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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Life On A Need To Know Basis–The Search For Meaning Cannot Be Cluttered

‘Too Soon Old, Too Late Schmart’ is an adage for all those whose lives have been dependent on knowledge but who were finding, as time was growing shorter, that they were no closer to the goal than when they started. No matter how assiduous the effort, nor how purposeful and dogged the search for meaning, it seemed to be elusive, and asymptotic.  One could always approach Point X but never reach it.  And Point X seemed ever so important for these older men of the Upper West Side.  What had been the purpose of their academic lives, their unremitting intellectual curiosity, and  their absolute conviction that no mystery could remain unsolved for long.  Logic, discipline, insight – all the best intellectual and creative instincts given to Man by God had to be ultimately worth something. 

Konstantin Levin’s existential question was never more relevant.  How could God have created such an intelligent, creative, and witty creature and then consigned him to an eternity beneath the cold, hard steppes?  He must have had a reason if only to enable Man to figure out what his Creation meant.  Yet neither the fictional Levin nor the real Tolstoy who spent much of his adult life pondering this question came to any satisfactory conclusions.  Both backed into meaning.  For Levin it was doing good – Christian charity and compassion was the only reasonable, intelligent gesture in life.  Tolstoy in his autobiography A Confession concluded that if hundreds of millions of people before him, and millions now believed in God, then there must be something to it.  Years of studying history, philosophy, science, literature, art, and religion to no end must have been telling him something.  There really is no such thing as meaning he finally understood, only divine order, and so be it.  Getting schmart was realizing that there was no such thing.

Image result for images book cover anna karenina

A close friend who had been born in Brooklyn, brought up on Hester Street, and who had spent his entire adult life in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive  had recently retired from Columbia where he had been a professor of Ethics and Moral Principle.  Unlike many recently retired people, he never doubted what the next phase of his life would be and that it would be no different than his professional career only without deadlines, students, and faculty politics.  He would complete his research on the moral – or rather amoral – principles of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and try to square them with Plato and Aristotle.  How was it, he wondered, that the Ancient Greeks could be so grounded in principles of  morality and right behavior while the moderns had slid into relativism and inconclusiveness.

A change began to happen when his wife of 50 years, seeing him poring over a stack of old books still not yet returned to the library, asked him what he was doing.  Why, she asked, with so much free time and so man other things to do was he still trying to make sense out of conundrums which had eluded him for decades.  Although she loved her husband too much to say what was really on her mind – “What on earth are you doing?”, she wondered how he hadn’t budged an inch off the academic mark.  Not only that, he began to pay much more attention to current events – Washington politics, scandal, and intrigue; international wars and civil conflicts; and the frightening reconfiguring of American society.  There was hardly enough time in the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, let alone a weekend to the Chesapeake or even the Hamptons.  Whereas moral philosophy had been a career, it now had become an obsession.  He  read every serious newspaper and journal, Left and Right, and tried to triangulate the conflicting stories and contentions.  To make sense, in other words, out of seemingly senseless bickering, slander, and posturing.

If this were not enough, he decided to pursue an old interest in Assyrian relief sculpture, and collected archival materials from Jordan, Jerusalem, and Aleppo.

At the same time he could not ignore his wife’s surprise at his retirement.  Not only had he not slowed down but had accelerated his pace and was as preoccupied with ideas more than he had ever been. “What’s the purpose?”, she asked.

The purpose?  The purpose? What an absurd question.  Wasn’t this intellectual quest a human legacy?  Even if there were no specific purpose to it, wasn’t intellectual indolence a rejection of both God and humanity?  Or was his wife right.  As we get older shouldn't we be operating on a need to know basis? There was nothing new in human behavior – human nature assured that one generation would be just as territorial, self-interested, and aggressive as those past; and the only interest was in how the familiar dramas were played out.  There might be seemingly revolutionary technological advances - the final decoding of the genetic sequence, the ultimate post-human generation, and virtual reality – but there is no such thing as settled science and no scientific principle has ever lasted forever.  No such thing as settled philosophy, religion, morality or ethics for that matter.  So what was the point in gathering useless information and cluttering up one’s final years with it?

Image result for images dna

Saul’s colleagues kept sending him links to points of interest associated with his old profession and his new explorations.  New theories on the origins of language and the early evolution of modern man; philosophical-linguistic studies on the similarities between the first chapter of the Gospel of John and the Vedanta.  What was the point indeed? he began to ask himself Why do I need to know any of this?  Is it adding to my intellectual maturity, preparing me to meet my Maker? Making me a better person, a more attentive grandfather or even better husband?

Saul never made a decision to clear the decks for the final running – to cancel his magazine subscriptions, to defer his writing on the Assyrians, and to leave off his obsessiveness about the current Administration –it just happened. At first he read only sections of the Times, then only Arts section, and then nothing at all.  He tossed The New Yorker right from the mailbox.  He watched no news, stopped listening to NPR, and never argued about politics or the moral failing in America.

“Now what?” he asked himself as his life became more and more simplified and uncluttered.  “What now?”.  He had nightmares about becoming like his Aunt Sadie who spent hours on a chaise lounge on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, hocking with friends; but Sadie was not an unhappy woman.  Uneducated, yes; bourgeois and very Jewish, indeed; but always happy.  Was this his future?

His decision was not to stop intellectual pursuits – he had been too long on their path – but to disassociate them from meaning.  The deconstruction and analysis of Hamlet was interesting enough without looking for moral lessons.  Women in Love is difficult enough to decipher without having to conclude whether Lawrence was right on the Tantric centrality of sex.  Heart of Darkness is powerful, potent in symbolism and imagery, and a dramatic tale of ambition and disillusionment – to be enjoyed for its characters, for its sense of the totem, the unknown, the mysterious.   Hawthorne and Hardy were moralists, but their Victorian tales, read in one way, are not much different from the potboilers of Daphne Du Maurier.

Image result for images book cover heart of darkness

In other words purpose ended and enjoyment began.  If anything Saul was interested in explication but never meaning.  It was enough to understand what a story told and not to grapple with essence, application, or insight.

His friends wondered what had happened to him?  They never saw him any more; but they were part of his clearing the decks.  Kibitzing held no interest, nor did keeping up or keeping current. Tolstoy was quite consistent in his belief that we all die alone; that the trappings of the past are only that – pleasant, familiar, but inconsequential – and we should be paying more attention to our coming final moments than hanging on to the past. 

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