Wisdom from Whitman, Camus, and Mae West

davinci_army_583I am a body. I have been “designed”, through mishap and random success in an ever- changing environment, for millions of years. The result is astonishing: a pumping heart, breathing lungs, and a bewildering array of chemical processes that allow me to maintain a steady temperature, stave off infections, digest food, and repair minor injuries. I am furthermore a life-support environment for many non-human beings, bacteria that live in me as I live on the earth. All of us together can run, jump, sleep, roll, balance, swim, climb, stretch, lift, and dance. I have in me everything celebrated by Walt Whitman as he sings the body electric. There is no mystery in all this – or, at least, no mystery in principle: for all can be discovered, grasped, and marveled at.

I am a mind. In addition to the movements through physical space my body can undertake, I can travel through the domain of ideas upon a sea of images and language. I can deploy nouns and verbs, though these are not physical things, and they exist only in the mind. I can formulate equations, algorithms, subroutines, and hypotheses. I can think in terms of what is true, what must be true, what is false, and what cannot possibly be true. I can think of what might have been, and what would have been, had things been different. I can tell jokes. And in the quiet of the night I can look at the stars and know them to be not just pinpoints of light, but light that began to shine millions of years ago.

I am a soul. Music entrances me, as does a poem or a painting. I can hear a prayer, and though my mind tells me sternly that the words are addressed to no one, I can hear its beautiful rhythms and be moved by them. I can fall in love with a person, a child, a tune, a seashore, an animal, a thought. I can feel the wonder that can find no suitable question, nor any answer. I can hear wisdom in the voice of another, even when my mind tells me that what has been said makes no sense, strictly speaking. I have known the Absurd, and the pain of being alone in a crowd. I can see the beauty in a stone, or an old shoe, and I can recoil in horror from a place, a book, or a policy that has been designed by a mind operating on its own.

To be human is to exist in these three dimensions. Body, mind, and soul will each tell you that they are the most important, for they are jealous of one another and do not believe in one another. But you must remember – and you, not just some part of you – that you are always all three, perhaps in varying degrees or concentrations as occasions warrant, but always all three. There is no neat packaging of this complex truth. It is as unthinkable as a divine trinity, and to flatten it out into anything comprehensible always results in heresy. One can only accept and embrace the multiplexity, and try to balance it through wisdom in the contours of a well-lived life.

We must have love, for without it our lives shatter into meaningless fragments. Our souls feed on love, just as our bodies need food if they are to remain whole. What do we love? We love what we can. We find, if not beauty, then sympathy, and we stretch out our concern to encompass what we love within our arms, or in our sphere of care. When Camus insisted that we must imagine Sisyphus as happy as he repeatedly rolled the stone up the hill, he was insisting that – for our sake and for his – there was something in that bleak existence that Sisyphus could befriend or admire or at least keep company with. For without imagining that, his life would be no human life at all, and to say that is to admit that our own lives, though they are not so extreme, may also be inhuman. The door to despair lies wide open, in that case. So we must imagine Sisyphus as happy:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing.

Sisyphus’s case is at an extreme, one in which all external meaning has been stripped away, and Camus’s point was that even in such an extreme there can be love. Otherwise, there can come a point where our own soul is taken from us; and we must believe that it can never be so.

The mind craves stimulation. It must be presented with a problem, and with some need to solve it. A pointless problem can be a joy only to the critically bored, and a mind that can find no problem to solve begins to digest itself over time (as in the case of the sea squirt, which secures its perch and then eats its own brain). We know the people who make their lives far more difficult than is necessary – in fact to satisfy their restless minds, though they may not know this. We have known those whose mentality has atrophied, and whose thoughts are empty of all substance. But when a problem is presented and our mind is called into action, it searches for reliable patterns, causal relationships, and understanding. It pursues this intelligibility with greedy hunger, adopting any sort of model of its own circumstance, so long as it appears to work. Thus science and magic; explanation and superstition. As we find the need for finer discriminations, we discern the differences between better and worse models, and in this way knowledge is born.

The body follows its own appetites, but often blindly and even to its own detriment. It has been “designed” to seek out sources of nutritional energy, but if left on its own in a land of plenty, it will suck down great quantities of sugared water until its kidneys fail. It has been designed to seek out sex and warmth and some degree of thrill. All of this can get wondrously out of hand if it is not properly channeled and moderated. (Mae West was right – “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful” – but it does require some delicate strategy.) The body plays a critical role for both the mind’s stimulation and the soul’s love, and it is fundamental to our humanity. This point should be obvious, but it is denied, incredibly, by many great philosophers who (from malcontent? prudery? envy?) try to portray the mind and the soul as disembodied, or at least as intelligible without considering the body.

Love and stimulation in a healthy body – if more is required, I do not know it.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wisdom from Whitman, Camus, and Mae West

  1. Mike says:

    Nice little meditation. More writing should be covered over with a few coats of Whitman.


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