I’ve been big on confessions lately. There’s much we can learn from one another by being honest, even if we give ourselves a certain poetic license with the form that honesty takes. So bear with me a moment.
I wrote a piece on modern mythology in May that talked about how I came to identify as an artist. I first started thinking about this because I asked UK-based artist Laurie Lipton a similar question in an interview, “Was there a sudden point when you realized ‘I’m an artist,’ or has that always been with you?,” and I realized I had never asked myself that question.
Being an artist seems like no big thing, but it takes a real psychological shock to stick with it.
“Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you got. Which means, of course, that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it’s no big deal. They are one and the same and cannot be avoided or denied. So when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it, I transcend all this meaningless gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission.” -Hubert Selby, Jr.
That sentiment rings true for me. At the same time, you don’t get on a path that requires such a commitment without having a psychological reason for following it. We have to be tricked or cajoled by fate. For him, it was ostensibly being laid up in a sanitarium for four years with tuberculosis. For me, an alcoholic Grandfather. Either analysis is actually specious. Our latent traits are like fuel for the fire of our lives. Do we really want to atomize and dissect ourselves into a series of anecdotes born from our personal history?
I certainly don’t. The truth is, “A” (for artist) isn’t the only scarlet letter I’ve sewn to my chest. Though I admit it selectively in public, close friends and lovers know that I also identify with another unfavorable term: philosopher.
If you didn’t shudder or laugh at that proclamation, I imagine you don’t have a pulse. I can’t blame you, but let me at least try to explain myself before you get out the pitchforks or tell me to cut my hair and get a real job. (I went bald at twenty-four, so genes beat us all to it.)
I want to talk openly about ideas, and about writing. I don’t know any way to do that but to confess my sin openly rather than have it leak out a little at a time.
Being a philosopher is an orientation. We hope such signifiers give a liminal glimpse at that most mysterious companion in life, ourselves. Whether or not that is the case, I know it comes off as pretentious to proclaim “I’m a philosopher.” Maybe it’s a little like pretending you’re a wizard or a silver dragon. Worse, a philosopher might be someone that is trying to put themselves on par with a bunch of illustrious, stuck up dead men. Not all of us can be Socrates, and if we have any sense of self preservation, it’s probably for the better.
“Indeed, the crowd has for a long time misjudged and mistaken the philosopher, whether for a scientific man and ideal scholar or for a religiously elevated, desensualized, desecularized enthusiast and sot of God. And if a man is praised today for living “wisely” or “as a philosopher,” it hardly means more than “prudently and apart.” Wisdom—seems to the rabble a kind or escape, a means and trick for getting well out of a wicked game. But the genuine philosopher—as it seems to us, my friends?—lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely,” above all imprudently, and feels the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life—he risks himself constantly, he plays the wicked game—” -Frederich Nietzsche
If we slander philosophy, maybe it shows a bias that has burrowed so deep into our culture that it’s gnawed right down to its brain-stem.
I imagine cultural bias is the real root of the anxiety that “philosophy” evokes. There’s no good reason why anyone would want to identify with such a thing in America in 2011. We have learned to only value what leads to the illusion of quick and easy profits, even if most of us are quickly going broke chasing that illusion with staggering debt and empty dreams.
I’d take a shot at explaining this cultural obsession, but I think it is such a vast topic that it could easily be the subject of a book. So, instead, I’ll pull a quote from an episode of The West Wing as I am prone to, without warning or clear cause, from time to time:
Toby: You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken… Do not – do not – do not act like it!
President Bartlet: I don’t want to be killed.
Toby: Then make this election about smart, and not… Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds.
The point is, it is not accepted in American popular culture to be an intellectual, let alone a philosopher.
So, let’s be clear. Maybe some of this objection that says “plain spoken” is somehow more “real” is justified. I don’t mean an intellectual need be a member of the intelligentsia. I don’t mean having obscure degrees or bullshit postures of righteousness because you are the leading Sanskrit scholar. The virtue of philosophy isn’t dependent on holding a popularly arcane belief, degree, or qualification.
Those are some of the true pretensions of academia. A philosopher is simply engaged with ideas. We should all be philosophers, in addition to whatever else we are — lovers of wisdom and skepticism, passionately exploring ourselves, willing to knock one idea against another until we come upon something interesting, or our eyes start to bleed and our hands turn to dust.
It is a sickness of the academy to use philosophical debate as a thin veil on top of the primate territorial bullshit that drives Hoi Polloi. I’ve often felt like the social dynamics seen in chimp groups is not at all unlike the posturing of inter-departmental groups in academia. There’s something refreshing about the directness of an ape that smashes his rival over the head with a firm length of wood. Professors do the same thing with the minutiae that lesser mortals couldn’t possibly comprehend.
When in doubt, we should not level blank ad hominem attack, but rather turn an idea around on its head and try it another way. A myth of cooperation that fosters dialog, rather than one of competition, fostering habitual unthinking? That isn’t widely accepted in our society, at least from what I can tell, and that’s a horrifying thing.
“Stupid” we can all fix simply by accepting the staggering weight of epistemological uncertainty, the gravity of what we don’t and simply cannot know. We’re all a bit stupid one way or another. (I was outsmarted by a two year old the other night.) Apathetically ignorant, on the other hand… nothing can be done about that.
Nothing can be done about a posture of superior cynicism either, embodied best by the legions of semi-illiterate culture police that wander the hallways of the Internet waving a big old bat of stupid at anyone with the audacity to produce creative work they don’t care for. These people want to knock everyone else down a peg, rather than work together to lift ourselves up. Nurturing conflict has always been the forge of creative communities.
I remember having my nose squashed on my face like a cherry tomato for reading too much when I was a child. I’m stubborn. It only made me want to read more. Some things never change, but I’ll never understand why being mentally engaged is received with such hostility, why the lowest common denominator is God of the modern proscenium.
Or maybe I do know, and I simply don’t want to accept it. We are easy to manipulate through common and base needs, and few of those have anything to do with philosophy. The truth is often depressing, and America is only sustained at this point by the delusions of endless profit and unlimited resources. It is a fictional Happiness machine. Whatever America once meant, philosophy is clearly anti-American today.
Reflecting on life is, quite plainly, the only philosophy that has any meaning after Wittgenstein so boldly declared he’d killed Western philosophy in one stroke. He used logic to demonstrate the limits of logic, and as a result, many have drawn the conclusion, as I have, that logic is not after all the central tool of the philosopher interested in existential questions. (I’ll talk about this in another essay.) Reflecting on life is also the task of the writer. So, abstract ideas and personal history both are the stuff of literature. When we talk about ideas, we are really talking about ourselves.
Literary authors and philosophers are both fugitives of pop culture.