Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
In the course of eleven years, the well-known Icelandic philosopher (famous could be a humiliating word when applied to a philosopher and rather ironic when applied to an Icelander –thank goodness in most cases fame still remains a posthumous gift for most of us, non-Hollywood-esque characters) Páll Skúlason worked on a brief and yet drafted and unpublished paper about the roles of the philosopher in the cradle of public life. Anyone would wonder why would anyone spend over a decade musing about it and why hasn´t this person published a 10-volume encyclopedia on the roles of the philosopher, something much needed everywhere ranging from academic halls at prestigious universities to conversations with cab drivers and authors of best-sellers such as “Plato instead of Prozac” and “Philosophies of Sport”; the age of bio-politics has been defiantly declared and all the disciplines and sciences excommunicated by the earlier ambitions of the modern world have returned with unexpected zeal to take due revenge, so that we witness in the most simple everyday acts the hard-to-ignore come back of philosophy, politics and religion to occupy the place of a contemporary goddess once known as “the social sphere” upon which the greatest inventions since the French Revolution were founded –social security benefits, the university system and indirect democracy available to all, and so well-humored this democracy girl turned out to be that it didn´t hesitate to girdle herself with uniforms and rifles in order to go all over the world to establish democracies and along the way, to sell Big Macs. So that democracy was appointed to finish the job of Inquisitions and Crusaders, but in a much nicer way, promising freedom in this same life rather than in an uncertain mystery-ridden next one. Skúlason is perhaps not the only loonie speaking about the role of philosophers and philosophy; it´s been common talk since the great age of European Nationalisms. The Archimedean Point that Kafka once mentioned (“He was permitted to find it only under the condition that he would use it against himself”) was fully realized in the heroic history of Western philosophy –It spent nearly two millennia trying to persuade men out of the deceive of religion and infantile superstitions, only in order to be firmly accused and sentenced to oblivion. Verdict: Unscientific, irrational, metaphysical and Christian. To be sure this is quite a lot for a fighter of freedom.
Modern and postmodern authors (both those who confessed and those who denied the charges and those who were dead long enough to be indifferent) have argued lots about the role of philosophy and philosophers but the conclusions have been utterly disappointing for most of the learnt men of the times because the mother of all sciences (although I would argue that it is religion and its political needs, and not philosophy what founded what is of most practical use for the world –philosophers would be definitely ok with rotting inside a barrel next to a port with a sheet of paper and an ink pen, or I mean, philosophers before the age of the welfare states and the grants religion). The accusation that philosophers have filed against this most respectable science are now a common place and are more than often in the mouths of the dilettantes that would happily accept them in order to avoid the long years of taxing philosophical and scientific training that the profession of philosopher demanded before the age of Structuralism and Post-structuralism. Nowadays it is enough to learn a little Greek and to read some French authors in order to become a philosopher, reason that discouraged me from pursuing this lonely academic path and brought me to the much safer world of Germanic philologies and literatures. The faculties of Catholic theology (at least in the most traditional countries like Spain, Italy and Austria) have retained some of the medieval rigor of their medieval predecessors not without cynically avoiding well-funded charges of heresy and atheism. Our philosophers, professional philosophers not without the irony felt by Kant, have remained skeptical and passive and gracefully avoided the question; Richard Rorty claimed that the only thing left for philosophers to do is to actually hear each other in discourse, to share ideas, to exchange opinions. A friend of mine, Viennese philosopher then said to me once that the whole rationale behind philosophy today was nothing but a critique of modern life –this one I´m particularly fond of. Then there´re other things who variegate in all different directions, from saving the world to praising the ultimate art work of Western man at Ground Zero.
Professor Skúlason discusses three related theses about the possible roles of the philosopher in public life: (1) He tries to make sense of the world; (2) he tries to educate people to appreciate true values; and (3) he criticizes his own time in light of ideals of practical reason. I agree wholeheartedly with Skúlason´s personal belief that the task of philosophy is to knowingly strive for the impossible –a simplified phrasing of what Heidegger would call the province of Being and Truth, but without the unnecessary complications. What he might be saying here is not only that the task of philosophy is impossible but also that it yields no results. To do philosophy is to think things through and even though it screams out loud a certain modernist rhyme, its voice also hearkens to the very beginnings of philosophy, to a philosophical curiosity that preceded Socrates and that is more correctly identified with Adam and Job –Walter Benjamin wanted something like this in his project to restore a concept of experience previous to Kant and equivalent to the colorful and complex world presented by metaphysics, yet not all that coherent withal. I agree less with his second hunch –according to Skúlason we live in a human world characterized by a desperate need for the practice of philosophy, a world characterized by a metaphysical vacuum. In my view in so far as the metaphysical vacuum remains no philosophy will be ever able to fill the gap and the tortured history of the capitalist economies bears a most loyal witness to this. I wouldn´t say that the practice of philosophy is absolutely necessary for life as it is for instance in the cunning development of the sciences, in so far as we can live in an everyday world without religion we can do without philosophy, but these assumption of what-would-if are strictly methodological.
In the fuller awareness of the intellectual and spiritual traditions that preceded the modern mind with its empty-shelled contingency philosophy and religion still hold a domineering power over the most fundamental human ideas in history. Here we aren´t concerned merely with practical and philosophy but also with the public sphere, with why philosophy should go “public”. The answer of Skúlason is that anyone engaged in philosophy is trying to say something about the world that is of universal value and that should concern every thinking being (and I add that it should also bother every thoughtless person) and thinking beings are participative entities in the public domain –with the pragmatic undertones of the American political tradition. Philosophy in the classical age began as a public discourse and still political philosophy clings onto this actual public discourse as the true nature of politics and truth, but to be sure we spoke about a place and time much previous to the replacements of communities by selves and even community selves, surrogate beings –being demand the actuality of the whole structure, from natural philosophy to aesthetic theory. Moreover, the technological possibilities of today´s world have made us aware that the tissue of modern everyday life created by technology and by alternative and virtual realities do not hold the meaning of life in itself and no matter how perplexing these realities are, we have to draw back from them to an extent sufficiently radical as to practice the older irony of philosophy and avoid its current scientific seriousness. Philosophy definitely must be in the position to ask questions more radical than those of the liberal political systems and of the new idols and religions of the commoners. It might eventually lead to the ever desired suspension of judgment, but it is a position spiritually safer than that of the modern content that technology provides, turning metaphysics upside down. The truths of philosophy shouldn´t be limited to any academic discipline or science, but they must hold this so promised universal value in itself and out of itself, to use Hegelian terminology, because what is truth if not a promise to deliver human content? Here perhaps it wouldn’t be mere wantonness to demand from the public to actually read the letters of Saint Paul.
And Saint Paul instead of Socrates because I think the Socratic figures indulges in too much of a virtuoso performance and his wisdom seems an old fashioned garment for our age, that is all too riddled with supposedly ancient wisdoms that were trying to supposedly save the world and that led to what wasn’t supposedly but actually and in every hue of reality, a totalitarian system and it still does, there’re more examples than fingers in the hand, alas! From just about every place that Modernity has wanted to recruit for its divine plan of emancipating the earth from the old gods. Socrates as a moral philosopher is a major failure and this is why he matters so much, he started from the assumption that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong and together with Aristotle, Spinoza and everybody else he went on to prove this thesis rationally and completely failed, that failure is called moral and political philosophy, well, at least until Hobbes, who well knew it would be more fruitful to read the Bible and avoid politics when flattering with the forbidden woman. This is why we study Socrates over and over, because let’s face the truth, as a teacher of philosophy, we can’t delude young students into actually thinking that we it is better to take a leap of faith here than to actually engage in an intellectually fruitful and practically futile argument. Because Skúlason, not unlike other philosophers of our age still follows Socrates, we can both admire and despise him. Gladly Skúlason never attained the peace of mind of the condemned Socrates in the moment of his death neither has Skúlason been sentenced to death for misleading the young people with wrong teachings; gladly the young people of today teach themselves all the wrong teachings.
The public philosophers of today who makes sense of the world publicly might be as well mistaken by fools and interviewed in prime time TV shows, because philosophy no matter how important, in not tangible, and thus coherently unreachable and impossible as a task and as a truth whichsoever. Philosophy does appear publicly and without the philosopher everytime that a question concerning scientific knowledge is actually posed, and it is this quest for understanding the world what has shaped common sense and not as most people think, the common everyday wisdom that however practical for life, has a lot less import in the development of the Western mind than impractical and unreadable German philosophers. Thank goodness Fichte is not a best-seller today, because then intellectuals wouldn´t be permitted to watch soap operas. But I have already divested all sense of virtue from philosophy, ever since philosophies of history, every person can be as perfect as himself could ever be but no one could be today perfect in the Aristotelian sense. The best public appearance philosophy could make is actually to encourage people, young people to think for themselves, but I think not at the expense of the world. Pornography, videogames and shopping malls should stay where they are, it is the only guarantee of European peace treaties! Philosophy indeed at this point does teach about choices, and philosophy is one of these choices, but to be clear, there´re no free entrance at this point. Humans are free to seek whatever they want, and philosophy or even truth, is only one among many possible contingent choices. Lastly, I don´t think philosophy should ever become a surrogate Prozac for bankrupt investors. There are still gyms and whores and cocaine, please. Philosophy should never stop criticizing society, even in the most utopian forms of social arrangements, philosophy must always look the other way, see the other grass, be the other man. It is precisely this attitude (and beyond any wisdoms) what makes the life of thinking people bearable and actually not that unhappy to be sure.
Not that philosophy hasn´t contributed seriously to mankind, but it must contribute as an outsider, because it is something just too massively heavy to be taken seriously by anyone, unless he is an astrophysicist dating a philosopher. When it gets serious is when it protects us against ideology, even at the risk of anarchy. Philosophy never abandons the utopian ideal and this is precisely why it remains such a harsh critic of human life in any of its forms. If anything, philosophy has a great dream, it is to unravel the mysteries of the human mind, and because it is a dream and philosophy knows it, it awakes calmly to the turbulent events of any historical momentum. Just to fold back again in and out, on and on.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Israelis would always react differently and even indifferently both to the issue of Iceland and to the issue of Judaism, so that they themselves would burst into hysterical laughter at the most innocent anti-Semitic jokes; in Israel it is not uncommon to joke between ourselves about how cheap and dirty Jews are. Then there´s also the Jew, that in the modern industrialized world (at least this is the thesis of Adorno and Sartre) hardly refers to the actual religious Jew with his typical Orthodox attire, freckles and black hats, but rather to a more abstract institution that stripped off Christian anti-Judaism (at least apparently) seems to have a narrative of its own about the evil Jew, and hell, I would be the first to agree with my fellow anti-Semites that Jews aren´t that important, are they? Nor is there any reason for them to dominate the world scene at large. This common place should have already become a cliché, weren’t for the likes for Madoff and Emmanuel that seem to have the Jewish cause at the very bottom of their priorities. Even Elie Wiesel was fraudulently deceived by Herr Madoff, so that not even a Nobel Price is life insurance for crooks and perhaps the likes of Sarah Kofman and Primo Levi knew better after the fashion of Celan: Suicide is the only effective weapon against the evils of life. Not without irony this would ridicule publicly the allegedly bare heart of Albert Camus’ so-called philosophy of life that most likely withered into some cheap novels available for sale at the nearest kiosk: Two packs of cigarettes and get for free one book on the philosophy of life.
However, I am nothing but a counterfeit Israeli –free from the blood ties and historical responsibilities of “peoples” and more than spiritually promiscuous, a silent witness to Jewish life so much more than an active advocate of the rights of men, oh, sorry, I meant of Jews. Once when I called myself a Zionist (perhaps at the tender of 16 and 17 when I was too busy studying Classical Greek to pay attention to theological considerations) I was absolutely persuaded by my own good intentions that it was something that had to do actually with belonging, let’s say, belonging to the people of Israel but the idea of a community in modern times couldn’t be any more flawed; Susan Sontag wrote about it beautifully referring to both the gays and the Jews in New York: There’s too much of a scene and nothing of a community. The comparison might seem trivial, lest one attends a synagogue service in Manhattan or Edgeware. It is an orgy of jacquard ties and silk, jewels and watches. But then if they’re into trivial fashion and gossipy details it actually might mean that Jews are human after all, and no better or worse than anyone else for that matter. I met once this Argentinean psychologist who born in Poland herself to Holocaust survivor parents wrote a book about her own survival (not to be confused with victimhood) and remember her writing this dismissal letter to the good God, by means of which she actually refused to be part of that chosen-hood of her people. I mean, chosen for what? For the camps? I would rather belong to the society of the unremarkable, to which most humankind as a kind belongs. A terminology that is necessarily biological and not social thus immediately akin to species.
Yet, with or without denouncing or advocating the “Conditio Judaica” I think I’m not sure exactly what a Jew is, besides being one. I guess I would be apt for telling what a Jew is not or what is actually not Jewish and Judaism as a system of values and beliefs, such as it’s been the case of Christianity in modern times, can definitely be severed from any ties that do not reflect the universal character that everyday men and women nowadays have attached to religious traditions. The most amateur of anthropologists and sociologists would be able to tell us that in principle all creation stories and basic commandments are but universal in nature. This is what postmodern philosophy calls “the unreflected generality of the myth”. To be sure, I’ve spent more time of my youth not being a Jew, or trying not to be one rather than wandering happily in the meadows and waters of Torah. Not only being Jewish seemed a lot difficult, but inconvenient for anyone who’s ever lived in European soil, it is also quite traumatic for a philosopher and definitely outlawed for a homosexual. It only took long enough as to land in Jerusalem for me to know that actually I had some ironic doubts whether that is actually what I wanted to be. Jerusalem seemed to dwell too much on the issue of being someone, and much less on the particulars of how that is going to be achieved. Emancipation was impossible from within the confines of Jewish society, thus it is not difficult to understand what took place in Germany during the 19thcentury –People could only emancipate themselves as individuals and none of these enlightened Jews wanted to emancipate as a people or as Jews even, but only as individual. I wonder whether the Gnostic-Christian message of the Romantics wasn’t hovering somewhere around at this spiritual momentum, because the salvation could only come to individual persons and not to peoples. However, certainly the greatest German philosophers of the time, such as Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, did believe beyond rational doubt that salvation could come through the virtues and qualities of the German people (although this could also have meant what we know today as Germanic or European in general and then not wholly un-Christian).
It was really nice for me to feel at some point that I could actually step out of this shared conditions that felt more like an STD than like a premium gift. I used to wander alone in the streets of the Arab neighborhoods searching for some of the colonial leftovers of Europe to take shelter beneath and linguistically deprive myself of anything too Oriental. Christianity seemed the master key only because it was so overloaded with what once was called metaphysics and transcendental gnoseology, with the possibility of completely leaving this world yet while in this life and the blessing of not concerning yourself with any politics or practical economies whatsoever. The Christian ambitions at truth are less than tangible and therefore perfectly compatible with the ideals of a fully escapist ideology. The daily tours of the churches and the delight of small patisseries where one would encounter the companion of ever strange lovers and refreshing glasses of grapefruit juice and campari adorned with startling limes. This was so different from the awful bodily smells of prayers and pilgrims at the Western Wall and odor of smoke on the skin of our teachers of the Law. And how sorry should one be when he would find himself at home in a place as such and even worse, that he would still harvest the desire to flee from home after actually journeying half the world through in order to find it. The philosophy was always very helpful in a two-fold direction: First it laid the strongest foundations of what could be an army of reality and truth, a map of how to find oneself in such a turbulent world and then just shortly afterwards the vertigo before the abyss and a step back into the cave of the philosopher, into the Platonic darkness.
As a translator of Icelandic Literature, it is awkward that one no longer knows how to explain that he’s himself a Jew to Icelanders and for two different reasons: Because the Icelandic average Joe is surprisingly alien to the experience (either good or bad) of Jewish life and also because the striking similarities between the peoples in so far as humor and disgusting rotten fish and venomous alcoholic drinks is concerned. And then one thinks everything is going just fine, after all how many Jews can there be in Iceland, you’re free from the evil impulse to find the fellow inmates met inside the whale after you were all thrown from the boat because of your sins, and yet this is not as easy as you might think it is. Because after all they didn’t finish off all of the vermin, as it is metaphorically called in a short story by Kafka. Going to Iceland immediately raises the question of how to actually find the Jews there and how you can help them out, what do they need, where do they live, do they really feel safe, and likeminded questions cross your mind over and over. Icelandic as a language of choice is also a decision not made willy-nilly, because it could mean as well that you wish to take a step back from all the academic orgies and from the publication houses and have chosen for yourself the most exotic of all qualifications for potential unemployment. You can move to Akureyri even, and there allow the Jewish ghost to chase after you, after all no one is inquiring about your religion in Iceland. Then it would be too untrue to say you’re Colombian, because when a birthplace no longer holds a meaning as a language or a personal history then it loses most of its importance and then calling yourself Israeli can mean something so bad to the other person as it does for you. Answering that one is a Jew would be the right answer, but not quite knowing what it is, renders it invalid once again. So you can just play around with Christian theological mistrust and claim that you’re but a tourist in this beautiful world, beautiful weren’t world history so miserable. But still you hold passports that open or close boundaries, you hold passports from good or bad nations and the politics of sex point out to the fact that some phenotypes are more desirable for some peoples than others; then this might be not as touristic as it is bureaucratic. Being a Jew is also a bureaucracy after all: You need to get a document from a rabbinical court stating your affiliation and if you’re a wanna-be Jew, the newspapers could inform you that it is possible to obtain it as well without all the mandatory studies, you only need the right amount of money or to give a blow job to the right rabbi in charge.
This paper, so much after the fashion of residence permits, asylum documents and travel cards, defines so much of your life as a Jew, it defines whether you’re a legitimate son or a bastard, whether you can remarry or actually be a citizen of Israel and receive proper health care and education or in the case that you don’t have it, you might as well rot like shark from Greenland and let both Jewish and non-Jewish vultures devour you. Paper is more patient than man, so wrote once Anne Frank. I guess that perhaps one should leave this entirely on the spiritual plane, but it isn’t possible, you have to take a stand somewhere and somehow. There’s no difference between cueing at an embassy for an exit visa and the newfound Jewish bureaucracy modeled after the Soviet politburo, and do know, that there’s actually a lot of people all over the world cueing in order to become Jewish, which is something that I of course can’t understand. Perhaps being in Iceland doesn’t change anything within, but you’re perhaps safer and at the risk of everyone berating you for your words, for it is a country even smaller than the imaginary world of Jewry. Most of us remain on the plane of the abstract Jew, we don’t know exactly what is making us Jewish other than some cultural clichés that most intelligent people wisely avoid. It’s really difficult to define others on the basis of something we can’t define ourselves; the paradox of the Jewish mind is albeit beautiful very dangerous because it takes for the granted some truths but others not, and it seems to judge the world according to those partial truths that it does accept and that is just so false even from the perspective of religion alone. Perhaps we shouldn’t aim so much at being saved in anyway whatsoever but should put more effort in participating in a world that by default, we weren’t taught to like that much.
Saturday, March 06, 2010
Pregnant already from what we´ve been
Reaching out to the dreams of a child
Berated by war and word
Lonely ecstasic pagan
Ascetic frequent flyer
Nomad, hermitage, letter writer.
He used to stare into the Ocean
And wonder where would the world once end
Later only in the expectation of when.
Curious silent tourist
Hotel dweller, caffee-goer
Nightly sailor, morning sleeper.
Will you once want to land on firm ground?
Will you ever yearn to smell the oaks in the graveyards?
Will you let God find you himself?
There´s no peace in your mind
You abhor those lazy lives, of churchgoers and mothers
You crave for a little more, for an unmediated encounter
There´s this long white shawl up north
Where the sun never goes around the world
Will you Icelander, land in a port, land perhaps home?
Friday, March 05, 2010
That we use to describe ourselves
Just like God created once
The so-called world.
Sometimes we´re thought lost
Bypassing the complex grammars of geography and love
Circumventing episodes we would never want told.
We´re adopted by foreign words
That we´ve picked while traveling the world,
They promise the deliver us from the void
Of an image framed in a wall
Lifeless, next to the Cross.
We imagine ourselves to be safer and old
Able to review in one glance the whole world
And this deafness we cherish not
Thus we teach ourselves foreign words
To shelter us from the seasickness of journeys
But to no avail
We´ve already become ourselves
The journey, the shelter, the home and the foreign word.
When we build a home for ourselves
Upon the earthly soil
With no other hope for salvation
Than the cage of the present tense.
Believer, cursed are thou, woe
When you shatter the bridges
That the world so freely offers
As a gift from nowhere
As a shelter of anxiety and glory
From the deaf calm of the infinite.
So human it is, when we abandon the churches
To plow the indomitable lands of forefathers
Over and over, each and every generation
To build the little houses with hands our own
And inhabit them the glee
Only through the vesper of life.
We´re digging out present hopes for future dwellers
That will watch the houses fall
Before they themselves again plow and build.
This might be what they once called home,
That despair, when you know, that the house you finish not.