A poisoned peace

Albert-Camus-001“I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure. A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations.”  (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus)

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On the Other Delphic Maxims

Now up at Aeon. The conclusion:

The fact that the great majority of maxims on the list can still serve us today is itself worth further reflection. There is no denying that our lives have changed a lot in the past 25 centuries. But the need to organise one’s priorities, to cultivate friendships and social bonds, to care for families, and to measure out one’s emotions – these are philosophical requirements at the foundation of a human life, and they haven’t changed. By reflecting on these maxims, and thinking through how they might change our lives, we form a kinship with those who turned to the ancient sages for guidance – and share in the human effort to live wisely.

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Say, whatever happened to Casearius?

51nP0weVoGL._SX248_BO1,204,203,200_Readers of Spinoza’s letters will recall the name “Casearius”. Johannes Casearius lived in the same house in Rijnsburg as Spinoza, and Spinoza taught him Cartesian philosophy, an effort which led in part to Spinoza’s book, The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy. Spinoza regarded Casearius as troublesome, and was wary of sharing his own views with him. Casearius went on to gain a degree in theology from Leiden, but couldn’t find work, and so signed on with the VOC. He ended up in Cochin (Kochi) in Southwest India in 1669, and there he met Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein, a great naturalist, who was to author the multivolume botanical work, Hortus Malabaricus. Casearius was recruited to put the manuscript into proper Latin – some of which, I am guessing, he learned from Spinoza. According to Harold Cook (Matters of Exchange), both Van Reede and Casearius were broad-minded in religious matters, as was a third member of Van Reede’s team: Matthew of Saint Joseph, a friar of the Discalced Carmelites, who was extremely well-traveled and knowledgeable of local people and customs. Casearius eventually succumbed to some tropical disease, and died in 1677 (the same year as Spinoza) while en route to Batavia (Central Jakarta).

I should add that a lot of Van Reede’s botanical knowledge of Malabar came from three local experts: Apu Botto, Ranga Botto, and Vinaique Pandito [pandito = “scholar”]. These fellows weren’t just casual recognizers of flora, but experts trained in the classical literature of plants in their own culture (a great example of how Enlightenment knowledge rides upon the shoulders of unsung peoples).

Here are the makings of an interesting historical novel!

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Gerry’s soldiers

saluteWe have been in the process of sorting through the detritus of my parents-in-law: lots of junk, no longer meaningful to anyone, but occasionally the striking this or that suggestive of a parent’s love, a freakish endeavor, or long afternoons of timeless play. This last mood was suggested by my father-in-law’s tub of tin soldiers.

There are nine intact pieces, missing no limbs or helmets, though little of the original paint shows through:

good soldiers

Most surprising among them is this lonesome cowboy, who must have been surprised as he wandered in from the prairies into the fearsome trenches:


And I can only imagine this Texan’s horror as he came across the body parts strewn across the fields:

body parts

But medical attention was available, for those who could still benefit from it:


Sadly, for me, the bicyclist’s broken wheel rendered him pretty much useless:


I’m sure Gerry had a lot of fun setting these guys up into various scenarios, and though I feel some regret that more of the pieces aren’t intact, I’d like to believe that they were played with thoroughly, which would mean they each did their duty.

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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.

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Crowd going apeshit

I’m generally not a fan of pop music, but the recent Beyoncé/Jay-Z video really is masterful:


So many difficult questions are held up for reflection, especially for successful producers and consumers of today’s arts. If you are a successful black or female artist, are you ready to have your work put up next to the great works in the Louvre – many of which trade upon racial injustices? As a viewer, how do you put together the historical power of western culture with today’s culture? (“Have you ever seen a crowd going apeshit?”) And what about the Janus-faced values of American culture – which rewards this video with over 34 million views in just a week, while also decrying the black athletes who take a knee in protest of institutional racism?

JSTOR’s blog has a good general discussion of the artwork featured in the video here.

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Chronic dysfunctions of systems


W. G. Sebald, in Austerlitz:

And several times, said Austerlitz, birds which had lost their way in the library forest flew into the mirror images of the trees in the reading room windows, struck the glass with a dull thud, and fell lifeless to the ground. Sitting in my place in the reading room, said Austerlitz, I thought at length about the way in which such unforeseen accidents, the fall of a single creature to its death when diverted from its natural path, or the recurrent symptoms of paralysis affecting the electronic data retrieval system, relate to the Cartesian overall plan of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability.


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