To Think and Read: Philosophy and the Encounter With Literature

Rembrandt Philosopher in Meditation

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

There is much that could be said here and when I started to put my thoughts together I quickly found that this could grow to such a length that it would strain my abilities and your patience.  My only claim will be philosophy is the work of reason and literature is the work of the imagination.  Yet, these are not as far apart as one might think.  They, in many ways, must proceed together or at the very least complete each other’s thoughts, as old married couples are wont to do. There is no irony in the fact that philosophers have used images to put flesh and bone to their abstract meditations.  Socrates expressed greed for images, Plato had his Cave, Descartes his Evil Demon, and Nietzsche his prophesying Madman.  Likewise, the imagination is strengthened by reason.  For even for the starving artist faithful to Keeping Austin Weird could derive some benefit from Goya’s observation “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”  So much for Dan Brown.  So much for Descartes.

Furthermore, in discussing philosophy and literature, it would be of no little interest to understand the reality that brings these two to birth- language. For it is the mark of language that it is both intelligible, syntactical, and inherently image laden. Language is that strange symbolic phenomena expressed in varying vocalizations and written signs that tether us to the world like an anchor.  The strangeness of language lies, particularly, it its paradoxical quality; that peculiar quality of being powerful to enough to open a window on the very beginnings of the cosmos yet seemingly impoverished and inadequate to fully express one’s love or sorrow.

I suppose the best way or maybe the only way that I can address this topic is to speak of my own encounter with these.  I should say, that unless you have had your own experience with these, what will be said here today will be of little use to you.  Furthermore, I should say at the outset that my comments will not proceed in the manner of argumentation but of reflection.  You see I love philosophy and literature and whatever is loved should be given a dignified treatment.  That which is loved must not be discussed speech of experts, much less philosophy or literature professors. Furthermore, literature leads to philosophizing but philosophy may be expressed imaginatively or poetically. Either way, though they are, properly, different pursuits each leads, albeit in different ways, toward the contemplation of existence sparked by wonder. You may have your doubts and fair enough.  But these are my reflections and you will have to trust me or at least bear with me.

As a child, I and a friend of mine, while jumping on a trampoline, stumbled upon, quite naturally for children, on what Heidegger called the basic metaphysical question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”  As the sun set and the day began to cool into dusk we continued our jumping and giggling with astonishment that things actually exist and wondering where they come from.  But indulging this new found discovery was not something typically discussed in school and given my lack of discipline for anything that I thought more pedestrian I sort of floated through the whole experience.  As a fairly lazy student my antennae would never register any interest unless the class discussion wandered into one of those tangential discussions that had larger implications beyond the fairly prosaic facts and figures.  At that time I did not have a formal name for this interest.  I was unable to articulate what it was about these questions that interested me. Nevertheless, at some point a possibility occurred to me.  Maybe around twelve, I was sitting in a mimosa tree with my friend Chris Britt and the discussion turned to what we wanted to do when we grew up.  I don’t remember his response but mine is clear as a day.   “I want to be a philosopher,” I said matter of factually.  “What do they do?” Chris asked.  “I’m not sure. I think they talk about life and stuff.  You know, like Plato.”  Well, he didn’t know and we looked at each other for a moment and moved on.  To this day, I have no idea of where that thought came from.  It would another twenty years before I began a formal education in philosophy.

As far as reading goes, for many years, Where the Side Walk Ends by Shel Silverstein was ever present friend and never far out of reach.  However, I had an aversion to anything that looked like a novel, as having to sit still that long to read seemed insufferably boring.  However, in middle school it took something of an even greater boredom, in the form of Mrs. Gifford’s study hall, which drove me to look for some respite.  And so it was that I came across the fantasy series, the Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander.  Those books opened up a world that I scarcely knew existed, the world of imaginative fiction.  I was hooked and I have been more or less hooked ever since.

My junior year of high school was the first time that I became consciously aware that philosophy, that thing that talked about life and interested me so, could be found in that other new found love, the reading of imaginative fiction.  I had one particular teacher (isn’t it always one particular teacher?)  Mrs. Crane, short and petite, having the most charming of Southern drawls, who introduced us to short stories that actually touched upon life in the way that interested me.  Through their imaginative power, these stories had me consider deeper philosophical questions.  From “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut, came the question of what is the ultimate value of equality. From Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder”, the ethics of technology and what are the consequences of the smallest actions upon history.  From Flannery O’Connor’s, “Good Country” the nature of evil and the religious dimension in life.  In conjunction to these great works of fiction she would encourage us to think deep thoughts.  In particular, there was one thing she’d come back to and remind us of again and again.  She would look at us with large clear eyes and say, “In all that happens to you try to search for the deeper meaning.”  Such advice, I am sure, seemed to her at times, as being seed cast upon stony earth, but those stories and her encouragement awakened something within me.

“To search for the deeper meaning.”  This, in time, became and is my aim in life.  And in small but no less important addition to religious faith, philosophy and literature have helped me to understand my own life.    Actually, I think Mrs. Crane’s advice is sage wisdom for anyone, even you sitting here enduring the sound of my voice.  Walker Percy, in the novel, “The Moviegoer” has one of his characters ruminate on what he calls the search.  “What is the search?  It is really quite simple…the search is what anyone would attempt if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Philosophy and literature allow a person to take a hand to the veil of everydayness and pull it back to see what depths of meaning the world actually reveals. Because I believe unless you do this whatever you do manage to do will ultimately come up to nothing.  That sounds pretty harsh but life is pretty harsh.  If you don’t believe me wait.  Let life, at times, come in as an unwelcomed guest take from you without asking or without apology, maybe even knock you around a bit.  And maybe you might get around to asking yourself some philosophical questions, “What in the hell is going on?”  “What is the point of all this.”  “Is this all there is?”  Maybe you might have all this going on, even if unconsciously, and come across a passage in a novel or poem, whereby you might see an image of what you are going through now.  Then you might have hit upon the cathartic element in imaginative fiction that lets you see, vicariously, your life and its possibilities.  Maybe through that work you will have your predicament named for you whereby you could exclaim “That is it!” and yours be the shock of a man having found what he scarcely thought was lost.

The late novelist, Eudora Wetly said something that I think is important to our present discussion.  She said:

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time but their significance to ourselves find their own order…The time we know subjectively is often a chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

girl in book store

Girl in Bookshop

The events in our lives, when considered in the light of philosophy and literature prepare one for this revelation, the revelation of that deeper meaning, for which we should all be searching.   For me one particular revelation is the meaning of the human face.  The philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, wrote much about the meaning of the human face and the implications the face of the other has on ethics.  I have often reflected on his thoughts on this subject and he argues quite powerfully for his position that the face reveals an infinity.  That has always struck me as powerful but it was not until I had a particular experience about a year ago that crystallized what he was saying.  The experience was quite profound for me and revealed something for me that I wanted to commit to writing.  Now let me say that I’m an amateur writer, which is to say I am a terrible writer with illusions of grandeur, who is more than willing to visit his inane ramblings on anyone who is too polite to decline or too unfortunate to escape.  So here you are:

“With an arm propped on the driver’s side door, my head rests wearily in an opened palm as I make my way home. I’m increasingly impatient to arrive as the long day seems to lengthen from the haltingly slow traffic moving like an irregular pulse along an asphalt artery. Occasionally, I cast a bored glance toward my fellow commuters, noting expressions, either exasperated or vacant. Some are lost in a digital oblivion that knows no interruption, save by the honking of a horn or the alarming reality of the bumper ahead. For a time, I too, am lost in miasma of thought, a sort of low and foggy cognizance that is there but never forming toward something definite. And then, from the corner of my eye, I happen to catch the gaze of someone passing by. She is a small child of no more than six years, with eyes large and dark, deeply and richly dark, like freshly tilled earth into which the wide and variegated world might be sown. As she passes by, I manage to offer her a slight smile. She returns with a smile of her own before moving ahead. It lasts but a moment though just long enough for the everydayness to be lifted. The manner of her smile, delicate and unburdened as a dew laden web at dawn, discloses our shared re-cognition of that Goodness, whereby the wandering of the old burnt and wearied world might at last find a home. She is soon out of sight. But I am left with a definite thought: what is it in a smile or even more, in the face of an-other person, which may uncover an entire horizon? Drawn deeply into that unveiled mystery, I make my way home.”

To try to give you the experience of which Mrs. Crane spoke is impossible.  You have to see it for yourself.  In cannot be had vicariously.  For you, it would have all the impossibility of vicariously experiencing the taste of some particular dish from the mouth of another man.

If this world has not seized you by the collar and given you a good shake before all its strangeness and wonder, you have not lived. You may become old and gray but your years will stretch and fade behind you as so many thoughtless miles on a forgotten highway.

With that, I would encourage you, if you have not done so, to think and read or at the very least, to think of reading.

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