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A Belated Update on This Life

A Belated Update on This Life

Some well-deserved recognition for a must-read book:

Professor Martin Hägglund wins the prestigious René Wellek Prize

Martin Hägglund’s This Life has been awarded the René Wellek Prize for the best book in the field by the American Comparative Literature Association. The Wellek Prize is generally considered to be the most prestigious award in comparative literature. Past winners include Umberto Eco and Edward Said. In their prize motivation, the awards committee offered high praise for This Life:

Self-Reliance in the Age of Pandemics

Self-Reliance in the Age of Pandemics

Into the Wild, 2007. Directed by Sean Penn. Based on Into the Wild (1996), by Jon Krakauer.

It was never the case, at least not in the modern world. Outside a few. Outside a few lone souls, able to live on grass and berries. Able to hunt and gather, make their own shelters, their own clothes, treat themselves when they got sick. Pull their own teeth. Make and fix their own modest tools. Having next to no layers between themselves and the earth. Right there. Being there always. Right on top of the earth, like mother and child.

And they better be beyond lucky. They better not fall and break their ankles, legs, hit their heads, catch pneumonia or worse. They better, in a word, or two, or three, stay perfectly healthy.
It was never the case, outside those rare few souls.

Humans are social animals. We need one another, obviously. And in the modern world, the degree of need and interconnection is beyond complex, far beyond ancient ideas of kin and village, with steeper hierarchies today than in any past worlds, arranged for us, not by us, prefabbed for us in ways both artificial and arbitrary — Potemkin-like — it’s a wonder this isn’t foremost in our thoughts at all times, as we make our way through life.

It is true that we brought some of this dependency on ourselves, as we spun out in all directions, expanded our sense of what was important to us, our sense of what we need each day, which meant a removal from the first ground of our being, a removal from the earth and any chance we may have had to truly be self-reliant to a point. Even back then, even at the dawn of things, it wasn’t possible, except for those rare few.
We listened too much to Sirens. We listened too much to ghosts in three piece suits.

We gave in. We gave up. Division of labor, division of expertise, division of the spoils, the allocation of resources decided by the few for the many.  Those Sirens and those ghosts. We’re close now to peak dependence, at the same time our personal agency, our personal control over our own destinies, may well be at an all time low. May well be peak inverse.

Year by year, generation after generation, we’ve been led down a pathway toward an existential crisis, a series of these crises, an acceleration of that series, for a host of reasons and rationales. But if we need to boil all of that down to just one, to just one reason why, to just one answer voice cause meaning provocation, it’s money. It’s “I think therefore I buy.”
For much of humanity, possibly most, almost all, our management of our consumer choices, our thinking through what, when and where we buy things . . . inanimate objects . . . stuff . . . makes us who we think we are, and this, in our mind’s eye, makes us believe we’re self-reliant. Because we can. Because we can buy stuff.

Not make it, grow it, maintain it, fix it, replenish it. Buy it. But in the Age of Pandemics, we’re quickly learning we can’t necessarily do or count on that any longer, and it’s time to ask ourselves why and how and beyond just that. It’s time to question the system we inherited and its effects, the one that spun us out this far from our home in the first place.

Finite Lives

Finite Lives

Kobe Bryant’s passing, at 41, is a tragedy, as are the deaths of his daughter, Gianna, just 13, and the seven others on board that helicopter. Millions across the globe have been impacted by this, perhaps especially the generation that grew up along with Kobe, watching his evolution into one of the NBA’s all-time greats. His peers in the game of basketball have spoken out, too, some tearfully, and it’s apparent they honestly grieve this loss.

My own reactions were heightened by seeing the reactions of others, the human family in moments most unguarded. There is something profoundly beautiful and moving in our ability to openly weep for others, to care inwardly and outwardly for persons we don’t even know. Alone. Together. In public and private. In joy and sorrow we are bridges to one another. We are bridges.

How many times have people wondered to themselves or aloud, after reading, say, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, why can’t we heed its lessons throughout the year? The death of a beloved public figure, and the reactions to these losses, make me wonder something similar: Why can’t humans maintain that immediate emotion of oneness with both the object of loss and those sharing that emotion? Why can’t we see one another in the light of our mortality, always? In the light that burns out for all of us, sooner or later?

I imagine there are some who can. Who have. Who will in the future. But they’re rare breeds, and so scattered they form no critical mass, or even a small crowd. Too difficult for us? To feel this way, week after week, month after month, year after year . . . Probably.

This Life, by Martin Hagglund. 2019

Not too long ago, I read a stunningly profound book, by Martin Hagglund, which explicates one possible road toward getting there. I’ll save a full review for the future, but, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Hagglund’s book.

His key insight, perhaps, is that we should build societies based on our mortality, on the realization of our radically limited time on this earth, and do everything in our power to make sure everyone — as in, everyone — has the best possible chance to make the most of their time, their lives, as they dream they should be. Artists, poets, musicians, novelists, and more than a few mystics, have long fought for the idea of living life to the fullest, and showed us why (countless times) this was so critically important. But the artist as seer, as visionary, tends not to speak in terms of systems, at least not through their creative work. Hagglund, as a philosopher, writing a non-fiction, book-length essay, can travel roads (in this case) most creatives typically avoid.

Here’s a clip from the book, focusing on, in this case, C.S Lewis grieving over his wife, Helen Joy Davidman :

Perhaps the next great step for Homo Sapiens will be to find a way to at least start that journey, one that heeds emoted insights from thousands of great works of art, and visionary builders of systems too. Both/And.

Rest in Peace, Mamba.

The Ironies They are a Changin’

The Ironies They are a Changin’

Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse. 1891

Different times blah blah blah
Call for different blah blah blahs

As in
Right now there is no reason
For all of those blah blahs
And extra blah blahs


We need to be direct!
Tell it like it is
And not worry so much about
Offending the cliché police

The earth the sea the once blue air
     The glaciers the beleaguered soil

     The fires this time

So instead of stories about this or that
This or that endlessly nuanced set of
               Ironic      distances

It’s time for swords
     Right under your nose
And clear cut goals
     Right under your nose

And beating hearts
Right under your nose
Wherever they typically go

When they need immediate attention
     When they need immediate care

Of course fables and parables and
Allegories and multiplex symbology
Still rule   always rule   will always

But on some level it’s got to be
Night and Day

Right vs wrong
Because all this ironic detachment
Has led to exactly the wrong kind of
Simplicity and lack of nuance
So ring that bell
     Bang that drum
          On key
          On time

Integration at Four O’Clock

Integration at Four O’Clock

Bridge of Shadows

I wonder about the ideal all too often. I wonder if we were ever, as a species, supposed to attain something even close to an ideal. But that doesn’t stop me from wool-gathering, looking at clouds, staring at the darkness in my coffee cup, etc. That doesn’t stop me from questioning, endlessly, the way things are.

How should we raise our kids and ourselves? Because, of course, all the while we think we’re raising them, they’re raising us in a sense, too, and all the things surrounding us shape what we do, and are sometimes shaped by what we do, and so it goes, on and on and on. There is no No-Spot from which we can become who we really are, minus them, minus the environment, minus all that has ever arisen before we reached this place and time. And in the so-called Modern Era, it’s harder than ever before to separate the Dancer from the Dance, as Yeats showed us, and he never had to deal with Smart Phones, Texting and whatever will follow all of that.

To individuate in a crowd. To individuate in a crowded room, house, state, world, not of our own choosing. To form a self amidst all the noise, the competing cries of Look at me!! The competing scramble for clean water, air and land. The soon to be competing rush, onslaught, tsunami of eyes, ears, voices and bodies, seeking dry land, seeking fire-free zones, seeking, in short, habitability.

It may boil down to the old stand-by: it’s complicated. But I don’t want it to. I don’t want to hang my hat on that potential cop-out. I want to find the impossible, and in more than just Art. In life itself. The impossible in life. Because Art without life is like life without Art to me. They need integration too. And more. Much more. They need a kind of — to risk a cliche for a moment or three or seven — nurturing that abides, that lasts, that is sustainable for the longest term. They need a natural synchronicity that becomes second nature for all inputs, for the teachers and students who switch back and forth between the two, forever.

The other switch is, of course, creation and reception, creator and audience. Can there be a human that only inhabits one or the other? Not likely. No one is so lofty, indifferent, or isolate. No one is so passive or parasitical. Unless. Unless damaged. And that damage generally comes about in course of, in the realm of, in the range of integration with the all.

And there’s the quandary of quandaries. The endless push/pull of Alone or Come with. The endless stream of fighting it or riding the storm. And all things in between. Perhaps the answer is there, at least part of it. Not in “the middle,” per se, which only exists in the abstract, within the frame, relatively speaking. The middle as in, what we see, all of what we see, our view of things, as we think they are.
A sad voice in my head, one among so many, shouts (with obvious impatience), “Integrate that!! Individuate that!!

On the day after. On the day after!!

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps


The (Post-)Modern Search for Meaning:

Tolstoy’s Escape from the Trap


A Reflection by Sean Howard


For the last few years, a close friend has been complaining, with light touch but increasingly heavy heart, of a deep-seated creative malaise, an impasse in his search for an authentic voice and message. Among other sources, his depression can be traced to his intense and academically accomplished engagement with Wittgenstein, whose humbling exposé of the ‘language game’ – and, therewith, what my friend calls “capital-P Philosophy” – leaves him both full of admiration and “with everything – and nothing – to say”. Or, rather, with a desire to say ‘something true’ thwarted by sensitivity to the unrealizable nature of any such (language-based) project. Behind this blockage, we both suspect, lurks the Nietzschean dissolution of, indisseverably, our union with God and God’s with the Word. ‘The Word is dead, long live words’; Nietzsche was trying to open a door to ourselves, roll the stone from the tomb we’re inside, yet for many of his ‘last men’ (and women), the desire for self-expression still rubs (itself out) against the paradoxically definitive absence of modernity.


The vital clues to my own solution of ‘The Problem’ (the challenge set so bravely to us all (and himself) by Nietzsche) were provided by Carl Jung, whose work posits an entirely different kind of Grand Source – The Self – for both personal and transpersonal meaning. At the core of Jung’s own life-work was a struggle to shape a new ‘myth for our time,’{{1}}the resurrection from the ‘God’-grave not of a Creator transcending humanity but the self-transcending creativity of the psyche. For Jung, Nietzsche’s error, the ominous turn from depression to inflation, was to search for the new hero in the sphere of the ego: ‘God is Dead, Long Live Superman.’ Yet, I would guess, for every ‘Jungian’ – everyone, that is, who sees in the psyche the implication of a guiding, healing power – there are many more ‘Nietzscheans,’ or ‘last-landers,’ dismissing such ideas merely as metaphysics revamped, new clothes for a dead emperor.


In 1879, when Jung was an infant, the 51-year-old Leo Tolstoy stood at the dizzy summit of his life: a prolific and world-famous writer, a happy husband and father, in excellent health, immensely wealthy. From which height he fell, almost overnight, into the Nietzschean pit. Everything he had hitherto believed, or assumed he did, he wrote, could be summed up in one word, the most pervasive and pernicious of his age, ‘Progress’: “Like any individual, I was tormented by questions of how to live better. I still had not understood that in answering that one must live according to progress, I was talking just like a person being carried along in a boat by the waves and the wind; without really answering, such a person replies to the only important question – ‘Where are we to steer?’ – by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere.’”{{2}}


As a “literary teacher” suddenly without faith in his secular god, Tolstoy was confronted with an “insoluble problem”: “how to teach without knowing what I was teaching.”{{3}} Whether writing, reading, managing his estate, spending time with his family – “I had to know,” he said, “why I was doing these things,” and “I could find absolutely no reply” except the insufferable “truth…that life is meaningless.”{{4}} This truth he found confirmed in the profoundest philosophical and spiritual works he knew. For Socrates, meaning is something “we move closer to…only to the extent that we move further from life”: “The wise man seeks death all his life”. For Schopenhauer, “this universe of ours” which seems “so real, with all its suns and galaxies, is itself nothingness.” “Vanity of vanities,” the Book of Solomon cries, “all is vanity.” And the Buddha: “We must free ourselves from life and from all possibility of life.”{{5}} There have been ‘last men’ around for a very long time, it seems, and their worst and most ironic torment has always been the pointlessness of knowledge. We “cannot cease to know what we know,”{{6}} Tolstoy wrote – yet the one thing we need to know, how to live in meaning, can never be known. In art, too, irrespective of form or medium, only the unnecessary is expressible; and yet, like Tantalus, we can no more stop thirsting, wetting our lips to say more, than we can ever hope to find relief.


There are “for the people of my class,” Tolstoy noted, “four means of escaping” this “terrible situation”. The first is “ignorance,” mercifully “failing to…understand that life is evil and meaningless.” The second, “fully aware of the hopelessness of life,” is “epicureanism”, “enjoying for the present the blessings that we do have” – gifts provided, as Tolstoy concedes, by the hard labour and suffering of others. The third ‘escape’ is suicide, or “strength and energy” as Tolstoy calls it, “destroying life once one has realized…the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us.” And the fourth is “weakness,” “continuing to drag out a life,” knowing “beforehand that nothing can come of it.”{{7}}


From this tempting menu, Tolstoy ordered ‘No. 3’, suicide, only to be served, again and again, with what he took to be the perennial house-special, cowardice. In retrospect, however, he saw “that if I did not kill myself, it was because I had some vague notion that my ideas were all wrong. However convincing and unquestionable the train of my thoughts and the thoughts of the wise seemed to me, the ideas that had led us to affirm the meaninglessness of life, I still had some obscure doubt about the point of departure of my reflections.”{{8}} Sociologically, this ‘point of departure’ was his class, an utterly atypical and profoundly parasitic position of privilege and excess. And in reflecting on this artificial, constructed aspect of his crisis, Tolstoy began to meditate on its opposite, the still-natural (‘unprogressive’) ways of being human in the world:


I would not be speaking the truth if I were to say that it was through reason that I had arrived at this point without killing myself. Reason was at work, but there was something else at work too, something I can only call a consciousness of life… This force led me to focus my attention on the fact that like…others of my class I was not the whole of humanity, and that I still did not know what the life of humanity was.{{9}}


The question of meaning, recast in this way, invites an ethical – that is, a lived – response, a participatory mode of inquiry far broader than the compass of philosophic investigation. “My straying,” he now saw, “had resulted not so much from wrong thinking as from bad living. I realized that the truth had been hidden from me not so much because my thoughts were in error as because my life had been squandered in the satisfaction of lusts, spent under the exceptional conditions of epicureanism. I realized that in asking, ‘What is my life?’ and then answering, ‘An evil,’ I was entirely correct. The error lay in the fact that I had taken an answer that applied only to myself and applied it to life in general…”{{10}}


What, then, was this ‘hidden’ truth? For three years, Tolstoy sought it in the strict ritual observance of the Russian Orthodox faith, keeping any doubts he had even from himself. “At that time,” he wrote, “I found it so necessary to believe in order to live that I unconsciously hid from myself the contradictions and the obscurities in the religious teachings.”{{11}} It took a moral absurdity, the Church’s support for the Czarist state in the Russo-Turkish War, to break the spell and open the road to the radical political stance of the last thirty years of his life; an advocacy, in word and deed, of pacifist communalism, or ‘Christian anarchism,’ as it became known. The Church, he acknowledged, contained a real “knowledge of the truth”, but “in these teachings there was also a lie,” and even among the most devout believers this “lie was mixed with the truth.”{{12}} To see this blend, Tolstoy realized, to acknowledge both shadow and sun, the light of reason was required; just as the severe limits of reason require illumination from outside, the ‘other worlds’ of heart, faith, spirit and dream. Here is his conclusion:


I shall not seek an explanation of all things. I know that the explanation of all things, like the origin of all things, must remain hidden in infinity. But I do want to understand in order that I might be brought to the inevitably incomprehensible; I want all that is incomprehensible to be such not because the demands of the intellect are not sound (they are sound, and apart from them I understand nothing) but because I perceive the limits of the intellect. I want to understand, so that any instance of the incomprehensible occurs as a necessity of reason and not as an obligation to believe.{{13}}


This position, I think, resonates powerfully with Jung’s view of the conscious ego, the rational self, as a ‘storm lantern,’ the “little light”{{14}} of consciousness assisting human passage through a fiercely beautiful, far more than meaningful, world. It also accords with a defence of philosophy by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. We “are not enriched,” Borges said, by the “solutions” of philosophy, its metaphysical claims to truth, as “these solutions” are unavoidably “doubtful” and necessarily “arbitrary”: “But philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought.” Philosophy as an interface between reason and mystery, the demonstrable and the ineffable; and is this not also the liminal ‘home’, the porous border, of poetry? Borges thinks it is, that philosophy “is exactly the same as poetry, although the syntax is from two distinct places,” and that “philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics.”{{15}}


In exploring this comparative syntax, as he intends to, I hope and believe that my friend will trace his own way back to what Borges’ calls ‘The Sea’{{16}} – Jung’s ‘Self’, perhaps – that both answers and transcends our calling:


Before our human dream (or terror) wove

Mythologies, cosmogonies, and love,

Before time coined its substance into days,

The sea, the always sea, existed: was.

Who is the sea? Who is that violent being,

Violent and ancient, who gnaws the foundations

Of earth? He is both one and many oceans;

He is abyss and splendor, chance and wind.

Who looks on the sea, sees it the first time,

Every time, with the wonder distilled

From elementary things – from beautiful

Evenings, the moon, the leap of a bonfire.

Who is the sea, and who am I? The day

That follows my last agony shall say.


Tony Jones: The Perils of Binary Thinking

Tony Jones: The Perils of Binary Thinking

Friday, March 28th, 2008
Another way of saying “binary thinking” is “dualistic thinking.” It’s become something of a cliche in postmodernity to decry “western dualism,” so I’m going to avoid the phrase to stave off my own boredom and perhaps make a more trenchant point.
I’ve noticed that North Americans are terrible about seeing things in (cliche again) “black” and “white”, good or bad, this or that. To some extent, just to use ordinary conversational english you have to employ antonyms but that’s not what I’m talking about. Somehow for Northams (I’m not going to use the term Americans b/c of course that includes our friends in Canada and Latin America, and I’m not talking about them in this critique, mainly because I have little knowledge of whether they tend to see things the same way, but I suspect not. . . ) we hypostatize all of our dualisms into Manichean cosmological struggles. So you’re left wing or right wing, “saved” or “unsaved,” skinny or fat, whatever.

You know, at one point in my life, in a more spiritually and philosophically conservative headspace than I am in now, I was told that the critique of dualistic thinking is actually an evil -even diabolical – deception to get people to reject the most fundamental tenet of morality – a deed is either good or evil. It can’t be both, and it can’t be something else entirely. There was a sense that, if you began to question the fundamental binaryness of morality, you were approaching a “slippery slope” whose end was antinomianism (no moral law at all) and moral and ethical anarchy – the damnation of the individual and the shipwreck of society. Even profound thinkers such as C.S. Lewis (in his Space Trilogy for example) fall into this thinking.

I won’t deny that antinomianism has its dangers, but there is more to life than 0 or 1, this or that. We are not faced with just two choices in life, but a myriad of choices with consequences. Really making sound moral and ethical decisions is an exploration of a rich landscape. In that scape are fascinating characters, places, treasures, and some monsters. (Okay I played too much d&d growing up…)

Rather than the binary this or that approach, I suggest we try at least experimentally to think of moral life as an experience of choice and relationship within a rich matrix of possibilty and consequence. (Yes I used the m word, but the Matrix trilogy actually does deal with some of these very same philosophical concepts.) As this meme expands into other areas of our awareness, we may find ourselves not consigning others to one of two categories, and may have much richer emotional lives because it. We may find – I believe Kierkegaard said it – that life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.

–Tony Jones


Copyright© 2008, by Spinozablue and Tony Jones