Posts tagged philosophy
I wrote this in a fever

I read a story about a man enslaved inside his own mind. Too much time spent in contemplation has made him view the world outside as foreign, irrational, dirty and repulsive. He has grown cynical and embittered, antisocial, morose and full of spite. He values nothing but a few timeless classics of literature and music which he worships as if they were infallible immortals. All else is shallow, disgusting, meaningless and abhorrent.

His name is Steppenwolf. To escape this despicable existence he resolves to kill himself, but is in the end too much a coward to pull through. As luck would have it, he is found by a girl who understands him. She pats him on the head and calls him silly. And slowly, one day at a time, she teaches him how to live again.

I have so much to say about this book yet somehow anything I write seems futile. Anyone can retreat into their mind and wallow in the fact that the society we have created for ourselves is one of suffering, abundance, trivialities and despair. Anyone can refuse to partake in the world and resolve to a life of cynicism. And anyone can do all this and blame it on the fact that they are merely too enlightened. Too aware to lead a normal, healthy life in this grotesque, shallow, complacent and ignorant world we have established for ourselves.

Anyone can fade away. It isn’t difficult to die. What’s difficult is to keep on living.

You think you lock yourself up in your room because you are too damn good for the world? Because you are the only one wise enough to see this shallow, cosy, stupid world for what it is?

No. You lock yourself inside yourself because you are too afraid to go outside. You refuse the invitations, the singing crowds and dancing mobs because you are too damn frightened to encounter friction. To mess things up and deal with contradiction. To face yourself within the mirror of the people you encounter. To know yourself and all your flaws. “You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.”

The problem is you are correct. This world is shallow, vulgar and obscene. Too much of what humanity admires are a pointless waste of time. “Do you think I’m incapable of understanding your fear of the foxtrot, your distaste for bars and dance floors, your resistance to jazz music and all that sort of stuff? I understand it only too well, just as I do your disgust with politics, your sadness at the way the parties and the press ramble on and kick up a fuss about things, your despair over wars, the one there has just been and those still to come, and about modern habits of thinking reading, building, making music, celebrating things and providing education!”

Humanity is too content with way too little. It has to be this way or else society wouldn’t function. If it were inhabited solely by individuals who think outside the norms it would collapse. Those people are too inquisitive. They ask too many questions. They don’t just swallow and accept things the way they are presented and as such they pose a threat to order. “You are right, Steppenwolf, a thousand times right, and yet you must perish…It is no home, this fine world, for people like us who, instead of nonsensical noise, demand music; instead of pleasure, joy; instead of money, soul; instead of industrial production, genuine labour; instead of frivolity, genuine passion…”

The fact that you struggle in this state is no surprise. That does not mean your place within it does not exist. It just means you have to search for it. You have to put in the work. You have to dig a little deeper. Deeper than the world as it appears. Deeper than your inclinations, your proclivities, your innate personality and whatever fiction you claim to constitute your self.

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“[T]he conquest of time and escape from reality…means simply the wish to be relieved of your so-called personality. That is the prison where you lie.”

Discard your simplifications. Your life is no mere good or evil, true or false, wealth or worth or nature or reason. It is no mere struggle between opposing extremes where one trumps the other. It is all of those and infinities in between. “His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.”

Your quest for completion is a fiction. The self is no mere singular conquest of which once you’ve reached its peak you may retire. Simplifying the grandeur of a human mind to that extent is a mistake and grave disservice.

“[A] man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves.” These selves overlap, contradict, rejoice and engage in combat. Anyone brave enough to venture into their unfettered mind is well aware of this. It is shunned and dubbed insane in our society because complexity invokes contradiction. Unsurprisingly. It is easier to herd a flock of sheep than a band of wolves. But in punishing the mad, you castigate the genius. “In consequence of this error many…are looked upon as mad who are geniuses”.

Never fear the irrational, the extraordinary, combative and complex. It is the friction of contradiction that birth the sparks of invention. “Just as madness, in a higher sense, is the beginning of all wisdom, so is schizomania the beginning of all art and all fantasy.”

Keep worshipping your idols. Praise them on your bruised black knees with bleeding hands and torn red nails. Lock yourself inside your room with nothing but your soul and blues, stacks of books by men you love and women you admire. Beating rhythms to whispered words, heaving lungs so violent your ribcage bursts and shatters. Do this. Do it all and then again.

Then go to bed. Sleep it off.

Your worship of the genius, breathless, ocean–deep and speechless is laudable and precious. But don’t take it so seriously. Perfection is a heavy burden and these saints are already weighed down by the stones above their graves. “Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists…in putting too high a value on time. […] In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”

Head outside in autumn rain. Call your sister. Claim a stranger in the street. Tell a man you met but once he reminds you of your soulmate. Make best friends with girls in nightclubs. Close your eyes. Flow along. It’s fine. It really is. To appreciate the depths of oceans you must first venture knee–deep into clear blue colourful lagoons. Set your anchor here. Make yourself at home and when the time feels right, dive into the depths. Find your jewels and return them to the surface. Yes, that is the point. To venture deep into the unknown and bring those treasures to the surface where they can be aired and dried and understood. “Your faith found no more air to breathe. And suffocation is a hard death.”

Be brave enough to venture into darkness. But do not forget that lightness has its value too. What else would the point be of all your crazed imaginations if not to realise them in the world? To help you make your life a little less confusing. A little less afraid. And a little more in love.

“A girl had bidden me eat and drink and sleep, and had shown me friendship and had laughed at me and had called me a silly little boy. And this wonderful friend had talked to me of the saints and shown me that even when I had outdone myself in absurdity I was not alone.”

"One never reaches home. But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home."

Hermann Hesse wrote in Demian of something that has obsessed me for a long time. It is the same idea proclaimed by Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Nietzsche and Carl Jung and all those other nineteenth–century Europeans who knew a thing or two about inferno. It is about evil, about the darkness and the damned and about how these things exist in each and every one of us, no matter how precious and agreeable we all would like our hearts to be. 

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible” Dostoyevsky wrote in his 1880 novel of internal moral struggle. “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Eighty years later, Solzhenitsyn followed up. “[T]he line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Demian is about a boy who bears a mark that makes him stand out before the rest. It is a branding on his brow that only those who carry it themselves are able to detect. It is a mark that means he is blessed and cursed with the potential for enlightenment. 

The boy grows up within a home of solemn light–drenched peace and bliss. As he enters the world outside, however, he discovers the reality of evil, darkness, suffering and injustice. His youth is marked by a battle between these worlds, at once within the world of light and then again cast out into its darkness. He falls into the depths of despair only to ascend the heights of elation. But neither is a place of permanence. Something within him understands that neither is the truth, neither is enough. How could it be, for a person bearing the burden of awareness?

There is a reason the maxim ignorance is bliss is so widely accepted and prevailed. If enlightenment was simple, everyone would get there. The reason it is not is because to get there one must face the devil. One must face all that is wrong within the world. Including all that is wrong within oneself

And people don’t. Of course they don’t. Who wants to admit to their deepest flaws? It is so much simpler to live one’s life pretending all is perfect. We all like to think we would be the person hiding refugees up in our attics rather than inform upon our neighbours just to save ourselves. Truth is, most of us would do the work of the informer. Who wants to entertain that fact about themselves?

So we live our lives in deep denial. We deny our failures, we deny our insignificance and irresponsibilities and the fact that we are weak and faulty to our cores. We deny the shadow that harbours deep within our souls. But suppressing the shadow only makes it grow, and one day it will come back to haunt us.

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be” Carl Jung wrote in 1938. “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The only road to fulfilment is understanding one’s shadow and incorporating it within one’s life and being. Failure and you are no more than a ticking time bomb.

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Good and evil, the known and the unknown, darkness and light, chaos and order, yin and yang, left and right, progressive and conservative, whatever. These dualities exist and always will. The proper mode of being lies nowhere on the peripheries, ignoring and condemning whatever lurks hidden on the other side. The proper mode of being recognises both and successfully incorporates them, balancing on the fragile tension somewhere in–between. 

That is art. That is music. It is travel, love and friendship. It is all you stay alive for. 

This is not a new idea. It has existed for millennia. “Virtue…is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect” Aristotle wrote two thousand years ago, and it has been relevant ever since. But perhaps today, right now, with the political gap seemingly growing wider all over the world, it is useful to remind oneself of its importance.

The depths of the far right is no place we want to inhabit. We have seen its woes. We have read the books and seen the chambers and piles of mangled gauntly bodies. We are not going back. It is not a place in which we want to dwell. 

But neither is the deep far left. We have seen those chambers too. Its skeletons and body pits. Why do the fringes always culminate in death camps, anyway?

To understand the potential of both the evil and the beauty that exists within yourself you have to look within. You have to turn your gaze towards yourself by cultivating whatever makes you you. Whatever makes you an individual, apart from the masses and the hordes that make up ideological extremes. Only by doing this will you be able to truly serve the world in which you are so deeply intertwined. From within yourself. Yourself as as thinking, independent, individual being. 

“Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to follow the path that leads to himself” Hesse wrote. But it is of the utmost importance that you do. It is the only way to justify your existence as a member of this fragile realm. “I live in my dreams — that's what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not in their own. That's the difference.” That is the mark, the mark on the brow of the people awake enough to understand their own significance and duty. And by cultivating this understanding, you will be justified to serve the world.

Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again. That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfils the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of consideration.

fictions and contraptions

I finished Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being last night. It is a story about two women, two men, and a dog. It follows their lives as it plays out over time and geographies, reflecting on the nature of a post–war twentieth–century concept of being in the face of accident and chance. I loved it for its obsession with beauty and philosophical foundation yet something about it bothered me. I had been stuck on page 250 out of 300 for weeks, couldn’t get myself to finish it and couldn’t understand why. There was something to it that I just did not accept. I am still not sure I understand what it was, but in any case it made me think of this: fictions

Human beings create fictions. We live in a world of storytelling. The reason we are able to create grand narratives is the same reason we are able to uphold grand societies. Religion is a fiction. As are communism and country borders. But fictions do not only serve the grand and pompous. They also serve the individual. 

We create fictions about the people around us and ourselves because it grounds us and provides us meaning. Why am I acting in this manner? Because of the things that has happened to you, the inclinations that you have and the circumstances you find yourself in. In order to understand the self that inhabit your mind and body you engage in constant self–psychoanalysis. In doing this you create a story, and the story you create provide you answers and the answers give you comfort. Why? Because now you know. Inhabiting the unknown and the unknowable is uncomfortable. If you do not know where you are, you do no know how to act. And if you do not know how to act, you do not know what to do. 

So your fictions keep you safe. Granted. But how do you know that they are true?

Perhaps at one point they were. But perhaps today they have expired. You have reinvented yourself. You live and grow and experience and one day you find the fiction you have lived your life within no longer accommodate the person you’ve become. As a child you were afraid and apprehensive but now twenty years have passed and your soul has since evolved. Your hair is messier. Your nails a little dirty. Your sheets are bloodied, elbows scratched and heart a little torn and jagged. 

So what do you do?

You burn your past. The past that trapped you in a shape you were but no longer inhabit. The past of childhood friends and ageing relatives, the ones who only knew the blue–eyed girl from childhood. And you reinvent yourself. You write a brand new story. You contradict all that defined your former self and you leave it all behind. Your taste in music, the way you speak, the men whose eyes and hands you seek in love and combat and the way you make your bed.

Your new story isn’t frail and captive. The book you write today isn’t locked and hidden in disgrace. It is thick and fierce and maddening. It loves repose and refrain, French–born existentials and bleeding battered bruised black hands.

And? Now that you have burned it down, dug up the foundation and ground the pieces to a fine–grained dust. Are you free?

No. You aren’t free. You’re simply trapped within a newborn fiction. It may be grander and aflame but it is still a cage you forged yourself. It still fits neatly in someone’s narrow–minded brain and it still follows a path that’s predetermined.

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What you want is to escape. You want contradiction and complexity. Discomfort and irregularity. The truth is not a neat and fitted custom–made affair you made to soothe your need for order. The truth is messy, dirty, politically incorrect, counteractive and condescending. And you know what? That is why it’s beautiful. Frictions are what causes sparks. 

So tear your walls. Contradict the stories you tell yourself to feel safe and intact and content. Safety is no place for madness and creation. The known has never made a man surprised. By tearing down the house you built to keep you dry you are forced to enter unknown waters. That is where you find what’s interesting. That is where you want to be.

But you knew this. Right? This is why you love the new, the scary and the unattained. The jungles of the rough grand cities, the hypothetical and intricate and the anti–realism of limitless abstraction. The modernists figured this out. Their paintings of solid black squares are preposterous to some. What? This is nothing. True. It it nothing. But by virtue of being nothing, it is also everything. 

What you did in the past does not matter. Where you were born and whom your parents were, how much melanin your skin contains or the hormones flowing through your veins. None of that defines you. 

What defines you is today. What defines you are the actions you undertake right now. The words you speak and listen to and where you go and what you see and seek. Do what your mind tells you at this moment and do it fully, truly, without fear of consequence or repercussion. Sure, you may look back tomorrow and wonder what the damn went through your mind. That’s fine. It’s great, actually. It shows you you have grown.

That is it. That is what The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about. It is about a band of human beings trapped within their self–narrated stories of who they are and why they are that way. And because they are so rigid and determined and so sure this is the truth, the love they harbour for each other becomes not liberation but their deepest source of pain. Because they capture each other within their stories. Like animals within a cage.

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight”, Kundera writes. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy; happiness is the longing for repetition.” Yes, human life runs straight ahead, and it does so because we are aware that we will one day perish. “It means to know that one is food for worms“, as Becker so elegantly put it. But that does not mean one cannot be happy. Human beings long for repetition because in this way the fictions we create are reassured. To be happy one need simply disregard the need for affirmation. Accept the irrationality and contradictions. And find the beauty within them. 

“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” the man, surprised, asks the woman at the novel’s very end. In her eyes, her faults and flaws and weaknesses had ruined her lover’s life, forced him to abandon his life’s mission and surrender to a life of quietude. “Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. And it’s a terrific relief to realise you’re free, free of all missions.”

pastime heatwave sidetracks
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Stockholm in a heatwave. A muscle man of fearless gloom, bruised jarred naked skin. Battered fists and broken bones and a mind too young to hurt.
 

Distractions.

From what? Impending catastrophe? Cosmic isolation? I’m not sure. But sometimes melancholy hits me like a bag of bricks and in moments of monotony in particular. Leisure hours without a clear–cut goal to strive for. So I avoid it. And justify distraction with all I have. Perhaps some of it is good? After all you cannot live your life in a never–ending state of existential desperation. It is too serious. Too paralysing. And no damn fun.

But you are forgetting the importance of these moments. Without momentary spurs of existential angst you would never feel the sense of urgency that is actually making you head out and achieve. You need these moments in order to understand the importance of meaning. To get an insight into the depth of human nature. Beyond its neat shallow facade so preferred by the majority.

Possibly. Or it’s just an intellectualised form of masochism. And why are you talking to yourself in the third person anyway?

“People tend to think of their self as located somewhere behind their eyes”, someone said. Ever heard someone utter the phrase I can’t stand myself? That sentence alone implies two selves. Your true self and your thinking self. One internal, one external. One responds to stimulus from the inside out. The other from the outside in. You need the external one, you couldn’t survive in this world we built without it. But merely that would make you just a tool.

Perhaps life isn’t as much dualistic as it is surface and depth. Levels of interpretation. But the dualism exists too. In order to achieve depth you need the fine–tuned balance between two extremes. Call it order and chaos, the known and the unknown, whatever. And you circle and circle around your true self and at times you get closer. Then you lose your grip again.

And so it goes.

the freedom to irrationality

I spent an evening with a man I recently encountered. A notorious self–talker, but not entirely without good reason. He was born in a faraway slum to a drug–dealing father on the run from the police. He used to have brothers. He no longer does. As a youth he used to teach children. Now most of them are dead.

Thirty years later he made it to Europe, started a family and built himself a legacy. Whatever could be considered commonplace circumstances where he is from are anomalies to the core in this society. He knows. But he has never let that define his sense of self.

Look at me. Look at where I came from. If I could start out there and still be sitting here today, a million miles from the shacks and drugs and crime in that place, then anyone can do it. Anything else is sheer inexcusable nonsense.

So what does the free will debate have to say about that? Here’s the difference between practical and theoretical philosophy for you. This man has no university degree. He hasn’t read Hobbes or Hume or Harris yet perhaps he knows more than all of them combined. Intellectuals can argue all day long about the illusion that we hold authority over our decisions but in reality we all act as if we have free will. We celebrate the heroes who defy their unfortunate conditions and we shun the people who don’t pick themselves up by their broken ragged boots.

He chose self–mastery. We grant him that and we applaud him. But what of the argument that some people are born with a certain disposition towards persistence, willfulness and assertive problem solving?

Doesn’t matter. It’s all excuses. I did it. So why can’t they?

Go ahead, keep meandering off into your complex, winding thought experiments and high level abstractions. I don’t disapprove, those things are of the most interesting adventures that I know. But I cannot help but question. If a philosophy really is as far away from real experience and conviction as this one is, can it really be true? Or is that actually the very reason it must be true? If the answers to these questions were straightforward, would they really have haunted us for millennia?

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So perhaps that is the most straightforward answer one can give. We have no straightforward answer. This man has literally battled his way to the life he leads today. Blood and bruises and a broken neck are no exaggerations. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not staying here, he concluded. Why?

There comes a time when what you once so desperately wanted is no longer important. I am done. I have achieved it all. I want to go home.

I want to die in Rio.