Nine twenty five.
A gentle wave of nostalgia. Music from 1987, a long long time ago, though it feels like right now. I’ve got sparrows at my back door, same species, different individuals every year, like the swans in the Yeats poem. I should call my sister pretty soon because time is slipping away. Both of my siblings are over seventy now.
When I was young, I strongly wanted to believe that humans are divine and free rather than animal and determined. I started taking a class in physical anthropology but wound up dropping out of the term totally. I still have the textbook we used. One of the first lessons was the Voyage of the Beagle and Darwin’s revelation of natural selection. A year later, I took psychology and came to be able to accept science, though it was very difficult for me because I still had the gnawing desire for freedom.
Is there any way that the ideal and the real can coexist and intersect? Descartes struggled with this problem, but there’s no philosophical hocus pocus that can permanently solve it. Sartre was the last thinker who tried to save freedom. Who’ll be the next?
Three thirty AM.
I can hear turbulent passages from The Miraculous Mandarin, but behind a network of words like a mesh or weave, warp and woof. I don’t feel like sleeping right now. It’s a strange thing to surrender to alpha waves, where the neurons all fire together in unison. I am kind of tired but not drowsy. There are things I need to sort out consciously and rationally; but now I’m subscribing to psychodynamic theory and I really don’t want to do that.
What if you could abolish every kind of dualism in experience: would it be like zen? It’s like rubbing out the distinction between subject and object, making reality a continuous thing, and the apprehension of it is intuitive and not sensory. In other words, it’s immediate. Mind and matter would be one thing. But temporal experience is hard to disregard: I know it was ten years ago this month that I read about Zen Buddhism from a book.
Around the same time I also read Nausea. In that story, the reality we understand depends entirely upon the use of language. It is totally verbal, and there are allusions to Descartes with his cogito ergo sum. But when the stream of words melts down, reality is just a flexible blob, a nothingness with nothing to describe it. I forget what Roquentin calls his little discovery.
What always amazes me are the layers of memory and how sensitive they are. They come up unbidden and can wreck your day and your peace of mind.
Quarter of seven.
The sky grows light and clear through the window behind me, the horizon like grenadine. Life is tiresome but in some ways it hasn’t even begun. Gloria is coming to work for me this morning after taking Tuesday off. I haven’t figured out what we’re going to do today. I spent a very long night and hardly slept. The life of literalness comes back to reinstate itself: time dominates once again, and this feels right.
It’s still overcast today with a few drops of rain. I’m curious to see how hot it’ll get this summer but there’s no hurry. I’ve gotten tired of the world news every day. In fact, I’m quite tired of people in general, the way we always refute each other’s identity and desires, like a constant negation of who we are. You have to just roll with it, though you also have to create your opportunities. It’s a matter of being up for it, and lately I haven’t been. Maybe someday the stars will line up in an auspicious way for my happiness, but it isn’t today, for me or for anybody. We hunker down in fear and uncertainty, magnifying the depression with our attitude. No one is being very heroic like characters in great literature. At a time like this, people could learn something from reading Sartre’s plays, but instead they flounder aimlessly, not knowing that they are free. The same thing goes for me as well. It’s not the will of God that drives the world. We are not pawns in this game, but rather agents who freely create our circumstances. Biblical prophecies are the ones that we ourselves fulfill because we don’t know any better. People are equally free not to turn fiction into fact. Becoming aware of this is the first battle. There is no blueprint for the human future.
Today was very nice overall. It got up to nearly 70 degrees and the sun was mostly out in a sky with high clouds, white blent with blue. My maple tree shows some leaf buds and I’ve seen other trees blossoming. I opened three windows in the house to let in fresh air, and towards evening it smelled very sweet. Aromas can do odd things with your feelings and thoughts, though I felt comfortable enough just sitting in the family room. Gloria came at nine o’clock and cleaned the kitchen except for mopping the floor. She also fixed the wall outlet for my microwave, so for lunch I heated a Hot Pocket. Probably tomorrow I’ll go to Bi Mart for a mop, a bucket, and some floor polish. In the process of putting away stuff from cardboard boxes, I found four guitar straps colored black, white, and royal blue, plus a few men’s belts. The guitar straps are nylon and I was kind of excited at the discovery. I can put a white one on my pj bass, which also is white with black.
No reading today. I thought about the Baudelaire biography by Sartre again. The blurb on back says that existential psychoanalysis is an alternative to Freud’s determinism, an idea that I had figured out myself, and it’s such a cool concept, that of freedom of the will. It’s also a rather unscientific one, a device of the humanities, of philosophy. But does that render it any the less true? To begin with, the determinism of biology was an idea that Darwin stumbled onto, and before him, it was part of the philosophy of David Hume during the eighteenth century. If it were possible to rewrite the science books from a libertarian point of view then I think Sartre comes close to doing that. At least, Sartre contributes something to psychology. As everyone ought to know, every branch of knowledge originally began with philosophy, so that pure thought is the driving force of human history, or perhaps I’m feeling a little optimistic.
On the other hand, I’m not the type to fall for quackery. British empiricism is a very commonsensical and grounded attitude to what we can know. Maybe it’s just that determinism offends my reason in some way.
All of this from an armchair, a philosopher’s pipe dream. But then, look at Darwin again, and the voyage of the Beagle. All it took was an idea.
Psychology is slow to catch up with modern philosophy, which started with Descartes in the seventeenth century with his cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am.” Freud modeled his theories on ancient philosophy and drama, mostly Plato and Sophocles, and the psychological tradition followed his lead. Psychology is just now beginning to admit the contributions of more recent philosophy such as existentialism. Sartre was essentially a Cartesian in the way he started from the point of view of subjectivity, of individual consciousness. The ramifications of his thinking were the condition of freedom for all individual human beings. He denied the determinism of nature in the case of humanity: humankind was an end in itself, determining its own meaning and essence. Humanity is something special, according to his beliefs.
Existentialism is basically very unscientific and non rational, a theory that grows purely out of arts and letters and standing independently of religion and science. It belongs to the no man’s land of philosophy, as Russell called it, though he avoided existentialism totally in his History of Western Philosophy. Perhaps he was wise to do so? His analytic tradition in philosophy is a completely different animal from the speculative tradition: more aligned with science and realism, which leads you back to determinism again. Maybe this perspective is more sane than the hyperbole of freedom and responsibility: more logical and consistent. The most convincing point of view will be consistent. And maybe the Cartesian approach was wrongheaded from the beginning? So that the absurdists didn’t know what they were talking about. Life is not absurd to a logical person, someone grounded in reality and in the laws of physics: in nature.
I read and skimmed the chapter on Sartre in my new book by William Barrett, and I came away from it feeling inspired and rejuvenated. I wrote some notes in my journal, arriving at the conclusion that human freedom has no limits, at least from certain perspectives. I know it probably sounds too optimistic, or “idealistic” in a naive sense of the term, yet what else is philosophy for if it can’t exaggerate a little? And now I’ll finish reading Native Son to see what ideas the story bears out.
I bet I sound like a kook to you with my talk of freedom and so forth, but it’s still important to me. Maybe there’s something kind of Peter Pan about libertarian ideas. However, the implications of liberty in the abstract are far reaching, and it’s a serious philosophical issue with a lot of relevance to our lives. Someday there’s a couple of books I want to read in their entirety: one is Being and Nothingness and the other is Don Quixote. In my experience with Cervantes and Shakespeare, the former is about individual freedom, the latter is deterministic and fixed, more like Freudian psychology. It’s interesting that the two writers were contemporaries and died on the same day in 1616. For me, it’s kind of either/or, one or the other, and I think I pick Cervantes.
I remember when in college I was sort of forced to accept Shakespeare and Freud, the unconscious, the idea of nature, and all that, after I’d been exposed to Sartre and other philosophers, plus Don Quixote. There’s a world of difference between these two angles. It might be said that the idealistic side has no common sense, hence the meaning of “quixotic.” And then you have to consider the role of Sancho Panza, the one who has sanity and a clear head. Sancho is realistic.
I don’t know about all of this, but I’m just getting started with my exploration of the possibilities, and the Barrett book fueled the fire for me today.
Eight thirty at night.
Where is it written that the truth shall set you free? Whether it does or not, the best policy seems to be honesty, though it’s not a law of nature. I remember a couple of Melville plots where the protagonist was damned no matter what he did or said. I guess it’s better to write your own plot as a free author and show some backbone. Courage is often rewarded by whatever powers be, while shrinking away and sniveling achieves nothing. It even takes being intrepid to open a book like Being and Nothingness and interpret it. All paper trails lead me to this book; even Cervantes points to Sartre, depending on the translation you read of the Quixote. If I say I’m not smart enough to tackle the task, then my philosophy professor from 34 years ago would say something about the intrinsic reward of learning. I can forecast the wages of doing nothing; without effort there’s no gain, and Being and Nothingness remains in its place gathering dust. Just another object, the being in itself. I need just a little push to motivate me. But would it really change my life to give it a read? Existence precedes essence: individual human beings create their own identity from a baseline of utter freedom. If that’s true, then you can’t go wrong with Sartre. And psychology has to move over to accommodate philosophy— which has always expressed the possibilities of human freedom, just by putting ink to paper.
I’m sitting here listening to the rhythm of the rain on the roof, reflecting vaguely on a collage of things of no consequence. Still, I keep coming back to the idea of freedom, and how this is defined, and if it’s really possible for human beings. Common sense says freedom is valid, in a Huckleberry Finn kind of way. Even now I have the option to go to bed or stay up and write this drivel. The rain has a soporific effect on my brain. I acknowledge my conscience saying that I should take my medication and get some sleep, yet I can veto what it tells me. If I do, then I’m responsible for the consequences. But the important thing is that I have free agency in my decision, as everyone always has. You can duel with your William Wilson conscience to the death, but will his death be tantamount to your own self destruction? Edgar Poe believed so, perhaps. At the end of The Flies by Sartre, Orestes exits the stage pursued by the Furies, so it’s not clear whether his freedom is punished or unpunished. He thinks he can elude remorse up to a point, but the ending gives the lie to his thoughts… Everything we do has consequences, good or bad. But this presupposes that we are free to choose what we do. Responsibility is not possible without freedom. By the way, the rain has ceased for now.
Quarter after eight.
I totally forgot to buy dog food this morning. Shame on me! So I’ll give Aesop part of my own lunch today. The ground is wet from the overnight rain. Kat waved to me from her living room as I walked past her house. Last night, for some reason I remembered things that happened three years ago, when I was a client at P—. Everybody was such a robot who worked there, or a puppet on strings. In the lobby downstairs I would wait for my taxi when I was done, with a view of the breezeway to the hospital. Some days were better than others, though I often felt judged by the therapists. The nicest person I met there was a guy named D— who had an idea for how to clarify the language. Basically he would purge everything poetic and make it plain and literal, sort of like logical positivism. He was very kind and humorous but troubled. I liked him… I let Aesop know what his breakfast will be today, and now we’re counting down the minutes.
Nine ten. I don’t make a contest of things like I used to. There’s no sense in competition with others. My brother even made a Darwinian thing out of singing karaoke at a local bar, which missed the point completely. I think the best feeling you can have is freedom from guilt and shame that usually result from condemnation by other humans. If you can be remorseless consistently then your life will be carefree… or maybe not. At least we can try to create an earthly paradise for each other, so that heaven is other people.
Currently it’s 78 degrees inside the house, and it has affected the way I think somewhat, actually in a beneficial way. I don’t feel quite as depressed as I did yesterday. While I was writing in my blank book rather prolifically my mood did an about face from melancholy to much more optimistic. Certain possibilities I hadn’t considered before made themselves known to me. Usually my self concept is pretty low and crummy, never giving myself the benefit of the doubt. I’m just a lousy schizophrenic person that nobody loves. But how do I know this to be true? I could be more appreciated than I realize, and I think being sober should be a big plus in my favor.
I also did some thinking on the nature of my psychosis, particularly the initial episode 30 years ago. Somehow I compared it to the adventures of Don Quixote, which show an ambition to be free and independent in a rather radical way. Wasn’t Cervantes in prison when he wrote most of the novel? Yet his imagination was unbound… Anyway, another fact of my case is that my brain has no structural abnormalities, such as enlarged ventricles. Anatomically it’s a normal study, and just my brain chemistry has been wrong. I don’t know what causes that. Oh— and to answer your question a while ago, yes, the predisposition for schizophrenia can be hereditary, but the onset of the illness depends on environmental stressors. It is one theory, anyway, and called the diathesis stress model… But the idea that was kind of blowing my mind came from the Sartre book I received the other week. Considering this plus the story of Don Quixote, I asked myself, What if madness is simply a desperate attempt to be free?
In this situation, what appears to be sheer lunacy may really be methodical and sane, just on a different level of consciousness, or of interpretation.