The Taciturn and the Garden Party

I had two thoughts on my mind just now. First one, then the other. Both of them seemed like good blog topics, and as I sat down to write on the second, I realized they’re connected, and interestingly so.

First, I was thinking about philosophy and how it affects me, and why I avoid it or hold it at arms’ length too much of the time. Then, I was thinking about how painfully banal most of my conversations are.

Philosophy does this to me: I start thinking about a philosophical problem, and if I don’t immediately grasp or at least intuit the solution, I begin to feel a rising agitation. My mind stirs awake. I swear I can actually feel the heat as my synapses spark, then ignite, then blaze. The mundane fades away. The pace of thought quickens. Hypotheses burst forth, illuminate, become unstable, go supernova, destroy everything that touches them. Vacuum, suffocation, panic. New hypotheses take form, furtively. Suddenly (Hello, Polaris) there’s enough to intuit a perspective on the problem; I get a sense of direction.

All the while I’m scrawling hurried notes. I can’t get the ideas out fast enough. They fall apart before they’re given form in words. Perspective is lost, my hypotheses no longer indicate anything, but shine stupidly at me like the visage of an idiot grinning at his ice cream cone. I start to come down from the high.

Krrack! Charred oaken hunks and flaming splinters fill the air. I jump out of my chair, fumble for a pen and a scrap of paper, can’t write, no backing, pen pokes through the sheet, there’s the wall. I lean up on it and write ten letters before the ink fails. Shaking the pen I hop from foot to foot like Rumpelstiltskin. “Motherf**ker!” I yell, toss the paper, fling the pen end over end into the wall like a tomahawk, wince (that’ll leave a mark). At the keyboard, typing in whatever app is open. Lots of typos, no time to correct. Where is that &%*@ing tape recorder?

The hypotheses shimmer like will-o’-the-wisps as I hammer out a rough paragraph. Not stars at all, deceptive beasts. Not stars, Chinese lanterns: varicolored, beautiful, resting in the branches of trees. Leaves glow pink and orange and blue and spring’s daylight green in the darkness. Ladies dressed in finery wander along garden paths, gentlemen at their arms. I take something from a silver tray and, shoeless, amble onto a lawn of soft, springy grass. Across the lawn several revelers are roasting marshmallows in the smouldering heart of an oak.

After I return, I creep into bed late, trying not to disturb my wife. I sleep for four hours, wake up, and start thinking along the edges of my garden until I find where the hedges reach out into cold, empty space. Once more into the breach.

When I’m in the grip of a philosophical problem, I won’t willingly think of much else. I can’t keep regular hours. I think until I find a garden or I’m exhausted, sometimes longer. Every answer uncovers new questions. I feel enticements approaching the irresistible as I wander virgin territory. One problem can be set aside. Two with difficulty. Ten? I won’t try it.

To philosophize as I’m naturally inclined would require totally free time, zero non-philosophical obligations. I’m skeptical that there’s any other way philosophy can be justly pursued. The less-than-half-assed attenuation that is my current philosophical life can only produce work vastly inferior, often dissipated or frivolous.

That’s not a complaint, but a concern. Who philosophizes if total immersion is the essential mode of philosophy? Certainly not scholars, with their classes, research, administrative obligations, etc. Certainly not anyone in the workaday world. Perhaps only beasts and gods.

This brings me to my unsatisfying conversations. I try not to think about my two favorite problems too much these days (how to demonstrate free will and crush the compatibilist word-jugglery, how to develop and test my solution to the problem of universals) because thinking about them would be like listening to half a movement of Mahler and switching to Third Eye Blind: jarring, unpleasant, and wasteful. But just today I realized that I haven’t been successful in closing off the philosophical wing of my brain. Sneakily, denied access to its favorite ideas, that insistent organ has begun thinking philosophically about the people around me.

Ideas are much more engaging conversationalists than people. People almost never talk about anything interesting at all, and if they begin to be interesting, they often seem inexplicably ashamed, as if they’ve noticed their fly is down, but can’t figure out how to fix it without drawing attention right to the problem area. An exception is in the afterglow of a party or an outing, especially where alcohol or adrenaline have been involved. I find folk are much more inclined to say something interesting during these otherworldly interludes. But you can tell then that they’re out of their element, like introverts liquored into loquaciousness. They’re not behind whatever they’re saying; they don’t mean it. The next day, they’ll have devolved into blocks, stones, worse than senseless things.


Do they sense, however remotely, sometime while backsliding from their infrequent peaks, the Garden beckoning? Do they sense that thinking about things meaningfully, as a philosopher does, can be all-consuming and transformative, and a powerful impediment to a ‘normal’ life? I hold philosophy at arms’ length knowingly, provisionally, so that I can keep traction on the far less interesting problems I’ve got to work on these days. But I can’t ever seem to truly shake its habits, and wouldn’t want to. Is some parallel gambit in incessant play among them, albeit one that’s spectacularly more effective?

I don’t have an answer, or even a bright intuition. … Forget it. I wonder what’s on VH1?

It’s Mahler Time

The blog is a strange creature, from where I sit. Not this blog, but rather the web log as a form of written communication. The modally average blog burns a lot of bits commenting on the “issues of the day” and commenting on others’ commentary on the same. I sometimes think I should do that, as it would give me material for the short, easily produced and digested posts that are the mainstay of bloggers everywhere. Now and then I do post a post like that, but gads, it’s been over a year.

You see, I’m … Nonplussed?

No. That’s not it. Plus, I’ve always hated that word. It’s the kind of word that shows up in 6th-grade readers out of plain bad taste. Something more apt is out there. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug,” so the man said. Normally, I’d use the Oxford English Dictionary in a situation like this. But right now I don’t have access to it, so I’ll improvise.

Bewildered … is wrong too. Odysseus leaps to mind. He’s is trying to get home from Troy, Poseidon sticks his nose in, and the many-minded tactician is— bewildered. Bewildered folk want to get out of the woods; I follow Thoreau in thinking that staying lost has distinct advantages. And I’ve got no home to go to anyhow. That’s part of the problem.

Stupefied. There’s a word I like. Sam Elliott’s Stranger put a form of it to savory use in The Big Lebowski. But there are connotation problems here. I have known those who overindulge in marijuana to be stupefied by their habit. Stupefied and stupid are kissin’ cousins, etymologically speaking. I’d hate to give the impression that my faculties are impaired or inadequate to this rather modest task.

Dumbstruck. Struck dumb. Beaten into silence by the horrific spectacle before me. I’m a situational aphasiac; in my situation, by god, I look at the world and its news and my diction decomposes into froth. I’m like a rabid dog gargling seltzer with Cesium. There are no words.

The world is mad. Stark, raving mad. Words are all but useless. If the whole world’s a padded cell, packed with prancing Napoleons, do you prance along to get along? (Don’t think of calling the guards — they’re busy comparing imaginary mustaches and debating whether one and which of them is the Man of Steel and which of them may be instead the Antichrist.) Do you try to persuade the inmates that there’re better ways to go about the business of living than posturing with one hand thrust between your buttons?

What’s eloquence in the ears of lunatics? It’s shrilling fife and it’s fluid flowing out past the eardrums after a swift blow to the head. Eloquence is sweet, susurrant nothings uttered in air ionized by ten thousand sparking cattle prods.

Here’s a koan no Napoleon can crack:

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.”

“And,” replied Diogenes, “if you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”

But that’s no koan at all to those of who don’t roll on our backs and pee at the sight of a flag-capped rotunda. To anyone willing to wash his own goddamn vegetables if it comes to it, the whole circus of modernity is superfluous. We don’t need a state to keep us off of each other’s throats. As we see it, Nature itself is a sufficient support for human life. It doesn’t need to be hussied-up by politicians and their puppeteers.

“[I]ndeed, it has often seemed to me as if anyone calling for an intellectual conscience were as lonely in the most densely populated cities as if he were in a desert.”

Perhaps I’m bewildered after all. And perhaps I shouldn’t worry, on second thought. I mean, look at the alternative.

I Shall Be Telling This With A Sigh

I just popped over to Strike the Root and found this old-friendly quotation:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

This is philosophy, callow pretenders, the very thing-in-itself. Compare:

O Voltaire! O humaneness! O nonsense! There is something about “truth,” about the search for truth; and when a human being is too human about it—“il ne cherche le vrai que pour faire le bien” [“He seeks the true only to do the good.”]—I bet he finds nothing. ~ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 35.

Presumed Incompetent

Contrary to the respectable opinion-in-practice, the way to get the most out of intellectual exchange may well be to presume your interlocutor is a duplicitous imbecile, but that his argument is vastly more subtle and penetrating than at least first impressions suggest.


Billy Beck has written an outstanding post on a topic that I’ve shied away from, simply because its implications are so large, and I hardly feel up to the task of folding them all out and making beautiful origami from them.

Anyhow, Billy points out that values are radically individual in their genesis, and that, consequently, the “common good” so revered by Platonists and their dupes, is a sham.

The Myth of Progress

I watched The Pianist last night, and it put me in a particular misanthropic mood I recognize. I last experienced it years ago as I read through the comments book at the end of my last visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The comments in the book, reading between the lines, added up to this: “Boy that sure was moving! The Germans were some mean, evil dudes, huh? It’s great to be an American, because we’ve got museums that’ll keep this Jew-killing stuff from ever happening here!”

What hubris! Of course it can happen here. Men are made of the same stuff in the 21st century they were made of in the 20th. Under the right circumstances, given the right push, they’ll do anything to anybody. The push doesn’t even have to be that hard.

Of course, it won’t be Jews next time. Nonetheless, on a crowded street, or in the lobby of a Holocaust museum, look around you. Ask yourself: how many of these people would gas me for the glory of der Fürher?

Answer: too damn many.

Thoughts For Election Week

Diabolical, diabolical democracy: it forces you to care what other people think, then to worry about what they might be persuaded to think, and, finally, to hope in desperation that they can think at all. Example: Were it not that I lived in a democratic order, One Million Moms scared of guns would concern me as much as One Million Cartoon Elephants scared of cartoon mice. As it stands, I ignore the phobias of pachyderms with aplomb, but the machinations of muddle-headed matrons and their tools command an undue measure of my attention.

One day, liberty will be achieved somewhere on Earth. Travelers approaching this hallowed ground will tremble to a terrible susurration—the gnashing of the demagogues’ teeth.