Rhapsody in August (1991)

I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour about a year and half ago because Hubert Dreyfus used it as an explanation of Kierkegaard’s Preamble of the Heart in Fear in Trembling. It’s about a man whose family has been completely wiped out by the Atomic Bomb. The woman is European and has also suffered great loss thanks to the War.  But nature is far stronger than human destruction and human beings can either accept this nature (which is often considered to be “lower” because it is finite) or resist it. The woman resists it, but the man accepts it and this acceptance, which requires the complete absorption of the loss (rather than a resistance to it), allows him to become what the woman cannot. The women becomes resigned, but the man follows his lower nature and is stronger for it. The woman says she knows what it is to forget, but the man knows that she does not know because she cannot internalize the loss like he has been able to do. The internalization requires forgiveness which likewise requires faith. (Dreyfus said the man represented Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith because he is able to embrace the contradiction of remembering and forgetting.)

Rhapsody in August is a much different film than Hiroshima Mon Amour, but it is likewise about forgiveness and remembering and forgetting. Kurosawa was in his 80s when he made this film so it is likely about Kurosawa trying to come to terms with it, himself.

He presents the event through the eyes of the grandchildren of a man who has died when the Atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. They are visiting their grandmother while their parents are in Hawaii, visiting American relatives.   The grandmother’s brother had moved to Hawaii, married an American wife, and created a very successful pineapple farm they hope they can take part in. The brother, however, is dying and wants to see his sister, the grandmother.  Her children encourage her to come, in part, to ensure they can take part in the family business. The grandmother says she will come, but only after the anniversary of the bombing which is honored by the older generation even though it has been almost completely forgotten by her children and is virtually unknown to her grandchildren. The grandchildren explore Nagasaki while visiting their grandmother and slowly learn about what happened from both the city and their grandmother’s recollections.

Meanwhile, the grandmother’s brother in Hawaii has sent his Japanese-American son (Richard Gere) to be with the grandmother during the anniversary of her husband’s death (the bombing). Her children are very worried about his visit because they don’t want him to be offended by the memories of the bombing. This doesn’t make any sense to the grandchildren at all, and the grandmother is very clear that she doesn’t blame the Americans. She says it is the fault of war, not people. Clark (Richard Gere) doesn’t apologize for the politics, he apologizes for what it is the woman has suffered. It’s offered as a genuine expression of human compassion, not a critique of politics. It’s an admission of his, and that of the subsequent generations’, failure to recognize what it is the grandmother and others have suffered. She accepts his apology which is an offering of  forgiveness. Again, the apology isn’t about the bomb having been dropped, but an apology for the lack of true human connection.

I think that is significant. Like Hiroshima Mon Amour, it deals with an existential paradox – that of remembering and forgetting: we forget (are able to move on) by remembering.

Maybe it seems trite, but break the word re-membering down and it implies bringing members back together.   Reconnecting. That is what the man is able to do in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" that the woman is not: he’s able to fully internalize his grief which allows him to walk the line between the paradox. This allows him to live and love in a way the woman cannot. The woman can only be comforted by resignation which denies possibility while possibility remains open to the man despite his great loss. That’s what Clark and the grandmother do in Rhapsody in August and why the grandchildren know they have witnessed something very nice. They re-member. And thereby, they are able to forget.

Mirroring People – Marco Iacoboni

I just finished a book by Marco Iacoboni entitled Mirroring People. I saw it on the “New Books” shelf at the library and the title attracted my attention. Not until the end of the book does Iacoboni claim that his research is existential neurology. That made me smile.

Most of the book is about the research on mirror neurons and how it works. I only provide a few sketchy notes below. To learn more about mirror neurons, check out this 2005 Nova clip which provides a fun introduction.

The research in mirror neurons is still primarily introductory research but it kind of excites me because it points to some of the stuff I’ve been grappling with in terms of how our abstract categorical language keeps us from fully realizing who it is we are, my issues with Christianity, and my more recent interest in Existentialism.

A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when a monkey performs an action and when it sees someone else performing that action. The neuron mirrors the behavior of the other animal. These single cell neurons have been directly observed in monkeys but not in humans because of the invasive procedure necessary to observe single cell neurons. However, with the use of an fMRI, neurologists can observe human brain patterns that seem to show that humans likewise have mirror neurons and that these neurons likewise predict the action that follows the one observed.

A long held view is that the mind is something like a computer, but another view is taking its place – “that our mental processes are shaped by our bodies and by the types of perceptual and motor experiences that are the product of their movement through an interaction with the surrounding world. The view is generally called embodied cognition, and the version of this theory especially dedicated to language is known as embodied semantics.” The discovery of mirror neurons reinforces that cognition and language are embodied.

Iacoboni says that it is only after we feel emotions internally that we are able to explicitly recognize them. Most people who are shown pictures of people will mimic their facial expressions and the mirror neuron system of their brains will light up significantly. If they are asked to hold a pencil in their mouth while watching the facial expressions, neurons will light up, but not as significantly. This seems counterintutive because we’ve bought into the opposite theory – that we must first recognize emotions before we feel them. But there is no evidence whatsoever to uphold this theory. Indeed, if you think about how you feel, it is pre-reflective.

We tend to view our “self” as distinguishable from the “other”, but the discovery of mirror neurons are challenging this theory, too. Iacoboni says the problem is that “Western culture is dominated by an individualistic, solipsistic framework that has taken for granted the assumption of a complete separation between self and other. We are entrenched in this idea that any suggestion of interdependence of self and other may sound not just counterintuitive to us, but difficult, if not impossible, to accept.” Mirror neurons put the self and the other back together again. Also, there have been studies done that show a deficit of mirror neurons is a key factor for social disorders.

There is a whole new discipline emerging called neuroethics which has come about through the questions raised by the discovery of mirror neurons. Iacoboni writes, “The classical conflict between those who emphasize the biological determinism of human behavior and those who insist that our ideas and social behavior rise above our neurobiological makeup has never considered the possibility that our neurobiology dictates our social behavior to begin with.”

In addition to the mirror neuron system, there may also be a default state network that is concerned with both self and other, in which self and other are interdependent. Iacoboni calls these two selfs “two sides of the same coin.” Iacoboni says he is convinced that, “Mirror neurons are the brain cells that fill the gap between self and other by enabling some sort of simulation or inner imitation of actions of others.”

The most dominant view in Western culture in thinking about the mind originates from a position that goes back to Descartes that the starting point of the mind is the private, individual, solitary act of thinking. But according to Merleau-Ponty, “I live in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in mine.” And Wittgenstein: “We see emotion… We do not see facial contortions and make the inference that he is feeling joy, grief, boredom. We describe the face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even when we are unable to give any other description of the features.” According to Iacoboni, mirror neurons explain how the existential phenomenologists got it right and Descartes got it wrong.

Another consideration is that numerable studies show that we are not in control of our own choices – we have an overestimation of self-knowledge. Therefore, we can’t use our understanding of the self as a model for understanding other people if we have such a limited knowledge of our selves. We must make our inferences through a less abstract process. Mirror neuron activity reflects an experience-based, pre-reflective form of understanding other minds and the best description seems to be interdependence. (Remember Hamlet – “to be or not to be” – that’s not the question!!”)

Iacoboni claims that Existentialism has gotten a bad wrap. I totally agree! He says it is far more optimistic and about an empathetic, caring society, than it is about dread and despair. Existentialism, Iacoboni writes, “invites us to embrace meaning in this world, the world of our experience, rather than identifying meaning on some metaphysical plane, outside ourselves. Mirror neurons are the cells in our brain that make our experience, mostly made of interactions with other people, deeply meaningful. This is why I call the mirror neuron research an existential neuroscience of sorts.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but both existentialism and mirror neurons teach us to be suspicious of rigid dichotomies. (He cites Hubert Dreyfus who gave a Presidential Address to the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association emphasizing what is wrong with the analytic/continental dichotomy and reminded attendees why both “sides” of philosophy are important. ) Mirror neurons show that we are not alone and are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another. Iacoboni also cites Kierkegaard who proposed that our existence becomes meaningful only to a commitment to the finite and temporal. It is this commitment that defines us. Iacoboni says the neural resonance between self and other that mirror neurons allow is, in his opinion, the embodiment of such a condition.

We are wired for empathy. Perhaps it is the fact that we fell for abstract thought and became, as Nietzsche put it, meaning junkies and that has allowed for the current atrocities we find ourselves living with? We quit trusting ourselves in favor of abstract values.

Iacoboni says that we have been taught that the biological determinism of individual behavior is contrasted by a view of humans capable of rising above their biological makeup to define themselves through their ideas and their social codes. Mirror neuron research shows, however, that our social codes are largely dictated by our biology. Iacoboni believes that this understanding could have an immense effect on how we understand ourselves and how we relate to one another.

No Excuses: Lectures 15-17, Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a theology student and religion permeates all of Heidegger’s philosophy. His Being in Time is central to Existentialist thinking.

He is most concerned with “The Question of Being”. He distinguishes between Being and Beings. Philosophers have always worried about entities and what they are made of and how they relate to each other causally. But they haven’t asked “What is the ground of being that makes the appearance of entities to us even possible?”

Heidegger examines “the being through whom the question of being comes into question.” (That being is us.)

Ontology is the study of being, but it is also the study of the being through whom the question of being comes into question. Phenomenology is the study of our own subjectivity. With Heidegger, this takes on religious sensibilities. There is a sense of passivity. Under what condition can things disclose themselves.

Heidegger does not use words like experience, consciousness, or mind. But it’s difficult to discuss his philosophy in English without using these terms. The first experience is “Being there”. He calls this “Dasein”. This is a way of getting back to the basic, primordial experience and saying in what it consists. Our basic experience is a holistic unified experience of our being in the world.

We are ontological. We ask questions. In particular, we ask questions of being.

The Center piece of his philosophy is to reject the Cartesian tradition. We have to reject the distinction between being in the world and something else; between consciousness and the world outside of us; between the phenomenological world with its intentional objects and the possibility of the objects to which that refers. Dasein and the world are a unified phenomenon. To understand Dasein is to understand the world. To understand the world is to understand Dasein.

There can be no Dasein without the world. There can be no world without Dasein. Dasein is already being in the world and being in the world cannot be separated into components. Dasein blocks the sorts of questions like “Who am I?” What we think of as our identity is a false self-identity.

An uncomfortable fact about Heidegger is that he was part of the Nazi party and he never repudiated the Nazis even though he became disillusioned with them. He said it never achieved it’s potential greatness. It became too much like the other technological societies (America and Russia). Heidegger has brilliant ideas but a despicable past. Nietzsche said that who the philosopher is has a lot to do with what the philosophy is. Heidegger claimed that Being in Time was not an ethical work. But it’s impossible to read it without seeing that it had powerful ethical implications. Heidegger rejected this, perhaps thanks to an inability to come to grips with the implications his philosophy has.

What bothers Heidegger is the problem of alienation. He talks about feeling at home in the world. But the truth is that he did not feel at home in the world and that modern man does not feel at home. Mass consumerism and technology have made it impossible to feel at home.

To talk about knowledge is to enter a domain that, according to Heidegger, we have not understood at all. What philosophers tend to think of is the world as something to be known. But Heidegger says we are not first of all knowers or spectators. Our first of all experience of the world is engagement. To be engaged is to care. Caring is not to be confused with caring for others or about others and should not be confused with anxiety or worry.

Heidegger talks about the World as Equipment. It’s about knowing how, rather than knowing that. It’s not about observing as a spectator, but being engaged in tasks. Under what circumstances do we stop involving ourselves in tasks and start seeing the things as we use as things – as individual instruments or items? Pre-reflection is more important than reflection.

Reflection becomes important when something goes wrong. If you are hammering nails into a floorboard, to think about the hammer and the nails and the floorboard and yourself as separate components is debilitating. But if the head flies off the hammer, then it becomes important to work through what went wrong.

If we are engaged in what we are doing, we don’t notice what we are doing. We are concerned with getting the task done. Heidegger thinks peasants have the answer to the question of being that philosophers since Plato do not because peasants are actively engaged in their world. But this is to be contrasted with using the world as a resource – especially in terms of technology. Technology makes everything the same. Consumerism is something Heidegger despised. These things separate us from the world and from each other. Heidegger’s original flirtation with Nazis was to re-capture rural Germany even though they quickly became more concerned with the same things as what the Russians and Americans displayed.

Heidegger rejects Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” because he says it leads to a split between mind and body. Descartes also said that self-knowledge is immediate and unmistakable. Descartes uses this as proof that there is at least one proposition which is self-evident and undoubtable. But according to Heidegger, we don’t know what our selves are and anything recognizing true recognition is a rare thing.

To be authentic is to be one’s own person. In contrast, there is inauthenticity which is not being one’s own self. Heidegger labels this “Das Man”. It means, “one does not do those things around here”. The Das Man Self is an anonymous, individual or reflective self. It is inauthentic. It is a social, comparative self. But it is an essential part of life.

When we talk about ourselves, we talk about ourself in relationship to a group. We give our identity in terms of our social roles. But our social roles aren’t us.

Heidegger also has the notion of being thrown into the world. What would it be like had we been born in another century? We didn’t choose when and where we would be born and we didn’t choose our parents. This compromises taking hold of yourself not within a vacuum, but within a very particular historical concept. Moreover, when one takes hold of oneself, one doesn’t break free of society. That would be the height of alienation (and technological societies). Rather, one takes a hold of oneself and appreciates ones traditions, ones history (historicity), and one embeds oneself back in ones culture and ones times. It’s easy to see how he saw national socialism and German culture in general not as a herd mentality he should escape but the opposite – something he should reinsert himself into. (This is very likely how he ended up with Nazi roots.)

Heidegger does not refer to time as clock time. We talk about living in the present but the truth is we never do. Whenever we think of ourselves, we always think of ourselves from our past and in terms of our future projects. We are creatures in time.

Inauthenticity or alienation? Is that the choice we have? Heidegger says that this isn’t the choice we have, there is a third alternative.

Heidegger understands existence, in the Kierkegaardian sense – human beings have the ability to appreciate who it is we are. Reflection in the sense of being ontological. Existences precedes essence. Within the context of existence, Dasein has possibilities. We always see our world in terms of possibilities. Existence is a sense of the future – that we have the capacity to make choices. Existence is a freedom to make choices based on what we want of the future. Our moods are what “tune us in” to the world.

Facticity – the facts that are true about us. We are thrown into the world into a particular culture, a particular history, etc. This gives rise to our historicity which is the idea that we are born into a particular historical situation and tradition. Once we achieve authenticity, we reinsert ourselves into our historicity and our traditions. Fallenness is a term that is strongly reminiscent of the fall in the Bible, but it refers to the fact that we fall back from a reflective, authentic position to something Heidegger calls “preontological”. What we do is stop asking questions for a while and we fall back into tasks. This is how we live most of our lives and it is a sort of inauthenticity, but nevertheless, it is part of human existence and should be respected as such.

Heidegger talks about authenticity in terms of three different contrasts: Understanding vs. Curiosity. Modern science is curiosity. Most people when they ask questions are being curious. But this is an inferior form of cognition. Understanding is superior to curiosity. Thinking vs. Calculation. Heidegger does not admire technological advancement because it involves calculative thinking. Real thinking is philosophical thinking. Speech vs. Chatter. There is talk that entertains us, but true speech is something very different. Most of us spend most of our time just chit chatting. But speech is much more profound.

Conscience is the constant reminder within us that we are not all that we would like to be; that we are not authentic. That we are just going along with the crowd and there is this quiet voice that reminds us we could be something more. Conscience gives rise to guilt. This is something built into our very existence – it is the constant reminder that we are not being all that we can be. It isn’t built for a transgressions or an omission, it comes by fact that we are human. It comes by virtue that we are ontological. We can’t help but ask questions about being and who we are. When we quit asking these questions (because we get comfortable in our job or in our marriage or in our habits), there is still a nagging conscience that there is something else.

To be authentic is to start to think about our neighborhood, marriage, job, etc. in a new way – taking hold of them and making them our own rather than simply being in a neighborhood, being in a marriage, being in a job, etc.

“Being Unto Death” is not a celebration of death, it is simply a recognition of death as a necessary fact about us. We need to live with death in mind. When you face death, what you ask yourself are some very basic questions about your life. It is death that individuates us. It is death that shakes us out of our Das Man self. When you face death, you face the sudden realization that you might not be there. When you die, you will cease to be a Dasein, the world will cease to exist for you. And therefore, for you, the world will cease to exist. It’s not the same thing as authenticity although it is one aspect of it, it is a spur that throws us out of our inauthenticity and fallen condition and forces us to see ourselves and our lives a single unity. This is when we start making resolutions of a profound sort.

Are we to be alienated as authentic? Or inauthentic and not living a full life? Once we become authentic, we can re-emerge ourselves into our historicity. (It’s not too difficult to see here an excuse for Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations.)

No Excuses: Lecture 1, Intro. to Existentialism

Solomon specifically focuses on Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre in this series. He says he starts with Albert Camus because he is the easiest to understand and also captures the sensibility that represents existentialist thinking.

Solomon says the movement was best defined by Sartre (1905-1980) based on one of his very late interviews: “I have never ceased to believe that one is and one makes oneself of whatever is made of one.” In otherwords, we make ourselves. We are self-creation. This doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever it is we want. A good deal of life is not something we choose, but we still have the ability to make choices within those situations.

Existentialism is a movement that can’t easily be pinned down, but it does have 3 characteristics:

  1. The emphasis is on the individual.
  2. Passions are seen as important. To live is to live passionately.
  3. The concept of freedom is central, but is not understood in terms of politics or metaphysics. Rather, the focus is on the freedom of the individual to make choices and to take the consequences for those choices.

Often, freedom is associated with reason and slavery with the passions. But Existentialists do not accept this view. Hume said that reason is and ought to be the slave of passions. Passions are not the monsters they have been made out to be because without passion, life is meaningless. Existentialism says we should live our lives in terms of passion. Kierkegaard insists on passionate commitment and Nietzsche says it is up to us to discover our talents and to throw ourselves into those talents. But this is done within a balance of contingency and personal choice. (It does not mean we should just do whatever it is we want to do.)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) made the famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” His philosophy places the emphasis on thought and suggests existence is reliant upon thought. This is something the Existentialists reject. Nietzsche said that we never exist quite so much as when we are not thinking. The emphasis is also on “I am” (as a thinking person). The Existentialists saw this as far too simple. It’s not enough to simply be “thinking”. We don’t find out about who it is we are through reflection, we find out about ourselves by being engaged in the world.

From some of the questions that were asked at the end of the lesson:

What do you mean by the phrase “personal freedom”? What counts as “being free” for you? Personal freedom, for me, is most definitely about having the freedom to choose no matter the situation. It is really easy to willingly turn that freedom of choice over to others – authority figures, institutions, political systems, etc. without realizing that is what we have done. Being free, for me, is having the courage to make decisions for myself, even if those decisions are counter cultural and make people angry.

Do you believe in fate? What would this mean? If I were to introduce you to a very good fortune teller (who had an accuracy rate of over 95%) and she offered to tell you the outcome of your marriage or the date of your death, would you be willing to ask her? Why or why not? I wouldn’t ask her. Even if she had a 100% accuracy rate, I wouldn’t ask her. What would be the point of knowing the answer to something like that? I’d rather throw myself into the experience rather than being attached to an end result. I’ve been in a marriage that didn’t work and would be willing to go through it all again, even knowing with 100% certainty that it won’t work out. The experience was invaluable to me and so I’m grateful for it even though, in the end, it was a “failure”. I think I’d be giving up my personal freedom if I made the end result more important than the actual process. So why ask? Even if she’s 100% accurate. It doesn’t really matter.

At the end of “No Country for Old Men", when Chigurh is planning to kill Moss’s wife, she tells him he doesn’t have to do it. That he has no cause to kill her. He says, that’s what they all say, “You don’t have to do this”. She reinforces the point – he doesn’t. But he says he does have to do it because he gave his word to her husband (who is already dead and wouldn’t want his wife killed). From Chigurh’s perspective, perhaps it makes sense from a purely logical perspective (based on his warped reasoning), but not from a humane perspective.

He tells her the best he can do is offer her a coin toss. She has to call it and if she calls it right, she can live. But she refuses to call it. She’s not going to let him off the hook. He’s the one committing the violence and he has no cause to kill her. She’s not going to give up her personal freedom by allowing her life to be a matter of a coin toss. Chigurh says he got there the same way the quarter got there – so it’s all a matter of fate in one way or other. Which is true. She doesn’t have any control over the situation she is in. She can’t control whether Chigurh chooses to kill her or not. But she can insist that the power of personal choice is more important than fate by refusing to call the toss.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

I read The Castle because Thomas Merton had highly recommended it in connection with with Camus. In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus devotes a chapter to “Hope and the Absurd in Kafka”. But it is Camus’ The Plague where Merton makes the comparison. He says that both The Castle and The Plague “deal symbolically with the relation between the inscrutable powers that influence man’s destiny without his being able to understand them.” Merton seems to take it for granted that K. has been summoned by the Castle. But I’m not so sure I agree.

For me it was difficult to tell whether K. was actually summoned by the Castle or if he, for whatever reason, decided he wanted to leave his hometown and find a new place to live so made up the summons. He clearly has no intention to go back home and frequently says he plans to make the village his home. It’s very ambiguous. Whatever the case may be, he is given the run around and cannot penetrate The Castle no matter how hard he tries.

Merton says that Kafka is speaking about religious alienation: “man’s struggle to bridge the gap between himself and a realm of utterly inaccessible transcendence.” The problem is that man attempts to “imagine and understand grace in terms of hierarchic organization, that is to say, in terms of “law”‘. For anyone who understands the New Testament, it is clear that this involves a contradiction that is beyond any solution. But for anyone who knows church history, it is also clear that the contradiction is in fact, inevitable. They cannot understand grace in any other terms.”

For Merton, the hero of The Castle is Amalia. She refuses an insulting summons from the Castle and she and her family are disgraced by this refusal. The Castle is always to be obeyed but she chooses to do what is “wrong” (yet she is in the right). She is Sisyphus. “She refuses unquestioning obedience to an arbitrary and revolting command. Her act is precisely the kind of choice which Camus describes as “revolt” against the arbitrary and the absurd, in affirmation of one’s personal life, one’s own authenticity and existential truth.” A significant point: it is not the Castle that ostracizes Amalia’s family, it is the villagers. Also, Irving Howe points out that part of what makes Amalia heroic is that she does not challenge the Castle’s dominance or criticize it. She simply refuses to have any connection with it. She is sustained by suffering and a quiet resolve. (Olga calls Amalia’s refusal “the original cause” of the family being despised. (Original sin that creates the fall?)

K. is “the stranger” to the village. He doesn’t understand the internal workings of the society and is constantly bungling his efforts to get into the Castle. The administrators of the Castle seem to be unsure what it is he has come to the village for but because they never make an error, they assume he is there to do land surveying, as he says. But rather than employ him, they do what they can to keep him somewhat complacent while giving him the runaround. On the one hand, he is standing against the system. On the other, he’s trying to figure out how to become a part of it. He’s no hero like Amalia is a hero. But that he wants to reach the heart of The Castle puts him in stark contrast to most of humanity that prefers comfort and complacency to struggle.

Max Brod was a friend of Kafka’s who pieced the book together after Kafka’s death. He, like Merton, put a strong emphasis on the religious aspects. He said the Castle represents a wish “to get clear about ultimate things” with the recognition that it is impossible to get clear about ultimate things because the world will not yield to lucidity.

Kafka wrote, “Man cannot live without permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, and at the same time that indestructible something as well as his trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.” K. searches for a way to penetrate the castle, completely exhausts himself, but his lifelong quest does not lead to a conclusion.

Kafka was Jewish so it is possible the book could also have to do with being displaced from your home and trying to fit into a totally different culture. There are many instances where it is clear that people don’t really want him in the village but simply tolerate his being there. Even the Chambermaid claims that K. is lower, socially, than she is. But at the same time, several people look to K. to help them break out of the system.

It could be specifically about a Jewish experience, but this experience has now become common within all of modern man. Irving Howe writes, “No other writer of our century has so strongly evoked the caustral sensations of modern experience, sensations of bewilderment, loss, guilt, dispossession. These are sensations known to millions of people quite unaware of Kafka’s writings and without any claim to philosophical reflection.” Robert Atler says that the distinctive quandaries of Jewish existence have become quandaries for all mankind. Kafka merely recognizes them. (He’s not out to convert anyone.)

I found the book to be incredibly tedious in parts which was very likely intentional on Kafka’s part. When K. falls asleep during Brugel’s advice, I thought I might fall asleep, too! It just went on and on and on and on… And you never know, is Brugel offering something of value? Should I be paying closer attention to his ramblings? Or is this just more of the same old runaround K. comes up against at every turn?

The book actually ends mid-sentence. Max Brod said he once asked Kafka how he intended to end the book and Kafka replied:

The ostensible land surveyor was to find partial satisfaction at least. He was not to relax his struggle, but was to die worn out by it. Round his deathbed the villagers were to assemble, and from the Castle itself word was to come that though K.’s legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was to e permitted to live and work there.

So Kafka never intended to have K. reach the castle.

Just a few quotes I found interesting:

After Freida has allowed K. to look through the peephole at Klamm (the Castle authority), the landlady chastises him: “But just tell me, how did you have the face to look at Klamm? You needn’t answer, I know you think you were quite equal to the occasion. You’re not even capable of seeing Klamm as he really is; that is not merely an exaggeration, for I myself am not capable of it either.” (This from a woman who was summoned by Klamm so apparently has slept with him.)

The Mayor: “Is there a Control Authority? There are only Control authorities. Frankly, it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?”

K. to the teacher: “…but that I had other things to think of than polite behavior is true enough, for my existence is at stake, which is trheatened by a scandalous official bureaucracy whose particular failings I needn’t mention to you, seeing that you are an acting member of it yourself.”

Olga to K. on getting official appointment in the Castle: “…let us say someone like that [someone wanting to seize an opportunity for Castle promotion] goes in for the examination, for years he waits in fear and trembling for the result, from the very first day everybody asks him in amazement how he could have dared to do anything so wild, but he still goes on hoping – how else could he keep alive?” (Kierkegaard?)

Camus Koan Solved!

I realized this after leaving a comment the blog of the person who had introduced me to Kierkegaard….

The main affect Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus has had on me is the exact opposite of probably what he wanted it to have. He’s made me far more appreciative of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith which I really wasn’t all that into until I read Camus (I liked Nietzsche’s atheism far better). I’m now beginning to realize how much Kierkegaard rocks!

It’s like Camus takes you on the same struggle Kierkegaard has us engaged in. They both get us to the point where the bridge ends in nothingness. But Kierkegaard says jump and Camus says “no – stay here and struggle happily ever after.” Camus thinks that if we jump off that bridge, we will fall from the “heights”into that silent space where the ego no longer has dominion. And he’s absolutely right! But he thinks the transcendence of the ego is the death of the human “being” and Kierkegaard knows it isn’t.

It’s kind of like being with a bunch of friends who are willing to jump off a high cliff into the water to experience something new. You don’t want the new experience so prefer to remain with what it is you know. No leaping for you.

It’s true – you can be happy without leaping. Nobody will begrudge you your happiness. Leaping doesn’t make you a “better” person or make your existence more “valid” or give your life “meaning” or everlasting life. The only real difference is that you haven’t experienced leaping and the person who leaps has!!

Paul Tillich

While at the Half Price Bookstore the other day, I picked up two books on Paul Tillich along with the book I got on Postmodernism I posted about recently. I’m not exactly sure what inspired me to buy them. I think I had gotten Tillich confused with Teilhard de Chardin whom Milosz and Merton had been discussing in their letters. (Both said they didn’t much like him.) Whatever possessed me, I’m glad I got them because I’ve enjoyed Tillich. I’ll give some time to Teilhard and figure out why it is that Merton and Milosz don’t like him another time.

Tillich is a Protestant Theologian and I’m kind of amazed at how comfortable I feel reading him. He comes at things in a way that makes me feel right at home. Tillich refers to God a lot, but like Merton and ACIM, his use of God does not refer to the traditional, mythic God – it isn’t a transcendent judge.

For Tillich God is the symbol of our “ultimate concern”. God is whatever concerns us ultimately, whatever is most important in our lives. Tillich says this is true even if you deny God. “Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God.” Likewise, for Tillich, faith, and religion are “ultimate concern”. Paradoxically, he sees religion itself as one of the greatest dangers to religion because when a religion becomes rigid, it suppresses the inquiry, the dynamic, the love, and the insight that gave it its original inspiration and growth. It therefore denies the “ultimate concern” rather than reaches for it.

Ken Wilber says that Tillich’s God as “ground of being” is right on target and even Sam Harris (the guy who wants to put an end to all of religion and wrote The End of Faith) has no problem with Tillich recasting faith “as a spiritual principle that transcends mere motivated credulity.”

Interestingly, Merton and Tillich have a lot in common, too. One thing they share is the idea of kairos. I’m wondering if this at all fits with Fuzzo’s comment on my post on Postmodernism? Fuzzo wrote:

“…now, what’s really cool about all this is that the very same thing happened in America at the end of the first world war. it returned in a very weak wave as the war in vietnam drew to a close, and now here it is again – full blown – aided by the information age…”

In Morality and Beyond, Tillich says kairos is a Greek word that means “the right time”. He writes:

All great changes in history are accompanied by a strong consciousness of a kairos at hand. Therefore, ethics in a changing world must be understood as ethics of the kairos. The answer to the demand for ethics in a changing world is ethics determined by the kairos. But only love is able to appear in every kairos. Law is not able, because law is the attempt to impose what belonged to a special time on all times. An ideal that appeared at the right time and was valid for this time is now considered to be the ideal for history as a whole, as that form of life in which history will find its end. The outcome of this attitude is inevitably disillusionment and the rise of ethical libertarianism and relativism. This is the point at which the dynamic-naturalistic solution, despite its destructive consequences, was in the right, and still battles rightly against Catholic and bourgeois ethics. Or, expressed in terms of church history, this is the point at which Luther was right in his opposition to Aquinas and Calvin. Love, realizing itself from kairos to kairos, creates an ethics that is beyond the alternatives of absolute and relative ethics.

Tillich wrote about kairos existing at the end of World War I and encouraged his contemporaries to respond to that kairos. He was disappointed when it passed thanks to Hitler’s rise to power. Merton likewise wrote about kairos during the American Civil Rights movement and was likewise disappointed that people failed to respond to it. In an article entitled “Religion and Race in the United States” in the New Blackfriars magazine (Vol. 46 Issue 535 Page 218 January 1965) Merton wrote:

Is it possible that when the majority of Christians become aware that ‘the time has come’ for a decisive and urgent commitment, that time has, in fact, already run out? There can be no question now that the time for a crucial Christian decision has come and gone. In 1962 and finally in 1963, there were “moments of truth” which have now passed, and the scene is becoming one of darkness, anarchy, and moral collapse.

Fuzzo says we are here again, full blown. Is this another kairos?

According to Tillich, in order to recognize kairos, it is important to realize “a moral act is not an act in obedience to an external law, human or divine. It is the inner law of our true being, of our essential or created nature, which demands that we actualize what follows from it…An antimoral act is not the transgression of one or several precisely circumscribed commands, but an act that contradicts the self-realization of the person as a person and drives toward disintegration… Freedom is replaced by compulsion. Deliberation and decision, the hallmarks of freedom, become mere facades for overwhelming drives that predetermine the decision. The voice of man’s essential being is silenced, step by step; and his disintegrating self, his depersonalization, shows the nature of the anitmoral act and, by contrast the nature of the moral act.”

It’s also important to understand “love”. If we simply understand it as an emotion, we have misunderstood it. “Love, in the sense, of agape, contains justice in itself as an unconditional element and as its weapon against its own sentimentalization.” This love has very little to do with pity, as was noted by Nietzsche. “…love liberates us from the bondage to absolute ethical traditions, to conventional morals, and to authorities that claim to know the right decision perhaps without having listened to the demand of the unique moment…It breaks the prison of any absolute moral law, even when vested with the authority of a sacred tradition. Love can reject as well as utilize every moral tradition, and it always scrutinizes the validity of moral convention. But love itself cannot question itself and cannot be questioned by anything else.”

Tillich says that it is a moralistic distortion to classify the “teachings of Jesus” as another law. It is his word (not his “teachings”) that point the way to the new reality in which the law is not abolished, but has ceased to be commanding. (Fuzzo mentioned that he thought language was everything.)

In Love Power and Justice (which was written before Morality and Beyond) Tillich claims that “Ontology is the elaboration of the ‘logos’ of the ‘on’, in English of the ‘rational word’ which grasps ‘being as such’”. He claims he wants us to turn to something older than naive nominalism and realism to a philosophy that asks the question of being before the split into universal essences and particular contents took place. He says that this philosophy is older than any other and is the most powerful element in all great philosophies of the past. It is the philosophy which asks the question: “What does it mean that something is? What are the characteristics of everything that participates in being?” This is the question of ontology. The way to verify ontological judgments is not through experimentation, it is through experience. (Authenticity rather than authority?)

The problems of love, power and justice categorically demand an ontological foundation and theological view in order to be saved from the vague talk, idealism, and cynicism with which they are usually treated. Man cannot solve any of his great problems if he does not see them in the light of his own being and of being-itself.

I could probably easily work through two weeks of posts based on all that I highlighted in these two books. But alas, I’ve got other things I want to get to like Nietzsche and Buddhism and Nietzsche and ACIM. St Theresa’s recommendation about Translucence, Dreyfus’s class on Heidegger. The list goes on and on… So I will have to come back to Tillich and study him in more depth at a later date.

Tillich was heavily influenced by Heidegger (and Kierkegaard, of course) which makes me that much more interested in getting to Dreyfus’s class. I’d been looking for Being and Time at the used bookstores for months because it’s an expensive book and found it on Sunday, the same day I found these books by Tillich. Synchronicity on top of synchronicity – so much fun. I had no idea Tillich would fit in so well with existentialism or Merton! (And, potentially, Fuzzo’s comment on Postmodernism.)