Thursday, June 08, 2017

Notes on Consumption: History of Philosophy, Twin Peaks, some writings

I'm feeling nostalgic for a time long before I existed... before most of Western civilization existed, really. It's a side-effect of listening to The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (I'm up through the Middle Platonists) and reflecting on the potency and simplicity of those early philosophical doctrines, from Heraclitis and into Aristotle and Socrates and the Hellenistic schools.

I'm not nostalgic for the inevitable disease, scarcity, and slavery that made up everyday life in those classical empires... indeed, my nostalgia requires a certain denial about the real historical conditions. What I'm nostalgic about, obviously, is the freshness of thought... the way these philosophers could try to get a handle on the whole universe, the nature of reality and virtue and everything, in a way that's simple, that just requires a couple principles, one or two guiding concepts, and a faith in reason to reduce everything else.

It's been a long time since somebody could honestly say, "The virtuous life is the good life, and virtue is just the pursuit of wisdom and self-mastery." It's also been a long time since somebody could say, "Everything is made of air." How different history would have been, if one of those metaphysical statements had proven true! That behind the great multiplicity of reality, we'd found a simple unity! A history of childlike simplicity, of getting everything in order according to one principle... the whole mess of human conflict, just washed away, all at once.

I know philosophy can't really operate like that these days. That kind of innocence is long gone, diluted by cultural exchange and obliterated by the fires of war. No intellectualism can be honest without acknowledging the specific, the irreducible, the multiplicity of objects and subjects and vantage points.

So if you have a yearning for something that captures the world, or at least tries to grapple with everything at once, rather than with some small, isolated part of it, you have to go to those places that lean into ambiguity, that celebrate the strangeness and the mystery of it all... things that make space for meaninglessness, and accept infinite contingency.

Luckily, I've been watching the new season of Twin Peaks, and Lynch's sensibility scratches this itch pretty well.

It's not perfect... or if it is, I'm not far enough through the whole thing to see it... but Lynch does not shy away from the grand fog. He may find some monsters in the mist, but more importantly, it brings out the obscure discord of everything... the way all reality is sort of floating, removed from the simple constraints of logic and justice and cause and effect and archetype. Sometimes it's almost nihilistic, and sometimes it's merciful and melancholy.

There is something sad, to me, about watching Dale Cooper wander the city, helpless, only comprehending the most proximal connections and sensations. Because I am the proud parent of a toddler, and Dale Cooper is acting very much like her. And what it conveys, to me, is a particular point about how confused and venal and unnecessary the world is, with all its complications.

I'm uniquely sensitive to this kind of ambiguity at the moment. I think this is what I responded to in "It's Not Like I Tried to Hurt Anyone," a very compelling story I stumbled across in one of those Medium "recommended" sidebars... there is a sense in which the main character's refusal, her withdrawal from history, makes her feel vast and divine in a way that's not shared by all the rest of us, caught up and diminished in the flow of the everyday.

I'd like to do some more focused writing soon. I'd do a philosophical essay, if I could manage it, and I've got a starting point -- the Skeptics' investment in their own ignorance, which I strongly identify with -- but I need more content, something more compelling to structure it. We'll see what comes of the urge. I feel a terrible shortness in myself, an inadequacy, that I need to power through, even if I can never vanquish it.

As a final note -- I also ran across an excerpt from a book called Essayism, and it's made me want to buy the whole thing, when I have a moment to read it.

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