Trouble in Paradise: non-fiction: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Todorov -- or why philosophy isn't enough

Friday, June 28, 2019

non-fiction: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Todorov -- or why philosophy isn't enough





Transcript:

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Todorov. Stay tuned to find out why they are interesting, but also not enough.
<intro>
Hi my name is JdH and in this video I will discuss Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Todorov. I will tell you why those three thinkers are very interesting and how their ideas kept me busy at a certain time. 
Why philosophy? That’s the simple basic question. At a certain level it helps us understand the world around us, because starting with meta-physics it’s all about the fundamental building blocks of lifenot the literal stuff like protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, muons, gravitons or even amino-acids, DNA, cells, neurotransmitters and all that. Philosophy is concerned with the building blocks of our experienced lives, first and foremost from our individual perspectives.
After 2000 philosophy became more of an obsession in The West, because it somehow has this promise that it will help us understand more about life and our condition. I fell for it at the time, I studied it for a while and so did many others. Fueled by the promise of wisdom and the movies of Woody Allen.
But what did we get out of it, besides a grade-list and time better spend (assuming that the alternative at that time was guzzling beer and watching movies)? For me at least it had a distinct beginning and end, because to me philosophy was interesting because of the difficulty and the promise, but it wasn’t enough about the stuff of life. 
If you look at one of the best sci-fi-series ever (Star Trek): the entire Vulcan society is based on logic, which is a branch of philosophy. It was instated officially on the planet Vulcan, to avoid the collapse of their civilization. Before that time Vulcans worshiped a variety of gods and there had been extreme violence and constant warfare. Even though logic and the mind-melt makes Vulcans seem superior it does come at a price: from a young age on Vulcans are conditioned to repress their emotions. To have and show emotions is an illness in Vulcan society. 
Of course, Vulcan society is a fiction, but it illustrates where philosophy begins and ends, because philosophy is about systemizing (logic) but there’s no room for emotions, which is the stuff that makes us human, which makes us interesting and makes life worth living, because very simply put: we are emotional beings. 
Philosophy still has its place and I also think it’s important, because it instills a certain way of thinking and it does give us a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The first philosopher that I was exposed to was Kierkegaard when I was about 19. Remember the music that we listened to back then (Nirvana, Radiohead, Pearl Jam). It was both melancholy and bad boy, it was music by talented people, it was highly original and all that but most importantly they had this whole attitude that we were on the brink of discovering our own truth and know-all. To some degree philosophy tied into that, because it was the path less traveled and it might lead to some great insights.
Of Kierkegaard I only remember a handful of things. When he was young he asked himself this very simple question: why do anything?The reasoning was this: his life was good as it was and there was little prospect of it ever getting any better. At the time I lived in the big city, shared a house with a few others and I would be going out most days of the week. These days I write about the weekend-junkie and how we need that to re-establish equilibrium, but those days that was the whole pursuit. By living like a junkie (with money borrowed from the government) I was convinced that I was inches away from some great truth and all that. The money and the time ended at some point, but I still look back at that time as well spend.
Kierkegaard reasoned that it wouldn’t get any better. In his case it was probably true, because he wrote these words at a time when writing was limited to the few. And getting these kinds of thoughts published might be a privilege for an even smaller group. I’m sure he was rich, which made these things possible – there was no necessity like there is for the rest of us. Despite that very obvious fact, I recognized the feeling, because if you look at the way our modern society is organized: it’s pretty good. 
Granted, there are places on this earth where it’s pretty bad, the poor countries, the dictatorships, and all that, there’s the 1% and 99%, climate change – but apart from that, for most of us: the basics of a good life are covered and we can be sure that it always will be. For this very simple reason we [as in our generation] somehow lack this intrinsic drive to go out and try to change the world. 
It would be unfair of me to say that people who have less, do have a better drive and a better motivation, because for most who have less and who work two shitty jobs to make ends meet they may have no choice, and there might be little prospect of ever changing their situation. 
What I’m getting at is more of a state of mind, maybe it’s better to compare our predicament to pirates who have sticks for limbs because then to just carry on is enough. It’s us who are left to ourselves in that we need to look for purpose and to construct those larger narratives. And this, to me, is all part of that whole feeling that Kierkegaard expressed and that I experienced myself when I was 19 why do anything?and it also touches on some of the bigger social issues of our times: depression, anxiety and all that. 
Nietzsche is a whole other ball game. It’s the whole morality of wishing for most hardship, the idea of existentialism in that it’s us who provide meaning to our lives by committing to this or that, it’s the idea of the super human who is less concerned about what others think, but does what he himself believes to be the right thing, the idea of maximum expansion instead of survival of the fittest, the statement: “When life’s ascending, happiness is the same as instinct.”, ….with drunken moon eyes[when you have that feeling that some great insight is at the tip of your mind, most notably when drinking wine on a free day, I chased that feeling for years until I came to accept that there’s always proximity, but never actuality— you’ll never reach that point…. but there’s fiction and a larger narrative that will help us understand more of our condition….]
What is done out of love, always occurs beyond good and evil,” “Freedom is that one becomes more indifferent to difficulties.”. These ideas and statements are much of what Nietzsche comes down to, even though his texts are elaborate and hard to read (like most philosophy) – in my opinion most of his other ideas are lost to history. 
Todorov is a story apart, because his theories are based on historic accounts and by way of analysis of accounts of others. His book that I studied back in the days is Facing the extreme.I have talked about this before, so those who know me, most likely know the story. In this book, the accounts of survivors of concentration camps are analyzed, with the idea in mind to find out what remains of human morality in such a setting. In other words; what is needed to keep it all together. The conclusion is a triad (like many structures that are strong and easy to follow on both an intellectual and a gut level): dignity, care and life of the mind. 
This is what makes Todorov different. There’s no initial personal investment, I mean, he must have heard the stories, but it must have been second hand, although he might have been Jewish, I couldn’t confirm that. Kierkegaard talked about his feelings when he was young. And he talked about depression and anxiety, which links it to our times, because these are some of our big themes. Then there’s Nietzsche, who’s more of an idealist, in the sense that he constructed many and original ideas about what it takes to keep it all together, mostly on an individual level, but it doesn’t resonate with anything deeper, anything more meaningful. 
To me, Todorov is the one who binds these two together. Even if it’s just the setting that evokes emotions for every person. Dignity is about walking with pride and not being prohibited in wanting to do what you want to do (as an individual). Care is about caring for and being cared for (social). Life of the mind is finding a pursuit that keeps us occupied on an intellectual and emotional level (individual+social). 
In philosophy another person is capitalized as an entity called the Other, but to me, it seems that this is as close as it’s going to get when it comes to acknowledging that we’re more than Vulcans, that many of our drives and impulses are emotional and the very basic fact that we are social beings. 
And this is exactly where philosophy falls short. Just after 2000 it seemed that it was more than that that it has a spiritual component and that it somehow would help us find ultimate fulfillment. It would be unfair to state that I haven’t gotten anything out of it. I liked the pursuit, I liked the idea of wisdom, but on some level I just didn’t have the patience that’s needed to read works of philosophy. Most of these books are hard reads that require a lot of effort and that for some reason are not written with the reader in mind. 
When I write my fiction, that’s what I have in mind from the start: the story needs to be interesting, with strong characters, decent story-lines and a plot that leads to some sort of silver lining. I think that the best works of fiction contain some sort of silver lining, because on some level that’s what we all look for: some sort of reassurance that there is a bigger picture and that everything will somehow be alright. 
One of the last books of philosophy that I studied is A secular ageby Charles Taylor. One of the conclusions that this book reaches is that we have lost our capacity for accepting magic and enchantment. Instead, we have analyzed everything to death and in a way this work proves that philosophy and science don’t have all the answers. The answer is that we don’t know everything and for that reason it makes sense to believe in a bit of magic and to believe that we still inhabit an enchanted world. 
At the same time I tend to look at some of the movies of Woody Allen. Some of his movies are really good and others are really bad. One of my favorites is Whatever works– the title itself is the personal creed of its protagonist and this is more a kind of practical philosophy. This statement is repeated over and over again, and because of that it gets the quality of a mantra: by repeating it more and more, you start believing it more and more. Of course, it has this degree of silliness to it, but at the same time it acknowledges that a creed is personal and for that very simple reason it literally is whatever works. Is that philosophy? No, because it’s too simple. But in a popular sense, it most definitely is, maybe more so in our current times.
So there you have it: my analysis of why I believe that philosophy ultimately isn’t enough. Granted, it will help you analyze the world around us and find some sort of system, but where it falls short is in the realm of our interconnectedness, our relationships, emotions and human connections. What we need are stories the kind of stories that teach us about ourselves and the world around us. 
<outro>
You may want to try some of mine. You can read a new entry every week. For free. 
This is JdH speaking to your from the Caribbean.

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