Delight Springs

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cyber-philosophy, Feuerbach, & 17 things

Good report presentation yesterday from Anna in CoPhi on Carlin Romano's discussion of cyber-philosophy & -politics, and in HAP 101 from Solara ("15 Things Happy People Don't Do")  and Brenna on biology as destiny (or as Feuerbach said, "Der Mensch ist, was er ißt."
"Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats."
And thinks, and posts? Cyber-philosophers don't wait for peer review, and "don't expect to get it right the first time. You keep plugginaway." Iterate, and reiterate, and so on and so on. You can always go back and rewrite. Meanwhile, get your beta-version demo out there, kinks and all. Many heads are  better than one. In this way, cyber-philosophy is CoPhilosophy. 

Somewhere in Solara's litany I thought I'd heard mention of another habit of highly happy people: they make it a point to appreciate the aesthetic dimension of everyday experience, the delightful little moments most of us hurry past on our way to school and work. They stop and smell the roses, look at the sky, savor the stars and clouds.

I can't find that, precisely, in those fifteen items. So make it number #16: happy people do not ignore the ubiquitous daily delights of so-called "ordinary" experience.

And, #17: happy people don't forget to take a holiday and be grateful for it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Generosity, luck, & lunch

One of my favorite early moments in Richard Powers' GenerosityAn Enhancement  comes when the preternaturally, transcendentally happy young Algerian woman Thassadit Amzwar (whose name means "liver") disputes conservative icon Milton Friedman's famous declaration that "there's no free lunch." He was talking market-based economics, her purview is wider:
"My father was an engineer. He always liked the English expression: There's no free lunch. That's crazy! There is only free lunch. We should all be nothing but clouds of frozen dust. This is what science says. All lunch is free. My father was a scientist, but he never understood this one simple scientific fact, poor man."
In the existential economics of personal well-being, Thassa is saying, Richard Dawkins is right: we're lucky to be here. Existence, even the hardest of lives, is a gift. A bonus. And it's over in a flash. We should be happy. 

Thassa  "seems immune to anxiety. Her positive energy is amazing. She maintains a continuous state of flow." She seems happy, really happy. But can you be too happy? Is she sick or weird, hyperthymic or hypomanic? Can we get whatever she's got, in a pill or procedure? Should we want to?

We're reading Powers because it strikes yours truly as raising some of the most profoundly meaningful questions we face: questions about the very possibility of meaningful human experience as we move forward into our increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained future, questions about our own authorship of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and (sci-) fiction becoming fact. Will our successors even know what we meant by "happiness," let alone how to pursue it effectively?

May I suggest that anyone who's having trouble with the relative density of this novel might consider giving a tandem listen to the excellent audio version available at

I've been urging everyone to get started reading Generosity all semester, in anticipation of the time of reckoning to come near semester's end when presumably you'd not want to have postponed the whole thing. Well, here we are. Looking forward to seeing everyone's posted thoughts. 

For those who've not heeded the call, here (for what it's worth) is a small CHEAT SHEET and (ironically) Oprah's guide... my goodreads review... more reviews... "What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness?" Or will it?

Beyond its thematic relevance to our class, this is just a delightful, entertaining, at moments gripping yarn. The social critique of Oprah's America is right on target, the existential allusions and wordplay (a protagonist whose name means "liver," another with the Sisyphean name "Stone" etc.) are aptly amusing, the "creative nonfiction" angle on the meaning of our times and the personal and social risks implicit in large-scale genomic engineering... there's simply a lot here to appreciate.

But beware: if you don't like a self-conscious narrator who reminds you periodically that you ARE reading a story (because the larger story of our lives remains to be written, and we're all writing it) then you might not like Powers' insinuating voice. But it's not gratuitous, it's there to draw our attention to the audacity of creation and re-creation that modern genetic science may be about to spring on us.

“Real generosity towards the future consists in giving all to the present.” Kay Jamison isn’t quite so punchy as Camus, but says exuberance creates contagious joy. Don’t we all need more of that? But maybe we need less “first person” feeling fixation?

More questions for Richard Powers: Is Thomas Kurton trying to play Craig Venter ("playing God") in Generosity? With a dash of Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and Charles Darwin’s “grandeur“? 

Powers throws a curve-ball when he tells us Thomas Kurton is not so “grandiose” (=egocentric?) as Craig Venter, but I think that’s mostly a legal disclaimer.

Kurton, the expert “gene signature reader,” is drunk on genetic possibility and the next big development issuing from our collective direction. Individual responsibility is becoming passe’, at least in this story.

The humanist in the story, Stone, is– like most who cross Thassa Amzwar”s path– content to bask in the glow of her genetically-cooked joie de vivre. But “he himself may never be happy for more than a few island moments.” It’s ok, her “spillover” is enough for him.  Should it be enough for you and me? I say no. But I’m not stepping up for genetic enhancement, either.

Are there other ways to increase your own “set-point” for happiness? Or maybe we just need to rethink our situation. Stoics, Buddhists, and others make themselves “happy” merely by reframing their self-image in the light of reason and reality. Thassa resists the clinical interpretation of her “optimal allele assortment,” insisting:
They make me sound like some kind of bio-factory forivresse [euphoria]. That’s just silly. Everyone can be as content as they like. It’s certainly not pre-destiny.

But try telling that to the people who buy and sell the happy pills.

Still, there’s a practical as well as philosophical difference between positive happiness and the suppression of negative feeling, isn’t there?

Is hypomania always a bad (though possibly seductive) thing? How about hyperthymia? Do we need to engineer them in or out of our genome?

What would you pay for “meaningful connection with another living thing”?

The quest for perfection and specifically perfect happiness, Powers seems to be saying, is more risk than we yet know how to manage.

Carry the book (or audio recording) with you over Thanksgiving, it just might be your salvation. It might give you something more interesting and constructive to talk about than the Dallas Cowboys or your cousin's reactionary/paranoid politics.
P.S. Thanks to our classmate Jon, aka the "Incoherent Rambler" & "Part-time Cynic," for inviting me to share his air yesterday. Happy to do it!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Hitch & more

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and Barry Smith on Wittgenstein), ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and the infamous Christopher ("God is not great") Hitchens, among others in AtP.

But before it gets away from me, my new favorite line from Camus (from "The Stranger") flashed on Vandy library's digital quote-wall:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

That's fortifying, on a morning when again I had to break the ice in the dogs' bowl.

Also noteworthy and warming, this weekend: a pair of films, The Internship (dumb but colorful with "googliness") and Last Love (about a bereft old philosopher rescued by a young woman's generosity and hunger for "family"). Nice pre-Thanksgiving entertainments, the latter an especially good reminder of what really matters. (I'm working on that holiday attitude.)

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn't admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family history was less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might "capture reality" and toward a more constructive inquiry into "the relationship between language and us."

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to "explain" Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed "our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given." That's what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.

Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It's supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its "meaning-as-use" was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called "Glorious Accident") tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.

"A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion," it says he said on the wall in Vandy's Buttrick Hall. It doesn't say where or when (1929) he said it. It's in the posthumous collection Culture and Value, right below "Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed." Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That's from Douglas Adams, but curiously it's also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein's biographer Ray Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn't give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. "Explaining," says novelist Richard Ford, "is where we all get into trouble."

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.

Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth

She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.

Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists "brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders" without reflection. There's nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:
True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.

“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.
I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

Max Lerner published America as a Civilization in 1957, setting the stage for AtP. He "started as an impressive scholar," at Harvard and elsewhere, before taking up journalism. His big book of America, oddly described as the intellectual history John Dewey would have written had he been Max Lerner, spotlighted its "special capacity for innovation and adaptation." Some think that was always an overblown form of jingoistic exceptionalism, others think it's the mojo that got Apollo to the moon and that we need badly to recover.  

I.F. ("Izzy") Stone, "radical journalist turned classicist," turned late attention to Socrates/Plato (it's a deficiency of his Trial of Socrates that he made no attempt to separate their views) and concluded that the great gadfly - whose pestiferous social role, ironically, was not unlike Stone's own - was a conceited snob who "didn't give a damn about democracy." That seems excessive.

British-born Christopher Hitchens chose to become an American, and no American ever exercised his freedom of expression to greater effect. He wasn't afraid to change his mind in public, but through all his changes remained faithful to his hero Orwell's hatred of dictatorship and servility. 

He was verbally pugnacious, loquacious, frequently outrageous, and is much missed even by many of his religious and political opponents. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, pioneering geneticist, and unabashed convert to Christianity, became his friend and medical consultant. Unlike fellow "horseman" Dan Dennett, facing his own health crisis, Hitch did not bat away the solicitous prayers offered (sincerely or sardonically) by the faithful on his behalf. ("Did you also sacrifice a goat?") But he never retracted his position on religion - that it's poisonous, harmful, "irreducibly servile and masochistic" and infantile. 
“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”   God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything... 92Y... wfb
We'll be reading his incredible deathbed testament, Mortality, in A&P next semester when we pose the question of meaning. Not even his strongest critics would doubt that Hitch's life was full of it. Meaning, that is.
"A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so."
Finally balded by chemo but still vital and defiant and inspiring, he wrote and debated (here with creationist Dembski) right to the end of a rich life cut short by cancer. His "closing remarks" deserve to last. The view from this atheist's "foxhole" was anything but servile.

"Take the risk of thinking for yourself..." 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Big History

Just discovered David Christian's Big History Project, via Great Courses & audible & TED.

I love the vision he holds for his grandson's generation, that they may all come to know this as their story, our story. Everybody's. It's a story of our complexity and fragility, and of the power and potential of our collective learning.

What a difference it would make, at this "threshold moment," if all our students arrived already knowing this! Or at least open to learning it. Maybe even the difference between history continuing and soaring, or crashing to a premature end.

Carl Sagan would be pleased. "Let me tell you a story..."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Triumph of Experience

Great last words, JMH's in Happiness Myth (which we close today in HAP 101): "there are other ways to see things." Always, other ways. That's history.

For the lifelong student of happiness, there are other books to read and write. Other historical manias and moments to ponder. Other forms of happiness to pursue. Other worries about how we may be getting it right or wrong. Other things towards which to turn one's attention.

Hecht thus takes her place in the grand and growing tradition of American rut-busting iconoclasts, behind the likes of HDT...
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves... The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
and WJ:
"Ever not quite!"—this seems to wring the very last panting word out of rationalistic philosophy's mouth. It is fit to be pluralism's heraldic device. There is no complete generalization, no total point of view, no all-pervasive unity, but everywhere some residual resistance to verbalization, formulation, discursification, some genius of reality that escapes from the pressure of the logical finger, that says "hands off," and claims its privacy, and means to be left to its own life. In every moment of immediate experience is somewhat absolutely original and novel... Let my last word, then, speaking in the name of intellectual philosophy, be [this]: "There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given—Farewell!" -A Pluralist Mystic
There is no conclusion, no final word on how to be happy. On how to be. Experience triumphs not when it gets the last and final word, but when we open ourselves to the practical and personal wisdom of its next instructive deliverance. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, the mind must walk its path. Life is a highway.

In other contexts, experience triumphs when we take it seriously and don't attempt to reduce it to something smaller and more compact. In medical contexts (which, as I said, I'm thinking hard about in anticipation of next semester's Bioethics class and next month's talk to the pre-med students who've invited me to speak to them about "Medical Materialism, Health, and the Pursuit of Happiness" (or, "Experience, Happiness, and Medical Materialism") that means healers who treat entire persons, not just bundled symptoms and physio-mental malfunctions. 

Taking experience seriously in every context involves humility, compassion, receptivity, and openness.  It doesn't claim to know more than can be known in advance,of one's own or another's experience of life. It doesn't automatically "discredit states of mind for which we have antipathy." Unlike Medical materialism, it's multiply-perceptive and non-reductive. It's like Emerson's self-reliant "thousand-eyed present" and Thoreau's miracle of vision through another's eyes.
Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental over-tensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover. 
And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined. 

You don't have to be a medical professional to perpetrate medical materialism. You just have to take experience seriously, beginning with your own, to refrain from perpetrating it. And then, you won't be tempted to think you've successfully undermined the peculiar springs of happiness of other persons. Nor, if respect and reciprocity hold, will others be tempted to dismantle yours.

Hecht's parting practical advice: first, free yourself of the conviction that you already know exactly how to be happy. That’s the “myth of knowing.”
Then, in this less certain state, start sketching out your happiness lists. Start with writing things you actually do; then make additions to each list, noting what you might like to add to your gallery of daily-happiness-type pleasures…

Never sign off on those lists. Stay on your toes, keep your books open,
do some experiments… Talk to neighbors… Inspire a young person… When someone says that “they” have now got [happiness] figured out, you may say aloud or in your head, “No, they probably don’t.”

Once again, another of our authors insists, there are no deep universal secrets to share. But here are some intra-mundane happiness-inducing activities, possibly not yet rehearsed by us all, well worth considering:
…being loving to your spouse, nurturing your children, tending to your extended family, nurturing friendships, helping local strangers, helping strangers far away, caring for animals, engaging in fine art and the arts of living (poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, cooking, entertaining, gardening, decor), risking both being in the world and keeping apart, doing philosophy, learning the art of traveling and the art of staying home, planning for the future of humanity, and increasing the world’s knowledge.

After all that, can she and we still credibly complain that “people are shouting too many philosophies of health and happiness at us?” I think so. I don’t hear much shouting in this book.

So, sotto voce, just a couple more suggestions:
Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Oh, and don't miss too many reunions. Take your own subjective, idiosyncratic experience seriously. Smile, like Mr. Prine, at stuff nobody else smiles at. It's perfectly legal.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Fussell, & Hef

It's French existentialism and American hedonism today in CoPhi: Sartre (& Mary Warnock on Sartre), de Beauvoir, Camus,  Fussell, and Hefner. Yup, that Hefner: the Playboy Philosopher

And what a perfect juxtaposition of opposites, class critic Fussell and classy Lady Warnock. (Give her a listen, she sounds straight from Central Casting.)

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals. "Paris needed a philosophy that would give to individuals a belief in themselves and their own powers," says Lady W., and that's what JPS and his cohort tried to give them. That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi. 

Warnock seems to find some of Sartre's terms and concepts puzzling: existence precedes essence, "whatever that means!" But I always thought this was one of Sartre's clearer statements: "if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it." And we are it.

What did Sartre mean by "freedom"? Inquiring minds want to know how any of us can be really free, when we still have payments to make on the fridge. Well, that's the crux of Sartre's "Roads to Freedom." Isn't it, Mrs. P? -"We'll ask him."

"What was Jean-Paul like?"
-"He didn't join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking..."

[Breaking: guess who's getting back together?!]

Some more extreme Gallic/Existential statements:
  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”
And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-bombs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love. At least the guy who said hell is other people liked cats.
  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”
Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.
Camus also said
  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Albert Camus gave us the Existential version of Sisyphus, and the “fundamental question of philosophy”:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
OK, got it. My answer is yes, of course life is worth living. Living’s not always easy, but there’s usually something to show for your hard work. It can be a source of happiness. (And what does Sisyphus do after hours?)

The next question, having consented to live, is how. Politics is supposed to help with that. But in this perpetual season of political discontent, when the polls say all politicians and parties are uniformly scorned by the populace, there have been moments when many of us have wondered if it’s all worth it. Camus felt the same.
“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.”

Politics was supposed to be all about freeing the people to pursue happiness, Mr. Jefferson said. If it’s hard to imagine Sisyphus happy, it may be harder to expect that from our politics these days. But we must keep on pushing.

Sisyphus, for such a grim figure, has been a ripe source of amusement for a lot of us.

Paul Fussell (rhymes with Russell) wrote Class: A Guide Through the American Status System to make fun of both the concept of social "class" and the hypocrisy or obtuseness of those who deny that there's any such thing in the American democracy. Tongue lodged semi-firmly in cheek, he named nine classes-including one based on "the place you went to school". 

The only escape from class in America, Fussell allowed, is via "category X." It includes people like Joyce Carol Oates, Albert Einstein,  and Huck Finn, secure and dignified and unconcerned with class. It was a big joke, but it touched a big nerve. Clearly an area of sharp sensitivity, in our less than entirely secure and dignified USA.

And another such area is suggested by his swipe at "pathetic administrators of sad-sack Middle Western teachers' colleges which have been transformed by name only into universities" and "third-rate colleges and 'universities" whose curiosity begins and ends with "money, sports, 'entertainment,' or hobbies." We're not midwestern, in Murfreesboro, but we did begin as a teachers' college 100+ years ago. Some of our True Blue ears should be ringing.

The Playboy Philosopher. Seriously? Sure. Not everyone reads his rag just for the pictures. "Life is too short to be living somebody else's dream," says the Bunny Emperor. And,
My religion and the spiritual side of my life come from a sense of connection to the humankind and nature on this planet and in the universe. I am in overwhelming awe of it all: It is so fantastic, so complex, so beyond comprehension. What does it all mean -- if it has any meaning at all? But how can it all exist if it doesn't have some kind of meaning? I think anyone who suggests that they have the answer is motivated by the need to invent answers, because we have no such answers.
So... let's party? He'd fit right in at the Greek Bacchanal or Medieval Carnival. 

Carlin Romano seems to side with Hef's sympathetic biographer: "Hef had, in regard to sex, consumerism, pop culture, and, yes, women's rights, 'profoundly altered American life and values." Gloria Steinem was not a fun, but she was a bunny

And at 86, he married a 26-year old. I really don't know what else to say, except: I wish I'd bought shares in Viagra.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


It's the "Celebration" chapter of Happiness Myth today in HAP 101, wherein ancient Greek bacchanalia and medieval carnival craziness are brought to bear on our strange modern ways. You'll never look at the news (but do you look at the news?) the same way again. You may have more fun at your next wedding. You may feel less guilty for getting ecstatic when your team wins. You may even learn to love a parade.

JMH says we western individualists, we preservers of private life, are really built for public display. We're pack-wolves, and festive public celebration is one of our “few pragmatic routes to happiness.”  

The specific forms taken by such festivity is often  at some level absurd, even when no inter-species suckling or naughty baked goods are involved; but it doesn’t cost very much, it can last a long while, it's not inherently illegal (though it may be licentious); it feels free, and it’s a community-builder. It creates solidarity, elicits empathy, forges fellow-feeling. 

Take the little fete my old Grad School peers and I put on for our teacher awhile back, for instance. 

It dipped by turns into moments of silliness and solemnity, shook loose old memories and affections, and in general made us all happy to be there. Of course, it came up well short of anything you’d describe as revelry or carnival. But JMH’s point is that when we enact shared rituals of celebration in public we participate in an age-old human device for releasing joyful energies and making happy connections. We don’t have to “go crazy” on such occasions. It’s enough to just simply climb out of our personal chambers of self-reference for awhile and join the party. We’re a social species, and our most valued experiences are typically inter-personal.

It's an odd inversion we're on the long end of, in the "developed" post-modern world. "Historically, the average person expected to be a little miserable most of the time, and ecstatic on festival days.We now expect to be happy all the time, but never riotously so." Is that about right? It would explain a lot.

And does the mythic aspect of our interest in "news" explain a lot too? JMH sees cases like Elizabeth Smart's as our version of Demeter and Kore. "The lost child is always you." 

Smart, as recently chronicled in the New Yorkernpr, and a memoir, has emerged in her post-captive adulthood as a public figure and activist for children's rights. Her message is strong: “Never be afraid to speak out. Never be afraid to live your life. Never let your past dictate your future.”

"Thanksgiving with the family," I confess, is something I dread every year this time. That's not the way I should feel, if I felt as expansively toward the extended communal family and its celebratory occasions as Hecht implies I might. Does anyone else feel that way? Do you want to talk about it? 

The Dionysian abandon of Greek fest with its state of trance and revelation, its secret-sharing and “deep woman-weirdness,” is atypical nowadays. Our parties more often partake of the spirit of medieval carnival, says Hecht. (I think Hecht has, or when she wrote this had, a more interesting party life than I.)
In medieval Europe, partying was not about mad ecstasy. Instead, it was raucous, filthy, flirty, teasing, and soaked in ale. In this sense we are more like them than like the ancient Greeks.

That sounds like the Animal House-style frat party scene. I don't go to those parties. The closest I come to representations of either form of frenzied communal festivity, most of the time, is on my daily circuit around “Musica.” Alan LeQuire’s sculpture is meant to evoke the spirit of music and creativity in general. Not sure it quite captures the Nashville sound and vibe, but the dancers do seem to be having a good time. They appear happy.  They appear to be mortal, too. Something we can all relate to, in our quest to “perceive the world in its laughing aspect.” Or smiling, at least.

I was smiling broadly just the other week, as the baseball season finally wound down and my team almost wound up on top. “Spectator sports work even better than religion in some ways,” not because of gambling or the wave or the spectacle in the stands but because… I don’t know, just because. Have I mentioned Annie Savoy's Church of Baseball? Of course I have. I will again.
 I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there’s 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there’s 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. …It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried them all, I really have. And, the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.

No, it’s not for everyone. But sometimes the game really does “work in the same ways as historic festivals, occasioning expressions of sorrow and triumph.” That's not peculiar to my game. But you must take your dopamine perks where you can. If you doubt the meaning-potential of spectator sport, watch Jimmy Fallon with his little season ticket-holding Fenway community in "Fever Pitch."  

[And here I have to interrupt myself, at 6:17 a.m., to note the drop-dead gorgeous sky just outside my window. I glanced up and there it was. Almost missed it. Looks and feels like something to celebrate. If we'd arranged our workaday world more sensibly, such moments would occasion public celebration. We'd not just "appreciate" breathtaking cloud formations and colorful sky palettes, we'd spill out into the streets and party. Carpe vitam, again.... and another glance shows the sky resettling itself to "normal," which also deserves more celebration than we give it.]

So what's it all about, all the wild abandon and illicit assignations and feasting on inappropriate baked goods etc.? Life. "The whole thing was an explicit plea, not for forgiveness, victory, riches, or salvation, but just for life." 

But let's not get too glossy and abstract. "The cult of Dionysus is about wine, sex, dancing, and madness." Some of the stuff of life. Along with death, and "tearing apart," and "consuming raw." The stuff of life that's frowned on and mostly not sanctioned for public performance any more. We have the NFL and NCAA for that.

"At carnival, there was permission to eat lots of meat, have sex, drink copiously, and laugh." Is permission still needed or sought? "Carnvial mocked the whole order of things," and depending on who you're talking to in the age of PC and presumptive respect for everyone's religion, permission may be denied.

"Charivari" may be bullying's ancestral source.

Of the other celebratory forms JMH considers, I’m sure we all relate better to some than others. I did go to a Star Trek “con” once, though not in costume or character and (though I do appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s original humanist impulse to honor an idealized future involving collective and cosmopolitan inter-species flourishing and the urge to “boldly go,” etc.) not entirely without a sense of irony. But I do like the franchise’s original innocence and confidence. Contemplation of a world in which humans have conquered ancient prejudice, greed, and short-term thinking can be intoxicating. Shared contemplation can amplify the feeling.

And yes, I do have a nutty “special kind of allegiance” to Monty Python. JMH is quite  right: immerse yourself in one of these worlds, and for the duration you can expect to feel “no shadowy worry of meaninglessness.” Isn’t that worth a bit of absurdity? Oompa Loompas are underrated as a source of repeatable Happy Days. Get enough of those and you can't help having a Happy Life. But try not to get stuck on the Holo-deck.

"The big part of you has no words and it's a wolf." Take that out of context and you get the gist of this chapter: experience and life are richer than words can say, and human nature is wilder than we might want to admit. We can deplore this, or we can celebrate.

And one more reminder, as Halloween recedes: "you have a better chance of happiness if you do not let actors do all the dressing up." We need, the rest of us, a Festivus.

JMH loves to make lists and check them off. She closes the chapter with a list of nine questions about your next party oppportunity. Will it let you drop decorum, dance, dramatize, disrobe, impersonate the other gender, act absurdly, eat a lot, get lost in the crowd? Is it your birthday? If you have just three yes answers, she says, go. "Get out there."