Sport and the Sublime

Greg LouganisThe following piece originally appeared in the 25-27 January 2013 edition of Counterpuch. I am posting it here in honor of the 2014 Winter Olympics that have just gotten underway in Sochi, Russia.

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. That was before cable, so finding something interesting could be challenging. I was channel surfing one day when I happened on some diving. I didn’t know anything about diving. but even people who don’t know anything about it can appreciate the beauty of it. There was nothing better on, so I decided to watch for a bit.

One diver after another came on the screen and executed what seemed to be perfect dives. But then, suddenly, there was Greg Louganis. There’s a video of Louganis on YouTube that begins: “There are two categories of divers, those who perform with magnificent skill, grace, beauty, and courage–” there’s a pause and the narrator’s voice drops an octave, “then there is Greg Louganis.”

That pretty much sums it up. I was watching all these divers who seemed perfect, and then suddenly there was Greg Louganis. He wasn’t just perfect–he was sublime. I didn’t know anything about diving and yet watching Louganis gave me the feeling Emily Dickinson reportedly said one gets from good poetry–it made me cold to the bone. It gave me that shiver of the numinous that Rudolf Otto talks about in The Idea of the Holy.

That was a defining moment in my life. It was, I believe, when I first realized that there was more to reality than what appears on the surface of experience. Louganis executed the same beautiful movements as all the other divers, and yet there was something more in his movements than in everyone else’s. Something ineffable and yet so powerful; it hit the spectator with the force of a blow, like the shock of electricity. It seemed as if there were more energy in every fiber of his being, more vital life force. It was as if he were more real than the other divers, as if the other divers had been only moving images, whereas Louganis was a man in the flesh. Except that the other divers had been real. So Louganis seemed somehow to have more reality than the others.

*

I saw the same thing a few years ago in person. I’d just started taking figure skating lessons and used to go to competitions to cheer on a little boy whom my teacher was coaching. I stayed, once, to watch the next competition for slightly more advanced boys. One of the skaters caught my eye during the warmup. He was doing a very simple move, one I was trying, in fact, to learn myself at that time. It’s called “edges with three turns” and involves the skater making large arcs across the ice on alternating feet with a turn in the middle from forward to backward so that the tracings left on the ice look like a series of elongated number threes facing in opposite directions. It’s a simple looking move, yet it’s very difficult to perform well because, after the turn, the skater’s shoulders have a tendency to continue to pull him in the direction of the turn. If this motion is not checked, then it will be almost impossible for him to step forward again into the next arc. The shoulders and hips have to turn independently of each other, and the skater has to have a considerable degree of control over his upper body to keep the motion of the shoulders in check.

This boy, the one I was watching, can’t have been more than 14 years old, but he had the serene self possession of a dancer at the barre. His movements were slow, deliberate, and exquisite. I’d never seen anything like it. Not only did he have perfect form, he had perfect concentration. Other skaters raced past him, but he was so absorbed in what he was doing he seemed not to notice them. It was almost as if he were out there alone, as if the other skaters had been reduced to shadows. I could not take my eyes off him.

*

The idea that there are degrees of reality will seem strange to most people nowadays. It was a familiar one, however, to medieval and early-modern philosophers. For the medievals, things that were dependent on other things for their existence had less reality than did the things on which they were dependent. People, for example, had less reality than God. God had created people, hence people were dependent for their existence on God, whereas God’s existence was absolutely independent of anything else. God was the ultimately real thing, the thing with the greatest degree of reality, the thing that was more real than any other thing.

Kierkegaard also appears to have appropriated this idea of degrees of reality. Human beings, according to Kierkegaard, begin as ideas in the mind of God. The telos of an individual human life is therefore to bring the substance of that life into conformity with the form God conceived it should have. That’s what Kierkegaard means, I would argue, when he asserts that we must become who we are. We must become concretely who we are for God abstractly.

Most people, and that includes most athletes, don’t do that. Rather than striving to instantiate the ideal of their uniqueness, they constantly compare themselves to other people and try, in effect, to be better at being those people than those people are themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. Competition can push athletes to higher levels of performance than they might otherwise achieve. What has not been adequately articulated, however, is precisely how this works. Competition improves performances, I would argue, only when athletes strive to instantiate a transcendent ideal that no particular performance can ever adequately instantiate. An athlete who strives in this way to instantiate an ideal provides a glimpse into the essence of that ideal that can spur on others in their own pursuit of it.

That’s a very different sort of phenomenon, however, from that of one athlete effectively copying another in the belief that he can do what the other has done better than the other did it himself. That kind of competition is inherently frustrating for the athlete in that he is trying to be something he’s not, and boring for the spectator in that he’s being subjected to what are effectively a bunch of imitations. When athletes strive only to win, rather than to be the best that they can be in their chosen sport, the reality of all the participants in a competition is diminished. Each becomes merely a copy of the others, and the ideal, which in a sense is more real than is any particular attempt to instantiate it, is lost sight of.

 

The idea that there are degrees of reality provides us a way to explain something that is otherwise inexplicable–greatness. Philosophers distinguish between quantitative and qualitative differences. A thing can be more or less blue, for example, in a quantitative sense. To be red, on the other hand, is to be something else entirely. Red is qualitatively different from blue.

A performance that is great is not distinguished from other performances in a merely quantitative sense. There’s something more to it that sets it apart. Greatness is qualitatively different from skill, even the most highly refined skill. It’s possible to execute a movement in a manner that many would judge to be technically perfect, and yet to be uninspiring. Conversely, it’s possible to deviate from universally accepted standards of performance and yet move an audience more profoundly than someone who is merely a consummate technician.

Part of this has to do with passion, but it is not reducible to passion. Passion is necessary for greatness, but it’s not sufficient. Passion is a natural attribute. Some people have more, others have less, just as some people have more or less patience than other people. Greatness, on the other hand, is not a natural attribute. A great artist, as every great athlete is, has to be passionate, and yet he also has to be more than that. He has to have a gift. That’s why greatness is edifying. It bursts the confines of the temporal-phenomenal world, provides us with a glimpse of something that is transcendent. There’s a spark of divinity to it.

That’s why the sport/art dichotomy is false. All great athletes are artists. They give us glimpses of the sublime by bringing into their performances something more in a qualitative rather than a quantitative sense. That’s why it’s wrong for athletes to strive merely to win. It’s not simply that striving to win, as Aristotle pointed out, is misguided in that winning is something over which one has no direct control. To strive to win is to aim for the quantitative rather than the qualitative, and that is inherently limiting. Athletes who strive to be the best they can be at their chosen sport rather than simply to win this or that contest are pursuing something transcendent. That’s ennobling, both for the athlete and the spectator.

Why then is winning so important? Because it is more obviously valued than is being sublime. It takes less energy, less effort, less engagement on the part of the spectator to be caught up in a contest than to be caught up in a performance. We can follow a contest with only half, or even less, of our attention. To follow a performance, on the other hand, is energy intensive. Human beings, like every other living creature, like to conserve energy. Contests are a way of doing that. We are told who the winner is rather than having to determine that for ourselves. To follow a performance, in contrast, requires us to be fully present in the moment, to bring all our capacities of attention and discrimination to the fore.

When we do that, when we truly follow the performances of athletes, we sometimes find that the superb performance is not always the one that wins. There are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes reputations of athletes unduly influence scores. Other times the scoring systems themselves are simply too arbitrary and opaque to ensure that the best performance wins. Finally, scores are sometimes manipulated to ensure that particular athletes win, independently of how well they perform.

All of these reasons are traceable back, however, to a suspicion of the ineffable. It’s ultimately impossible to articulate what makes a performance great, and not everyone is an equally good judge of greatness. So in the service of fairness, we attempt to construct a set of objective criteria for evaluating performances, and the performance that best satisfies these criteria is the one we call “the winner.”

 

*

The name of the skater I saw a few years ago is Alexander Aiken. I tried to follow his career for a while. If there were a competition in the area I would go in the hope of seeing him, and I would look for news of his results in Skating magazine, the official publication of U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport. I eventually lost track of him, however, as my interest in the sport waned. The new judging system has imposed a level of conformity that is increasingly making skating boring to watch, and the perennial problem of inequities in the judging too often make the results of competitions an offense to the fair minded.

I quit following competitive skating. I continued to skate myself, though,  because it is the only real exercise I get. When I arrived in Jacksonville, where my husband teaches and where I spend half the year when I am not teaching in Philadelphia, I was surprised to find that a very advanced skater had recently begun to train there. I noticed him as I entered the rink and stopped to watch him for a few minutes. Something about him looked familiar. And then I realized who it was; it was Alexander Aiken. He was older, of course, than he had been the last time I’d seen him, but his looks had otherwise not changed much. I think it was less his face, though, than his skating that caused the shock of recognition to run through me. His skating is distinctively beautiful.

I could hardly believe the coincidence of his showing up to train in Jacksonville. I’d first seen him in Philadelphia and had learned then that he was from Atlanta. What, I wondered, was he doing in Jacksonville? I went over and introduced myself when he finally got off the ice. I told him how I’d seen him years ago and had been impressed with his skating. He smiled and thanked me politely and continued unlacing his skates. I learned later, from his girlfriend Michelle Pennington, who is a former competitive ice dancer and one of the instructors at the rink, that he’d moved to Jacksonville to live with a sister whose husband was in the military and was stationed there.

We skated together, Aiken and I, the sublime and the ridiculous, through the end of the summer and into the early fall. It was wonderful. Most of the time, we were the only two people on the ice. I was concerned that my presence might interfere with his training, but it was wonderful to be able to observe a great athlete so closely, and he went out of his way to make me feel welcome. Aiken brought a better face to the sport than the one I had seen of late and that helped bring back the joy I had earlier taken in it.

I was excited to have someone to cheer on again in competitions. Aiken was going places. He’s not just supremely graceful; he has enormous athletic ability. He’s able to land triple axels solidly and consistently, the jump widely considered to be the most difficult in the whole sport.  He won the bronze medal at the 2011 national figure skating championships in the Junior Men’s division and had competed at the Senior level for the first time last year. He hadn’t placed terribly well, but that’s how the sport works. Skaters are rarely allowed to place well their first year in “seniors.”

 

The nationals are this week in Omaha. The senior men compete on Friday and Saturday. You won’t see Aiken there though. He’s been plagued over the last few years, as so many skaters are, by the astronomically high costs of training. The stress of that has taken its toll on him. He narrowly missed qualifying for nationals and decided he’d had enough. He’s quit skating, or at least quit competing. He said he can no longer afford the $50,000 he’d had to pay every year to train. He’d gotten some help, of course––most skaters at his level do––just not enough.

It’s hard for me to say, finally, which spectacle is more ennobling: the sublime performance that wins the contest, hence reinforcing our faith in providence, or the one that doesn’t. I think sometimes that it’s the latter. The celebrity of the winner makes him a kind of public figure, someone who belongs, in a sense, to the masses, whereas the triumph of the athlete who achieved greatness but did not win is a more private thing, something that belongs only to himself and that select group of spectators whose intensity of attention has initiated them into the realm of the transcendent.

No skater I’ve ever seen in person has made such a strong impression on me as Alexander Aiken has. He’s a sublime skater, a great athlete, a great man. This piece is for him.

(This article has been excerpted from Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport. I’m indebted to Michelle Pennington for her help with it.)

The Great Conflict

Portrait caricatureDenmark experienced one of the most difficult periods in its recent history in the spring of 1998.  This was time of the paralyzing general strike that was known as “The Great Conflict.” The normally placid Danes were driven to unprecedented extremes in their efforts to survive what was a protracted period of privation. I lived in Denmark during that time and kept a journal throughout the strike. I do not pretend that my account of the events of this period is comprehensive or objective. I simply recorded the influence of the strike on my life and the lives of those around me, in the tradition of such distinguished diarists as Samuely Pepys and Elizabeth Smith, with the intention of preserving a record of this period for posterity.

Day 1 (Monday, 27 April)

The hysteria over “The Great Conflict,” as it is being called, started the weekend before the strike itself. Paul was dressed earlier than usual Saturday morning. When I asked him where he was going, he said he had to stock up on milk and other basic foodstuffs before the big strike began on Monday. That was actually the first I’d heard of the strike. We don’t have a TV, so I’m sometimes behind on the news. There’d been talk of a general strike about a month ago, but then nothing happened, so I figured they’d come to some sort of agreement.

“They” are LO, which stands for Landsorginasationen and which translates into English as the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions, and Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, or the Confederation of Danish Employers. One out of every ten Danes is a member of LO. They are striking for, among other things, a sixth week of paid vacation. I don’t know why they didn’t strike last month when they were supposed to, but now it appears they are serious and people have been hoarding, or “hamstering” as the Danes call it, since the weekend. Milk is the main thing people have been buying, milk and dairy products generally. (I don’t know why they are going for dairy products particularly, except that this is Denmark where life without dairy products is inconceivable.) The papers said on Monday, however, that the dairy drivers were not affected by the strike and now everyone is stuck with 15 liters of milk in their refrigerators.

People are buying other stuff too. There is no more yeast anywhere in the entire country. Yeast! I can’t imagine why people are buying yeast unless they are afraid the strike will last so long they won’t be able to get bread. But then why aren’t they buying flour?

The strike hasn’t affected us much yet. We have enough milk to last a couple of weeks and lots of lunch meat and dinner stuff. The stores in our neighborhood did run out of toilet paper, so Paul bought paper towels instead. We aren’t out of toilet paper yet though, so I don’t know why he bought the paper towels unless it was because he was afraid even they might be gone by the time we needed toilet paper.

Day 2 (Tuesday, 28 April)

I forgot to mention that I got into an argument with someone at work over whether it was reasonable to demand six weeks of paid vacation. I hadn’t actually said it was unreasonable. I’d just said it was hard for an American to understand how a sixth week of vacation could be so important. This observation was met with such hostility from my Danish colleagues, however, that I felt I might as well have suggested the reinstatement of child labor.

Today was pretty uneventful, except that I noticed a sign on the front door of our apartment asking us to do something in particular with our trash since it wouldn’t be collected during “The Great Conflict.” I think we were supposed to sort it or something, but we do that already, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the sign. I’ll have to go back down later and take another look at it.

I got a letter from my union (Ph.D.s have a union in Denmark) informing me that although they were not directly involved in the strike, I shouldn’t do any scab work or cross any picket lines. They did say, however, that I could call the police if the entrance to my own workplace were blockaded.

Day 3 (Wednesday, 29 April)

Well, it seems the wave of “hamstering” is continuing. The paper went out and interviewed a bunch of theologians (yes, theologians, Denmark still has a state church) on why people were hamstering. When I heard that, I figured we’d get some long editorials about hamstering being an expression of sin and all that. Sin is actually a bit extreme, however, for the Danish Lutheran Church. They wouldn’t come right out and say it had anything to do with sin. They just said it wasn’t very nice, that people shouldn’t do it and that Kierkegaard wouldn’t like it.

I dragged Paul to our “Nationalism” class tonight, but our teacher never showed up. Some of the trains and buses are running on a reduced schedule because they are afraid the strike will eventually cause gas shortages, so I figured she might have been held up. I mentioned this to the unruly mob that was the other five people in the class, but they responded that she lived right downtown and that the bus schedule should not thus affect her. They left after fifteen minutes, but Paul and I stayed an extra five minutes just to make sure.

She never came, so we went to Illum, the department store, to look for a birthday present for me, and then tried to go over to McDonalds. McDonalds was open, but the door to the walkway between Illum and McDonald’s was locked. There was a sign on it that said “Locked because of The Great Conflict.” I didn’t quite understand that, but anyway, we just went outside and around the corner to get into McDonalds.

I got a letter from the university informing me that classes would continue as usual during The Great Conflict, but that they would be in touch in there were any new developments.

Paul said there was someone in the store on Monday with 36 liters of UHT milk in his cart. Some other guy apparently got irritated with him and suggested he should leave some milk for everyone else. That must be an example of the “hysterical frenzy” the newspapers have been saying the television news has whipped everyone into.

Day 4 (Thursday, 30 April)

The animal rights people are demanding dispensations for the people who drive the feed out to farm animals so none of them will go hungry. It looks like dispensations will also be handed out to lots of other groups such as zoo workers, ambulance drivers, employees in the pharmaceutical industry, truck drivers (how else will the drugs get to the pharmacies?) and lots of other groups that I can’t remember now.

Day 5 (Friday, 1 May)

We still have plenty of milk and Paul even found some toilet paper.  I heard on the radio today that some of the strikers were actually making more money striking than they would make if they were working because strike pay is not taxed. Someone from LO was being interviewed about this and was asked whether this might not encourage the union to draw out the negotiations unnecessarily. Oh no, of course not, was the reply of the union representative, although his wording was a little less straightforward.

Day 6 (Saturday, 2 May)

The strike apparently had no effect on the annual May Day festivities in Fælledparken (The Communal Park). The brewery truck drivers, the papers explained, were not involved in the strike.

There was an article in the paper today about church functionaries (i.e., organists and people who sing in the choir). “Church Functionaries have Wretched Working Conditions!” was the headline. It seems these people, who work only on Sundays and religious holidays, receive what Danes consider meager wages (though they are, of course, well above minimum wage in the US) and now it looks like they may lose their paid vacations. “No wonder,” read the article, “it is becoming so difficult to find organists and choral singers. Who would want to work under those conditions!”

Day 7 (Sunday, 3 May)

A guy wrote in to the paper that they had run out of coffee where he worked and that now everyone was having to drink tea. That’s rough for the Danes, who drink more coffee than everyone else in the world except the Dutch. Of course he didn’t say that he’d run out of coffee at home.

Day 8 (Monday, 4 May)

Not much happened yesterday except that we didn’t get our Sunday paper, which is a drag. I couldn’t get my regular bread from the bakery either. I got some kind of cornbread instead. It’s not cornbread like we make it in the U.S., but regular bread with cornmeal in it. It was quite good though.

We had to cancel our reading group meeting because Jette said Ole was saving gas for visits to patients (doctors still make house calls here). That was just as well because I had a lot of work to do.

Paul said the stores were nearly cleaned out except for milk. He said Netto had just gotten a shipment of milk, but that there was no one in the store to buy it. I haven’t been in a grocery store yet, so everything seems pretty normal to me.

I heard from my students today that the night buses were gone. We were discussing the field trip I’d planned for next week, when one of them pointed out that the buses might not be running by that time. That was when it came out that they’d already stopped the night buses. Everyone in class seemed to know this. The loss of the night buses must be cutting seriously into their drinking and carousing.

I don’t think the strike will go into next week. Of course I could be wrong. I passed a couple of strikers set up at Rådhuspladsen (The Court House Square) on my way to the German book import store. They were sitting in chairs in front of one of the shops with a big sign that said “6 Ugers Ferie!” (Six Weeks of Vacation!).

The mail came early today. It usually comes around 1:00, but today it was here before 10:00.  It was as if the normally lackadaisical postal workers (who were themselves out on strike last month) were trying to make amends for the behavior of LO.

Day 9 (Tuesday, 5 May)

I went to the post office today to pay some bills. (There is a bank that operates out of post offices here, as in many other European countries.) There was a sign there on the little machine that spits out the numbers you take to determine the order in which you will be served. I copied it verbatim. It read:

To Our Customers:

We would like to make our customers aware that as a result of the Great Conflict, we are unable to guarantee that the payment of bills will be recorded by the recipient according to the standard schedule

There may, among many other things, be a problem if all our computers, or the computers of the recipients, break down and we are unable to call anyone to repair them.

We hope our customers will excuse the inconveniences that may possibly result from the Great Conflict.

Sincerely,

BG Bank

Day 10 (Wednesday, 6 May)

The government stepped in and forced a settlement. They said the strike was beginning to affect the economy (too horrible to contemplate).

We never did run out of toilet paper, so we still have all those paper towels Paul bought. It’s kind of nice, actually, to have paper towels. We don’t normally buy them. I hope I don’t become addicted to them.

Postscript

I read in the paper some baker had calculated there was enough yeast now in Danish households to bake a loaf of bread that would reach from Copenhagen to the Black Sea and back again.

The “Housewife Hotline” in Glostrup has been besieged by callers who want to know whether it is possible to freeze yeast. Gerda Rieber, from the hotline, says you can freeze it, but that it should be thawed in the refrigerator and preferably in a cup because it will have a tendency to become runny.

We were finally able to get together with Ole and Jette a couple of days ago. We had hoarded so much half and half we thought we would bring them some along with our usual hostess gift. A “hamster gift” we decided to call it. I envision them becoming all the rage. Imagine handing your hosts a package of frozen yeast along with the traditional flowers or bottle of wine!

Paul said he heard on the radio this morning that Danish priests (who, remember, are state functionaries) are complaining about having to work on Sundays. It seems it cuts into their quality time with their families.

Hedonic Adaptation

Paintings over table in PhillyMy reflections here were prompted by an article in today’s New York Times entitled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The article, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is about how the euphoria associated with the first phase of romantic relationships tends to wear off relatively quickly. I’d initially planned to write a piece on relationships, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the problem Lyubomirsky describes isn’t restricted to relationships. Lyubomirsky charges that romantic relationships are subject to the same dynamic of what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” as are other thrilling experiences. That is, euphoria, she observes, tends to be short lived, whether it is associated with “a new job, a new home, a new coat,” or a new love.

The first thing that annoyed me about the article was its purely speculative character, or more correctly, the fact that it was mere speculation paraded in front of the reader as scientific fact. “[A]lthough we may not realize it,” asserts Lyubomirsky, “we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.” Says who? Where is the scientific evidence to support such a claim? We like variety in some things, to be sure, but we like uniformity in others. We appear, in fact, to crave uniformity at least as much as we crave variety. We need, for example, to be able to assume that the future will resemble the past in crucial respects if we are going to be able to function at all and are notorious for being unable to appreciate variety when the variety in question would tend to discredit the worldview to which we have become comfortably wedded.

My point is not that Lyubomirsky is mistaken, or that she has no right to indulge in such speculations. My point is that they are speculations and should not be presented as if they were facts. One reader, Joseph Badler, made the point beautifully. “The ‘we are biologically hardwired’” he wrote, “is just too cheap. It can be used to justify anything. Evo psych post-hoc explanations are making everybody intellectually lazy.”

“Evo psych” refers to evolutionary psychology, which, if you ask me, is a completely bogus discipline that purports to provide evolutionary explanations for traits of human psychology. Why do people appear to crave variety in their sexual partners? Well, the evolutionary psychologist responds (and here I am paraphrasing Lyubomirsky) , because it guarantees a more robust gene pool. That makes sense, of course, but so does the observation that infidelity can be corrosive of social bonds and that promiscuity could thus threaten both the immediate family and the long-term survival of the entire community.

So which is it? Are people hard-wired to crave variety to ensure a more robust gene pool, or are they hard-wired to crave uniformity to be better able to survive to the age of reproduction? Or could they be hard-wired, as seems the most likely, to crave both things relative to particular environments and situations? But if this is the case, then evolutionary “explanations” for psychological traits are obviously speculative because of the seemingly limitless variables one would have to take into account when calculating in what sense natural selection might lie behind a particular psychological tendency.

The situation of the evolutionary psychologist becomes almost unmanageably complex even if we assume that all human beings exhibit the same psychological tendencies. Once we acknowledge that all human beings do not exhibit the same psychological tendencies, then evolutionary psychology, becomes, I would argue, a mere parody of an academic discipline. That is, I’d go further even than Badler. I don’t think it’s simply making people intellectually lazy. I think it’s making them stupid. That it continues to be respected as an academic discipline suggests that the academy is egalitarian to a fault in that even the criterion that one ought to be able to think clearly in order to be admitted to it appears to have been judged unfairly discriminatory.

A number of readers took exception to the comparison of a new love with new material possessions such as a “home” or “coat.” (I almost always enjoy reading the comments readers post to articles such as this one. They confirm my faith that the average person is neither so simple minded nor so superficial as the authors of the articles appear to assume). “Didn’t know love was material,” observes Anna from Ontario wryly.

It’s true that our relationships with people are importantly different from our relationships with things. They may not be so different, though, as some of the opponents of Lyubomirsky’s apparent materialism assume. Another reader points out that Lyubomirsky and those who agree with her “do not consider how the disposable and planned obsolescent qualities of consumer capitalism also ‘program’ us to always desire the new.”

I wouldn’t put all the fault, though, on consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism, after all, is an expression of something in human nature. Unfortunately, it is the expression, I would argue, of one of the less appealing tendencies in human nature–impatience.

The thrill of the new is something with respect to which we are largely, if not entirely, passive. It wears off though. To continue to be thrilled by the same thing requires diligent effort. The problem with consumer capitalism is that what it parades for our approval is primarily the cheap and tawdry, things that glitter but which are not gold. Such things thrill us before we are fully aware of what they are. Once we learn what they are, they cease to thrill because there is nothing inherently thrilling about them.

Of course even things that are inherently valuable and which thus ought to be inherently thrilling are subject to the same dialectic. We are thrilled with the initial acquisition of them, but that thrill eventually wears off, or at least quiets down. It doesn’t take a great deal of intellectual effort, however, to appreciate that the thrill that dies down in this way is the thrill of acquisition rather than of possession. We are thrilled to have acquired a thing, but then we get used to having it. If it is truly something worth having, though, and we are capable of appreciating it as such, then the initial euphoria of acquisition should be replaced by the more enduring thrill of possession, or more correctly, of appreciation. The problem is, such appreciation requires effort. It requires that we look at the thing again, look at it long and carefully, that we actively search for what is good and valuable in it, rather than simply surrender ourselves to a passive thrill.

Years ago, when I first became engaged, my sister caught me admiring my engagement ring. “You’ll stop doing that after a while,” she said. I found that remark disturbing. I didn’t want to cease to see my ring as beautiful any more than I wanted to cease to love the man who had given it to me. It will happen to you though, her words suggested, independently of what you want. It will happen to you. Kierkegaard talks about that dynamic in the first volume of his two-volume work Either-Or. Everything disappoints, he, or at least one of his pseudonyms, says there.

But does everything have to disappoint? I have never ceased to see my engagement ring as beautiful, just as I have never ceased to love the man who gave it to me. I’m a very materialistic person, in a way. I have lots of things, lots of nice things in which I take enormous pleasure that does not diminish with time. I collect paintings and fountain pens and antiques of various sorts, and each one of these possessions adds immeasurably to the quality of my life.

I love to sit at my table in the morning and sip my coffee (I love coffee!) and look at the two paintings I’ve hung on the wall on the far side of the table. One is a landscape I found in an antique store and the other is a still life I did myself. They are not great masterpieces, but they are very nice and I derive enormous pleasure from looking at them. I look at them in the morning when I am having my coffee and in the evening when I am having dinner. I often work at that table in the afternoon and I’ll glance admiringly up at them periodically even then.

I don’t know what it is exactly that I like so much about them. Each is rough, and yet each is the product of some person’s vision. I like people. They are endlessly fascinating to me. I love handiwork because you can see the humanity in it. I like things because I like creation. I value it as something beautiful and moving. One reader of Lyubomirsky’s article observed that the reason her marriage had been happy until her husband’s death was that they had “had God.” Another reader pointed out, however, that that approach to keeping love alive won’t work for everyone because not everyone is religious. He (she?) went on to point out, however, that “looking beyond oneself and working toward the greater good (of one’s spouse, family, community, world) may be an essential element in the pursuit of lifelong happiness.” I’d agree with that. I’d argue, however, that unless you think that creation, or the universe, or whatever, is good, then even the “greater good” of one’s spouse, family, community, and even the world, will ultimately fall flat.

The challenge, I’d argue, to achieving an enduring happiness is that we’ve programmed ourselves, in a sense, to believe that happiness is inherently fleeting. That the thrill of acquisition is the only thrill there is. Whether that is the fault of consumer capitalism alone or whether it is an expression of something inherent in human nature, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.

Journaling the Body

People my age are puzzled, even exasperated by tattoos. Every time my husband sees a young person with a tattoo, he remarks on how it is going to make it difficult for that person to get a job. “Law firms won’t hire you,” he observes (he’s a lawyer). Of course law firms aren’t hiring anyone now anyway, even J.D.s right out of Harvard. Maybe that’s it, I’ve thought, these kids know they aren’t going to get jobs, so their tattoos are sort of nihilistic statements, the fashion of a generation with no future, or of a generation that wants emphatically to reject the future we’d envisioned for them, the future earlier generations had more or less uncritically pursued.

Even so, the time may come when they will feel differently. Don’t these young people realize, we think, that one day they may decide they no longer want their bodies decorated in this way? And then where will they be? They’ll have to pay a lot of money and undergo a painful operation to get the thing, or things, removed and even then traces of it will probably still be visible. Tastes change. Getting a tattoo seems to me analogous to having this year’s fashions super-glued to your body–i.e., incredibly short sighted. I mean, who wants to carry around with them effectively forever a reminder of how they felt, or what they liked, at a very specific point in time? Who wants to carry around with them always an indelible reminder of their past?

This morning I was flipping through an issue of Philosophy Now and happened on a photo of Robert DeNiro as the tattooed Max Cady from Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Max had a tattoo on his chest of a broken heart with the name “Loretta” above it. See, that’s when I mean, I thought to myself, he’s probably had several girlfriends since this “Loretta” (I’ll confess to not having seen Cape Fear, so I may be wrong about that, still, the point is valid with respect to the average tattoo involving a lover’s name). And then it hit me: maybe that was part of the reason people had the names of lovers indelibly inscribed on their bodies–i.e., so as not to forget them in what would more than likely be the subsequent long parade of paramours. Perhaps, it occurred to me suddenly, people get tattooed because they want to remember, perhaps tattoos are desperate attempts to hang onto memory in this age of amnesia when people are constantly recreating or reinventing themselves, this age when nothing seems permanent. Wasn’t that, after all, the rationale behind the penchant of the mnemonically challenged protagonist of Memento for writing all over himself? He wrote things on himself so he would remember them. He made the things he needed to remember a part of himself. Of course it did him little good because he could not later remember what they meant.

That, it seems to me, is one of the universal human challenges–to recover the meaning of the past. This, I believe, is at least part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard meant when he referred to the problem of “repetition” and what Irenaeus, one of the earliest of the early church fathers, meant by “recapitulation.” If the past has no meaning, then neither do the present or the future. This desire to preserve, and hence to be able later to recover, the meaning of the past is why people keep journals and really, I would argue, why they write at all. I have kept a journal for years, ever since I was a child actually. I’ll go through long periods where I don’t write in it, but I always come back to it. I’ve spent very little time theorizing about it. Often, when I’m writing I wonder why I’m writing. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes I’m recording observations or insights I think are important and that I may want to use later in some more formal piece of writing. Often though, I’m simply recording short term desires or frustrations, things I know will probably mean very little to me later and even less to anyone who might happen to read them after I’m dead.

I’ve gone back, actually, and read journal entries from high school and college that I can make no sense of now. They refer to events or people that appear to have been completely obliterated from my memory. I wonder sometimes whether they will one day make sense to me again, whether those memories will return. I don’t know, of course, but I keep writing those types of entries anyway. I think people keep journals, among other reasons, in attempts to better understand themselves, yet some of these old entries make me only more mysterious to myself. That is perhaps an important thing to remember though. It’s important, I think, for people to remember that there is something mysterious about creation and about human individuals in particular. Journaling, in whatever form, is paradoxically a way of keeping that mystery before us through a continuous effort to make it less mysterious.

The Life of the Mind

I wonder sometimes what it means to “live in the present.” This issue came up recently in my epistemology class when we were discussing Robert Audi’s book Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Routledge, 2010). Audi mentions briefly the possibility of knowledge of the future. I know for example, he says, “that I am going to continue thinking about knowledge for a long time.” Does he know that though, I asked my students? I could say the same thing about myself, based on my past and what I know of my character and intellectual predilections. But do I know it? I’ve been told that I live too much in my head, too much in the world of ideas, that I deny too much of my humanity, that I have developed a lopsided life by placing too much emphasis on thought. I’m not sure whether the people who make such charges are correct, I continued, because I enjoy living, so to speak, in my thoughts. I do not see it as a problem in the way some people do. But perhaps, I continued, perhaps one day I’ll change my mind and chuck my life as a professional philosopher, my life of thought, and go off and do art or something and live completely in the present.

But then one of my students asked whether I wasn’t already living in the present, meaning, I take it, to suggest that intellectual pleasures were as much a part of the present as sensual or emotional ones. That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never considered that perspective, steeped as I was in the philosophical tradition going back to Plato that sees thought as a kind of flight from concrete reality.

Socrates famously describes philosophy in The Phaedo as preparation for death. The body, he points out, and its needs are a constant distraction, an irritation to the philosopher who would prefer to be rid of them. The senses deceive, and attending to physical needs takes time away from contemplation of the eternal, unchanging truth. Kierkegaard talks about thought as a kind of withdrawal from concrete reality into the realm of abstraction. Concrete reality, after all, is a plethora of particulars, whereas thought, he asserts, deals always with universals.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this perspective. Yet there is also a sense in which reflection is ineluctably part of the present. This, I take it, is what lies behind the debate concerning whether it is actually possible to live as the Pyrrhonist skeptics advocate one should. That is, the debate concerns whether it is possible to live without beliefs, which is the same thing, really, as asking whether it is possible to live without reflecting on experience. Maybe that is possible for animals. It does not appear possible, however, for human beings. We cannot help but reflect on our experience and how we reflect on our experience is an important constituent of that experience. The skeptics were right about that. Thinking, for example, that an experience is bad, while it may not actually make the experience bad, will more than likely make it worse than if one could refrain from such reflections.

There is another side to that coin though. Human beings are thinking creatures. They like thinking. Audi talks about that as well. Yes, knowledge has practical value. But that isn’t the only reason we pursue it. We pursue it, Audi points out, because it is intrinsically valuable. We like knowing things; we like understanding things.  Knowledge and understanding are necessary for a fully satisfying human life, even for the least intellectual among us. That is part of the purpose of education. This point is, I believe, what is missing in Louis Menand’s recent piece about higher education in The New Yorker, “Live and Learn” (June 6, 2011). Menand lists there two different theories of the purpose of higher education. The first is an intellectually elitist one in which the purpose is to sort out the best and the brightest so that they may be funneled into occupations that will further what can be broadly viewed as the progress of society. The second is a democratic one in which the purpose is to solidify social bonds by “producing a society of like-minded grownups.” Neither theory says anything about the potential of a higher education to enhance the quality of a person’s life. Yet this, I would argue, is not only one of the purposes of education recognized by the Enlightenment, but the single most important purpose. Who cares how “advanced” or how “democratic” a society is if the people who make it up are unhappy?

Human beings are thinking creatures. They have an inherent need to reflect on their experiences, to make some kind of sense of them. They can live in the moment, as people say, for only so long without wanting something more lasting, more substantial, something that will connect all the disparate temporal pieces of their lives together into some sort of meaningful whole, something that will give an overarching meaning not merely to an individual life, but to a larger whole of which an individual life is only a part. And, of course, there are better and worse ways of doing this. We don’t want any old overarching account of the meaning of life. We want a coherent one. We want one that makes sense of our experience. We want one that will survive the tests of new experiences; one that will withstand scrutiny and the production of such an account requires a great deal of reflection, rigorous analysis, and even imagination. We may never actually finish the project of producing such an account, but the activity of its production, no matter how large or how small a portion of our waking life it consumes (and it will consume greater or lesser amounts of people’s lives depending on how reflective they are by nature), is crucial to a satisfying human life.

When I was a child and would sometimes complain to my mother that I was bored, she would respond derisively that I must not have much imagination. I don’t remember whether she elaborated on that, but whether she stated it explicitly, or whether I simply inferred it, I was given to understand that imagination was a very desirable thing and that people whose complaints of boredom betrayed that they had less than the ideal quantity of it were to be pitied as pathetic creatures hardly elevated above brutes. Nowadays parents will spare no expense in their efforts to provide their children with stimulating toys. My parents, in contrast, maintained that a child with a respectable degree of imagination could amuse itself with almost anything and, in fact, my sisters and I were very adept at inventing imaginary worlds. I created whole villages of tall grasses with populations of tiny broken sticks in the vacant lot at the end of our street. Knives and spoons and forks were men and women and youths and plates small skating rinks where my ménages à trois played out their sometimes ill-fated scenarios. I could make everything around me grander and more interesting in my imagination than it was in real life, even while I maintained a keen interest in empirical reality.

The problem with empirical, or perhaps it would be more correct to say concrete reality, as I learned very early, is not actually so much that it is tedious as that it is independent of the will. Not only does it very often not behave as we would wish; it also sometimes seems positively malevolent. Things often do not turn out as we hope, so we are forced continually to dig new channels into which to redirect our desires. This work, over time, can be exhausting. How much easier it is, in a way, simply to withdraw one’s hopes from concrete reality and into the realm of thought.

Thought never disappoints. The more faithful you are to it, the more faithful it is to you. The more time you devote to it, the more it rewards you. It is unfailing that way. Thought is not like the capricious lover, happy one day, impossible to please the next. Thought is patient and always responsive to the one who attends to it. It always waits for you and always receives you warmly on your return. And it is full of friends: Plato and Aristotle, Epictetus and Kant, all wait there like Aspasia, ready to engage, to challenge, to stimulate. Nothing brings me more joy than these timeless companions, these companions who stretch back through the centuries, through the millennia, connecting me with the larger whole of humanity. We understand one another, we look at life in the same way–as food for thought.

Some people say I am irresponsible when I encourage my students to consider doing graduate work in philosophy. There are no jobs now for philosophers. There are no jobs now for anyone though. The unemployed philosopher at least has the consolation of philosophy, of thought; what consolation is there for the unemployed accountant or public relations executive? Jobs come and jobs go, and so do relationships. Another of my students lamented recently that his relationship might keep him out of graduate school because of the reluctance of his partner to relocate. I stared at him uncomprehendingly as he attempted to explain this. I left everything and everyone behind, several times, in my pursuit of my profession–and I would do it again.

People say relationships are the most important thing in life. It’s not that I disagree with this, it’s just that I think relationships cannot be pursued directly. They are things, I believe, that happen during the course of the pursuit of one’s vocation. Just as growth happens without one aiming for it to, relationships happen. Sometimes they are wonderful and sometimes they are torturous; always they make life richer and more meaningful. They can and should be cultivated, once they’ve sprouted, but there is only so much one can do for them and the single most important thing one can do for them, as even the most learned in the psychotherapeutic professions will tell you, is to be happy yourself. You cannot have a positive relationship if you are not a happy person. A relationship cannot make you happy if you are not already happy. Though it can greatly enhance or increase the happiness you bring to it, you’ve got to have a foundation of happiness with which to start. It is a “necessary” condition, even if it is not in itself “sufficient” for ensuring a positive relationship.

It seems only natural to assume that if you cannot get your happiness from a relationship, then you must get it from your work. That, after all, is how you will spend most of your time, even if you are so fortunate as to have a mutually supportive, stimulating and fulfilling relationship, you are still going to be at work more than you are at leisure, so if your work is not itself stimulating and fulfilling you will be forced to try to wring most of your happiness from your relationship. This will likely put more of a burden on it than even the best relationship would be able to bear in the long run.

So pursue the life of the mind, I tell my students, because it is inherently rewarding. If you cultivate thought conscientiously, you will never tire of returning to that garden. The pleasures of thought are an important part, I believe, of the pleasures of the present and the life of the mind is an important part of any fully human life. It has sustained me through many hard times and many failed relationships and it will continue to sustain me, I have no doubt, through more hard times. Nothing but brain damage can take it from me and if that happens it seems likely that it would be a loss I would be unable to mourn.

In the meantime: Nolite purturbare circulos meos.*

* “Do not disturb my circles!” These are the purported last words of the Greek mathematician Archimedes who, it is said, sat calmly engrossed in mathematical reflections when he was killed by a Roman soldier as Rome was taking Corinth.