Tuesday, February 3, 2009

ATARAXIA-WTF

Today I told some 40 students attending my course in film theory, who by the way were completely crammed into the relatively small lecture room in the English wing at Roskilde U, that I insisted on my preserving my prerogative to stay a skeptic where the evolution of gender inequalities towards diminishing was concerned. When I teach I usually activate a larger field of mental and emotional engagement both in myself and my students than is otherwise the case, which usually results in my getting evaluations that, more often than not, skyrocket in praise. That is to say that if indignation, bafflement, bedazzling, or approving occurs, then, it is because it all gets filtered through some version of WTF. It works every time.

The morning began with my sister insisting that I took some antibiotics against the weird bronchitis I must have acquired during last week somewhere and which has been bothering me ever since. “WTF,” I said to her, “why is this necessary,” and I tried to use some argument that legitimized my skepticism towards medical remedies. To this she replied that my knowledge of such things is faulty, and that I should stick to my favorite pastime, which, among other things, is reading about medieval philosophy, kabalistic numerology, and other such mysticism – although she also said that she wouldn’t mind it if I stopped pestering her with how coincidental the putting together of certain letters and numbers on page 22 (my birth date) is and so on. “WTF,” she said, “you are a Marxist for God’s sake”, and then asked: “have you gone skeptical of materialism?” Before I got to answer in the negative, she hurried to remind me of some really good philosophy that I should turn to, namely the one that explains every system in a very commonsensical way, and one which is also beautifully performed in The Life of Brian. She had a point. I swallowed the pill without further ado, and now I can say it must have been that which later in the afternoon saved me from fainting in the university’s cafeteria because of bad smell, and which made me rush out, and which also made me swear that one of these days I shall renounce going there altogether.

Later at home, after the fever has been reinstalled, I almost experienced a moment of ataraxia. But not as absolute happiness resulting from freeing myself of preoccupations, as the Stoics and the Cynics had it, but as an “absence of passion” that leads, paradoxically enough, to prophecy and such things (at least according to Abulafia and other such holy men). More specifically, the kind of ataraxia that I had in mind is a condition which not only combines but also aligns skepticism with knowledge in the realm of silent meditation that is induced by a desire to scream. In Judaic studies this is called hitbodedut. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a weird but fascinating 18th century Hassidic master, was a practitioner of it. He describes the silent scream this way:

“You can shout loudly in a ‘small still voice’… Anyone can do this. Just imagine the sound of such a scream in your mind. Depict the shout in your imagination exactly as it would sound. Keep this up until you are literally screaming with this soundless ‘small still voice.’ This is actually a scream and not mere imagination. Just as some vessels bring the sound from your lungs to your lips, others bring it to the brain. You can draw the sound through these nerves, literally bringing it into your head. When you do this, you are actually shouting inside your brain.”

While I thought of this my sister skeptically shouted, upon having read an email from home: “WTF!” Apparently, two of our close family members are dying. I responded cynically: “What else is new? My fever went up to 39. I thought I was seeing things, but, nope, this one was real: you can’t miss Vincent on TV, especially if you are intent on hearing what he has to say. He also talked about ataraxia. But at that point I had decided that I was too tired of making connections between things that exist beyond skepticism, but won’t let themselves be acknowledged; I was too tired of making assumptions that won’t let themselves be confirmed; I was too tired of Cartesian logic that wouldn’t try going the ‘imaginary logic’ way (or maybe all this has already happened, but with my fever right now, I can't tell for sure).


Vincent delivered a quote from Annie Hall, in which Woody Allen says this: “what if everything is an illusion? Then I definitely paid too much for my carpet,” which reminded me of a joke my sister told me. In an inter-denomination church the vicar poses a question to the parishioners and promises to exempt them of the church tax for a whole year if they answer correctly: who was the most important person on earth? While the Irish hurry to say: “Saint Patrick,” and the Scots retort: “St. Andrew”, the Jew says: “Jesus.” The vicar registers his answer as the correct one, but privately, having been intrigued, wants to know beyond doubt: “surely you don’t mean that, as a Jew...” to which the other responds: “of course not. If you want my personal opinion, then, I think that Moses was the one, but let’s face it, business is business.”

Between skepticism and knowledge there is a condition we can enact, namely situating ourselves beyond what the whole point is with knowing what we know, believing what we believe, and suspending our disbelief in an act of faith. This will leave us with the ultimate certitude: while our brain will not end in a vat, it will certainly end in a box, along with the rest of our bloody bones. This I said to my sister before closing my eyes imagining things. “Yes, yes,” she said, “all true; the only absolute truth, but and in the meanwhile, WTF, 40 students already love your new book, and they’re waiting for you next week to deliver the word of wisdom.” Amen.

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