Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Remember when we...

My favorite philosophers worked in times of chaos and struggle.  Confucius and his students once had to run for their lives, and almost starved in the wilderness while riding out the threat.  Seneca notably came into his own best voice upon retiring from his position as advisor to Nero, a job that can only make precious complaints I might have about mine.  Even then, Nero came for him anyway and Seneca ended up dying in a farcically elaborate forced suicide.  Xunzi says little about his own life, yet we know it can’t have been easy.  The indications, if some are needed, starkly show in his two students, the one who conspired to get the other executed and then was killed himself, severed in half at the waist.  With students like these, it’s little wonder Xunzi sometimes sounds like a melancholic misanthrope.  

I think of these philosophers often lately.  To be clear, I don’t read them.  I only think of them, mostly to marvel and sometimes to seek inspiration they have never yet delivered.  These are philosophers who presumably stayed the course in the storm, doing what they did in spite of the fact that life was all awry and wrong.  In a contemporary idiom, they were surely “stressed,” yet still, they made philosophy.  I think about their mysterious motive power for philosophy because I myself have none. 

Here could commence a long litany of plain facts about my life, facts that stand as obstacles to philosophy:  the elderly parents my husband and I are helping, the teenager abruptly home from abroad, the novel rigors of securing basic necessities while minimizing exposure to others and to the virus they might just carry.  Still more prosaically, I’m living on my farm and did not have the foresight to carry here the books that doing philosophy would require.  Even if I wanted to read Seneca, my Loebs are locked in an office 400 miles away.  I could use the internet of course, but speeds out here are slow.  I can’t even access any of the articles I store on this laptop.  My Adobe program crashed two weeks ago and the internet speeds out here are insufficient to download any of the fixes that just might liberate some reading I could still do.  In short, if I wanted to do some philosophy, I’d have to get creative and determined – it would at least entail a trip to the WalMart parking lot to steal some better wifi – but I don’t really want to do philosophy.  This, too, is a plain fact and the most substantial of them all.

Some of my trouble is my projects, the things that I had set myself to do and write.  Most of these were projects of a season that has, I find, now passed.  There were talks I was to give about civility, a thing I expect will need revision only time can make as we find in slow revelation just what shape interactions will come to take when we can again have more of them.  There was also a set of strange essays I was building, things written in a Montaigne kind of mood, episodic reflections of the kind that come from living on an old family farm.  I have some dozen of these but no will to carry on with them.  They were written in relation to a family and life past, but that past too has passed, I find.  Or, at least, they told of a world I was trying to keep but have already somehow lost.  And then there was the bigger academic project, the bit of work to which I had only just set myself to do in earnest.  Here is the first paragraph:    

When my grandfather died and I packed away his better suitcoat for donation, the pockets were full of memorials, those little paper booklets funeral homes produce and give in summary of the life for every person they bury.  My grandfather, who had reached his nineties, had attended so many funerals of peers and friends that his pockets bulged with lives, or at least with their last tokens.  And then he too died.  This is of course the way of things:  If you will live long, you will have many deaths to endure before your own at last will come.  A life that lasts is one that leaves your pockets stuffed with sorrows.  This book is just about such sorrows, about the deaths that are not mine, and most of all, about the trials and confusions that the deaths of others bring.  It is about the incoherences of loss and written in a bid to give them sense.

I read this paragraph as a missive from another world, or perhaps another person.  Someone really should, I think, sort all this out, make the losses make some sense, but the losses now are too many, at once too particular and too diffuse. They aren’t just the deaths but all the threats of it, the ever-pressing menace now upon us all and tallied daily on the news.  Death sometimes might just be a kind of mood, and I think that I am in it.  The “incoherences of loss” increase so rapidly that I cannot keep up. 

I am not distracted, not a bit.  In fact, I am all concentration.  I think often of philosophy but as one thinks of someone lost.  I want to turn to her and say, “Remember when we…” But as with all such statements made in some forgetfulness, when you reach for one now gone, the elision is an ache.  The aim of such a statement is to spur the one who could complete it, the one who, too, will well remember.  Without that, though, the words drift empty, uncompleted.  I think I’m living somewhere in those dots, extended out across the hours and days.  I start to wonder if philosophy can now only abide in silence, about whether philosophy that does not happen, cannot happen, is itself a philosophical position I could take.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

To the Lighthouse

For the next few weeks, I will be teaching a course on death from a remote location in the Missouri Ozarks.  My campus cancelled classes for the two weeks following our spring break and I have retreated to my family’s farm, a few hundred acres of rocky hills, where the nearest town, with a population below 200, is 10 miles off.  Our nearest neighbors at the farm are my parents, a few hundred yards to the south.  About the same distance to the north live my uncle and aunt.  We are well arranged for social distancing. 

My first “online teaching” will be to prepare a recorded lecture on To the Lighthouse, a book more fitted to the moment than I can like.  It is an elegy, written after World War I and in melancholy remark on the world that was and would no longer be.  It begins before the war, on an ordinary day in which a boy, James, hopes his family can make an excursion across the water to visit the lighthouse.  Told through the internal sporadic thoughts and reflections of multiple characters, the first movement of the story, if such it is, records the prosaic anxieties, worries, hopes, and moods that people will have when they do not know what ambitiously dark fate has in store for them.  Ignorance of what is coming next and fast allows the mind to wander over small discontents, modest delights, or even, as Mr. Ramsey does, whether one will ever be as successful as one aspires to be.  It is an ordinary world with ordinary cares, a world that ends.  It reminds me of last month.

The second part of the novel is of a house gone empty, the lively souls that populated it dispersed, scattered, and too many of them dead – in war, in childbirth, or abruptly in the night.  I worry it describes what awaits all sorts of material structures.  My university is depopulated now, the broad greens mown but empty.  The kids who hang hammocks between the trees by the library have all gone home.  I am nostalgic even for the irritations and would welcome a chance to tell that guy in the back to stop texting during class.  He is not there, nor am I.  The chalkboard is washed clean of any idea, for whatever we did have in mind has changed and, at any rate, we have taken all ideas elsewhere.  Mine will have to come in recordings I make alone.  I will speak of death – for this is, alas, a class on death – and do it all alone.  I will talk of To the Lighthouse while living in its second movement.  The final section of the elegy is the part that draws me up short.  I know just how the book goes, but not how our collective share in something like it will.

I have already selected a spot in a grove of stout, tall walnut trees where I will record a lecture on these things.  It is too early yet for the trees to provide the covering shade that spring will soon bring, but still, they do seem steady and reliable, a satisfying audience for mortal thoughts.  I will tell them of Virginia Woolf, of Mrs. Ramsey, and how getting to the lighthouse at long last is not really the measure of things.  What one believes one wants can instead bow and bend, and even steady things, lighthouses and walnut trees, achieve their aspect under roiling fate and what it does to us.