Here And There

I only remember a few things from my trip to the Beyond when last I was there. To begin with I noted that those who were There (and are no  longer Here) were simply doing the things they really wanted to do when they were Here. The Beyond is simply an eternity of doing that which we want to do. It’s a reward that, for many, turns out to be punishment.

So I vividly remember the flurry of activity among those who had been interested in so many things before they went There. Their curiosity and imagination were insatiable and in the Beyond they were always busy finishing projects they had long wanted to complete before they went There, searching hither and yon for answers to the mysteries that surrounded them, curious to know as much as possible and finally getting answers. Philosophers and theologians collected in groups listening to one another seeking the truth about those things that had long puzzled them Here. The scientists were busy conducting experiments that they knew would lead them to a deeper understanding of the puzzles that had confounded them Before. The artists and musicians were busy creating works of inestimable beauty and when finished sharing those works with others of like mind who were able to appreciate what they had done and applaud their efforts. Thespians were acting out the parts they craved while they were Here. All seemed very happy and fulfilled.

Those who were focused on petty things while Here were doomed to remain focused on petty things There. I recall vividly the throngs of people walking barefoot on scorching hot sand from which rising waves of heat could be seen; they hopped from one foot to another, bent over looking for gold coins and gold chains which they either placed around their necks or in the leather pouches at their sides which grew heavier and heavier as they went along, making their movement more and more difficult and the heat from the sand more and more unbearable — with no water for relief. Their attention was on the ground, the scalding hot sand beneath their feet suggesting the heat of the earth they left Before while denying that it was in fact growing hotter each day while the aquifers dried up. Their attention Then, as now, was on the growth of their wealth which they identified with happiness. Above all else, they were alone.

One figure especially stood out. I was astonished to see him because he’s still Here and hasn’t gone There yet. But apparently they have the ability to show us what is certain to be the case in the near future and this was simply one of the more impressive examples. While the others around him were thin and wore tattered clothing this one had very small hands, a permanent frown, was overweight, and wore a crown of gold to accompany the dozens of gold chains that were hot to the touch and dragged his head down until his body was almost doubled up. He was holding an electronic device in his hand and his attention wavered from looking at the ground for more gold and playing with the device in his hand. He couldn’t seem to leave it alone! But this is what he wanted. It is what they all wanted.  Now they were learning a lesson — a lesson which would go on forever.

In the distance, beyond the scalding hot sands I could barely hear the faint sounds of very loud music in a closed arena. There were also bright lights constantly flashing on and off that I could see through the windows — even at a distance. I heard from one of the people I was able to talk with that the arena was full of people who were being entertained though many were holding their heads and complained of excruciating headaches. They would remain there forever.

Those who loved other people while Here were surrounded by those they loved and admired who shared in their joys and even their struggles — because there had to be some struggles, even There, or those who were There would never fully appreciate the many moments of satisfaction that came with being with those they wanted above all else to be with and doing those things they most enjoyed doing. They seemed to be unaware of themselves while so many of the others I saw were oblivious to others and to most of what was around them.

The key here is that those I saw were simply doing what they wanted to do. If their wants were shallow Here, they were shallow There. And they would pursue those shallow goals forever. If their interests were varied while Here they would be so There.

(With apologies to Dante and his Divine Comedy.)

Prescient Philosopher

In this interesting article about the predictions of the philosopher Richard Rorty we hear the plea that liberal intellectuals stop their other-worldly theorizing and wake up to the world around them. It was true in 1998 and it is certainly true in 2016.  His observations suggest that there is much work to be done to bring this nation together.

The victory of Donald Trump caught countless progressives and establishment conservatives by surprise. Since Election Day, there’s been no shortage of ink spent trying to sort out the underlying factors behind his startling rise to the Oval Office. But for late philosopher Richard Rorty, the writing was on the wall.
In 1998, Rorty, who most recently taught at Stanford University, argued in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America that “old industrialized democracies” are heading toward a period “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.”
He said the left had embraced identity politics at the expense of economic justice. Resentment would fester among the working class as they realized that the powers that be were not fighting to stop wages from shrinking or jobs from being sent overseas.
He suggested that many would turn to a “strongman” to flip the script on the smug, overpaid and deceitful who had long neglected their suffering. The author said the progress made on behalf of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and women would then run the risk of being rolled back.
One reason Rorty perceived something many other left-leaning academics missed might have to do with his chosen philosophical tradition: pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences. He died in 2007, so we will never know for sure what he would have thought about Trump’s highly unconventional campaign.
A few days after Trump’s surprise victory, Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kerr and others posted a particularly prescient passage from Achieving Our Country on Twitter. The three paragraphs swiftly caught fire on social media and were shared thousands of times. The New Yorker cited the passage in a profile of President Obama, and the New York Times analyzed the words in-depth.
Here is the slightly condensed version of the passage that Kerr posted online:

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Amid the renewed attention, online searches for Achieving Our Country skyrocketed and there was a run on the book at Harvard University Press, which is reprinting the book and plans to make it available online as soon as possible.
Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, recalled having big arguments with Rorty before the book was published because he thought it was “too old-style liberal.”
“He thought some of the liberals from the 1930s were really fabulous. He was trying to revive the left with this book. He was trying to kick them in the rear end so they would stop doing stuff that was easy and lazy however trendy it looked,” Waters said in an interview with Yahoo News.
According to Waters, Rorty was a clear-thinking provocateur who refused to play it safe and retained the ability to see larger trends, the big picture. He said a lot of scholars in academia think of themselves as left-wingers but don’t actually do anything.

“Rorty was trying to get people to think. That’s the philosopher’s job,” he continued. “He was trying to get people to prepare for being more responsive to the political situation in America.”. . . .
“The reason we love poets and philosophers is that they almost have some sixth sense. They pick up vibes that the rest of the world is not sensitive to or refuses to see,” he said. “He was being Cassandra: ‘If you people don’t wake up, things are going to get a lot worse. The enemy is going to win. Can I make that any more clear to you?’”
The crux of Rorty’s thesis in Achieving Our Country is that the sins of the United States past do not need to define its future. He criticized the American left of retreating into theory at the expense of taking an active role in civic life.
Rorty lamented that many of his fellow liberals had come to view American patriotism as an endorsement of past atrocities, such as slavery or violence against Native Americans. He encouraged his peers to re-embrace the patriotism of the old left and work toward a more hopeful future, much like Walt Whitman and John Dewey had before.
In the relevant passage, Rorty goes on to suggest that after his “imagined strongman” comes to power he will quickly make peace with the “international super-rich” and invoke memories of past military victories to encourage military adventures for short-term prosperity. But, Rorty continued, the strongman will ultimately be a disaster for the world and people will wonder why there had been so little resistance to his ascent.
“[Rorty] was a big-picture guy,” Waters said. “He was inspired by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and William James and was concerned about the soul of America and what’s happening in America. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes him the most different from other people. He dared to think about the country and what’s good for the country.”

The question I would ask is whether Trump will turn out to be the “strongman” those folks were hoping for or whether they will soon realize that he doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about them and is all about himself? Then what??

The Novelist as Liar

Some of Dostoevsky’s best friends were philosophers. He was not himself one, though he pondered many of the deepest philosophical problems much of his adult life. But when he came to conclusions he was often conflicted and his novels reflect the many levels of awareness that he came to as well as the many opposing positions he seemed to allow. He was a poet who embraced paradox, something that would repel the philosopher. He did not think systematically, he thought intuitively. He worked in metaphors and images and usually avoided discursive thought, though some of his characters were given to philosophical reflection from time to time.

If you read Dostoevsky’s notebooks, where he planned his novels, you will see a number of options and character sketches and even rough outlines of a plot. But when the poet sat down to write the novels they took on a life of their own. And Dostoevsky was enough the poet to allow that to happen; he rarely demanded that the novel conform to preconceived ideas. One obvious exception is the epilogue to Crime and Punishment which I have argued elsewhere flaws the novel as a work of art. In that epilogue, Dostoevsky the man took the novel away from Dostoevsky the poet.The same thing happens in Notes From Underground.

To be sure, Notes was one of the more philosophical works that Dostoevsky wrote. The first part is an extended series of reflections that reads like a journal in which the author draws a number of tentative conclusions about freedom and suffering, two themes that recur in a number of his novels. The underground man says, near the end  of the first part, “I’m certain that man will never renounce real suffering. . . why, this is the sole cause of consciousness.”  This comment echoes almost exactly a remark Dostoevsky made while preparing for Crime and Punishment. In his notebook he says, “Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. There’s no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness. . . .is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self.” This is a thesis that a number of critics have, reasonably, attributed to Dostoevsky himself through the years: the necessity for suffering in order to achieve full humanity. But if you read the novels themselves, and even the second part of Notes, you come to the realization that Dostoevsky was of two minds (at least) on the subject of suffering.

In that second part. his hero, who is unnamed, suffers dreadfully and makes a young prostitute suffer as well. This tortured relationship seems to suggest that suffering does not lead anywhere, except to a breakdown of the psyche of the one who suffers and also those he makes suffer. Granted, the hero is close to a breakdown as the novel begins, but by the end he is over the edge. If as the author suggests in the first part, suffering leads to a deeper humanity, the second part of the novella gives the lie to that claim. No one benefits from the suffering that the hero has brought on himself and inflicted on the young woman who reaches out to him and is crushed.

In the end, we must say that Dostoevsky was conflicted about the possible value of human suffering. The poet was too sensitive to close his eyes and mind to the terrible price the sufferer pays — as he himself knew first hand. So the philosophical conclusion that suffering is necessary for human freedom, or a deeper awareness of the world around you, may have been a thesis that Dostoevsky, the man, embraced as part of his deep convictions about the truth he found in the New Testament. But Dostoevsky the poet worked closer to the fact of human suffering and he wept. The poet could see no value in suffering, while the man was convinced it was worth the price.

As D.H. Lawrence reminds us, if we want to know what the novel says we must read the novel. “As for the novelist, he is a dribbling liar.” If we want to know what Dostoevsky really believed about the value of human suffering, it is wise to read his novels.

Poets uncover the hidden truths that are deep within human experience; philosophers occasionally mull over those truths and try to make systematic wholes out of them. At times Dostoevsky confused the two roles and tried to play them both. He almost pulls it off, but in the first part of Notes, and the Epilogue to Crime and Punishment, he failed.