Tuesday, March 14, 2023

serious

 
There is a Jewish myth recounted by the philosopher Shestov that goes like this: when the
angel of death comes down to close the eyes of man, the angel’s body is all covered with
eyes. Sometimes the angel discovers that he has made a mistake. The term of the man’s
life that he has come for still has more time to go. So the angel pulls one of the eyes
off his body and gives it to the man. “ … then the man sees strange and new things, more
than other men see and more than he himself sees with his natural eyes; and he also sees,
not as men see but as the inhabitants of other worlds see: that things do not exist
"necessarily", but "freely", that they are and at the same time are
not, that they appear when they disappear and disappear when they appear. The testimony
of the old, natural eyes, "everybody's" eyes, directly contradicts the
testimony of the eyes left by the angel. But since all our other organs of sense, and
even our reason, agree with our ordinary sight, and since the whole of human
"experience", individual and collective, supports it, the new vision seems to
be outside the law, ridiculous, fantastic, the product of a disordered imagination.”

 

Such men are then considered mad. And not only by others,but by their lawfully seeing selves. , “And then begins a struggle between two kinds of vision, a struggle of which the issue is as mysterious and uncertain as its origin.”

Long ago, I taught an intro philosophy class at Austin Community College – and by the way, let me say I love community colleges! Much more important than Harvard in the total scheme of things. There is a laudatory phrase in French – sérieux – which is inadequately translated by “serious”. It signifies a solid worker, a student who applies herself. It doesn’t mean the highest grades, it means the best intentions. And that is what I found at community college among students who had day jobs.  Anyway, there they were, there I was.  I would begin with this Shestov quote, thus forever corrupting my students vision of what philosophy is – if they took other classes, they’d learn it was all syllogisms and ignoble surrenders to convention. I was a terrible philosophy teacher. Not sérieux. But I did my best for my students.

So:  I am a stout adherent, even in my decline, of outlaw vision, the convergence of poetry and the love of wisdom. It is the romantic agony all over again, granted. Yet, I’d maintain that the eye covered angels are not happy about where humankind has gone. The gift of the third eye has been so collectively refused that we are in the same febrile state of conceptual imprisonment as was felt by people like Hugo Ball, one of the founders of Dada, before the First World War. Every headline is another  iron bar in our collective cage.

They are not what they appear and disappear when they appear. People at dinner parties talk of the climate apocalypse in thirty years and then pass around the delicious fish – or such is my experience. What’s not right is not right. Who doesn’t know this, even with two eyes?

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