Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts


To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die: Thoughts I Had While Attempting to Clean My Domicile

Exploring life's depths through philosophy while tidying up. Discovering life's value amid chaos and guessing the philosopher - not Nietzsche!

Embracing life’s chaos, rearranging not just my room but perspectives 🌀. Philosophizing from the floor, amidst a mess, because delay syndrome’s real. 🕰️ Understanding death’s inevitability teaches us to value the in-betweens. 🌌 Room’s a mess, but so is life, right? By the way — let me know in the comments if you can identify the philosopher whom I mention in the video. Hint — it's not Friedrich Nietzsche.


Skeeter Explains Kant's Use of the Word "Apodictic" in the Nickelodeon Animated Series Doug

When filmmakers (or in this case - animated television show creators) want to show that a character is super smart, the go-to prop must be a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason! A few weeks ago I posted a video of Lorelei Ambrosia, a villain from the film Superman III, reading Kant's book. In that scene, Lorelei does not read from the book's text, but she does give a glossy summary of transcendental categories that may or may not make sense depending on how you look at it. In the above scene, Doug's friend Skeeter does a pretty good job of explaining Kant's mission to solve the problem of what constitutes a universal foundation for all knowledge!

Here is the transcript* of Doug and Skeeter's conversation on The Critique of Pure Reason:

Doug: [Reading the book's title] Critique of Pure Reason? What's this?

Skeeter: [Tying his shoes] Oh. Just some book. It's pretty cool. 

Doug: [Trying to pronounce the word] The possibility of apodic-, apodic-?

Skeeter: [stressing the pronunciation] Apodicitic!

Doug: Apodictic principles? What's that?

Skeeter: Well. Kant is using the word oddly here because he wants to prove an apriori body of synthetic knowledge is exhibited in the general doctrine of motion .... [soundtrack goes whacky and spoken voice is difficult to discern] .... apriori knowledge can't be reached by empirical processes but apriori [unintelligible] must use strict universality or apodictic certainty ....

[Doug's eyes go into a psychedelic headspin and mathematical equations circle him in vertigo like fashion. We all see a screenshot of Skeeter's bookshelf which also includes Isaac Newton's book The Principia Mathematica. Skeeter's head balloons to suggest that he has a ton of knowledge]. 

[Back to reality] Doug? Doug? Are you OK, man?

Doug: Uh. Yeah. I think I better go.

Skeeter: OK. See ya!

*I had trouble transcribing Skeeter's analysis of Kant but I think I got most of it. The soundtrack becomes muddled between the 35 and 53 seconds mark.
Doug © 1991 Nickelodeon
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Analysis: Freud, Derrida and the Magic Slate

Do you remember playing with a magic slate as a child? Learn how Sigmund Freud uses this device to talk about the unconscious mind.
Photograph of “Iki-piirto” writing pad, a Finnish variety of Printator, known in German language as “Wunderblock”, as described by Sigmund Freud in his essay “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’” from 1925. This writing aid has allegedly been used in Finnish schools circa 1950s when teaching mathematics, as there is a multiplication table on the backside (not pictured).
A Finnish Version of Freud's Wunderblock.
Do you remember this toy from your childhood? It’s charmingly called a “Magic Slate” or an “Etch-a-Sketch”. In German, the Wunderblock. I had a version of this toy as a kid. The novelty of the apparatus consists in the ability of the pad to retain impressions, such as drawings, and like a normal slate, the impressions can be erased, not by an eraser but by simply lifting the page. Presto. Freud and Derrida loved this thing. Freud liked it because the Magic Slate is a model for the human mind. Psychoanalysis! Derrida liked it because Freud's reading of it seems to suggest the unconscious is inhabited by writing and is prior to speech acts. Deconstruction!
The stylus is used to write, scribble, or draw on the transparent plastic sheaf which creates an impression on the middle thin layer. The magic slate I had as a kid was a simple plastic, red stylus. The slate itself was a flimsy plastic backing with the “magic sheaf” part lightly affixed to the backing.

When the sheaf is lifted, the thin papery layer which exists beneath it is erased of its impression. At the bottom, a resinous wax layer exists which retains etched into the resin the residuals, or traces of all the previous impressions.

Freud on the “Magic Slate”
Freud wrote a short seven-page essay called "A Note Upon The Mystic Writing Pad." He wrote the essay to explain his theory of memory via the working apparatus of the Wunderblock. The outer coating represents the protective layer of the mind. The layer protects the mind from too much excitation. Notice if the thin paper layer is torn or contaminated the Wunderblock ceases to work in the same way that trauma can irreparably damage the psyche. The stylus represents a stimulus from the outside world. The papery layer is the conscious mind and the wax resin is representative of the unconscious.

The memory of the present can be erased, but like the mind, retains the impressions in the unconscious. The Wunderblock can both destroy and create.

Freud thought the Magic Slate was the closest machine-toy resembling the human mind. The only difference between the Wunderblock and the human mind is the mind's waxy resin layer can come back and disrupt the psychic life. Notably in dreams and trauma.

Derrida On Freud
Derrida, in an essay called "Freud and the Scene of Writing" was astounded that Freud, as a metaphysical thinker, could have inadvertently stumbled upon a machine that is a metaphor for the techné (production) of memory.

Derrida wonders how Freud could have imagined the Wunderblock to represent the psychic life while not realizing that the fundamental essence of the toy, like the mind, is its reserve of graphical traces, not phonetic signifiers.


Shaping Tomorrow's Citizens: Education, Religion, and Cultural Norms in the Classroom

In this blog post from Stones of Erasmus, I connect philosophical ideas with practical aspects of teaching and societal values. Let's invite reflection on the role of education, the influence of religion, and the importance of cultural norms in shaping the citizens of tomorrow.

The sun may appear small and lightbulb-like to the viewer,
but it's actually a massive fusion-powered
 fireball that sustains life on Earth.

Parity in the Classroom: The Common Gifts of Our Students In every classroom, there lies a hidden world of potential. That gossipy student in the back row? Perhaps a budding playwright, weaving tales for the stage. Our students are not just learners; they are creators, thinkers, and future citizens. The Personal Stance vs. The Professional Stance Education is not just about imparting knowledge; it's a national effort to produce productive citizens. But what does that mean? Producing productive citizens is about nurturing individuals who contribute positively to society and the economy. It's about fostering responsibility, hard work, and a commitment to the common good. It's about developing skills like problem-solving, communication, and teamwork that are vital in today's workforce. The Image of Citizenship: A Reflection of Values What should citizens of a country look like? The nineteenth-century image of the American family was a myth, yet it shaped perceptions. Today, we recognize that there is no one specific way citizens should look. Every individual is unique, bringing their own strengths and perspectives. The goal is to cultivate responsible, engaged members of society who contribute to the common good. Religion and Education: A Complex Relationship "Orderliness is godliness." This saying reflects how we often infuse public education with ideology, including the notion to "pull yourself up by your bootstrap." But do religious influences benefit the school system? The Puritans were able to impose their ideology, but the relationship between religion and education is complex. Some believe that religious values can create moral grounding and community. Others see challenges in separating church and state, ensuring inclusivity for all students. Folkways and Mores: The Fabric of Society Folkways and mores are the threads that weave the social fabric. Folkways are the everyday customs and traditions, while mores are the deeper, moral values that guide a culture. Together, they shape our collective identity. Opinions: The Personal Take on Knowledge An opinion is more than a fleeting thought; it's your unique perspective on what you know. It's a reflection of your understanding, your beliefs, and your individuality.

                                    PDF Copy for Printing


A Multiverse of Possibilities: A Review of Matt Haig's 'The Midnight Library'

Dive into our review of 'The Midnight Library' by Matt Haig, a philosophical journey through alternate lives and existential questions.

Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library: A Novel. United States, HarperCollins, 2020.

Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” thoughtfully explores life’s choices and regrets. The story centers on Nora Seed, a former philosophy graduate student who now works as a music tutor and store clerk. Nora lives in Bedford, a small town north of London, and is navigating a series of personal tragedies. After contemplating suicide, Nora discovers the Midnight Library, a multiverse realm where she explores the numerous lives she could’ve lived.
How Giphy Imagines the Midnight Library

Haig deftly weaves in meticulous details that grow increasingly significant throughout the narrative. He introduces an array of alternate lives for Nora – a rock star, an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, and more, imbuing each with unique existential questions. The novel employs elements of fantasy to pose a provocative question to readers: What if we could live out all our 'what ifs?'

Haig peppers the story with philosophical musings, Nora’s favorite being Henry David Thoreau, inspiring readers to contemplate their own life choices and regrets. The novel offers up copious philosophical tidbits, as this one from Thoreau, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. You don't have to understand life. You just have to live it.” And this pithy, funny, but pointed quote from David Hume, “But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”


Philosophy in the Classroom: Sample Student Work on Plato's Allegory of the Cave (With Thirteen and Fourteen-Year-Old Kids)

Student sample work of an annotated representation of Plato's cave
Sample Work from Mr. Roselli's 8th Grade Ethics Class
Planning an Eighth Grade Ethics Curriculum at a Private School in Queens
I taught the 8th Graders every Tuesday as part of my teaching load this past school year. I teach at a private, independent school in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. The kids are receptive to learning - albeit a rowdy bunch. The class was split into two. So basically I saw each group every other week. The class was PASS/FAIL and I put a lot of emphasis on student participation, talking, and group work. I uploaded content for them to read and view on Google Classroom so I did not have to spend a lot of time going over the material in class. Here is a short overview of one particular lesson I did (with some student work).

Reading Plato's Allegory of the Cave in a Middle School Ethics Class
We read Plato's cave in class - using a lesson I had created (and which you can access here). The kids were in eighth grade - so they would be thirteen or fourteen years old.

Kids' Understanding of Plato's Ideas
A sample students' work representing Plato's Cave
Students jot down their summary ideas to get the gist.
The one takeaway I noticed with this age group is that they totally "got" the idea of most people's inability to change a mindset and think through a different perspective. I feel like that is indicative of the age group - most kids that age have difficulty understanding and processing different points of view. They recognize others' points of view, but since they are often self-focused and not other-focused, they spend a lot of energy and anxiety over whether or not people "get" their point of view. They desperately want to be understood (which is human). In this example, from student work, I had the kids present their own visual representation of Plato's cave. These three students, Isabel, Ryan, and Hayden, were very much fixated on the idea that enlightenment is pretty much impossible. Notice how they put an exit sign in the cave with the label "unachievable".

Getting Students to Jot Down Their Ideas

The lingo teachers use is "getting the gist". You are not looking for kids to pen a dissertation. But you want students to produce something written in the course of the lesson. The comments they made were original, and I liked how they understood Plato's dual reality theory. It is not an easy concept to get, but they really appreciated it. From a writing perspective, it is vital to get students to jot down their ideas - even if it is a few sentences or even a list of words. It helps the kids solidify their thoughts. And also it helps me, the teacher, to scan for student understanding.

Using Visual Imagery to Make Connections with Students
A teen boy wears a virtual reality headset seated in a dingy room.
After exploring the ideas of the lesson, students can talk about the above image. What do they notice? What do they wonder? Collect the students' responses.

Class: Eighth Grade Ethics / 90 Minute Lesson (you can break it down into two separate 45-minute lessons)
Materials: paper, pencils, pen, handouts of the Allegory of the Cave, Comprehension Questions, Discussion Questions, Entrance, and Exit Tickets
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Why I like Fifth Century Thinkers like Socrates and Confucius

Confucius and Socrates Represent a Renaissance of Thought
I was trained to begin with Socrates. But what about Confucius standing next to Socrates? Confucius was Socrates’s contemporary. "They probably never met," you say. A Queens taxi cab driver told me their meeting was possible – how could there have been such a confluence of ideas in both East and West without either Socrates or Confucius never having met? The fifth century before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was a renaissance of thought. It was a time of emerging thought, of dynamic ideas that would forever change the course of human history.


Lorelei from Superman III (1983) Reads Kant's Critque of Pure Reason

Superman III (1983)
You can read the above clip from Superman III as a dumb blonde joke writ large or as an insightful riff on philosophy. I am guessing it is the former rather than the latter. 

Playing the supposed ditzy lover of the film's villain, Lorelei reveals she is a fan of Immanuel Kant's transcendental philosophy - the eighteenth-century European thinker's idea that he could bring together two schools of thought - empiricism and rationalism. At least that's the general idea of the book Lorelei's caught reading — The Critique of Pure Reason.
Lorelei: How can he say that pure categories have no objective meaning in transcendental logic? What about synthetic unity? 
It looks like Lorelei has stumbled upon the truth of transcendental idealism — that things in themselves cannot really be known in of themselves. Or did she?


"On Evil" - A Brief Reflection on Theodicy

I am not sure how I first became interested in evil. Maybe it was the repetition of the line in grade school from the Lord's Prayer, "deliver us from evil," that first alerted me to the concept. Evil - at least how I conceived the concept then - was something akin to supernatural power. Like a demon with wings. Or a nebulous force á la Freddy Krueger tearing away carpet and bedding (cum bodies) in horror movies. Certainly evil is akin to horror. However, I probably was propping up evil with dramatic flair by honing my focus on demons —  and by contrast, the good on angels. If there are demons, or so my logic foretold - there must be angels.


On Not Being Right in the World

One of the Damned from Michelangelo's fresco "The Last Judgment."
Advice for When You Do Not Feel on Par with Existence:
While we value people who have come through significant challenges, the prevailing opinion among many is that those who are struggling just have not tried hard enough.

However, there is value in not being right in the world.

It does not mean you are not trying to succeed.

Who is Measuring and Why Does it Matter?
Often we are measured by criteria that even those who are setting the criteria don't fully understand.
Image Source: Michelangelo Buonarotti, "The Last Judgment" 1537-1541, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City


Little Girl Talks about Philosophy

I am not sure if this girl is being coached by an adult, but I thought this was a pretty cool video of a young person attempting philosophical questions.


19 Sayings: From Nietzsche Thinking Intensely (Quotable Nietzsche)

In this post, I select 19 quotable sayings from Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche Thinking Intensely (image: Flickr/SPDP)

I read "23 Signs You're Secretly an Introvert" in the Huffington Post, and #5 on the list "You've been called 'too intense'" caught my attention. It was accompanied by a nifty drawing of Nietzsche surrounded by a spray of his most quotable quotes in hard-to-read scribble-scratch. I like Nietzsche, so I copied out the quotes, which took some time because the handwriting is atrocious, with the appropriate citations. Nietzsche is very quotable, which is why in Germany, they revere him like the English revere Shakespeare. If anyone knows who created the Nietzsche graphic, let me know.

"It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book."
Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, "Skirmishes of an Untimely Man," Aphorism 51, (1888)

"Is life not a thousand times too short to bore ourselves?"
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 227, (1886)

"Faith: not wanting to know what is true."
The Antichrist, Aphorism 52, (1895)

"In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "On Little Old and Young Women," (1883)

"In music the passions enjoy themselves."
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 106, (1886)

"Idleness is the parent of psychology."
Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, "Apothegms and Darts," Aphorism 1, (1888)

"All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth, come only from the senses."
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 134, (1886)

"It is always consoling to think of suicide: in that way one gets through many a bad night."
Beyond Good and Evil. ch. 4, Aphorism 157, (1886)

"Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations and ages it is the rule."

Beyond Good and Evil, "Apothegms and Interludes," Aphorism 156, (1886)

"One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly."
Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, "Skirmishes in War with the Age," Aphorism 36, (1888)

"Plato was a bore."*
*I am unable to find the exact source for this quote. Plenty of sources cite Nietzsche, but none refer to a text.*

"I love those who don't know how to live for today."*

*Again, plenty of sources cite Nietzsche but without giving credit to a text. I did find in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) a slightly similar quote: "I love those that know not how to live except as downgoers, for they are the overgoers."

"For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication."
Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, "Roving Expeditions of an Inopportune Philosopher," Aphorism 8, (1888)

"Art is the proper task of life."
The Will to Power, "The Will to Power as Art," Section IV, (1901)

"I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised at all times."
This quote seems to be a paraphrase of an idea from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)

"Fear is the mother of  all morality." 
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 201, (1886)

"Before the effect believes in different causes than one does after the effect."
The Gay Science, "Cause and Effect," Aphorism 217, (1882)

"If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146 (1886).

"Is man one of God's blunders? Is God one of man's blunders?"
Twilight of the Idols Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, "Maxims and Arrows," Aphorism 7, (1888)


Found Objects: Jean-Paul Sartre Found On Construction Signage

In this post, I look at a sign that is supposed to be one thing, but looked at through the lens of existentialism means something else entirely.

This sign is on a fence meant to direct visitors to the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan away from construction on the new transportation hub for the PATH train at the World Trade Center Site.


Quotation: Lucretius On Childish Fear

"Our life is one long struggle in the darkness; and as children in a dark room are terrified of everything, so we in broad daylight are sometimes afraid of things that are no more to be feared than the imaginary horrors that scare children in the dark."
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Liber Secondus
PDF Copy for Printing


Quotation: Socrates On Perplexing Others (And His Own Perplexity)

Socrates with folks in Athens in Raphael's painting "The School of Athens"
A quote from Socrates on perplexing others . . .
For I perplex others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself. 
οὐ γὰρ εὐπορῶν αὐτὸς τοὺς ἄλλους ποιῶ ἀπορεῖν, ἀλλὰ παντὸς μᾶλλον αὐτὸς ἀπορῶν οὕτως καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους ποιῶ ἀπορεῖν.

Socrates, 5th century B.C.
from the Meno by Plato (section 80c-d)
PDF Copy for Printing


On Repulsion: A Word Essay

In the following essay, I muse on the meaning of the word repulsion.

On Drinking A Glass of Rancid Milk

Photo by Michu Đăng Quang on Unsplash
I inadvertently poured myself a glass of rancid milk one morning. I didn’t notice the expiration date on the carton. It was too late, though. I had taken a sip. I immediately spit out the contents onto the kitchen table. The milk had begun to curdle. I was instantaneously repulsed. A feeling of aversion to the milk quickly overcame me. I got up and quickly attempted to vigorously rinse my mouth out with water. When I had rid my palette of the fetid milk molecules, I immediately threw the carton away into the trash can. I think my exact words were, “gross, this is disgusting” and wiped the table off with a soft, warm cloth rinsed in soap.
     I ate my cereal dry that morning. And I begin to think, in those early morning hours, about what actually causes an act of repulsion like I had just experienced. The word “repulse,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Latin verb repeller which we get the English word “repel” which literally means “to drive or beat back.” At first the word, simply meant the original military sense of the word, to drive back an army, or to block an attack from an assailant. Only by the 19th century did the word come to be associated with a sudden change in feeling or disgust. In current usage, the word has become synonymous with the word “aversion.” Although, “repulse” still retains its original etymology when used in physics to describe the mechanics of engines and the nuclear force atomic particles impose on one another. 

Reflecting On An Autonomic Biological Response
Photo by Katie McNabb on Unsplash
I knew the elementals of biology enough to know that at the moment my taste buds encountered the sensation of “foul” my autonomic nervous system sent a message to the muscles in my mouth to eradicate any trace of the tainted milk. There was no thought in this process. It was a complete and instant reaction. I thought about how I had learned in my college biology course about the autonomic nervous system. I think the professor used the example of a hot stove. If a person touches a hot stove, the brain automatically sends a message to your arm to recoil. The cerebral cortex never gets a chance to cogitate on this event. The step that says, “Oh, my hand is resting on the surface of this hot stove. I had better stop and take away my hand so that I can prevent any further melting of my dermis.” No, there is none of that! Thankfully, the autonomic nervous systems bypass any chance to meditate on the process of one’s hand being burned! Only afterward, when all signs of danger have been eliminated does the brain allow the mind to think about what has just transpired. And I am immensely grateful.
Not that I want to think through the process of repulsion as I am swallowing a dose of bad milk, but I could not help thinking about repulsion and its origins. There is the actual, physical repulsion, the sudden and unthought act of spitting out the milk and then there is an aversion, the sudden and intense change in feeling or attitude when you realize the milk is spoiled. Then, you feel repugnance and distaste.

Variations on Repulsion: Repugnance and Distaste     
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash
Does this repugnance in feeling come from a fear of being tainted? Like the aversion Gregor Samsa’s family tries to suppress when they discover he has turned into a dung beetle overnight in Kafka’s Metamorphosis; Gregor tries to drink a bowl of sweet milk that his sister places before him, but he cannot drink it even though as a human sweet milk was his favorite drink.
     There is an internal — or it could be learned — mechanism inside of us that reacts strongly to anything we deem — whether correctly or not — to be tainted and polluted. Have you ever known anyone who could stomach a Pasolini film without wincing at least once? Mary Douglass, the British anthropologist who studied the cultural definitions of pollution and what we consider to be safe or not, wrote in her book Purity and Danger, “Pollution dangers strike when form has been attacked” (130). Pollution — or dirt — is a deciding cultural factor that humans worry about; dirt makes us anxious — especially if we feel dirty or polluted or made to feel that way, for it threatens our sense of form and, as Douglass puts it, our “unity of experience.”When it is a four month old carton of milk, Mary Douglass makes sense. I consider the milk dangerous to drink. It disrupts my obvious need for form and order in the universe! I can certainly understand the reason why my body would want to get rid of spoiled milk. Or why I would automatically tear my hand away if it brushed against a scalding hot surface. A cat would act similarly with a bowl of curdled milk. Except the cat is probably a little more wary of anything placed before it for breakfast and would probably smell the contents of the bowl before lapping it up. The cat is a more experienced scientist than I am. But once examined, the cat would more than likely turn her nose up to the milk and look at its owner with smug contempt until a fresher, more bacteria-free version was provided.
     My thoughts on repulsion though did not linger long with the carton of spoiled milk. I began to think of what else makes us repulsed. Yes, the list of rotten food is endless: rotten apples, bad bananas, maggot-infested luncheon meat, and ugh — moldy cheese (except, of course, blue cheese, the acquired taste of which rests in fact on its rottenness). But what about other things that turn our stomachs?
Photo by Anudariya Munkhbayar on Unsplash
     I thought about the day I had been walking in the forest with a friend. We had been hiking along the perimeter of the forest where it meets a sizable horse farm. As we weaved in and out of the forest and the unfenced farm, we came across the rotting carcass of a horse. It had been most likely shot and discarded into an unlandscaped corner of the property for any number of reasons. Maybe it had broken a leg or it had contracted a disease that its owners did not want to spread to the other horses. For whatever reason, the horse’s body lay exposed. The entire inside of its belly was seared open and infested with maggots. I could not tell what was its heart or what was the stomach. The entire belly was a transmogrified mess. At first, I did not notice the smell. In a matter of seconds, though, the smell hit me and I had felt that feeling of repulsion and aversion like I had experienced with the milk.

     But, I was also fascinated by the dead horse. Flies by the hundreds hovered above. The flies were busy taking off and landing on the mushy contents of this horse’s insides. Mating and making babies, they went on with their happy lives, making do with what they could — which was an abundance in this case — with the booty of this dead horse. Over time, the tissues and the organs would rot away, slowly but surely, leaving only the skeletal outline of the horse’s body. When the last morsel of meat had finally sloughed off into the soft, mealy soil, the bones would then whiten and harden. Then, crack and crumble. Back into the earth, the clods would go, and I could quote William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis” here: “Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim / Thy growth, to be resolv'd to earth again.” In a few months the floor of the forest would look like something had been there, where the horse’s “pale form was laid,” which was once alive, but now reclaimed.

     Bryant’s poem gives the rotting corpse a transcendence, though, that I am not really interested in here. I want to get back to the repulsion and the aversion. I want to get back to that visceral moment of immanence. The horse is dead. It no longer exists. When you see a dead horse rotting away in a forest you do not think of the transcendent wish of returning back to the earth whence you came. In the sight of a rotting corpse, it is hard to imagine the horse prancing down a wooded lane without horseshoes in some kind of horse heaven. So, I try to push away any of those transcendent notions. I have to go back to the moment my stomach churned inside of me at the sight of the dead body of the horse. Have you ever read Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H.? It is a kind of inverted Metamorphosis. There is a part in the book where the character G.H. is studying the dead carcass of a squished cockroach. She goes into detail the intricacies of its crushed exoskeleton and the white ooze emitting from its hollowed-out cavity. I want to revisit that lurch of disgust at the gut of me that day. The horrible thought — at a moment like that — unmediated by transcendental spirituality — where you realize without too much cogitation that your body will rot away and fester like the horse’s now rotting flesh. We really don’t like to think about our body in this way, that it will rot away and mold into a greasy stew. And smell bad. 
     We like to think of ourselves as living forever. And as Douglas suggests, we don’t like it when order — in our most basic, cultural assumption of what order is — is ruptured. And even when we do feel this ontological rupture, we quickly marshal the resources to reassure ourselves. If I look in the mirror before I brush my teeth and feel the contours of my face I can feel the skeletal form of my jaw and cheekbones beneath my flesh. And if I pull out my mouth a bit, and peer into the mirror I can see quite clearly the outlines of my jaws beneath the pinkness of my gums. There it is. That is what will rot. No matter how many times I brush these teeth. Or rinse this mouth or remember to wash behind my ears, the rot still remains. I cannot stave off death. Of course, I quickly dismiss this thought and brush my teeth anyway, but if I remember again — say at 3:00 in the morning, when I wake up with a start (and I know you too have experienced this) because of an unsettling dream, I have this sudden, invincible thought, “I am going to die.” It is just a thought. But the certainty of it shocks me. Especially at 3:00 in the morning when I cannot marshall my usual arguments and deferrals. It is just there, hanging in the air.
     The next morning I hardly remember that I had woken up with the thought that I am going to die. It would be too much. I have too much to do. I have to work, eat, feed my family, and do some exercise. I have about sixty more years of life. It would go against my better interest to ponder on the exigency of my own existence. So I keep all that stuff at bay. I defer it to a primitive and locked storage place of my mind. I keep myself steadily repulsed. I imperviously maintain the order and unity of my set of experiences and call them “me.” 
     This is why I spit out the milk so effectively when it is spoiled. This is why I avoid looking at my infected scrape on my knee that I failed to apply topical anti-bacteria cream. This is why I am repulsed at any slight intimation of death or decay. Because I must keep my mortality at bay. I am repulsed at anything that reminds me that I am going to die.

Historical Narratives of Clean and Unclean
Photo by Luis Fernando Felipe Alves on Unsplash
     When the Nazis herded hundreds of Jews from the Ghettos into cattle cars to ship them to concentration camps some people protested, “But I am a German! You can’t do this to me!” But no one would listen. Because it didn’t really matter. Even if he was German, a line had been drawn, and the line was irreversible. If you were considered a non-Aryan — which included, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and any group the Reich outlawed as undesirable — you and your family were thrown into the cattle car with barely enough room to sit, forced to suffer and stew in urine and tears. 
     If you were Aryan you were clean; you did not have to be sent away to the death camps. It would be a fearful thing, a repulsive thought, to have to be thrown into the cattle car with the rest of the tainted, marked ones. So, if you were not one of them, you stepped away from the crowd. Or if you were not Aryan, and you knew a way to avoid being carted off — you most definitely fought ways to keep yourself from being discovered. If you were not marked as tainted by the Nazis, it was in your better interest to stand away and not notice what was going on than to acknowledge the abject horror of what the Nazis called “the Final Solution.”
The Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee writes about the consequences of the German nation's refusal to acknowledge the grim reality of the “Final Solution.” He imagines a fictional author giving a lecture on animal rights to a group of academics in his novel Elizabeth Costello. Elizabeth, the novel’s title character, makes the startling claim that the Germans, living near the Treblinka death camp, were willfully ignorant of the slaughter of millions of human beings. The village of Treblinka was not very far from the concentration camp. How could the residents of the town not know something horrible was happening at the work camp? Did they not notice the arrival of trains filled with prisoners? Could they not smell the putrid smoke of burning flesh that must have blanketed their town, especially when the winds were right. They could have acted, but they went on with their lives, acting otherwise. This willed ignorance, this inability to act, argues Elizabeth, is a mark of the German people's inability to see the Jews as human beings. They saw them as cattle. They saw them as deserving nothing that is not given to a cow. For don't we, in western society, use the cow for food, for skins, for milk? The Germans, according to Elizabeth Costello, were not able to see the Jews as nothing more than providers of soap, as providers of gold  and this marked the Germans  tainted them Costello says  because the Treblinka death camps were merely what we would call today, a factory farm. 
     Of course, they would be repulsed if they had to watch the horrific spectacle of the gas chamber. They removed themselves from the atrocity. And would be repulsed if they had to set foot inside Treblinka's grounds (unless they had to) because it would remind them of what they were doing to millions of human beings. 


On Realism and Strunk and White: Rule 16 On Writing

I write about, in this post, the famous book the Elements of Style - one of the few editorial style books to make it to the bestseller list.
I live by this rule of writing:
Rule 16: "Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract" (pg. 21).
Find my TpT store here and be amazed.
Sad to say that I never once owned a copy of Strunk and White, the famed Elements of Style that completes the shelf of any writer (worth his salt).

Most of my adult life I lived amidst the company of other people's books. Now that I am free from the prescriptions of communal living I find myself purchasing books that I never in the past had to own. Strunk and White is one such book.


On the Experience of Reading Novels

What is the experience of reading a novel? 
The experience of reading novels is a solitary one. While it is common to hear authors read from their newly published books at signings or to listen to a novel on tape, these are subsidiary experiences of the novel that I relegate to the category of performance rather than reading. Orality is to the epic what solitude is to the novel. The Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey were not meant to be read silently to oneself but were told out loud and spun by a storyteller as part of an oral musical performance. Prose fiction did not begin with the novel; Satyricon was written centuries before Moll Flanders. Scholars debate as to what constitutes the first novel  is it Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or is it Richardson’s Pamela, or DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe?  I think the answer to this question lies in the shift between reading publicly versus reading as an internalized experience. The epics were meant as univocal expressions of storytelling governed by the principle of archetype and standard mythological rendering. Often the plot was well known by the hearers.
Reading Novels is Not Exactly the Same as Going to a Play 
Ancient Greek theatergoers who attended Sophocles’ production of Oedipus Rex were well aware of the plot. And this is true even for Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream, while certainly not lost in an individual reading, the dramatic form, like the epic, is meant to be performed, not read. The point of storytelling has been for centuries a ritualized experience and not at all adumbrated by individuality or an experience with everyday particularities. To read a novel once is an individual experience and to read the same novel twice is yet another distinct reading. Even movies, another modern discovery, are more akin to public storytelling than what happens when I read a novel. Reading as an individualized personal experience is a modern discovery. Augustine, for example, was shocked to discover Ambrose reading to himself. In the West, reading has been considered mostly a public act. Those who owned books were either the clergy or the very wealthy. Books were proclaimed rather than read. The correlation between introspective thought and reading troubled Augustine because he did not equate reading with individuality. What we consider the modern novel is instantiated by introspection and was only made possible broadly by the invention of the printing press which made books cheaper and more easily accessible to the masses.
Novels Deliver the Particulars of the Everyday
Novels are heavily entrenched in the particulars of everyday life, such as bathing, doing the laundry, eating a sour grape off the vine, making love on an unmade bed, reflections on the banal and the mundane, and so on. The novel lingers in the details of everyday lived experience. The novel is a repudiation of the epic form’s dependence on universals. Once we are inside a novel we are wrapped up in a world of particulars. Like Pip, in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, who traces his fingers over the particular raised letters of his dead parents' names inscribed on their tombstone, to conjure an image of what they must have been like, either stout or tall, fat or grim, we do the same when we read a novel, trace our fingers over the individual characters, in their instantaneous contingencies in order to trace out a life, to search out a proper name for universal life, to match both life and literature.


Blaise Pascal On The Contradictory Nature of Human Beings

What follows is a short analysis of fragments 164, 19, 142, and 80 from Blaise Pascal's philosophical work Pensées.
 “What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what chaos, what a subject  of contradiction.”- Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1657-58)  

Beginnings: Fragment 164 of Pascal's Pensées

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Let us begin with fragment 164 of the Pensées where Pascals likens human beings to a freakish chimera, an amalgam of different natures: a monster with the combination of lion's head, goat's body, and a serpent's tail (p. 41). Pascal's thesis is the human condition is contradictory in nature. Subjectivity emerges out of conflict. Knowledge emerges out of paradox. A "cesspool of uncertainty" and "storehouse of truth," the modern subject is a novelty and a monster, the "glory and reject of the universe" (p. 41). "Man is beyond man," Pascal writes (p. 42). In his ability to see himself as mere man, as finite, contingent, yet uniquely novel and independent, man is able to transcend himself through self-awareness. But, as we will see, despite the human capacity to reflect on our own condition we become distracted by the banal and mundane and are bored easily. We often prefer distraction to thinking but we realize that through thinking we are little more than the animals but less than the gods. What makes us who we are as humans is an oscillation back and forth between our greatness and our wretchedness, our distractibility and our insightfulness; in effect, we are a mixture of sense, natural reason, and the ways of the heart.

Pascal and Montaigne

The truth of man's condition is not revealed solely by natural reason nor is it based on dogmatic assertions. Similar to Montaigne, Pascal argues truth is "neither within our grasp nor is it our target" (p. 42). Truth lies in the lap of God. For Pascal to be a skeptic is to deny incarnate nature. To be a dogmatist is to "repudiate reason." For Pascal, the answer lies somewhere in between these two, between nature and reason.
     The incarnation is a key theological point for Pascal (barely mentioned by Montaigne). Jesus is an ideal concept for Pascal, both fully human and fully divine, "begotten not made," "one in being with the Father." Christ is the new man - a manifestation of man as he would have been in his preternatural state. Because of original sin, ordinary man has lost his divinity except for a fragmentary shard which still remains. Unlike Christ, who revealed himself as God through his divine humanity, Man is a shard of a lost divinity; his greatness lies in his lack, his wretchedness. Pascal’s uncanny psychological insight gleaned from a traditional Catholic Christology becomes a radical statement on the human condition. Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. Unlike a tree man is endowed with a capacity to both recognize his futility and simultaneously derive greatness from it. When Pascal writes, "Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition," he is acknowledging man's in-betweenness (p. 43). Our animality is mechanistic and made redeemable through the operation of grace, a concept Pascal employs to explain how man is able to understand God at all. Grace makes man "as if on the level of God, participating in his divinity." Without grace we would be "deemed equivalent of brute beasts" (p. 43).
This is the copy of the text
I used to write this post.

Man Doesn't Know What Level to Put Himself

In fragment 19 Pascal says man's quandary is that he does not know what level to put himself (p. 8). Resonating with later existential themes concomitant with Kierkegaard or early existential writing, Pascal paints a modern picture of man lost and unable to find himself. Pascal modifies Augustine's thought that man is restless until he rests in God by stating man is restless and looks for God in “impenetrable darkness” (p. 8). We are neither Protagoras's ideal of "man is the measure of all things" nor are we the scum of the earth, either. We are thinking scum. What makes human beings great is the capacity to acknowledge our fallible, fallen nature. Pascal writes, evoking the Psalmist: we are a "thinking reed". Our wretchedness is a "felix culpa" (happy fault).
Pascal writes, "...without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves" (p. 43). The oracle of Delphi with its inscription "know thyself" is too naive for Pascal nor is the promise of idle distraction the answer either. Reason cannot untangle the mystery of our wretched human condition, Pascal contends, but through "simple submission" can "we truly know ourselves" (p. 43). Humility is crucial for knowledge. Humility is counter to the claim of an all-encompassing logos that can know everything. Pascal equates total submission to logos as hubris. Access to knowledge does not depend on mental acuity or even keen understanding, but possession of a "humble heart and [those] who embrace lowliness" (p. 7).

Our Entire Knowledge is Not Made Uncertain

Pascal argues in fragment 142 that reason is not enough. Just because reason reveals the fallible nature of the mind, Pascal insists that "our entire knowledge is not made uncertain." Pascal is not a skeptic in the negative sense. He does not distrust reason outright. It is rather that he sees reason as part of the larger story of what constitutes thinking. The ancient skeptics taught we cannot know reality. Montaigne's skepticism is suspicion of scholasticism while Pascal is a skeptic of univocal reason. Reason, Pascal claims does not have to reveal knowledge of first principles: time, space, numbers, etc. We know first principles through the heart (p. 35). The "reasons of the heart" ground knowledge. Pascal's concern is faith in empirical reason. A plank wide enough to hold a philosopher yet suspended over a precipice will be unable to quell panic and -- "his imagination will prevail" -- and he will go pale and start sweating (p. 17). Even with the certainty of clear and distinct reason, we become powerless when our imagination takes over. 

Everyone Should Study their Thoughts

In fragment 80 Pascal writes that "Everyone should study their thoughts," but he leaves the impression, apparent in the immediacy and the urgency of his prose style, that humanity has not taken thinking seriously. Our reading for today ends with disappointment in humanity: "How hollow and full of filth man's heart is" (p. 49). Pascal is keen to see how diversion and distraction intertwine and disrupt a path to knowledge (see fragments 170, 171, and in other places).
Diversion is a promise of happiness man makes for himself. Man knows he is not a God. He knows he is mortal. In spite of this, man still wants to be happy; so he entertains himself. Man cannot stop himself from wanting to be happy even though he knows he is wretched so he chooses to not think about it: "Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided to stop himself from thinking about it" (p. 44). We are equally incapable of either absolute happiness or total access to truth. Pascal's diagnosis is man lives in despair. Pining for happiness, man searches for it through distraction and diversion. Yet he remains hollow and empty. The task of giving up diversion is likened to a king who has many courtiers filling up his empty moments. A king left alone would think. If we removed duty, preoccupation, diversion, distraction, and work from man he would "then see and think" about himself, removed from superfluous duty man would think about what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going" (p. 49).


Pascal, Blaise, Honor Levi, and Blaise Pascal. Pensées and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
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