Paradoxes of a Spinozist

whurl

The more one lives by reason, the less one prioritises reason in others.

A mind is only as active as its body. A body is only as active as its mind. Both are one, yet irreducible to the other.

God? Nature. Nature? God. Infinity? Now. Now? Infinity.

The more selfless one becomes, the more forgiving one is of other people’s selfishness and one’s own.

Everything could be any other way. There is no other way things could be.

Every difficulty presents an opportunity for self-mastery.

Never relying on a true friend.

Freedom: living by desire, without free will. Living by reason, without any moral imperative to do so. Living as if infinite, without regard for tomorrow.

Before opening one’s mouth to mock, curse or moan, check: why.

As dangerous as empty fear: empty hope.

The problem of evil is that evil is not a problem.

Love’s reward is loving, its outward animation. Lovers harbour secrets, but there are no secrets to love.

Love is blind, and cautious like the blind.

Reality is perfection, and our perfection in this realisation.

A pebble tumbling from a roof; a drunk issuing home truths; a philosopher who reads the world as lines, planes and bodies: the first two know free will, though the latter alone is free.

Power is never over, only with. Power against is no power at all.

Express one’s contempt for misers, moralisers and killjoys by laughing with them gently and shaking their hands.

To recognise the impossibility of ever reaching the ideal one strives toward, and be reaffirmed by this difficulty.

Interrogate all superfluous punctuation.

Kauai

Kauai waterfall

In J.G. Ballard’s final writing — a typewritten synopsis of an unfinished project of Conversations with his physician, Jonathan Waxman — he rounds up with these moving lines:

‘nature has invented this remarkable instrument of rejuvenation, that touches almost every level of our existence.’

What might this instrument be? A vague and semi-religious sense of hope, or the comfort of family? A technological or economic faith in human progress, or the pleasures of a midday scotch and soda? The completion of the next work project, or a mobile phone upgrade?

‘It is sex to which we turn after bereavement. It is a door that is always open…..’

Etienne Balibar once wrote of Spinoza that, in his final words, a dismissal of women’s right to participate in a model democracy, seemingly at odds with his belief in human capability, he seemed to die right before us on the page. With Ballard, he fizzes out majestically, revealing the key to his generous belief in life and its joyous potential. His words also indicate what I’ve felt yet frustratingly inarticulated. It indicates the most available mystical experience for the largely secular and cynical generation I’ve grown up in.

Love in all forms can be pursued by anyone. A life dedicated to loving others cannot be wasted. It is a striving that is never completed, a joy experienced in its expression.

There is no lack or pent-up drives, forget those Freudian abstractions and plumbing metaphors. It is far stranger than ‘pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause’ (Spinoza) and far more earthly than the highest stage of being given by the primitive gods (Ricardo Reis). Where felt, it is revelatory; where shared, it is redemptive.

In providing objects outside oneself upon which to transfer one’s hopes, happiness and curiosity, it reveals that happiness cannot be a solipsistic affair. Reason is most lonely. Yet it must never be confused with the object itself, that bitter lesson of heartache. Sadness and confusion come alongside the relaxed bliss, generosity, and emotionally-charged excitement that imbues one’s life with a drama beyond anything in Ibsen or Eastenders. It is a door that is always open, provided one is willing to suspend disbelief and risk it. The heart, that most disabused compass, indicates the way. How long it takes some to risk it… It is never final or finished, and never quite clear.

Nature has made us far less sophisticated and interesting than popular culture might suppose. At times I see each of us as bundles of energy, expressing light and rhythm, rapidly expiring but, at our best — and this is what I’m now most interested in — momentarily alive in our joys. Even speaking of atoms swerving in the cosmos is another abstraction foisted on the simplicity of our natural experiences.

I am also doubting the certainty of the above words, and expect to lose, and rediscover, to infinity, the feeling and taste of these words.

On March 23rd this year, on our ten year anniversary, me and my partner Sarah were married in Kauai. It was an extraordinary and wonderful experience. I thank her for teaching me what love is, and what it can be.

The gambler

the gambler

Found this from an old bit of writing that felt worth sharing. I’m sure Pascal precedes Locke, Hume and Dostoevsky with the use of gaming and gambling for philosophy and the imagination.

‘Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him.

‘But,’ you will say, ‘what is his object in all this?’ Just so that he can boast tomorrow to his friends that he played better than someone else. Likewise others sweat away in their studies to prove to scholars that they have solved some hitherto insoluble problem in algebra. Many others again, just as foolishly in my view, risk the greatest dangers so that they can boast afterwards of having captured some stronghold. Then there are others who exhaust themselves observing all these things, not in order to become wiser, but just to show they know them, and these are the biggest fools of the lot, because they know what they are doing, while it is conceivable that the rest would stop being foolish if they knew too.’

A given man lives a life free from boredom by gambling a small sum every day. Give him every morning the money he might win that day, but on condition that he does not gamble, and you will make him unhappy. It might be argued that what he wants is the entertainment of gaming and not the winnings. Make him play then for nothing; his interest will not be fired and he will become bored, so it is not just entertainment he wants. A half-hearted entertainment without excitement will bore him. He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift if it meant giving up gambling. He must create some target for his passions and then arouse his desire, anger, fear, for this object he has created, just like children taking fright at a face they have daubed themselves.’

— Pascal, Pensée 136, in Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), p. 70.

Dreams of an insect

Musei_Wormiani_Historia

‘And had mankind been made with but four senses, the qualities then, which are the object of the fifth sense, had been as far from our notice, imagination and conception, as now any belonging to a sixth, seventh, or eighth sense, possibly be: which, whether yet some other creatures, in some other parts of this vast, and stupendous universe, may not have, will be a great presumption to deny. He that will not set himself proudly at the top of all things; but will consider the immensity of this fabric, and the great variety, that is to be found in this little and inconsiderable part of it, which he has to do with, may be apt to think, that in other mansions of it, there may be other, and different intelligent beings, of whose faculties, he has as little knowledge or apprehension, as a worm shut up in one drawer of a cabinet, hath of the senses or understanding of a man; such variety and excellency, being suitable to the wisdom and power of the maker.’

– John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II.II.3.

Send off

Torino-Paris Aug13 180

Paris, September 2013.

“I will consider human actions and desires just as if it were an investigation into lines, planes or bodies.’
– Spinoza, Ethics, Preface to Part III.

‘I have taken real care not to mock, lament, or loathe human actions, but to understand them. So I regard human affects such as love, hate, anger, envy, pride, pity, and other agitations in the same way as heat, cold, storm, thunder, and other atmospheric phenomena.’
– Spinoza, Political Treatise, Chapter 1. (My translations. Not cold, nor fatalistic, but from a distance few ever dream of glimpsing).

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Schiele, Edith on deathbed

Egon Schiele, Edith Schiele on her deathbed 1918. The drawing itself is simultaneously traumatic and beautiful in its actual presence.

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Lovers’ formalities, by Paul Verlaine.

In the old park alone and cold,
Two figures just now passed each other.

Their eyes were dead and their lips were slack,
And they hardly heard each other’s words.

In the old park alone and cold,
Two spectres recall past times.

– You remember our former joy?
– Why would I want to remember that?

– Your heart still pulses only to my name?
You still see me in your dreams?’ – Nope.

– Oh those lovely days of unspeakable bliss,
Our lips forever caught in a kiss. – Yeah maybe.

– It was so blue, the sky, and so great, our hopes.
– Hope’s dead and done, the sky’s back to black.

So they walked among wild oats,
And only the night heard their words.

(My translation).

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hanged man

From Rider-Waite pack.

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The Truth Within Us, by Rumi

‘Twas a fair orchard, full of trees and fruit
And vines and greenery. A Sufi there
Sat with eyes closed, his head upon his knee,
Sunk deep in meditation mystical.
“Why”, asked another, “dost thou not behold
These Signs of God the Merciful displayed
Around thee, which He bids us contemplate?”
“The signs”, he answered, “I behold within;
Without is naught but symbols of the Signs.”

What is beauty in the world? The image,
Like quivering boughs reflected in a stream,
Of that eternal Orchard which abides
Unwithered in the hearts of Perfect Men.”

Trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1950, 47). Nicholson deserved some credit for his total poetic licence in translating. From Mathnawi IV, 1358.

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Adventures in inefficiency 053

Dungeness July 2013.

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Riddle.

What is that thing known only when it is given? What is the exercise and expression of everything that is uneconomic, strange and uncontrollable within? It is a singular feeling uniting a plethora of experiences, desires and sensations. It unifies but never unites. It never utters a final word. But talk of it, or of soul, heart or romance, establishes immediately a distance, alienation, a semi-sacred threshold. Only its lack lays its content bare. If it has language, it is in music. Rarely words, which we are all so easily hung up on. Its expression is physical. How else does one prove the sun except lift up daylight’s veil? These words come ringed with generations of angst and doubt and contain little comfort. Its greatest theorists come starved or deliberately fasting of it. Poets leave it to the night. And all of this above is strange, or pretentious, or nonsensical, unless right now you too are animated by it, of which there is no more to be written but only spoken, enthusively and without end.

Same too, possibly, of those who write of God, universe and nature, only names with attachment to specific images or pre-loaded linguistic connotations, that distort or zoom too quickly into this immensity. Intoxication’s never half of it.

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Periodic-table

Elements of the known universe, 2013.

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Riddle 2.

What if you had time?
So what if you had the time?

And say I gave you that time?
We’d be nowhere fast until you gave yourself the time.

Maybe you feel you’ve been made old by your memories, that the time that you grasp vainly is too finite. Or perhaps through an education in long-term illness, you haven’t got strength to cash in that time, to claim chips, be it credit or debit. Then you know the value of time better than I do. And so then you know that it’s not something you’ve got, but something you’re giving. So what remains to hold onto?

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Ramon Casas, Madeline

Ramon Casas, Madeleine 1892.

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In every guise, say someone paid you to pursue this and document the results, in whatever medium came to hand: the nameless, the strange, dirty and dangerous, the wonderful and unknown, the peerless, incommensurable, the oceanic feeling, that of the cosmos, the absolute or whatever name books give it. Until it’s given a name, any experience, object, image or sensation which provokes a feeling of awe and compulsion to repeat and explore.

How would you handle it? Give it a year, see. A wager. Why not?

Democritus

Democritus

Crane up with open eyes to peer at grey, greyer, greyest skies. But the most I see on a bright day is just how dark everything else appears.

Certain times I want to shout out with Charlie Baudelaire, ‘it’s time to get drunk. With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you please … but get drunk.’ But then I have had my fill of people who tirelessly pursued this goal, anywhere out of this world (using one of these, anyway). Certain times I want to change them, like wanting to change everything else. I think of endless large halls of people toiling away at the reformation of others, satisfying at least the need for toil. Each one boring the man or woman next to them with statements of self-love, row after row of the same, decade after decade in succession. Why was the first…? Certain days you’ve got to travel miles for some fresh air. The countryside’s good for that – there’s no rebranding what they lay thick on the fields. In times like these you may as well learn to laugh, so then no matter how hard the rain’s falling at least you’re the only one looking like they’re having a good time.

There’s no better person to learn from in this respect than Democritus, that ancient atomist and scientist unkindly forgotten, and one particular episode in his life retold by Democritus Junior, aka Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621-51. The original tale comes from an apocryphal letter sent from Hippocrates to Damagetus. I reproduce a long excerpt below, for other daydreamers to take counsel from. I think Democritus is a little harsh on Hippocrates here, but then again, most days I find myself offering up the same platitudes…

‘Heraclitus the philosopher, out of a serious meditation of men’s lives, fell a-weeping, and with continual tears bewailed their misery, madness, and folly. Democritus, on the other side, burst out a-laughing, their whole life seemed to him so ridiculous, and he was so far carried with this ironical passion, that the citizens of Abdera took him to be mad, and sent therefore ambassadors to Hippocrates the physician, that he would exercise his skill upon him.

‘[…] When Hippocrates was now come to Abdera, the people of the city came flocking about him, some entreating of him that he would do his best. After some little repast, he went to see Democritus, the people following him, whom he found (as before) in his garden in the suburbs all alone, “sitting upon a stone under a plane tree, without hose or shoes, with a book on his knees, cutting up several beasts, and busy at his study.” The multitude stood gazing round about to see the congress. Hippocrates, after a little pause, saluted him by his name, whom he resaluted, ashamed almost that he could not call him likewise by his, or that he had forgot it. Hippocrates demanded of him what he was doing: he told him that he was “busy in cutting up several beasts, to find out the cause of madness and melancholy.” Hippocrates commended his work, admiring his happiness and leisure. “And why,” quoth Democritus, “have not you that leisure?” “Because,” replied Hippocrates, “domestical affairs hinder, necessary to be done for ourselves, neighbours, friends; expenses, diseases, frailties and mortalities which happen; wife, children, servants and such businesses which deprive us of our time.” At this speech Democritus profusely laughed (his friends and the people standing by, weeping in the meantime, and lamenting his madness).

Hippocrates asked the reason why he laughed. He told him, “At the vanities and fopperies of the time, to see men so empty of all virtuous actions, to hunt so far after gold, having no end of ambition; to take such infinite pains for a little glory, and to be favoured of men; to make such deep mines into the earth for gold, and many times to find nothing, with loss of their lives and fortunes. Some to love dogs, others horses, some to desire to be obeyed in many provinces, and yet themselves will know no obedience. Some to love their wives dearly at first, and after a while to forsake and to hate them; begetting children, with much care and cost for their education, yet when they grow to man’s estate, to despise, neglect, and leave them naked to the world’s mercy. Do these behaviours express their intolerable folly? When men live in peace, they covet war, detesting quietness, deposing kinds, and advancing others in their stead, murdering some men to beget children of their wives. How many strange humours are in men! When they are poor and needy, they seek riches, and when they have them, they do not enjoy them, but hide them underground, or else wastefully spend them.

‘O wise Hippocrates, I laugh at such things being done, but much more when no good comes of them, and when they are done to so ill purpose. There is no truth or justice found amongst them, for they daily plead one against another, the son against the father and the mother, brother against brother, kindred and friends of the same quality; and all this for riches, whereof after death they cannot be possessors. And yet, notwithstanding, they will defame and kill one another, commit all unlawful actions, contemning God and men, friends and country. They make great account of many senseless things, esteeming them as a great part of their treasure, statues, pictures, and such-like movables, dear-bought and so cunningly wrought, as nothing but speech wanteth in them, and yet they hate living persons speaking to them. Others affect difficult things; if they dwell on firm land they will remove to an island, and thence to land again, being no way constant to their desires. They commend courage and strength in wars, and let themselves be conquered by lust and avarice; they are, in brief, as disordered in their minds as Thersites was in his body.

And now, methinks, O most worthy Hippocrates, you should not reprehend my laughing, perceiving so many fooleries in men; for no man will mock his own folly, but that which he seeth in a second, and so they justly mock one another. The drunkard calls him a glutton whom he knows to be sober. Many men love the sea, others husbandry; briefly, they cannot agree in their own trades and professions, much less in their lives and actions.”

When Hippocrates heard these words so readily uttered, without premeditation, to declare the world’s vanity, full of ridiculous contrariety, he made answer, “That necessity compelled men to many such actions, and divers wills ensuing from divine permission, that we might not be idle, being nothing is so odious to them as sloth and negligence. Besides, men cannot foresee future events, in this uncertainty of human affairs; they would not so marry, if they could foretell the causes of their dislike and separation; or parents, if they knew the hour of their children’s death, so tenderly provide for them; or an husbandman sow, if he thought there would be no increase; or a merchant adventure to sea, if he foresaw shipwreck; or be a magistrate, if presently to be deposed. Alas, worthy Democritus, every man hopes the best, and to that end he doth it, and therefore no such cause, or ridiculous occasion, of laughter.”

Democritus, hearing this poor excuse, laughed again aloud’…

[Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: New York Review of Books), pp. 47-49]

I will never finish reading Montaigne

Montaigne portrait

I will never finish reading Montaigne. Coming to the end of his Collected Essays today, having ‘begun’ them over two years ago, at the start of this blog, is simply another event in a life-long relation of reading and re-reading him initiated nearly a decade ago. Our life’s most inspiring thinkers whoever they be can have this effect, so long as they are read, reflected on, and conversed with, slowly, carefully and with pleasure.

Do you want to know the essence of Montaigne, a late-16th century French essayist, soldier, mayor of Bordeaux, lover of melons and horses, brought up only to speak Latin, his life shaped by civil war, plague, love and lust, children born and died, Seneca, Socrates, Plutarch and, above all, his reflections on these ? Then I have no summary. But hear this:

“If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves! I would truly trust the one who did; for the others pilot us like a man who remains seated at his table, painting seas, reefs and harbours and, in absolute safety, pushing a model boat over them.” [Montaigne, On Experience].

I laugh when I read this in his final essay, near the end of his life’s journeys and reflections on these. Montaigne’s expertise above all is experience, his – there are no painted reefs or toy boats. Pleasure and pain have given him the clap.

Enjoying and understanding life as a good though uncertain, deceptive thing, are his expertise. Montaigne writes plainly and open-humouredly on all matters, his subject matter from the outset being the only thing he could ever claim to know, his self. He anticipates so much now modern in his thoughts on male and female sexualities and desire; he uses descriptions and stories from the New World, China and elsewhere to through a critical glare on European society and its hypocrisies which seems compellingly global. Yet few points ever come unaccompanied by a Latin quotation derived from Horace, Seneca, Cicero or elsewhere, or else some anecdote about Scipio, Cato, Socrates or Caesar.

Montaigne’s essays have provided better sustenance to my life I think than any course of schooling taken, very good though some of it’s been. I have read every word of the essays, much of it 2 or 3 times, yet I remember little. It has only taught me of myself, a subject as vain, inconsistent, idiotic, insightful and, above all, utterly essential for living. What else do we clearly or distinctly know? What else do we so dedicatedly mess up so well? By all means apply philosophical analysis to geometry or jurisprudence, but first use philosophy to live, for the benefit of your life, with all the certainty that any lessons will probably be forgotten or overruled by contrary practice. Like any life’s few compelling books which we read and read again*, it has taken place with repeated thrusts of awe and scepticism, but under the more fundamental and circular revelation of one’s own complete ignorance of a subject (or all subjects) for which one once felt some speck of surety.

When the beliefs of the powerful few are applied to the disempowered many, some think that is theirs and vainly call it common sense. I’m sceptical of it, gladly! Common sense confers greater esteem to work experience than study, and celebrates its use-value, something I’ve found invalid when looking at my life and years wasted in boring jobs or mismanaged organisations. Compare months spent in agonising concentration under some fool tyrant’s will on one unmemorable project or another: I can think of dozens of these. What good would come of offering up, as a CV does, the barren fruits of wage drudgery? It was essential then; it is useless now. Often abbreviated phrases meaningless to you are those which once denied sleep, I’m sure you have your own – GSRs, ONS stats, INWL monitoring,  Local Services – they feel like picking away at an old scar in order to embellish its gore – but they were years spent stressed, disgruntled, lazy. There’s no end to it I know, I’ll be back in that place soon.

But I prefer to think about the stoicism of Thomas Browne, of the escapades of the Angry Brigade or the exhortation to live, think, of Wilde, Woolf, Buddha, Confucius, Montaigne, and above that a million different conversations in pubs. It’s all there, known and forgotten, in loops ranging into infinity. Everyone can claim equal expertise and responsibility to the most interesting subject of ethics, themselves.

 

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* Kafka’s Castle, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Dostoevsky’s Idiot and Brothers Karamazov, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, and now Spinoza’s Ethics – books that were first confusing, exhausting, irritating, disappointing, or thoroughly frustrating.