Saturday, April 19, 2014

Useless Man

Bryan Magee.  Confessions of a Philosopher.  Modern Library, 1999.  ISBN: 0375750363.

I have been reading Magee's book slowly since Christmas, when I received it as a gift (and a welcome opportunity to explore modern academic philosophy, the alien universe into which my last job thrust me unwitting but not unwilling).  It is very good.  Here I want to share some passages from chapter 15, wherein Magee describes what he calls his "mid-life crisis" (a mental breakdown which happened after he had achieved some measure of personal and professional success; I feel I have already gone through a very similar experience, though mine comes much earlier in my life and career).

Years before I made it conscious and explicit on this blog, I had the nagging feeling that I don't really value collective human activities that are conventionally very important (e.g. making money, making a name, making a career, being the kind of person people reward with power or prestige).  It is not that I actively hate power or prestige (now or in times past).  I just don't care much for them.  I have never pointedly avoided opportunities to befriend people or do interesting, important things.  I just haven't found "networking" (i.e. looking for useful acquaintances on purpose rather than encounter lifelong companions by accident, which I prefer) or "producing what powerful people want" (as opposed to producing what goods I can as best I can) inherently useful, beneficial, or desirable activities (to pursue as ends in themselves).

This attitude of mine is deep-rooted.  I remember playing on the playground as a kindergartner, usually alone or with one or two other kids, weirdos who decided to leave the group and join the hermit, for some reason.  I was not the kid people chose first for teams.  I was not the kid who cared, either.  I was not really picked on much.  (My only memorable trouble with bullies in kindergarten came from a girl in first grade, who took advantage of being bigger than I was to steal my lunch-box and hold it hostage for kisses.)  When the school asked me to join the gifted class that met during recess, I told them I would rather go out and play in the yard, with the trees and the sunshine.  (I still remember the confused and slightly angry look on the face of the little girl they sent to invite me.  Her name was Bethany.  She was very bright, and very nice to me.)  Magee offers a lucid, adult perspective on this attitude:
I felt I knew with some degree of certainty that if there were anything at all outside space and time we were at our closest to it in the private world of personal relationships, and of art and reflective thought, and were at our furthest from it in the public world of social organization and politics. I abandoned, or so I thought, the idea of becoming a member of parliament, and declined approaches made to me to stand for parliament. In all these ways the centre of gravity of my life shifted from the public to the private, from the impersonal to the personal, away from whatever it might be that was currently going on in the world of affairs to things of a more individual and abstract nature, and of much longer-lasting influence. I knew that many of my friends and colleagues saw me as falling out of life's race in a way that was cataclysmic for myself.  Indeed, some of them remonstrated with me about what they saw as my craziness in blowing a successful career. But the truth is that I no longer regarded the considerations they cared about as mattering (pages 256-257).
This has been my position ever since I was old enough to act with intention.  I did not care what teachers and classmates cared about in school.  When I went on a mission for the LDS church, I went to serve God, not the Brethren in Salt Lake City, who as it turned out had all kinds of impossible (not to mention immoral) expectations of what it meant to be a good missionary.  When I went to the university, I studied to improve Humanity, not to make a brilliant career or impress the bureaucrats in control of education (who are every bit as impossible and immoral as the Mormon leaders, it seems to me, with expectations that make a mockery of mankind and education).  I do what I see as the right thing.  I do it no matter what.  I see that this tendency is problematic (anti-social, dangerous, etc.), and I make efforts to correct it, but so far it is stubbornly incorrigible.  I am not always as keenly self-aware as Magee in this passage: more often than not, I simply don't see what institutions value in some activity that draws me, like a moth to a flame.  Institutions see opportunities for growth, for profit (that can be quantified), for results (that are evident to multiple players in an institutional game for survival outside the scholarly game of solving puzzles).  I just see interesting problems, problems to which I simply must contribute something--a process of personal engagement and development whose outcome is fundamentally uncertain and untrustworthy.

For me the process of study is always useful, always valuable, always to be pursued, even though its fruits are repeatedly, predictably, and predominately utter garbage.  The result of my life's process to date is a pile of stinking shit, hardly the reason I keep waking up eager to try again, to break my head once more against some problem that will not leave me alone.  I don't choose what to research, what to think about when I am not trying to keep my kids from killing themselves vel sim.  Problems simply find me, and I cannot let them go until I have read, thought, spoken, and written them out of my system.  I am not in control of my career, academic or otherwise.  I respond to the problems Life sets me, not the other way round.  This is the way it has always been.  Unfortunately, this means that I am always "blowing my career" (as Magee's friends would put it), failing as a good Mormon missionary or a good professional academic.  I ask the wrong questions, and answer them badly (from the institutional perspective, which I am constitutionally incapable of valuing the way leaders want me to).  Caesar has little or no use for Cato (who kills himself in the end), and I am Cato (esse quam videri bonus malebat).

The second passage from Magee that I want to quote is one I might have written. My own experience is almost identical to his (not quite the same, but close), in terms of what happened to me and the way in which I react to it (so far):
Perhaps I should stress that all this [mid-life crisis, blowing my career] was not primarily an intellectual experience, and was in no sense whatever a reading experience. It was not a matter of studying certain writers and being influenced by their ideas. Books and study had nothing to do with the causes of it. It was an existential experience, one long permanent state of mental and emotional crisis, in which I came many times near to breakdown. It consisted of agonizingly direct experiences, felt feelings, thought thoughts. And it was from this state that I came to my reading. Given the overwrought state I was in, some of what I then read impinged on me as if I had been skinned. For instance, there seemed to be a certain body of doctrine that was common to nearly all great religions and their famous sages, moralists, prophets, and so on, which I found self-evidently (and in that sense platitudinously) true and to the point, and which had an overwhelming impact on me, and yet which the world disregarded. Perhaps I might express it as follows (page 257). 
Let me interrupt Magee a moment here to comment on my own experience.  In the wake of blowing my own career (first as a Mormon, lately as an academic), well-meaning people (friends, advisors, mentors, and so forth) have come to me suggesting that I am just reading the wrong people, following the wrong gurus, attending the wrong classes--that my crisis might vanish in a moment if I just found the right book, entered the right class, dis-identified as a post-modernist (which I am not), got religion (the right one this time!), wrote more stuff in a more pedantic style, etc.  This advice is very frustrating to me, because my experience is not something external.  While it is true that certain authors, teachers, and religious folk have made a big impression on me over the years, personally and professionally, the overwhelming source of my personal and professional angst and its expression has always been myself (my very own self, the identity that I construct every moment I breath with conscious awareness, noticing phenomena to which I respond voluntarily and involuntarily).

How to put this into words?  I lived staring into the abyss and watching it stare back long before I encountered Nietzsche verbalizing that experience--a very harrowing experience that will always shape me in powerful ways, even if I hate Nietzsche and decide to refrain from reading, writing, or thinking of him for the rest of my life.  Even if I don't practice Christianity as a "believer" (however anyone defines that, anyone who is not me), that will not change the truth that Christ has a powerful impact on my existence.  I came unto my own, and my own received me not.  I know these words.  I have lived them.  They are written on the fleshy tables of my heart, in blood that will not be erased--my blood.  In the same way, my relationship to Mormonism is intimate and personal, not impersonal, objective, historical.  For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.  I don't especially care what Joseph Smith really saw (anywhere, at any time), but I know my own vision--and like him (in the story, which need not be true history in any sense) I cannot deny it.  Similarly, when I encountered Buddhist teachings like all compounded things are impermanent and all emotions are pain, they stuck with me because they honestly, accurately describe my own experience.  I am like the legendary arhats whose response to the Buddha's doctrine of emptiness was to die.  Like them, I do not experience thinking, reading, speaking, and writing as abstract exercises, separate (or even separable) from the business of life and death (the same business, whatever we call it at various moments that taste different to us).  For me religion and research are intimately bound up with life (and its other face, the one we call death).  I cannot live outside my life, mi camino propio hacia la muerte.  I cannot write outside it.  I cannot read outside it.  I cannot speak or think outside it.  I cannot pretend I care about it in ways I do not.  When I do, the result is obscene--and fools no one.  Even if people cannot put words to it, they sense the reality.  He is not one of us.  He does not get it.  He never will.  He is a witch-doctor, a sorceror, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  Stone him!

What do I see, then?  What do I live?  Magee gets it (nails it, makes me hope foolishly that there might be wolf-clan for me out there somewhere, a group that I might not have to despise for having me as a member):
The world is governed by false values. People in all societies seem anxious to do what they think is the done thing, and are terrified of social disapproval. They set their hearts on getting on in the world, being thought highly of by their fellows, being powerful, acquiring money and possessions, knowing "important" people. They admire the influential, the rich, the famous, the well-born, the holders of rank and position. But none of these things have any serious relationship to merit: as often as not they are ill gotten, and nearly always they are partly dependent on chance. None of them will protect a person from serious illness or personal tragedy, let alone from death. And none of them can be taken out of this world. They are not an inherent part of the person himself but are merely external decorations, hung on him. They are the tinsel of life, glittering but worthless. The things that really matter in human beings are things that can matter more than life itself: loving and being loved, devotion to truth, integrity, courage, compassion, and other qualities along entirely different lines. But human beings are all the time sacrificing these true values to the false ones: they compromise themselves to get on, bend the truth to make money, demean themselves before power. In behaving like this they are pouring rubbish over their own heads. If they stopped abasing themselves in this way and started living in accordance with true values their lives would become incomparably more meaningful, more genuinely satisfying. They would even, to put it at its most superficial, be happier (pages 257-258).       
Insofar as I have a gospel to preach, this insight is definitely a very important part of it.  I see it as good news, an evangelion worthy of worship, but my worship is not that of society:
In the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, in the Old and New Testaments, and almost everywhere I looked in the works of prophets and mystics, wise men and teachers--of any century and any society--some such message as this was to be found. Perceptive people seem to have been saying it since writing and teaching began. Even creative artists: the great ones seldom preach, and are diminished when they do, but, unspoken between the lines of what many of them write, these values are to be discerned. In the world's greatest opera and drama the conflict between private and public values is the most common theme of all, with the artist invariably enlisting the audience's sympathies on behalf of the private. And while the members of the audience are in the theatre, or reading the book, they respond almost universally this way. But the moment they come out of the theatre, or close the book, they revert. It is true that in temples, mosques, synagogues and churches they offer lip-service to true values, and feel better for having done so; and those values may even sometimes be taught in schools; but again, no sooner do people leave such places of instruction than they behave in their old ways. Worse than that; if any of them does not so--if one of them sacrifices his interests to someone else's, tells the truth to his own disadvantage, declines to be sycophantic to people with a lot of power or money--the others remonstrate with him and tell him not to be a fool. If he persists, they lose respect for him: they come to look on him as stupid, someone who does not know how to manage his own affairs, someone making a botch of his life. The truth is, then, that the values people publicly acknowledge and pay lip-service to are in reality values that they not only repudiate but actively despise. It took me a long time to realize this, but when I did I came to understand in a new light the evident frustration and even despair of so many prophets and teachers, their isolation, and their characteristic tone of railing at people who they know are not going to take much notice of what they say (page 258).
This is quite simply the truth!  Whenever I hear the spokesman for some large group saying things I like (e.g. we should express love for our fellowman), I remember the words of God (as they occur in Jewish, Christian, and Mormon scripture--search and ye shall find): They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  And they really hate it when you point this hypocrisy out in public, even if you go out of your way to be nice about it.  (Some folks actually believe their own bullshit.  That doesn't make it less shitty, but it does make them decent folk, and I would not wish to dishonor that decency while noticing where it cloaks dangerous hypocrisy.)  What should you do if Life makes you an obnoxious prophet?  Run away?  (That did not work for Jonah, did it?  I get that story much better today than I did as a kid in Sunday school.)  Lean in?  (Or as my non-feminist friends would put it, Eat shit?)  That can be devastating, too.  At this point, I find myself stuck between the urge to run (away from society, away from people, away from all the lies) and the urge to fight (against society, against people, against all the lies, especially those that demand uncritical obeisance--as though they were simply true).  I cannot break my integrity, and every company I work for is determined that for them I will.

Like many people before me, I find myself wandering about in the proverbial desert, lost and hoarse (vox clamantis in deserto), wondering as I wander whether that desert might blossom as the rose (and then wilt of old age rather than succumb to hordes of hungry locusts).  I don't know whether my garden can exist or not, whether my life will yield anything to others besides shit in the desert, but my integrity forces me to cultivate it anyway.  I till.  I plant.  I water.  I avoid the company of those who do not know my desert, those fair-weather gardeners who think I live in Eden and despise my meager harvests accordingly.  And I wait.  I wait to see what lot Zeus casts, where he weighs me in the scales of fate, whether I will live to till, and plant, and water again, another crop of bitter herbs infused with the harsh, poisonous flavor of my wilderness.


  1. Sometimes I have tried to express the content of this post to friends with the remark that I am too academic to be a good Mormon, and too Mormon to be a good academic. The Mormons want me to give up telling academic truth when it makes them uncomfortable in their Mormon lies, and academics wish I would stop telling human truth (irrational truth, existential truth, historical truth that sounds Mormon coming from a Mormon like me) when it makes them uncomfortable in their academic lies.

    My problem is that I want to tell the truth about things I care for all the time, to everyone. I am not a private person (Mormon) and a public person (academic). My academic person is just the same as my Mormon one, stuck in the same problems, working on them in the same way with the same mind (and historical experiences). Magee is an interesting model for someone like me, someone intent upon solving personal problems with this tool we call reason (following where the solution leads rather than asking, "What does the field need?" and then aiming to serve its need even when it strikes you as pointless). Elsewhere in his book, Magee explicitly tells you that he did not become a professional academic philosopher because he was not interested in wading through secondary literature, asking and answering pedantic questions that deviate from the really big problems that occupy great philosophers (who are only incidentally academic, if they are at all). He was pursuing his own problems to the best solutions he could find (and/or devise for himself). It was a personal quest, and it happened better away from the academic culture (which institutionally values questions and procedures that will always strike the individual researcher as insane, harmful, and absurd).

  2. I like teaching languages, history, and culture. I wonder whether it might be better for me, given my tendencies (to research problems that come to me rather than pursue whatever will-o'-the-wisp looks hot to "the field"), to embrace life as a high-school teacher or adjunct (i.e. teaching slave). Poverty might be OK, especially without debt, with my wife's decent job to help us, and (most important) with the freedom to write what I really want to write about things that matter to me. Fame might happen or might not. Rumor volat. You cannot trust that, not even if you are a shrewd player with your ear close to the ground of "the field" (as I certainly am not). I think that we might do well with this kind of life, provided the poverty were not too grinding (i.e. we do need food, clothing, shelter that my wife is willing to call civilized). But all this other stuff--health insurance, retirement, benefits, tenure, prestige--is not really necessary to a happy life (according to all the philosophers I have been busy reading for the last few years, including some who were actually poor, not just pretending like Seneca). Good thing, too, since I don't think future generations can count on any of these things existing for them as for past generations. In light of demographic realities that appear undeniable (to me), I am already living without the safety nets my parents had. I should adjust my life accordingly, spending that much less time and effort investing in a system that is just not going to carry me (reliably: if I get carried, it will be a fortunate accident, not the sort of thing you want to risk "real money" betting on). I have to play in a world with different rules, different games for defining what really constitutes success.

    Maybe the liberal artist of the future is not a potted plant that requires the research university greenhouse to survive. Maybe he is a desert weed, knowing more than just some collection of obscure secondary literature on some arcane subject most people don't know and don't care about (because it has no relevance to human experience outside the research university). Maybe he doesn't care about tenure. Maybe he is a creative artist. Maybe he is inexpensive without being cheap. Maybe he is more of a mercenary adventurer, less of a lead-footed pedant. I don't know. But I suspect that I need to open my mind to the very likely reality that I will not recognize myself in ten years' time, that I may need to reinvent myself yet again (as I negotiate with the academy the same quarrel I just finished with the church). This just confirms Heraclitus: life is struggle, and I must fight on. The battle will never end: it began before man existed, and will most likely go on after him. When it ends in one dimension, that is no reason to affirm it isn't going on still somewhere else.