|Down the road from where I live|
Ridiculous, I know.
* * *I’m not the sort who thinks about wisdom. I mean, there is nothing attractive—indeed, there is something unattractive—about someone aiming to be wise—except when wisdom is understood as a quiet, personal thing, not a showy, public thing. Wisdom for yourself alone is an unqualified good.
But one cannot teach young people for long without recognizing that they are, for lack of a better term, plainly unwise. And that recognition tends to bring with it a recognition of one’s own “wisdom.”
“Gosh,” one thinks. “I know something they don’t, owing to my experience.”
I’m thinking of a student of mine who is very bright, very hungry for ideas and intellectual stimulation, but who takes himself and his thoughts pretty seriously. I find myself telling him, “Well, don’t get too wrapped up in this Existentialism thing. You’ll find that enthusiasms for such philosophies tend to fade. Later, you’ll wonder what all the Sturm und Drang was about.”
But it’s no use. These young people can’t understand such advice. No more than I could, thirty forty years ago.
* * *But how can wisdom be a matter of not seeking to know that which can be known? Aren’t I asserting a paradox?
I recall one of my first philosophy professors, a very bright guy, who once told the class a story about a conversation he allegedly overheard on a bus. One man said, “Gosh, my wife is leaving me, I hate my job, and even my dog doesn’t like me anymore.”
“Yeah?” said the other guy. “Why don’t you do what I do when the world gets me down?”
“OK. What’s that?”
“All right. But just what is it to be philosophical?”
“You know. –Just don’t think about it.”
--At that point in the telling, professor U would burst into laughter, jerking his upper body around as though he were attempting some dorky dance, not realizing that his youthful audience had no idea what was supposed to be funny about regarding the Life Philosophical as the “life unexamined.”
As I recall, within a year of that episode, Professor U lost his battle for tenure. During his final year on the faculty, he managed to be accepted into some special, intense business training program for PhD’s. “Only the brightest,” I was told, were accepted into this prestigious program. “They all become millionaires, you know. Tycoons.”
I recall crinkling my brow. I guessed, I said, that I was happy for him.
A few years later, I asked about Prof U and I was told that he was making money like a sonofabitch.
* * *TigerAnn doesn’t think too much. She’s a fine girl. Very sweet, gentle.
She’s a cat. Today, she insisted on going outside, and I finally relented. We went out on the driveway where it was warm and we lay in the sun.
A few days ago, my sister caught us doing that. She said, “You two look like a pride of lions in Africa, only the main lion is a bear.” That was a reference to me, the bear. I figure I’m about 30 or 40 times TigerAnn's mass. She weighs maybe six pounds.
TigerAnn sometimes likes to go outside just to be out there. She loves hunting, but, today, she wasn’t doing that or anything else. She just lay there on the concrete driveway like a Sphinx. She looked straight ahead, expressionless, as per usual.
It’s a beautiful day. I guess she “knows” enough to just take it in in silence.
We live in a beautiful place up against a hill. Trees everywhere. Virtually no neighbors. A mountain fills up half the sky. The quiet is like a big pause in the world. Me ‘n’ TigerAnn, starin’, and there's a faint breeze.
Then all these ideas rushed into my head. But I've forgotten most of 'em. Dang!
* * *In some sense, philosophical reflection is supposed to go deep. I mean, if philosophy, understood as a narrow field (not like in the old days), has a role it surely is to ask the fundamental questions that are conceptual, not empirical. OK, you’re doing science, but just what is the point of that? Just exactly what do you think you’re doing when you’re doing science? And just what are you assuming about that thing you think you’re doing? And can you defend those assumptions?
Philosophy is annoying, like the kid who keeps asking “why?” But it’s inevitable among those with minds. There's really no denying it. Dismissing philosophy is simply ridiculous.
It sure does get you into trouble, though. I don’t mean trouble with others, although there’s that, too. I’m thinking of the trouble it makes in your inner life. When you philosophize earnestly, it’s easy to ask your way to a place where you are lost. I mean lost like the guy talking to the goldfinch (see Austin) and then the goldfinch talks back. Birdie says, “dude, do you realize that I’m a goldfinch, and I’m talking to you?”
Lost like you walk up to your cat, as usual, and then she looks you in the eye and says, “Just once could I go outside without you hanging over me the whole frickin’ time? Know what I mean?”
Yeah, I know what you mean. –Well, no, I don’t know anything. Not right now. I can’t even make a move. My head contains the ocean. My body dangles hideously in the universe, I….
I’m tempted to say, “I hate when that happens.” But I don’t hate it at all. I like it, sort of. But it’s not healthy. Not, at least, when it happens every day. Or so it seems to me now, looking back at the years, looking back at my earlier self and his enthusiasms and innocent, uncompromising ways.
* * *The other day, I was telling a student friend that I’ve seen older people who do not fear death, who seem to understand it. It’s not what these elders say. Nope. It is how they look: they stand and smile, silently, knowingly. It’s as if they found out that the Looming Big Disaster isn’t really a disaster at all. Lord, no. Don't be silly.
But how that’s so—it’s not for my ears or anyone else’s. Evidently, the thing known cannot easily be communicated. Or at all.
I’m sure it’s possible to be like that, I told the student. I keep thinking about these people. I am aware of their lives. They are the faintly monitored in my days. I somehow feel that their odd wisdom is slowly coming over me with the passing years, I said. Don’t ask me how I can tell.
I nearly said: Just be silent. Listen. Watch. I can feel that delicate smile emerging on my face. It’s barely started. It’s ever so subtle.
Knowing such things as these elders know hides a something, I know not what. Something just below the surface, but something, well, unknowable. Or just unsayable.
Knowing as such a state. Hmmm.
* * *I’m sure that we cannot know what our existence is. Nothing that one could think and say could count as that kind of knowledge. Knowledge of the kind we can have and express in propositions always becomes dirt—nothing, in time. Wisdom, I suspect, is somewhere in the gaze of TigerAnn and in the delicate smile of the Old People who go about their days, unworried, despite all the reasons for worry and all the clanging, banging machinery of the world and its pointless yammering about nothing.
* * *Don't ask me how I know that. Obviously, I don't.
Sometimes, when I'm writing (or otherwise creating) I become still. I hold out my arms as though I were in water, aiming for inertia. I am applying brakes and time slows. All is silence, a pressure in the world felt in my ears. If I am looking for a word or thought, I seem to physically reach for it in space, ever so slowly. My arm goes out.... (Lovemaking can be like that.)
I am somehow confident that my curious groping will succeed. And it does.
What is that thing, just below the surface? What is the meaning of this ritual? Why can it succeed without revealing in the slightest its inner springs and gears?
And how can I be confident of such a phantom?
What and where is the machinery of these happy, assured accomplishments?