I have just returned from a trip from Saas-Fee, Switzerland, studying at the European Graduate School. Kant’s sublime does not capture the awe and terror of being in the Alps. The beauty, the majesty … and yet everything else in the world is wrong. In the film The Hours, based on Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, Clarissa Vaughan, played by Meryl Streep, proclaims: ‘I’ll buy the flowers myself.’ Clarissa happily strolls through the streets of New York City on her way to visit her friend Richard Brown, a poet dying from AIDS. The three characters in the film – all versions of Mrs Dalloway – live their lives in quiet desperation, all miserably unhappy. Clarissa, at the end of the film, laments, ‘Why is everything wrong?’
Saas-Fee was beautiful, unreal and magical. And, yet, shortly after returning to the States, Maui is burning, destroyed: the apocalypse. The images we see on television are absolutely horrifying, beyond imagination and so drastically real – a Real that Lacan says we cannot handle. The white charred landscape, the numbers of untold and perhaps underreported dead – this is beyond what is fathomable. And then there is Saas-Fee. The sheer beauty is almost painful.
‘Why is everything wrong?’ Beauty does exist in the world. And yet so does horror. How to think these two things at once? What are we to do? A deeply theological and philosophical question. The horrors of Maui, we must attend to, we must pay attention to. Our calling as philosophers and educators is to do something, not only contemplate something. But contemplate we must, for before we act, we must think. And this is the trouble with the philosophical life. Returning to the cave, returning to the Real, returning to a world in flames in Maui, to return, we must enact what Kant called a categorical imperative: I must do something to help. Many theologians have asked this question: Karl Barth, Thomas Merton, Levinas, in so many words. What is at stake: for Levinas, it is the face of the other, which is not actually a face, not actually an image, but the face of G–d, the divine in humankind. I would extend this metaphor also to the divine in animals, in the landscape, in the ecosphere, in our interrelations. Returning to the world, to the work-at-hand as teachers, mentors, friends, is no easy task. Relationships take work … while everything is wrong.
For Virginia Woolf, domesticity – an iron cage – is what is wrong. Domesticity kills the spirit, kills creativity. It kills the writer, the poet, the philosopher. E. E. Cummings, in The Enormous Room, writes about being a prisoner of war wrongly accused of treason. His prison cell becomes The Enormous Room. He does not mean to romanticise being imprisoned, but he does – as Wilfred Bion would put it – make the best of a bad job. He writes a memoir in that prison cell, an archive of being wrongly imprisoned during WWI.
‘I’ll buy the flowers myself,’ she said. What does that mean in a world of so much incredible horror? I loved my time in Saas-Fee. I loved studying with the most beautiful philosophers in the world. I loved the chance to study with those I cherish and, indeed, love. For what else is philosophy but Sophia, the love of wisdom? But philosophy is more. I just read Plato’s Symposium. Philosophy, for me, means to love the Other. What could be more important? For, in the end, what do we really have? We have one another: we have to attend to our relationships, to our interrelations – whether with our teachers, students, friends or our interlocutors. This might sound trite, but it is not.
Brian Childs (2022) – a bioethicist and theologian – cites one Seward Hiltner, who, when listening to someone going on and on perhaps about who knows what, asked, ‘What does it mean to be a child of God?’ Childs remarks: ‘Hiltner’s question is not a facile one. It is a profoundly critical one.’ To ‘become more personal with those [we] know and those [we] need to know more fully’ – that is the task at hand. Whether one is an atheist or a theist – the question at hand – what is a child of G-d? is of the utmost importance. I interpret this to mean: how do we become more humane in a world of so much cruelty, violence, disaster – a world where, quite frankly, everything is wrong?
In The Wisdom of Vivekananda, it is said that ‘no Hindu would ever ask for a link between religion and philosophy.’ Everywhere I go, I see these links, but others are rather put off by them. But a philosopher and theologian ask similar questions. Sacred spaces are hard to find in a world of horror. But sacred spaces can be very small: that space between one and the Other, where friendships are built.
Enormous rooms that are quite small, however, can suffocate. We are trapped in lives of our own making. Perhaps the Greeks had it right. Perhaps it is our fate to be caught up in the vicious cycle of repetition-compulsion and the death-drive. Avital Ronell points out that, for Lyotard, we do not know what ‘negativity’ or ‘negation’ is. In fact, I think we do not know what anything is. It is all too easy to buy the flowers myself, but then the world opens out towards so many unknowns, horrors. For if everything is a mystery, is that not terrifying?
What are we to do? Tagore, in his Nobel Prize-winning book of poems Gitanjali, remarks that he lived much of his early life in utter solitude: ‘absolute seclusion.’ He also tells us that ‘seclusion itself has no place in the Western world.’ That is true enough – especially today with all the running around we have to do, the fast-paced life in the United States, where stepping back from the mad world – as songwriter Roland Orzibal from Tears for Fears put it – is nearly impossible. Bandmate Curt Smith sings, ‘going nowhere, going nowhere.’ We are going nowhere in the midst of running around going nowhere while the world burns down around us. What are we to do? Tagore tells us that after a life of much solitude in his ‘heart [he felt] felt a longing’ to emerge from solitude and go into the world to help others.
Stepping out into the mad world is a leap not of faith, as Kierkegaard might put it; it is a leap to what matters: the Other. I return to Levinas – his idea of the face, that non-image of the divine – call it what you will – that is not only in us but around us. And yet theodicy – the problem of evil – is everywhere. Tagore, in his 1921 Nobel Prize speech, proclaimed that our task is to ‘bring about reconciliation and peace and to restore the bonds of friendship and love.’ What could be more important? For the philosopher, it is friendship and love that remain the most important tasks at hand. Just ask Socrates. Walter Benjamin emphasised repeatedly that philosophers have ‘tasks’ in front of them – the problem is finding out what our task is. Perhaps we do not know what a task is, after all, for, in the end, we know nothing.
Speaking Truth to Power
Wittgenstein – in a rather dramatic move – was asked to present a philosophical paper to the Vienna Circle. In so doing, he brought with him poetry. He turned his back on the Vienna Circle and began reading Tagore. When he was finished, he got up and walked out. What a gesture. Why would Wittgenstein have done such a thing? Well, of course, no one knows for certain. But when someone gets up and walks out – something is being said. What that is, is a kind of protest. This is a protest about something that is wrong. You certainly do not get up and walk out when something is right. How many of us have – what Foucault called – the courage of truth? To get up and walk out when, in fact, everything is wrong? Did Socrates not call for radical risk-taking? Perhaps the question is not when to walk out, but when to walk in– to unbearable situations and speak truth to power or do something about a world that is burning. Freud: A child is burning.
The tragedy that is Maui: what are we to do? For those of us who cannot go to help, we can give. Sometimes giving means sending something to people who are hurting. In the sending – as Derrida might say – we do not know if what we send actually arrives or who on the other end will receive what it is that we send, for the addressee is never really known. Something to give. There comes a time when philosophers must step out of their solitude and send something to those who are hurting, to the children of the earth, to the earth, to the betterment of the earth and her creatures.
Beauty and Horror
To live in a world of beauty and horror at once is hard to think. But think we must. To live the life of the philosopher means both thinking and doing. Do not get me wrong, this is not a preacherly sermon or a self-righteous manifesto. This is what it means to be humane in an inhumane world. This is my calling and my task. Like Wittgenstein, I work in a hospital, although I am also a professor. I do this kind of work to help those who are suffering. I have written other columns for PESA Agora about my work as a hospital chaplain, so I shall not belabour the point here. What I am attempting to say is that I do not have to work in a hospital: I choose to do this work. I am at home in the hospital – a place where hospitality is hard to find. The concept of the hospital is rooted in hospitality, as Raymond Barfield, a palliative care physician, points out.
Richard, the poet who is dying from AIDS in The Hours, proclaims that life is utterly horrible dying from AIDS. Richard tells Clarissa that all one has is hours and hours and hours, and more of the same. Suffering and hopelessness know no bounds. It is said that death is the philosopher’s stone. One of the most profound of Plato’s dialogues is the Phaedo. This is the death scene, the hemlock, Socrates’ final moments. In The Hours, death as a theme hovers over all of the characters, foreboding and grim. But perhaps what is worse is suicidal ideation, something that Virginia Woolf not only knew but acted out in the end. Camus once said that suicide is the most important question of philosophy. We all have our dark nights of the soul, as St. John of the Cross put it. But not all of us have suffered from suicidal ideation.
Most people live quiet lives of desperation. But there are worse things, as Virginia Woolf knew full well. The vast range of emotions, psychic upheaval, early childhood trauma, wounds too old to undo, psychic tragedies beyond words, unspeakable, those bewildering thoughts of the end, of endless and hopeless suffering, for whatever reason or for no reason at all: what must we do? Philosophers who get lost in their heads – travel in very dangerous terrain. Getting lost is important, however – for it is in the midst of lostness that we find things out, or we discover that we do not know anything at all. We do not even know what getting lost means.
Political astuteness is of the utmost importance in a world where everything is wrong. I have read Peter McLaren’s columns in PESA Agora and marvel at his political astuteness. I am not a political scholar by any means, but I do consider it my responsibility to read political scholarship like Peter’s. Seth Benardete once commented that the ‘eccentric core’ of philosophy is politics. I am not so certain I understand what he means, for how can a core be eccentric – for there is no core in the eccentric. An ironic turn of phrase, perhaps.
That Plato’s Republic is perhaps one of the most important philosophical books on politics does not need saying. But, sometimes, I wonder what the Republic is about, after all. It is not only about building a Republic. It is perhaps one of the most difficult and obscure books that Plato wrote. In fact, it is so difficult that I would not even dare teach it. I am still learning what it means: I have many, many questions. I read the book as poetics, not politics per se.
I see parallels between Tagore and Plato, both poets, both philosophers. Call them philosophical poets. Tagore begins Gitanjali: ‘Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fill it ever with fresh life.’ Indeed, are we not all ‘frail vessel[s]’? The Hours is a film about vulnerability: about just how fragile life is, just how fragile human beings are in the face of so much that we do not understand, in the face of how much we suffer endlessly, hour upon hour upon hour. And, yet, there are stars in the sky, there is the beauty of the Alps; there is the beauty of friendship and the beauty of love. This is something that both Tagore and Plato capture in their work. The entire gamut of ‘what is,’ of what could be – and what has gone wrong. For it seems that something always already goes wrong. Mladen Dolar once remarked in a seminar, ‘don’t worry, it will get worse.’ Yes, indeed, it can always get worse, and it does. And, yet, there is something else too.
To utterly give up – what Camus considered nihilism – is not an option. Or is it? To live the philosophical life means to not give up – but it does not mean that hope is possible either. This is a hopeless world. I have said this repeatedly throughout my work – much to the horror of friends and colleagues. Hope is something that terrifies me; it is so out of whack with the Platonic question: what is? In a previous column that I wrote some years back, I discussed one Reverend Toller – in the film First Reformed – whose utterance stays with me: ‘I know this is a world without hope.’ Many years ago, I wrote about the dangers of utopian thinking, that the only curriculum I know is a dystopic one, a world without hope – but not a world where we utterly give up. There are things to do in this life that are worthwhile, like taking care of one another. For what else is there? Concepts, ideas, arguments, disputations – call them what you will – are all fine and are part and parcel of what it means to be a philosopher. But there is more work at hand, there is more work to be done – the serious work of being with the Other – attending to the Other. There is nothing I cherish more than my time with others. Philosophy is not merely about building systems or working with clever ideas. Cleverness, in fact, is something I try to avoid, for there is no point in being clever. This is what Socrates might have called sophistry. There are plenty of people who can spin clever arguments. But there is nothing more meaningless than being clever.
Saas-Fee was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I spent the happiest days of my life there. I had epiphanies every day. I felt so happy that I feared I was experiencing mania. I feared I was setting myself up for a terrible fall into the abyss later on at home. And, yet, I am not now in the abyss, for I have returned to the world of work, to the work I need to attend to. I have returned to the work that is most important to me, to being with others, to being with my students and with my patients at the hospital.
Tagore had it right: there comes a time when the spell of solitude must be broken to do the work at hand. The European Graduate School has given me a life I never thought possible, for I am surrounded by people I love and cherish beyond measure. I have been given a second chance, a new life – to breathe life anew. I have become what I was meant to be: a philosopher. A word I can barely utter. In fact, the word makes me stammer. I have been given the gift and the promise – as Derrida might say – of lifelong friendships, of being with people who are so dear to me that it is painful to leave them to return to my world at home, where the hard work begins.
The hours and the hours and the hours of waiting until the next time I can meet my friends, the next time I can meet those with whom I have built a new home and a new life, to be renewed, seems endless, and endlessly painful. I have only just arrived home, only to long for an impossible elsewhere. And, yet, I ask: ‘Why is everything wrong?’ Virginia Woolf understood that all is not well with the world, all is not right with the psyche trapped in an iron cage of domesticity and the confines of the academy. But, still, there is work to be done, for all is not well with the world. How to traverse ecstasy and agony?
*This piece is dedicated to my friend and teacher, Avital Ronell.