I once had a philosophy teacher who I’m coming to think was not very good. He was very brilliant but he taught poorly and the way in which his teaching (both in person and in his written books) was poor reflected I believe a defect of character. He was a brilliant man and on any particular topic had a lot of dazzling, provocative, unexpected and beautiful things to say but he never connected them in a way that made it easy to follow. The experience of taking a class from him was you would enter a door marked — let us say “Nietzsche” — and then enter the intellectual equivalent of a carnival dark ride. Lights would flash, music would play, you would be propelled past fascinating scenes and then deposited outside. You would think “That was intense! I guess I learned something about Nietzsche…I just can’t quite say what.” When he taught he put on an amazing performance. He revealed a striking degree of vulnerabiity about his own personal, emotional travails, and left you feeling you had encountered not just a professor but a tormented fellow human being. The net effect was that his students became fascinated with him and did not learn how to be philosophers themselves. Sometimes you could catch something but it was a risky endeavor, like trying to grab a fire-cracker and start a cookout with it.
I had another teacher who as I have grown older I have come to appreciate more. This teacher was humble and always seemed ready to reconsider everything he had ever thought. He was like a good electrician who leaves the jobsite every day in good shape. If the jobsite is in good shape when the electrician dies another electrician is faced not with spaghetti but with a clear system of wires — this one turns on the ceiling fan, this one turns on the overhead lights. The good teacher leaves a tidy intellectual workspace in which all the tools are well-placed, in good working order and easy to use. The good teacher teaches his students not to need him.
My own difficulty talking is stuttering. What it is, is an arhythmia. Why is arhythmia a problem? Rhythm synchs us up with our listener. We both enter into a pulsation that carries us both out of ourselves, and out of the present. BUM bum bum bum BUM bum bum bum BUM bum bum bum BUM bum–even if I died while writing that, if I were capable of rhythm — i.e. facile at it — not a stutterer — you would know what would come next, after my death — bum bum.
My friend Avis is so nice she is nothing but engaging, appealing rhythms which she assimilated unconsciously in childhood. When I hear her talk I can always tell who actually said what she said, and she appears something like a human being muted by an enormous puppet costume, unable to express herself in language at all, though from deep within her suit I can hear the animal expressions of emotion — sadness, anger and ecstasy.
David was so traumatized that all he hears when he talks is the scolding voices of his parents threatening to destroy him. He can’t get a word out, he is so choked with terror so instead he produces sentence after sentence which conceal him from his own fear, or I should say attempt to, like someone with chattering teeth saying that he is quite, quite fine. If he could ever stop being afraid of what he was about to say he would find what he was saying was different than what he thought or feared or imagined he was saying. Much simpler, more beautiful, as clear as a bell.
My friend Richie is deeply, deeply silent, like a thousand-year old stone on a forest floor. What does he have to say? What do we want him to say? Does he know? Do we know? If he could ever gather himself together and give speech to himself I am sure it would strike me with the force of a command that I had been waiting for my whole life, like a sentinel on duty who finally received his orders. Sometimes I look him in the eyes wondering if that moment will come and if it comes if the order will be “STAY AT YOUR POST!” or “MARCH!” or something I can’t imagine yet because it has yet to be communicated to me, or perhaps a message for someone else entirely.
The four of us together miscommunicate in exactly twelve different unsuccessful ways.
Me talking to Avis
Me talking to David
Me talking to Richie.
Richie talking to Avis, Richie talking to me, Richie talking to David.
David talking to Avis, David, talking to me, David talking to Richard.
Richard, me, David, Avis each talking to ourself
Each way of communicating a failure in its own entirely distinct, unique, wonderful way.
Those 12 ways together are like a single word that hovers on the tip of God’s tongue, frustratingly close to expression, tantalizing and yet far.
How much of my identity is up to me? Some of it — I can decide to be a Jehovah’s witness, or a democrat, or a vegetarian, or a fan of Styx. Unlike in the past when many of these affiliations were handed to me by the circumstances of my birth, now many aspects of my identity are up to me. I am self-defining.
But not entirely so. Some aspects of my identity are decided by other people. Consider my identity as Uncle Eric. When my brother Flippy had his first child he turned me into an uncle. I did not get a say in the matter.
My children are not married, but if they do I will acquire another identity, one which has a name in Yiddish but not in English. This is the identity of machituneh.
Definition: A is a machituneh of B iff A has a child married to a child of B.
This identity is also not up to me. My children can make me a machituneh of somebody else whatever I say, just as my brother can make me an uncle, like it or not.
I can decide to be a vegetarian but I cannot decide whether or not to have the identity of machituneh to a meat-eater. I can identify as Episcopalian but I cannot decide whether or not to be machituneh to a Jew.
I foresee and look forward to an era of universal machitunimification. We can argue about whether or not we are literally brothers or siblings, but once everyone has descendants married to everybody else’s descendants we will be a single human family.
Some day maybe humans and intelligent bears will produce bear-man offspring and humans and bears will be machitunim. I suppose that the incorporation of the first mitochondrion and chloroplast by the first eukaryotic cell made eukaryotes and prokaryotes into machitunim.
But that happened a long time ago– people forget to invite prokaryotes to Thanksgiving.
My father used to say that the most important thing in your life was to formulate what question you wanted to answer, but he was a bad father.
How about “Who am I?”. “Terrible.” “Why?” “Hopelessly vague. How are you going to know when you answered it?”
“What is the meaning of my life?” “Pretentious.”
“What’s it all about?” “Childish!”
“How can I be happy?” “Who says you can?”
“Fuck you!?” “Now you’re just being sassy.”
“What do you want from me?” “What do you want from you?”
“What do I want from me? “ “Now you’re just copying.”
“What about now?” “Now you’re showing off.”
“What is my question? What is a question? What do I need to know?” “Save your self-referential paradoxes for the bullshitters at the tea party, college boy.”
He died and obviously never answered any of the questions about questions, and for a while, don’t you know, I was so relieved not to have his weight on my life. And then I missed him and then I forgot him. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of asking who was he really, I mean obviously I’d like to know, but it’s not my question. I thought that when he died.
But now I think I think I know the answer. Who he was was the one to flip the oppression his own father had laid on his life by demanding answers by not doing the same injustice, laying the same burden upon me his son. As if making another person and giving him a life of his own could be done so easily and simply as changing a single mark?
-Never name a baby girl “Amber”.
-Because it means fossilized tree sap.
-But why should one never name a baby girl something that means fossilized tree sap.
-Explanations must come to an end somewhere.
Okay, I suppose they must, but I do not think your explanation should come to an end there!
Christianity is the very opposite of speculation … it is the miraculous, the absurd, calling on the individual to exist in it and not waste time on speculatively understanding it. If there is to be speculation under this presupposition, its task will sooner be that of grasping ever more profoundly the impossibility of understanding Christianity speculatively, something described above as the task for the simple-minded wise man.
(2009-05-28). Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (pp. 317-318). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
What does this mean? What is the difference between the simple-minded person and the simple-minded wise person? Why is it important to grasp the impossibility ever more profoundly? If it’s impossible it’s impossible — what good is it to grasp it ever more profoundly? What would that even mean?
Imagine that Ambrose has hurt Bernard — betrayed him, actually — and the once close and loving friendship between Ambrose and Bernard has been ruptured. Ambrose asks Bernard to forgive him.
If Bernard is a simple-minded man and has love in his heart he will say “I forgive you, Ambrose!” And that’s good.
If Bernard is a sophisticated thinker, but not simple-minded, he will ask for arguments that Ambrose will never hurt him again. There are no such arguments, because who can know that a person will never hurt him again? So the miraculous, absurd possibility that calls upon Bernard to love his friend again will be unheard. Bernard will avoid the chance of ever getting his friend back if he wastes his time looking for proofs that he will never be hurt again.
The simple-minded wise Bernard will understand that there can be no proof that he will not be hurt again and forgive Ambrose anyway. He will open himself up to pain recognizing that it is real pain, and thereby heed the call to the miraculous rebirth of their friendship.
Why does Bernard the simple-minded wise man need to grasp the impossibility of proof more and more profoundly? Presumably because the more they talk the more Bernard will be tempted to think “I get this forgiving so well I’m really an expert at it. I understand why Ambrose deserves to be forgiven. I already can feel the old trustworthy Ambrose is back again.” And all these things Bernard is tempted to think, all these stories he tells himself, are wrong. If Bernard forgives Ambrose he can still be hurt again, but if he allows the miracle to call on him and opens his heart, he can forgive him even though that is the case.
It’s tempting to Bernard to think that he is a master of forgiveness, to imagine that he has cracked the forgiveness code. To realize that he is not — that there is no code to crack– and to keep realizing it but to forgive anyway — that is the task of the simple-minded wise man.