Thursday, October 14, 2010

The dark side of life


On Thur, Oct 14, 2010 at 08:01:45
Aviral asked this question:

Is it not that thinking deeply is in some way equivalent to thinking negatively. If it is not so why were some great preachers so moved by seeing the dark side of life. Was their thinking not negative initially. Was it awareness or a sort of fear to face the same things later in their life. Was it the fear that made them discard this materialistic world.

I'm not sure I fully understand Aviral's question. 'A sort of fear to face the same things later in their life' — what does that mean? But you could read the question as a response to an earlier post of mine, Human test tubes:

Actually, I rather like looking into the abyss. When I cast my eyes around this dingy world, the tawdry sideshows that human beings call 'culture', the abyss is the only thing with any real depth. Anxiety is the only real human emotion. (I think Freud said that.) But philosophy isn't just about plumbing the dizzy depths. It's about remembering and focusing. About being present. It can sometimes be a pleasurable activity (especially if you have a taste for Schadenfreude) but it's not something you do for pleasure.

'Tawdry sideshows' is a phrase suggested by a topic I was looking at around about this time last year, Poshlust and moral incontinence. The problem with diagnosing poshlust is that such diagnoses so easily become examples of the very thing they deprecate.

I could talk about Freud. Or a thinker I know a bit more about (because it's my field) Schopenhauer. Now there's a gloomy philosopher for you. But, actually, Schopenhauer is the best example of a Western philosopher I can think of for whom philosophy is a kind of eschatology, not in the Christianizing sense but much closer to Buddhism and the idea that this world is an illusion created by our slavery to desire. All one needs to do, in order to end the suffering, is to free oneself of desire. For Schopenhauer, the magic key is art. For Buddhism, there's the practice of meditation.

I'm putting this in a deliberately crass way, because it really doesn't interest me. The best example of this line of thought is something I remember from Colin Wilson's new Preface, written many years later, to his first book The Outsider (1956). As a young man, determined to lose your virginity, nothing seems more wonderful and desirable than the sexual act. Finally, you succeed in getting some hapless girl into bed. And afterwards you lie there thinking, 'Is that it?'

The existential sentiment is expressed perfectly in the Lieber and Stoller song, Is That All There Is?. (Google the title to find the lyrics.) That thought is the beginning of philosophy.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

— Dying soliloquy of the android Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner

In the end, everything goes. But isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what a good Buddhist wants? To achieve a state which is not death, but the nearest damn thing to it. Nietzsche and Freud saw through that.

This leaves me feeling a bit sick. That's not my shade of black. My black is much closer to a Nietzschean black. But even Nietzsche is ultimately too religious for my taste. I'm trying to think of a philosopher who epitomizes the contemptuous rejection of 'all things white and wonderful'. Can't think of any. Most of the thinkers who venture to the dark side, in whatever way they do it, secretly hanker after the colour white.

Maybe Stirner. Why do anarchists like the colour black? Does anyone know? (This article has some suggestions.)

I once wrote something about philosophy and the colour black in my Glass House Philosopher notebook (Notebook 1, page 51), accompanied by the soundtrack to Escape From New York. Was I just being cute? Or did I see something — out of the corner of my eye? The hero of the hour is Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy: 'Black is the prevailing colour of this all-time classic.'

You can discount Descartes' ostensive religious aim in proving the existence of the soul. Locked up in his stove room, his aim is to find one nugget of absolute, indisputable truth. Even an all-powerful evil demon couldn't persuade me of my own non-existence.

It's the problem, but also the cure. It's what gets you into the existential predicament (see my post on Camus on absurdity). But it's also the solution, because if you make sufficient effort in directing your gaze inwards, you see through it. If nothing has meaning then everything has meaning. 'The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man' (Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.43). But it isn't. Not really. There is only the world ('all that is the case'). The rest (which 'cannot be said') is just your mood. Snap out of it!

And when you have snapped out of it, you will find that nothing remains to be done except to pursue the question of what is. Everything else is a distraction (which is why one needs the dark).

I very rarely read fiction. The last novel I remember reading from cover to cover was a pulp karate novel, a clichéd story about a young man, lost and confused, who comes upon a group of dedicated karate students. He joins them and learns the true meaning of pain. Forget your Bruce Lees. The aim of karate is the brutal refashioning of the human body into a blunt weapon, which you learn to wield with exquisite grace and speed. You smash your forearm to pulp until it becomes sufficiently hardened to block any blow without flinching.

(A neighbour who once did karate — I think he was the one who lent me the book — told me that karate practitioners have terrible problems with piles. All those body hardening exercises are at the expense of weakening the pelvic floor. They should go to maternity classes.)

Think of philosophy as karate for the mind. You learn to surmount every kind of mental pain. The mind is refashioned into a weapon whose only purpose is seeking out the truth, aletheia. Emotions, moods, desires are all distractions. Philosophers like the dark side because they love to tempt themselves, test themselves. I understand this gung ho attitude but at the same time something about it also repels me. Perhaps for that reason I will never be a true philosopher.

As Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) once famously said, 'A man's got to know his limitations.' Do you feel lucky, punk?

1 comment:

  1. I would like to plug Matthew Del Nevo's book The Valley Way of the Soul here. Melancholy is not about achieving heights, about having and getting, as our society seems to insist on. It is not about success. Also it is solitary. It is a pensive mood, which is to reside in a valley, beneath "tawdry side-shows". This is actually a theological book about poetry. I plug it as an non-theological sort of person. You might like it.

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