Tag Archives: Spinoza

Everyone Is Doing It


Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.

You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.

Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.

Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.

If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.

Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.

Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.

Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.

I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.

“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.

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Novelistic Imprecision

Philosophical exactitude is not required of novels, though novels are by nature philosophical.  Precise theories and grand conclusions are suspect in works of fiction in the same way they are suspect in real life: too strictly adhered to they’re symptomatic of willful delusion or at least wishful thinking.  But personhood and experience (being this thing rather than that -and knowing it-, and suffering change over time) are the stuff of novels, just as they’re the stuff of every human life –and these defy systematization.  If there is a final synthesis beneath it all, it tends to elude us, or the certainty of it does.

Perhaps that’s why among philosophers I prefer Montaigne to Spinoza, for example.  Spinoza is undoubtedly the more precise and systematic thinker and his scope is broader than Montaigne’s, but Montaigne is no less keen an observer of human nature while also being an appreciator of those things that don’t lend themselves so easily to system.   Spinoza’s perspective (with faint irony, perhaps) is godlike: all things fall under his gaze, and he is not surprised.  Montaigne has the spirit of a novelist, and his view is the more human: he is surprised by everything.

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes writes that “Memory is identity.”  Being a positive statement, it sounds more philosophically definitive than Joseph Butler’s contention (uttered 250 years earlier in response to Locke) that “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personhood.”  Both are right.  Like Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Barnes’ amnesiac loses his identity along with his memory (“It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but mirror”).  Despite that loss of memory, however, Butler’s amnesiac is no less himself as a discrete object or package of DNA.  But where Butler, as a theologian and philosopher, describes the view from above, from the perspective of God or science, Barnes as a novelist describes the scene from below, from the perspective of human personhood and experience.

Totalizing schemes of all kinds tend to live only by perpetual expansion, and sooner or later most fall prey to Bonini’s Paradox: in order to accommodate an infinitely diversifying host of disparate facts and observations, they become as unintelligible and unsystematic as the world they want to define. The only perspective natural to us – and the only one finally satisfying – is the philosophically inexact ground-floor view through a smudged window.

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