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A common theme in my postings over the last few weeks has been the very basic question, “how are we to live?” While it is sometimes hard to be objective about the prevalence of a trend when it is a topic you yourself are interested in (I call it the “car buying syndrome”—all of a sudden the type of car you are considering starts showing up everywhere) it does seem to be a topic of increased interest in the culture in general. I referenced several new book titles that address various aspects of these concerns in my earlier post, The River of Knowledge, as well as a few inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s very successful book on Montaigne, How to Live (here and here.)

In writing about her review of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller for the New York Times Book Review, Bakewell states her belief that “philosophy is poorer when it loses sight of the messy lives of those who do the philosophizing.” And certainly her book does a great job of bringing together the events of Montaigne’s life with his philosophical writings. “Montaigne’s idea of philosophy, which he inherited from the Greeks and Romans, was mainly of a practical art for living well,” says Bakewell. “It would have seemed odd to him to spend all day studying philosophy in a university classroom, but then have to go to a bookstore’s self-help department to find a book on how to cope with bereavement or depression.” Bakewell’s answer to the query of how to live? “Let life be its own answer,” she said. “You learn to live mainly by living — and making a lot of mistakes.”

More “how to live” wisdom showed up in James Ryerson’s essay, Thinkers and Dreamers. Posing the question, “can a novelist write philosophically?”, Ryerson quotes novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. The two pursuits are contrary, says Murdoch in a BBC interview from 1978. Philosophy uses the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, and literature calls upon the imagination to produce something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world.

Murdoch’s distinction between philosophy and fiction applies to life in general it seems to me. The conscious—and conscientious—deployment of our analytical and imaginal skills is an ongoing balancing act. In my case the “mysterious, ambiguous and particular” is where I spend most of my time. For someone else, it may be the reverse. In spite of my own proclivities, I want to be competently bilingual. And as Bakewell suggests, you learn how to do that by living your life. And by making lots of mistakes.


Assembling reality is mostly patchwork (from Anna Hepler’s exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art)

More on the theme of being right and the cost of that fixation (referenced earlier in this post):

An article appeared in the Sunday New York Times Book review last week that speaks to our proclivity to put blinders on as we parse reality into understandable chunks. An essay, Fight ‘The Power’, written by two academic psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, uses scientific data to defame and dismantle concepts popularized by books like The Secret and The Power, both by Rhonda Byrne. Chabris and Simons do an essay-length deconstruction of what is wrong with Bryne’s books and with the others that promulgate the unscientific idea that a “power of attraction” is operating in all our interactions.

I’m not a rabid “Secret” advocate, and a scientific parsing of all things has its value. But too much of a good thing does have a price. Reading this essay was a reminder that any scientific approach to human consciousness eventually flattens us to little more than a complex set of biochemical interactions. In that particular laboratory of life, there is no category for what happens in my studio when 6 hours pass and it feels like 20 minutes, no explanation for where ideas come from that appear out of nowhere, no model to explain why I sometimes can feel what is happening with my kids when they are thousands of miles away, no framework to explain the attraction I still have for my partner Dave after 30 years.

We are so quick to get to the either/or when the both/and could and should be a better approach. Arguing “against” science these days aligns you with the crazies (of which we have way too many in the country right now.) But instrumentation has its limits. To define a world view based solely on what we can measure will seem absurd in 50 years. Is it possible to be a self respecting, thoughtful citizen of the planet and embrace the notion that our understanding is incomplete? Is it possible to create a Western version of that satisfying Zen notion of the “don’t know mind”?

The Thinkers: From left, Slavoj Zizek, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler and Cornel West discuss ideas in the documentary “Examined Life.” (Photo: Zeitgeist Films)

The title of this post of course is making reference to the famous line from Plato about unexamined lives not being worth much. That phrase was also the inspiration for Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” in which a slew of philosophers are given 10 minutes and asked to explain, in simple terms, their particular area of interest. Taylor states her challenge up front: Is it possible to move the experience of contemporary philosophical thought (which lives primarily in the form of written text) into everyday language? It is an interesting challenge, and some rise to it better than others. Avital Ronell speaks about meaning, Peter Singer on ethics, Martha Nussbaum on justice, among others. Oh, and of course, the inimitable Brother Cornel who gets to address the big one—TRUTH.

I agreed with the portrayal of Cornel’s guerilla style soliloquizing (he appears in snippets throughout the film) from A. O. Scott’s New York Times review of the film:

Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose back-seat ramblings punctuate the film (everyone else has a single, uninterrupted minicolloquium), clearly takes great pleasure in talking, and it is hard not to share it, at least in small doses. A man of great, one might say compulsive, erudition — not one to drop the name of a single great writer, composer or sage if five are available — he makes the case that thought can be a kind of performance art.

All in all, the film is worthwhile viewing. And there were moments when I was caught quite off guard. Like when Ronell quoted Derrida saying that if you are a person who has a good conscience, you are worthless. No one who is aware and paying attention can believe we have ever done enough to care for the other, she paraphrased. Good reminder, not that I’m swimming in any abundance of smug self satisfaction. But it hit me straight on. As was intended.

As a sidebar, a piece just recently appearing in the New York Times, The Examined Life, Age 8, deals with teaching young children about philosophy. It is an interesting variation on the film’s premise.

Rubin Museum of Art chief curator, Martin Brauen, left, and Felix Walder, great-grandson to Carl Jung, inspect Carl Jung’s “The Red Book” (Photo: Rubin Museum)

The Rubin Museum exhibit (and accompanying lecture series) that features The Red Book by Carl Jung has been on my mind since I first saw the show a few months ago. (I have referred to it previously here and here.) What is this oversized Bible-like tome that Jung used to record his personal journey over a number of years? I have never seen anything like it, particularly from someone whose primary contribution to the culture of ideas and concepts is as strong as Jung’s. On the content itself, I am not in a position to respond and evaluate as expertly as many Jungian therapists have done. But the meticulous calligraphy and polychrome illustrations (which he refers to as “mandalas”) are striking and reveal Jung’s strong visual orientation. Can it be approached as an art object? No, not for me. It feels like an intimate diary—more of an artifact—of one soul’s journey into the deep space of the subconscious. It is curious, peculiar, intense, and a bit haunting.

That’s the reason I have continued to follow the reviews and discussions around this event. I’ve included a few salient reviews, some laudatory and some very critical. It’s everyman’s call.

Do the decades between the completion and publication of “The Red Book” render it less potent or interesting? Not at all. As Shamdasani observes, “in a critical sense, ‘Liber Novus’ does not require supplemental interpretation, for it contains its own interpretation,” and so it is at last possible to begin a study of Jung with the work he held above all the rest. “The Red Book” not only reminds us of the importance of introspection, but also offers a guide to separating the self from the spirit of a time that would have astonished and offended Jung with its endless trivial distractions, its blogs and tweets and chiming cellphones. The creation of one of modern history’s true visionaries, “The Red Book” is a singular work, outside of categorization. As an inquiry into what it means to be human, it transcends the history of psychoanalysis and underscores Jung’s place among revolutionary thinkers like Marx, Orwell and, of course, Freud. The dedication — the love — with which it was assembled makes “The Red Book” as beautiful and otherworldly as a medieval book of hours.

Kathryn Harrison
New York Times

But what is particularly strange about this book is not its pretense or pomposity but its talismanic power. It was stashed away in a cabinet for decades by the family, then jealously withheld from scholarly view because of its supposedly revealing nature. Since being brought into the open, partly through the efforts of the historian and Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani (who is also curator of this exhibition), it has become a sensation.

Edward Rothstein
New York Times

Jung, shaman of the collective mind games that are supposed to give healing significance to the average person’s deepysleepy land, was one of the inventors of modern intellectual celebrity and its egomaniacal constructs. The Red Book is nothing more than a projection of his giant vanity and, observing the book in the flesh, so to speak, one cannot help but view it more as a manufactured testament than the spontaneous recording of Jung’s nervous breakdowns that it is purported to be.

Charlie Finch

Was he going mad? After World War I broke out in 1914, Jung decided with relief that his disturbed imagination had actually been sensing the coming conflict. He also concluded that he had entered what we would now call a midlife crisis, a period in which he was being compelled to re-examine his life and explore his deepest self. To do this, he recorded some of his dreams and visions in what were later called his “Black Books” (which have been available for some while). But he also began a remarkable visionary text, illustrated with his own bizarre paintings: “The Red Book” or “Liber Novus.” This he composed during a state of “active imagination” — that is, of reverie or waking dream. As he said, he wanted to see what would happen when he “switched off consciousness.”

Michael Dirda
Washington Post

For those of you who are not near New York, the show is coming to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (from April to June) and then to the Library of Congress in Washington.

At the family estate, summer 1917. Paul Wittgenstein is second from left; Ludwig Wittgenstein is at right. Photo: Michael Nedo

This photo of the Wittgenstein family (as in Ludwig) captures a certain something about Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, a period of time that perpetually fascinates and compels many of us all these years later. And then there is the ubiquitous shadow cast by Ludwig himself, the 20th century’s most celebrated philosopher.

But until I read the Jim Holt review in the New York Times of a new biography of the Wittgenstein clan, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh (Evelyn’s grandson), I did not realize just how complex and tragic the Wittgenstein family circumstances actually were. The mystique deepens as a very dark and painful history is revealed. Aptly titled “Suicide Squad,” Holt’s review paints the bleak unraveling of a family strangely destined for suffering and self destruction.

A few excerpts from the review:

“A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses,” a wag once observed. Well, when it comes to dysfunction, the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money. The tyrannical family patriarch was Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913), a steel, banking and arms magnate. He and his timorous wife, Leopoldine, brought nine children into the world. Of the five boys, three certainly or probably committed suicide and two were plagued by suicidal impulses throughout their lives. Of the three daughters who survived into adulthood, two got married; both husbands ended up insane and one died by his own hand. Even by the morbid standards of late Hapsburg Vienna these are impressive numbers. But tense and peculiar as the Wittgensteins were, the family also had a strain of genius. Of the two sons who didn’t kill themselves, one, Paul (1887-1961), managed to become an internationally celebrated concert pianist despite the loss of his right arm in World War I. The other, Ludwig (1889-1951), was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century…

The Wittgensteins were the musical family par excellence. Their palatial residence in Vienna contained seven grand pianos, including two Bösendorfer Imperials. Among the guests at their home concerts, which took place in a special Musiksaal adorned with a marble statue of the nude Beethoven squatting and glowering atop a high plinth, were Brahms, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and Mahler. All the Wittgensteins, parents and children alike, were prodigiously talented musicians. They “pursued music with an enthusiasm that, at times, bordered on the pathological,” Waugh writes. Concertizing together seems to have been for them a wordless medium of communication, affording a respite from the usual family tension and bickering…

As for Ludwig, the baby of the family, he seems to have had a sense of his genius from an early age. After finishing high school (where one of his classmates was Adolf Hitler), he decided to find a fellow genius who might serve as his mentor. His first choice was the great physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, but Boltzmann hanged himself before Wittgenstein could meet him. In 1911, Wittgenstein sought out Bertrand Russell in Cambridge. Russell was initially wary of the strange (and startlingly handsome) young Viennese, who would show up in his rooms late at night to stutter out philosophical monologues, pacing “like a caged tiger” and threatening to kill himself if Russell turned him out. Before long, though, the older philosopher succumbed, writing to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell, that Wittgenstein “has pure intellectual passion in the highest degree; it makes me love him.” Returning to Vienna, Wittgenstein volunteered for the Austrian Army in World War I, insisting, out of spiritual motives, that he be assigned to the most dangerous missions. It was during the war that he produced his first philosophical work (the only one to be published in his lifetime), the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” which opens with the arresting proposition, “The world is all that is the case.”

Ludwig’s subsequent career, familiar from numerous biographies and memoirs, is briskly told here. Renouncing his share of the family fortune (among the largest of war-ruined Europe, thanks to the Wittgensteins’ shrewd American investments), he pursued self-mortification as a schoolteacher in an impoverished Alpine village. But his pedagogical methods included slapping the children rather violently, and he got run out of town. Turning to architecture, he designed an austere cubical house, now regarded as a modernist masterpiece, for one of his sisters in Vienna. Most of the rest of his life was spent in Cambridge, where he developed a radically new vision of philosophy, one that marked a decisive break with his early work. As for his sex life, Waugh notes that at least one of the several relationships Ludwig had with adoring young men was frankly physical, but he is agnostic about whether the philosopher pursued rough trade in public parks. (When that claim was made in a scandalous 1973 biography, Wittgenstein’s outraged nephew announced his readiness to vomit on the hat of the publisher — surely one of the most inspired threats of all time…)

Here is another set of responses to a question about Nietzsche’s influence, taken from an article in Eurozine (Previous excerpts were posted here on July 12.) The question asked of experts this time is in reference to Nietzsche’s concept of “herd values.” Jan Sokol and Leslie Paul Thiele have different takes on this oft-discussed aspect of Nietzsche’s writings, and both are certainly worthy of further thought and discussion.

How do you understand Nietzsche’s project of the revaluation of all values? Do you think that it commits him to moral and cultural nihilism? In particular, what do you make of Nietzsche’s critique of “herd values”?

Jan Sokol:

To regard Nietzsche as a nihilist is a mistake, an unobservant reading. He was rather an excessively sensitive person horrified by a world where nothing has rules and stands for nothing. Indeed, a “nihilist” is a curse word thrown at others. Nietzsche occasionally calls even himself a nihilist, but for an entirely different reason: everybody has a mouth full of values, but in reality they all behave like cattle, like a well-fed “herd”. What they call “values” are only wooden idols which overthrow themselves. People do not seek any “values”; rather they follow the others like the herd. It is also true today that only what is rare, difficult, risky and demanding has value, and we all avoid these things. We prefer to wait for how things turn out.

In one matter Nietzsche, like Heidegger, may be mistaken. It is, in fact, extremely difficult for us today to step courageously out of the “herd” (Heidegger’s das Man, or in present-day terms “the mainstream”). For a person to dare to do this, he needs at least the hope that failure will not mean personal catastrophe. The economy is well equipped for this: it has “limited liability companies”, insurance and bankruptcy regulations. But in the realms of morality and of personal evaluation, the person has lost, together with Christianity, such concepts as repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Without them, it is difficult to risk losing – especially when, as Pascal says, we do not lack much.

Leslie Paul Thiele:

Nietzsche wrote: “My philosophy aims at an ordering of rank: not at an individualistic morality. The ideas of the herd should rule in the herd – but not reach out beyond it.” Revaluing all values is not rejecting all values. When Nietzsche re-evaluates our moral habits, he underlines how they become obstacles to freedom when they serve as final destinations. But that is not to reject their uses and benefits. They can be well exploited as stepping stones.

The highest in rank give evidence of a constant striving for excellence. This striving produces endemic change in the individual who is involved in the project of overcoming himself. Just as there is a role for personal habits, and for a need to go beyond them in all self-overcoming, so there is a need for herd values, and a need to go beyond them. Herd values, which I understand to be moral habits conducive to a common life, are precious achievements that contribute to our personal and social constitutions. Though Nietzsche is often read as advocating their wholesale abandonment, I believe he understood the need to build upon them.

“Let us live above ourselves,” Nietzsche advocated in a letter, “in order that we may be able to live with ourselves.” To live above oneself is to rise above the habitual and herd-like. But, in the end, the goal is to live with oneself, including all those personal and social habits that make one a unique individual and human being. The purpose of human life is not the establishment of a utopia in which the victorious forces of radical individualism and free spiritedness have eliminated all herd values and personal habits. Life has no purpose but itself. The battle between individual spirit and herd-like habits is not a prelude to some future state of tensionless existence. The good life is a life of daily struggle with the habitual and herd-like in each of us, a struggle that does not deprecate what it seeks to surpass. Such deprecation would constitute a defamation of life.

I’ve written about Nietzsche in terms of the politics of the soul. The basic assumption is that anything Nietzsche says about external, worldly politics is a reflection of his hopes and fears concerning his own internal constitution. Likewise, the psycho-spiritual self-overcoming that he charts with such acuity in his writings, find their models in worldly power struggles. So, my claim here is that the order of rank that Nietzsche celebrates is meant to be achieved first and foremost within ones own soul. In this internal constitution, Nietzsche acknowledges, herd values have their place. Like personal habits, they serve as stable foundations that allow for the flight of free spirit. Take away the tarmac, and you never get off the ground.

For cultural omnivores, 3 Quarks Daily is one of the best blogs around. It is like finding that extraordinary bookstore where every other title sounds like it would be a delicious read.

I found a compelling excerpt there this weekend from Eurozine regarding the still lingering, larger-than-life influence of Nietzsche. The article, What does Nietzsche mean to philosophers today? asks a series of questions of several leading philosophers. The range of responses is what you’d expect from someone of Nietzsche’s stature—all over the map.

I have included two responses to the question, What do you take to be the morally and politically most offensive passages in Nietzsche’s writings? Being the transgressive female that I am, I always cheer whenever a man lambasts the rampant sexism of 19th century giants like Nietzsche and Freud. But I have paired Patton’s harsh assessment with a gentler, kinder take on Nietzsche’s failings by Jan Sokol. The juxtaposition of the two is provocative.

More to come in later postings.

Paul Patton:

Some of his remarks about women are among the most offensive of Nietzsche’s writings. I take these to be indications of the extent to which he was a man of his time who could not see beyond the existing cultural forms of the sexual division of humankind. Like the vast majority of nineteenth century European men, Nietzsche could not divorce female affect, intelligence and corporeal capacities from a supposed “essential’ relation to child-bearing. His views on women are representative of his attitude toward morality and politics in the sense that they are in tension with possibilities otherwise opened up by his historical conception of human nature. For example, at times he recognizes that supposedly natural qualities of women or men are really products of particular social arrangements. We can conclude from this, even if he could not, that these qualities are not natural but open to change. In this domain as in other of his social and political views, he was not able to foresee some of the ways in which the very dynamics of human cultural evolution that he identified could lead us into a very different future.

Jan Sokol:

Nietzsche was a great man and deserves a just assessment. He was solitary, sensitive and extremely deep, perhaps also something of a victim of romanticism. His illnesses and failures must have played a role in his decision to “philosophize with a hammer”. Nietzsche is to be read by mature, discerning people: he provokes, offends and strives to arouse the reader to think for himself. And we cannot hold him responsible for what we know today, but he could not have known. In spite of this, he wrote things, which one reads with horror: about the “too many”, who should be swept away by whirlwinds.

Also, some of his statements about the Jews are disturbing – that cannot be denied. But it is very difficult to find his overall position. It is carefully hidden in the depths of an injured romantic heart, and can be read only between the lines.