany his pal Bruce, an unbeliever, to a digging operation which Bruce, a man who knows something about mining, did not perform. Rick to Joan, "I want you to be there when he digs up the gold."
Richard Peck, 44, is a Princeton graduate, the father of three children and the owner of a Cincinnati advertising agency. He has spent the past 16 months trying to find the famed Lost Dutchman gold mine in Arizona's barren Superstition Mountain range. "The more I read about the Lost Dutchman," he recalls, "the more I kept coming back to it. Finally, I was sure I knew where the Lost Dutchman was. I was going to tear this thing open. I thought I was going to have it wrapped up in two weeks." So far his search has cost him $80,000. "I had to try something like this because it was so impossible. But if this mine is ever found it's still going to hurt in a lot of ways. Something is going to be lost out of this world."
What a story! A successful, educated, 44 year old man, possibly in the grip of a midlife crisis, spends 16 months and $80,000 grubbing around in wild and unforgiving (but not "barren"!) country searching for an almost certainly nonexistent mine. Unlike Adolph Ruth, another white-collar type who sought adventure in them thar hills, Peck came out of the mountains alive. And that was back in the '60s. Peck, whose name was shortened from 'Peckstein' according to Joan, lived on for another 40 years or so. It thus appears that the quest for the lost gold was the main passion of his life. He believed in its existence until the end of his life.
As I write this, I look out my window at Superstition mountain wreathed mysteriously in low-lying clouds and reflect that to live well, a man needs a quest. Without a quest, a life lacks the invigorating "strenuosity" that William James preached. But if he quests for something paltry such as lost treasure, it is perhaps best that he never find it. For on a finite quest, the 'gold' is in the seeking, not in the finding. A quest worthy of us, however, cannot be for gold or silver or anything finite and transitory. A quest worthy of us must aim beyond the ephemeral, towards something whose finding would complete rather than debilitate us. Nevertheless, every quest has something in it of the ultimate quest, and can be respected in some measure for that reason.
We are pulled towards the world, towards property, progeny, position, power, popularity, pleasure. But in some of us the pull toward the spirit is stronger and will triumph -- in the end. Meanwhile we are pulled apart, dis-tracted, torn between lust for the world and love of the spirit. This is 'par for the course' and 'it comes with the terrain.' There's no turning back now. We must advance.
Every puzzle that fascinates innumerable persons and induces them to attempt its solution -- be it mathematical and profound or ordinary and simple -- is an echo on a lower level of the Supreme Enigma that is forever accompanying man and demanding an answer: What is he, whence and whither? The quester puts the problem into his conscious mind and keeps it there.
Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, vol. II, The Quest (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1986), p. 24:
We are regarded as odd people because we trouble our heads with the search for an intangible reality. But it never occurs to our critics that it is much more odd that they should go on living without pausing to inquire if there be any purpose in life at all.
Into the Wild, the movie, impressed me and held my attention for its two and a half hours. But I'm understating: it moved me and ought to be added to my list of most memorable movies, there to rub shoulders with the likes of Zorba the Greek and La Strada. Not that I would rate it as high as those two classics. Here is a reviewer who didn't get it:
Krakauer and Penn see themselves as kindred spirits to McCandless, rugged individualists seeking the fullness of life in nature. And that probably explains why they both attribute McCandless' reckless adventures to a philosophical quest rather than to what appears to be an obvious act of youthful rebellion.
No doubt McCandless was reckless, and his recklessness got him killed. But only someone who is spiritually dead could dismiss McCandless' quest as a mere act of youthful rebellion. The jaded, the security-obsessed, and those devoid of all idealism will find it easy to mock as hyperromantic and melodramatic the posturings of "Alexander Supertramp." But unlike them, the living dead, he was searching for something more, for the Real, for the truth of his existence. Life without a quest for the Real beyond the sham taken-for-real of one's society is just not worth living. Either you see that or you are spiritually blind.
Only someone who, like Krakauer, sees a bit of himself in McCandless will be able to appreciate what was genuine and worthwhile in him. That is one reason why Krakauer's book is so good. I was pleased to see that the movie stays very close to the book.
One of the minor characters of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is the old man to whom Krakauer gave the name 'Ron Franz.' He was 80 years old when his and Christopher McCandless's paths crossed. McCandless made indelible impressions on the people he met, but he affected Franz more than anyone else, so much so that the old man with no surviving next of kin wanted to adopt the 24 year old as his grandson. The story of their encounter is recounted in the chapter entitled 'Anza-Borrego' and is also well told in the movie version of Krakauer's book. Franz came to pin his hopes on the remarkable young man and longed for his return from Alaska. When he heard from a hitchhiker that McCandless had died, he and his faith were shattered:
Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is not just about Chris McCandless and the people he met during the two years he was incarnating 'Alexander Supertramp.' It also about other oddballs such as Gene Rosellini. The term 'oddball' is not necessarily one of disapprobation in my mouth: most of the people I remain in contact with I would classify as oddballs. And of course it takes one to know (and appreciate) one. Here is a passage about Rosellini lifted from the essay Anarchism Versus Primitivism:
What is the seeker after? He doesn't quite know, and that is part of his being a romantic. He experiences his present 'reality' as flat, stale, jejune, oppressive, substandard. He feels there must be more to life than work-a-day routines and social objectifications, the piling up of loot, getting ahead. He wants intensity of experience, abundance of life, even while being unclear as to what these are. He casts a negative eye on the status quo, the older generation, his parents and family, and their quiet desperation. He scorns security and its living death.
Christopher J. McCandless was a good example, he whose story was skillfully recounted by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. In McCandless' case, the scorn for security, his fleeing a living death, led to a dying death. In an excess of self-reliance he crossed the Teklanika, not realizing it was his Rubicon and that its crossing would deposit him on the Far Shore. Be bold, muchachos, be bold; be not too bold.