"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 27, 2012


We have all been confused at one time or another; and in fact confusion is as much a part of life as order and predictability.  I am confused when I am reading one of Shakespeare’s Histories for the first time, trying again and again to sort out who did what to whom and whose claim to the throne is legitimate.  Richard II was one of five sons of Richard, The Black Prince, and they were all squabbling, demanding their rights, and setting the stage for brutal War of the Roses.  My patience paid off, for the more carefully I read (and consulted the genealogical chart that showed lineage), the more the confusion dissipated, and the more the historical complexity receded into the background that Shakespeare intended.  I could appreciate Richard II for who he was, the Poet King who spoke some of Shakespeare’s most poignant and insightful lines.

I am confused in a new supermarket, wandering like a blind man up and down the unfamiliar aisles trying to apply what I have learned from my Whole Foods in DC to the Kroger in Columbus, MS.

For years I have understood that limiting confusion was important.  The more I could limit the unimportant or non-essential choices in my life, the freer and more uncluttered my mind would be for more serious matters.  I found my philosophical match in India, where according to Hinduism, all basic, practical, and earthly activities should be carried out according to age-old Vedic prescriptions.  When you got up, bathed, made love, married, ate, worked, or prayed were all written down and codified.  Nothing was left to chance.  The goal of life was, after all, not earthly success, but spiritual enlightenment, and the mind must be free to contemplate God.

I was watching The Fly a modern remake with Jeff Goldblum of the Vincent Price classic of the Fifties.  The later version is funny, with a black, twisted humor, and you really like Goldblum as wiry hair pops out on his back, his teeth begin to fall out, and he has urges to swing from the rafters. 

There is one scene in the movie which I remember clearly.  Goldblum’s girlfriend asks him why he never changes his clothes.  He is perplexed.  “I change my clothes every day”, he replies, and opens the armoire to display his rack of suits, shirts, ties, and shoes, all exactly the same.  “It helps me focus”, he says, “If I don’t have to think about what to wear”.  My sentiments exactly.

I am lucky to be married to a woman who indulges me and helps me keep my life clear of practical obstacles, like doing the taxes, balancing the checkbook, and hiring gardeners to keep the wild backyard in check.  Unaccustomed as I am to any kind of practical decision which I know will produce confusion (like buying anything with the bewildering array of choices there are for everything today), I am paralyzed when buying a new DVD player, clothes, or God forbid, a used car.  My wife says that I take ‘the easy way out’ since I wait until I have holes in my pants before buying a new pair, or invest thousands in my old clunker just to avoid having to buy a new one; but this is not fair.  My ‘keep the rubber on the road’ philosophy helps me to keep the confusion out of my life.  The problem is that the older I get, my obsession with simplicity gets in my way.  I avoid the unpredictable, the risky, or the unforeseen.

Giles Fraser, writing in the Guardian (10.26.12) provides another take on confusion.  Confusion, and the anxiety it produces, forces us to accept simplistic arguments, thus limiting our universe to the patent, the predictable, and the obvious:

But confusion generates anxiety, and the desire for anxiety reduction is such that one is easily tempted to subscribe to any sort of explanation of things, so long as it regulates confusion and thus diminishes the anxiety.

This is what often deters us from stretching our worldview and imagining things turned upside down. Part of the reason I prefer religion over scientific atheism is that I find atheism to be less tolerant of confusion and disorder. It's easy to subscribe to some general pret-a-porter philosophy that puts everything neatly into its ontological place; but the price you pay is a smaller, diminished world. Or maybe that's the gain: after all, a diminished world is less threatening.

For Fraser, reading Aquinas and Augustine, the tracts of Martin Luther, the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, Greek origins of Christian philosophy; experiencing the spare, absolute faith of Islam; or sorting through the multiplicity of Hindu gods to see the perfect order and symmetry of the religion to come to some conclusion about the existence and nature of God are infinitely more rewarding than simply saying, as atheists do, I don’t believe.  There is an innate reward in wandering through complexity until one finds ones way.

Of course, I'm not really trying to defend confusion as a permanent condition. Rather, I'm trying to defend its more illustrious cousins – puzzlement, wonder and adventurous curiosity. This posher side of the family are often snooty about confusion, wanting to distance themselves from its messy and circuitous ways. Yet Wittgenstein is surely right when he says that "I do not know my way about" is the basic form of a philosophical question.

I am a creature of three worlds – the Hindu one in which confusion reigns in an illusory world, and the only right path is to neutralize it through discipline and order; the Jeff Goldblum one, where non-essential choices must be reduced or even eliminated to allow the mind to use its limitless potential; and the Fraser one in which intellectual challenge and achievement is perhaps the most valid expression of human existence.

I am about to go to the store where I will go to the same aisle of the supermarket, to buy the same tuna fish and condensed milk.  I will take the same route to get there that I have always taken, park in the same spot if it is available, and proceed through the store as I have done for 10 years.  All the while I will be sorting out a particular conundrum – Why, really, did Othello murder Desdemona?

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