Near the end of last week's meeting we got into a discussion about what exactly is the underlying question haunting our time (as opposed to the concern about the loss of certainty and the resulting alternating states of enchantment and despair which drew the attention of Proust, Wagner, et al., at the close of the 19th century).
Two articles I happened to see today seemed relevant to this discussion, so I though I would post them:
The first describes the efforts of the American philosopher William James (and his modern-day practitioner, Barack Obama) to reconcile the philosophy of Pragmatism with the possibility of fervent belief and committed action. This article, it seems to me, is stuck in the 19th century mindset along with James, who wanted so badly to see us as empowered in some unique way -- unlike other animals -- to create lasting meaning in our lives where there is otherwise none. In The Will to Believe, James writes:
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals. . . . But it feels like a real fight — as if there were something really wild in the universe which we . . . are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.
This kind of nonsense makes me want to scream. Because it feels like a real fight, then we should pretend it is? What's the matter with accepting that life is a "game of private theatricals," anyway? And why should we need to "redeem our... hearts" from atheisms and fears -- because they just might be valid?
Surely there is "really something wild in the universe," but we don't need to fight it; we are it. Once we accept that, we can begin to assuage our fears and truly live. (And guess what? We still care about right and wrong! We still care about beauty! About fairness! Because they too are "wild" -- part of what we do naturally.)
The second discusses the claim by Andrew Potter, who wrote the book The Authenticity Hoax, that “the search for the authentic is positioned as the most pressing quest of our age.” This "quest for the authentic," the article contends (summarizing Potter), is, comically and tragically, "the very thing that causes the world to seem so unreal and staged."
This piece struck me as much closer to the effort that I was proposing in our meeting: that we should accept everything we do as conflicted, authentic and inauthentic in equal measure, or as I said, de-glamorized. (Perhaps a better word would be, de-valorized?)
Here's one paragraph that, you will not be surprised to hear, especially pleased me:
"As a primate, status hierarchies are a part of life, and when you remove yourself from the competition in the mainstream you just join the competition in the counterculture. As long as there are clusters of people bent on avoiding what is most popular, within those clusters people will compete for status through conspicuous consumption of art and fashion, music and movies, furniture and gadgets, signaling to insiders the quality of their taste or the ingenuity of their search for the authentic, and signaling to the outsiders that they are not one of them."
When artists and thinkers begin to address our human condition from the primate perspective -- as scientists have for decades now -- then, I think, things will begin to get very interesting. The humanities, I believe, need to catch up with the sciences in this respect. On this, as on so many things, Proust, with his suprisingly accurate depictions of the way neural networks form and are rewritten (see Proust Was a Neuroscientist) was ahead of the curve.