Philosophical reflections

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.

I was struck, today, by another concordance between Laozi and Pessoa and, nestled within this concordance, another disagreement. Laozi first this time, again in the wonderful Addiss and Lombardo translation (easily superior, at least as English poetry, to the Hinton and Ivanhoe translations that I also own):

Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

….Having leads to profit,
….Not having leads to use. (11)

This poem strikes me as (in part) an elaboration of an earlier bit of advice, from the eighth poem: “Keep your mind deep.” The eighth poem advocates non-contention, and suggests that keeping the mind deep is one of the things one must do to avoid contention. I understand the advice to keep the mind deep as counseling a kind of non-possession of, non-attachment to one’s thoughts. Let the mind be deep enough to house them so long as they linger, but not detain them. I will return to the way that the eleventh poem elaborates on this, but first Pessoa (I give selections of a substantially longer passage in The Book of Disquiet):

Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being. […]

Love, sleep, drugs and intoxicants are elementary forms of art, or rather, of producing the same effect as art. But love, sleep and drugs all have their dissolution. […] But in art there is no disillusion, since illusion is accepted from the start. […]

Since the pleasure we get from art is in a sense not our own, we don’t have to pay for it or regret it later.

By art I mean everything that delights us without being ours – the trail left by what has passed, a smile given to someone else, a sunset, a poem, the objective universe.

To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence. (§270)

Pessoa, like Laozi, appears to praise a kind of non-possession of one’s one feelings and sensations. Here, art is recommended as a way to have sensations that one knows are illusory from the start, that one never expects to possess and so never must relinquish. Pessoa, in his own way, advocates keeping the mind deep. (Many other passages in The Book of Disquiet bear this out; §270 simply happens to be the one I read today.)

The difference between Pessoa and Laozi lies in the relation they see between keeping the mind deep and activity. Pessoa is the patron saint of inactivity, which in prominence is perhaps second only to disquiet itself in The Book of Disquiet. He puts it succinctly: “To see clearly is to not act” (§275). (I cannot resist inserting a third voice into the mix, that of Emerson, from his essay “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency.”)

Keeping the mind deep by turning to art, where art is understood as Pessoa understands it, is to avoid possessing one’s sensations by ensuring that those sensations are produced in response, not to the world itself, but to something at one remove from the world. Art does not call for action. To seek one’s sensations in art, knowing that art is illusory, is to keep those sensations sequestered from action, from interaction with the world.

This is where Laozi, as I read him, disagrees. I take the eleventh poem of the Daodejing as suggesting that non-possession of one’s thoughts, sensations, etc. is precisely the way in which to make the mind useful. And it’s easy for me to see why this should be, especially in these troubled times. The near-constant fretting over the state of my country that has of late beset renders me little better than worthless, a quivering mass. To achieve some kind of distance from these agitations, to let them pass through me without wholly owning them, I suspect will help me to act. It is too early to say: I have only just begun to make the effort.

At the same time, I know only too well, from past experience, that attempts to attain such non-possession can easily turn into an entirely inward focus on my own peace of mind, never bringing the promised usefulness. Relatedly, my wife (who is Chinese) made a very interesting comment today when I was discussing this with her. She said that Chinese people have looked more to Confucius in good times, more to Laozi in bad times. These turns to Confucius were connected to an eagerness to contribute. The turns to Laozi, conversely, were connected to a turning away from engagement. This, if true, corroborates on a large scale my private experience. As a certain friend of mine very often insists, the gap between abstruse philosophy and practical action is wide indeed.

The last time I put Laozi and Pessoa in conversation, I declared Pessoa the winner of the debate, though I cautioned against taking this too far. This time, again, past experience forces me to declare Pessoa the winner. But, again, this judgment comes with a caveat: time may yet prove Laozi right, at least in my own case.

I read this morning in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet the following passage (§163):

Direct experience is an evasion, or hiding place, for those without any imagination. Reading about the risks incurred by a man who hunts tigers, I feel all the risks worth feeling, save the actual physical risk, which wasn’t really worth feeling, for it vanished without a trace.

Men of action are the involuntary slaves of the men of reason. The worth of things depends on their interpretation. Certain men make things which other men invest with meaning, bringing them to life. To narrate is to create, while to live is merely to be lived.

This captures a reality I have often felt: that the value in things lies in the way we describe them—and they admit so many contradictory descriptions. Why does Nietzsche’s life seem so remarkable? For no other reason than that he was able to describe its joys so vividly, and to describe them as triumphing over its sorrows. What good was it for Chōmei to build his little house and live in it? Nothing, but for the fact that he told the world about it in such a charming fashion.

But the knowledge that the single event admits of multiple descriptions that ascribe to it competing values raises a problem. How are we to know which description is the right one? What value should we actually ascribe to this, or that? Start asking these questions, and it soon appears as if these values are merely imposed on the event from without, by the sheer will to power of the narrator. And that is why Pessoa is right, at least in one sense, to say that the man of action is the slave of the man of reason, to the man who describes him.

At this point I think of the second poem in Laozi’s Daodejing, which I give in the translation by Addiss and Lombardo:

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action,
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures.

One way to read the ideal of accomplishing without taking credit is to see it precisely as accomplishing silently, not insisting on this or that (generally self-glorifying, though of late self-deprecation has come in vogue) description of what one has accomplished.

Laozi makes the interesting claim that “When no credit is taken, / Accomplishment endures.” This seems to conflict rather directly with the passage from Pessoa. There, narration is defended precisely because it lends something of endurance to a feeling that otherwise would vanish “without a trace.” I am not so sure, however, that they actually conflict. The feeling as described does indeed endure in a way in which the physical feeling does not. So Pessoa is correct. At the same time, because description is fickle, because it will serve any master who calls on it, every particular description is unstable, liable to be displaced by some other. (If you don’t believe me, ask Columbus. He knows.) Only the event as it occurred, regarded silently, endures, and can never be undone. So Laozi, too, is correct. The only dispute between them is this: are we to prefer the permanence of having occurred, or the ever-renewing endurance of being described?

This attempt to show how Laozi and Pessoa take the same reality and ascribe it diametrically opposed values nicely illustrates Pessoa’s point, and we must take him to have won the dispute. But then we should not be surprised that the side that is permitted to speak will win a debate, and we should remember that to get the better of an argument and to be correct are not the same.

In an earlier post, I tried to summarize the core of Emerson’s philosophy in a few dogmatic statements. I managed it in eight. But I think I might have condensed it further, down to the following two:

  1. The individual is fundamentally alone in the world, cut off from others.
  2. The only hope for true, if partial, communion between two separate individuals requires that both burrow deeply into their own individuality, bringing what they find as a gift to the other.

Insofar as I consider myself an Emersonian, I do so because I feel the truth of both of these claims in my bones, and it was Emerson who taught me to recognize that.

I have only just begun Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but I find myself immediately drawn in by it precisely because Pessoa (or rather Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares) grasps both of these truths:

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. (6)

In my first post on Pessoa, I spoke admiringly of the distance that stands between Soares and other people, a distance I know well. He sits at a location not altogether separate from them, but neither participating in their joy. He delights in it without participating. This is the right distance, I think, from which to approach these Emersonian theses, for it is the distance from which they are felt most distinctly. One is separate, and thus the aloneness is felt, but one hears the songs in the distance and understands the possibility of communion. I do not say this to suggest it is better to exist at this distance, to always evade participation, merely to highlight certain advantages of the time one spends there.

Now, I have a bit dishonestly cut off the passage in the middle. It continues on to criticize itself:

I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place. . . I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!. . .

It is striking how exactly he hits on Emerson’s definition of genius: the expression by one individual of a thought or feeling that speaks to “the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives.” But this, his mind tells him, somewhat patronizingly, is a delusion. Pessoa certainly is more pessimistic here about the second claim than Emerson is, though such pessimism finds more voice in Emerson’s work than many of his readers think. I am not so gloomy about the prospects of communion as Pessoa—at least not most of the time. But I know the mood in which it seems an absurd vanity.

But it should not be thought that this mood is as desolate as it sounds. Though I spend less time there than Soares, it is a solitude to which I often, and happily, retreat.

I flatter myself that there might be some interest in those books that made an impression on me this past year. I read seventy-four books in total. Recreational reading primarily consisted of poetry and philosophy, while my academic life led me to read a number of books ranging over history of science, philosophy of science, and biology. These latter I do not include here, though many were excellent. I offer below only those about which I have something to say, focusing on books of poetry, though I include some others of interest. Many are left out simply because I had no particular comments to make about them, even though I enjoyed them very much. Within the sub-categories, books are listed in the order read.


Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat (trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs) — For a time after reading this, I wrote ruba’iyat of my own, which are published on this blog here (the thirteenth is, in my view, the strongest). That it encouraged me to such activity is the highest recommendation I can give it. The translation is literal, which means that occasionally the poetry is lost, but the irreverent joy of the poems comes through as clearly as one could wish.

Pindar, Odes (trans. Bowra) — This book gave me great pleasure, and I will likely read it again in 2017. Pindar’s victory odes begin with the athletes whose immortality they ensure, but they expand to cover the entirety of that great question of being human. They celebrate human achievements, offer moral caution as to our limits (they are didactic with none of the flaws of didactic poetry), and question our place in the universe. Bowra’s translation offers to the reader such fine English wordcraft that I could read it, not as a degraded copy of an inaccessible original, but as I would any English poem, delighting in vivid descriptions and striking turns of phrase. In my own poetic work, Pindar ranks among my strongest influences.

Virgil, Aeneid (trans. Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald) — I need not say too much about this, as I have already written about it at length on this blog. Here I will only express my approval of both the Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald translations, both of which I prefer to the Fagles (the first translation I read). In reading each, I routinely had the following experience. While reading Mandelbaum, I came across an especially wonderful passage, went to check the corresponding passage in Fitzgerald, and thought, “Mandelbaum is clearly superior.” While reading Fitzgerald, precisely the same happened, only now Fitzgerald seemed the superior. (This may have even happened for the same passages.) Both are full of delights.

Virgil, Georgics (trans. Wilkinson) and Eclogues (trans. Ferry) — While I very much enjoyed both of these works (as evidenced here), I will want to read these works in other translations to get to know them better (I own the Ferry translation of the Georgics). Until then my relationship to them will remain subsidiary to my love for the Aeneid. At the same time, they capture aspects of life that the Aeneid does not, and so round out Virgil’s output nicely.

Geoffrey Hill, Without Title — This was my first exposure to Geoffrey Hill (who died while I was reading it), and thus far still my only serious engagement with his work (though I hope to dig much deeper in 2017). It was an often rewarding, often frustrating experience, but on the whole I felt that his poetry justified the difficulty. Behind the verbal wizardry and knotty syntax is real feeling, worth the effort of excavation. My thoughts on individual poems in the volume can be found here.

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red — I read this, took a week to recover, and immediately read it again. The only reason I haven’t read it a third time is that my copy is currently on loan to a friend. I had previously read Plainwater and more or less enjoyed it, but largely felt that it escaped me. Autobiography of Red convinces me I will have to revisit it, for this “novel in verse” fairly explodes with descriptions that are both startlingly unexpected and perfectly precise. (No easy feat: much of the early American poetry I have been reading is reasonably precise, but only because tame, while much of the contemporary poetry I read manages to be unexpected—or at least to convince me that it wanted to be unexpected—at the cost of failing to convey much of anything at all.)


Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena — Kafka was a strange, wonderful man, and I delighted in being made privy to the oddball intensity of his relationship with Milena. Reading this book is like watching a Wong Kar-Wai film: Franz and Milena’s relationship is full of the kind of unique rituals and concerns that characterize relationships in Wong’s films (especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). For my own part, little gives me more pleasure, makes me feel more deeply that there is life to be found among humans, and that this life is good.

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn — Literary criticism, in my view, has two aims: to make us better readers, and to make us better writers. This is a book that helped me to become a better reader. Brooks is an admirable close reader of poems, and that is what this book is, first and foremost. It is also, somewhat more incidentally, a polemic in favor of the view that what the poem says cannot be captured without loss in any other form than the poem itself. As a general defense of the “new criticism,” the book is not persuasive: the position it stakes out is obviously correct, but only because it is not very bold, and the position it attacks as its contrast is very nearly a strawman (though perhaps accurate enough at the time). But what does that matter? The criticism in this book is what determines its value, and the criticism is remarkable.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity — I read this with a friend (who for her part read some of Emerson’s essays on my recommendation). Both of us noticed the similarities between Emerson’s and de Beauvoir’s ideas, only where Emerson spoke of self-reliance and conformity, de Beauvoir preferred to use the language of freeing oneself from oppression. Our discussion of this was interesting: I preferred Emerson, her de Beauvoir. She suggested, I think correctly, that this likely stemmed from certain differences in our experiences: my life has been relatively privileged and comfortable, allowing conformity in various forms to stand as one of my greatest obstacles, while she has very recently freed herself from a much more material form of oppression.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 — It is often said that Emerson’s notebooks are his true masterpiece. I do not think this is correct: the composition of his essays brings the scattered moods of his notebook entries into striking juxtapositions that the notebooks alone cannot match. But it might be fairly said of Thoreau, whose deliberately composed works I enjoy only from a distance. The notebooks, by contrast, bring me close to the man and his enviable solitude. With Thoreau (and Emerson), I share a faith that this solitude can be mitigated by friendships that span centuries, between people who have never met. To facilitate such friendship is one of the highest purposes of writing, and Thoreau’s journal (at least, the selection presented here) serves precisely that noble end.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World — My stated purpose, on beginning to read this, was to mine it for poetic material. It has certainly furnished that: I can think of at least three poems I wrote this year that would have been impossible without this book. But leaving such selfish uses aside, the book documents a journey through an environment harsh beyond measure. As a picture of human life in such an environment, it is valuable even to those who do not see it as a quarry to be mined.

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness — The opinions of a miscellaneous man who lived half a world away several centuries ago, well expressed. This book is a treasure trove, by turns funny and wise. No more needs to be said.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki — Imagine Thoreau’s Walden, only dramatically condensed (my copy is but 18 pages), and, instead of presenting a definite vision of how life ought to be, rather turning inward to frank self-criticism: Chōmei sought to lose his worldly attachments by living a simpler, more isolated life, only to find himself attached to that very simplicity and isolation itself.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop — My experience of this book, and the high regard in which I hold it, are well expressed in this post I wrote about it. Cather conjures up a world with this book, and that feat, more than any particular story told (though there is a story), lies at its heart.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs — I know little about the civil war or about the controversies that attached to Sherman’s policies. I do not know if, considering his actions by their consequences, he should be thought a good man or a bad. But, reading his memoirs, I grew greatly attached to him, the way he carried himself. In great events, one must choose, one way or the other—thus he says, and so he does. In one of the passages that most struck me in Thoreau’s journal, Thoreau condemns the one who fails to occupy any ground. Sherman occupied ground in every sense, and was willing to defend it.