Monday, August 30, 2010

The power of Shakespeare's words

In Shakespeare's measures of the withdrawal of the world we are offered a picture of, let me say, the privatization of the world, a picture of the repudiation of assured significance, repudiation of the capacity to improvise common significance, of the capacity of individual human passion and encounter to bear cosmic insignia. The tragic and the pathetic beckon one another. "Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?" (Is this? This play. No.) "To be or not to be." "A tale told by an idiot." "Are you fast married?" "Look down and see what death is doing." "Then must you find out new heaven, new earth." After such words, in their occasions, there is no standing ground of redemption. nothing but the ability to be spoken for by these words, to meet upon them, will weigh in the balance against these visions of groundlessness. Nothing without, perhaps nothing within, Shakespeare's words could discover the power to withstand the power Shakespeare's words release. Is this, since then, the demand we place, to greater or lesser extents, on all writing we care about seriously? - Stanley Cavell

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kafka on his writing

It is easy to recognize a concentration in me of all my forces on writing. When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joys of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection, and above all music. I atrophied in all these directions. This was necessary because the totality of my strengths was so slight that only collectively could they even half-way serve the purpose of my writing. Naturally, I did not find this purpose independently and consciously, it found itself, and is now interfered with only by the office, but that interferes with it completely.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dante's expanse

...although they are in a situation which differs from any imaginable situation on earth not only in practical terms (they lie in flaming tombs) but also in principle by virtue of their temporal and spatial immutability, the impression they produce is not that they are dead - though that is what they are - but alive...We have left the earthly sphere behind; we are in an eternal place, and yet we encounter concrete appearance and concrete occurrence there. This differs from what appears and occurs on earth, yet is evidently connected with it in a necessary and strictly determined relation...there results as it were a tremendous concentration. We behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth...we are given to see, in the realm of timeless being, the history of man's inner life and unfolding. - Erich Auerbach

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Age of the Moral Cop-Out Carries A High Price

David Selbourne has got it right. In a recent pamphlet, Moral Evasion, he lists the eleven arguments now regularly deployed to sabotage any attempt to make moral judgements. They are: There's nothing you can do about it. It's never been any different. There's no quick fix. It's the price of a free society. You must move with the tide. You can't turn back the clock. The problem is much more complex than you think. It's beyond the reach of the law. You are focussing on the wrong issue. Who are you to talk? Everyone's doing it, so how can you object?

The result is one of the strangest cultural moments in history. What other ages found offensive - crudity, incivility, obscenity, blasphemy - are today so commonplace as to be routine. Meanwhile, what other generations saw as essential to civilisation - moral judgement, the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong - has become not just controversial but taboo. Merely to suggest that there may be some ways of life more gracious, honourable, decent, benign or just plain good than others is to risk accusations of judgementalism and moral panic. Hell hath no fury like a relativist scorned.

So it's worth reminding ourselves why every other age than ours has cherished moral wisdom. It's not because people wished to interfere in what others do in private. That may sometimes have happened, but it's not what morality is about. It's because life is short, and the bill for our mistakes is long. A child may bear the scars of a broken family for a lifetime. Trust, once broken, is hard to repair. An impulsive word can destroy a friendship. A single act of folly may wreck a career. Not everything we want to do, ought we to do. Our own happiness - let alone civilisation itself - depends on our ability to hold desire in check, restrained by thoughts of long term consequences and consideration for other people. That is where the moral sense is born.

It doesn't come naturally. Morality is not genetically coded. It is not hard-wired into our brain. That is what gives us our unique evolutionary advantage. Homo sapiens is the animal that learns. And we learn cumulatively, by not having to start afresh in each generation. Instead, through families and schools, we pass on the wisdom of the past, experience often bought at a high price. What makes humanity different from other life forms is our ability to think beyond the present. We remember what worked and what failed. We are capable of envisaging a different and better world. We can tell the difference between what is and what ought to be. We also know that, whatever world we seek, we can't make it alone. Therefore we need to create a shared language of the imagination together with relationships of trust.

So, at most times most societies have invested vast energies in the institutions through which children learn how best to behave - families, schools, public codes of behaviour, together with the stories, songs and canonical texts through which a culture conveys its memories and ideals.

Reducing morality to private choice is as absurd as the idea that we can each invent our own treatments to cure disease and that the existence of doctors is a threat to our autonomy. So ignore the critics. David Selbourne is right. Moral wisdom is never certain or complete, any more than medicine is certain or complete. But it is something we inherit and learn and share. Above all it is something we are right to teach our children. - Jonathan Sachs

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The well-lived life like participating in a jazz band

What benefit for our daily lives can we gain from a consideration of what life means? It’s been suggested that we consider the meaning of life to be happiness, but happiness not as the pursuit of pleasure, but as a state of our being that maximizes use of our full human capacities. However, we should go beyond Aristotle in emphasizing that one of the key human capacities that must be developed is the capacity for love and compassion for others. The metaphor is that the well-lived life is like participating in a well-functioning jazz band, that balances individuality and cooperation. Here everyone has individual free expression within the structure of the piece. We're free within physically determined bounds and we can decide what happens within those bounds. - Timothy Bartik (via Terry Eagleton)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On capitalism and Kierkegaard - Michael Foley

One of capitalism's greatest strengths has been its ability to co-opt everyone into its project by encouraging them to become property owners, shareholders and entrepreneurs. And to its promise that anyone can be a millionaire has recently been added the promise that anyone can be a celebrity. Its other great strength is the ability to neutralize dissent by absorbing it...Kierkegaard argued that the self needs a balance of necessity and possibility - it will suffocate in too much necessity but vaporize in too much possibility. Throughout history, crushing necessity has been the usual problem, but the contemporary self is being driven mad by infinite possibility. Rejection of necessity is the contemporary sickness.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Van Gogh on Socrates (or on himself)

Socrates was born as a true satyr, but by devotion, work and renouncing frivolous things he changed so completely that on the last day before his judges and in the face of death, there was in him something, I do not know what, of a god, a ray of light from heaven that illuminated the Parthenon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Van Gogh on Adversities

Personally I believe that the adversities one meets with in the ordinary course of life do us as much good as harm. The very complaint that makes one ill today, overwhelming one with discouragement, that same thing - once the disease has passed off - gives us the energy to get up and want to be completely recovered tomorrow. Diseases exist to remind us that we’re not made of wood, and it seems to me this is the bright side of it all. And after that one dreams of taking up one’s daily work again, being less afraid of obstacles, with a new stock of serenity...that it’s a “crown-of-thorns” life, yes, but fighting difficulties in which one finds oneself, an inner strength develops from within the heart, which improves in life’s fight.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shakespeare's humility

I find Shakespeare particularly appealing in his attitude toward his work. There’s something a little irritating in the determination of the very greatest artists, like Dante, Joyce, Milton, to create masterpieces and to think themselves important. To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously. - W.H. Auden

ex. "these are but shadows" & "the play did begin to write itself"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Something on high - Van Gogh

It seems to me it's a painters duty to try to put an idea into his work. In this print I have tried to express...what seems to me one of the strongest proofs of the existence of the "quelque chose la-haut" (something on high) in which Millet believed, namely the existence of God and eternity - certainly in the infinitely touching expression of a little old man, which he himself is unconscious of, when he is sitting quietly in the corner by the fire. At the same time, there is something noble, something great, which cannot be destined for the worms...This is far from all theology, simply the fact that the poorest little woodcutter or peasant on the hearth or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration that give him a feeling of an eternal home, and of being close to it. - Vincent Van Gogh

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Van Gogh on Shakespeare

Shakespeare was an artist who out of compassion sacrificed himself to fashion a new art of the spirit that would speak to ordinary people, bringing comfort and healing.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Believing in the possible again

(Alternate version: replace "Moses" with your favorite poet or artist or spiritual mentor.)

The empirical fact is that even for the most G-d fearing person living a virtuous and spiritual life does not come easily. Life for most of us consists of a battle between good and evil, spirit and matter, self-indulgence and transcendence – between selfish cravings of material narcissism and commitment to a higher calling, with the former more often than not winning out.

Indeed, modern secular thought sees the human being as an evolved beast, a billion year old bacteria, whose primary drive is survival (“survival of the fittest”). From biology to psychology, from genetics to archeology – from Darwin to Freud – we have been taught that humans are driven by the irrational and emotional primitive “id,” which is all “want, want, want,” self-gratification driven by one rule – the “pleasure principle: “I want it and I want it all now”.

Moses however saw the human being in quite a different light. While its true that every person has a selfish inclination, we also have a Divine side, which is capable of the noblest behavior. Indeed, Torah sees that the deepest part of the human being is the “yid” rather than the “id.” The essence of the soul is like the letter “yud,” a dot, a spark of the Divine.

The easier route may be the narcissistic one. But a person always has the choice to overcome his/her primitive temptations and access the transcendent soul within.

The soul is a rich resource, with layers and layers of potential. And in the soul lies a dimension that is a “spark” of Moses. At this level it is as natural to connect to G-d as it is for a fish to be in water. The challenge is to recognize and draw forth this dimension, which can lay concealed beneath the outer shell of material survival.

It is critical that we believe in ourselves to be able to achieve anything in this world. But we must also know that our psyches are under a constant assault of many forces reminding us time and again about our limitations, feeding our insecurities and fears.

Comes Moses and says no! You have the power to be Divine, and with ease! You only need to believe that it is possible.

In essence, one can say, that this is the ultimate battle in life: How much we believe in ourselves; how much we believe in our possibilities.

When things sometimes seem impossible, think about Moses’ words. Think about the fact that by virtue of the “Moses” within” your soul you are within reach of achieving virtually anything you set your mind to.

So now that we know that the great Moses believes in us, the question we each much ask: Do I believe in myself?

With a leader like Moses the impossible may just be possible.

- Simon Jacobson