Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Impure Thoughts

My current reading in Montaigne has pegged me as a Pyrrhonian skeptic with leanings, like Montaigne, toward Epicureanism, with a woodsy aroma of Stoicism.  A Pyrrhonian skeptic is one who doubts everything--even doubting whether he truly doubts.  The Epicurean and Stoic biases keep me rooted in reality--both Greco-Roman philosophies are rooted in atomism and philosophical materialism.  In particular, the teachings of Epicurus (which, yes, I have read--but it has been a while) account for my tendency to savor things--sensations stirred by texture, weight, density, vast spaces, and vibrant color especially--as part of my mindfulness of the surrounding world.  But, typically of skeptics, I live in my head a lot.

I forget what I read.  I forget what I know.  I forget the bases of my own opinions.  I am inconsistent--and relish contradictions (like Whitman, "I am large.  I contain multitudes").  The advantage of such a mindset is that I am open to change, that I am constantly examining my reality and updating my judgments on it.  I am not nostalgic, and I am not hidebound.  I have been teaching college English for thirty years or so, and I have revamped my syllabus every semester.  I don't teach off twenty-year-old notes.  I don't even teach off one-year-old notes.  My opinions and impressions change even as I am in the process of teaching--especially then.  My mindset also makes me appear to be forgiving--I'm not--because I often forget (and often fail to deeply feel) others' wrongdoings.  

The obvious disadvantage of such a mindset is that you can't take anything I say to the bank.  I certainly don't.  As I am with money, I am with impressions and affections and moods--easy come, easy go.  I am not so much the proverbial commitment-phobe, as one whose commitments are scant and somewhat volatile.  That is, I'm not so much afraid of commitments as immune to their (no doubt many) charms.  They are intense ... while they last.  I have loved a good many people in my life--many of them for long periods of time (in fact, I can think of no one I have ever loved that I can't easily imagine loving again, under the right circumstances)--yet even one-night stands have received the full fervor of my love and devotion ... for one night.  Like the nineteenth-century Russian mystic Madame Swetchine, I say, "In this world of change, nothing which comes stays, and nothing which goes is lost."  I do not love unconditionally, but my conditions are fairly simple:  mainly, you can't let me forget you.

Permanence is not one of my values.  Neither is purity.  After decades of struggling for everlasting life, through faith, through the good graces of a holy god, I finally realized I didn't want it.  I probably never did want to live forever but had not realized there was an option for not wanting it.  I like my love--I love it--and, like Montaigne, I can say that, given an opportunity to live my life again, I would choose to live it exactly as I have.  Most importantly, that means once.  Unlike Montaigne, I might wish for better circumstances, but being a skeptic and an introvert, I have only rarely been deeply affected by my circumstances.

People who are pure, unchanging, certain, and consistent amaze me.  I admire them, sort of, but I would never want to be them.  I find it hard to believe that they are real.  But they have somehow made their values the values of the whole world, so that someone like me, I know, comes off as narcissistic, flighty, wishy-washy, slightly unhinged.  But I am fully hinged, perhaps too equipped with hinges to suit the world.  I've got trapdoors all over the place.  The two values I share with almost everyone else in the world are life and love.  It's just that, for me, I can't imagine either as unchanging, pure, or eternal.  An unchanging, pure, eternal "life" is just another way of saying "death," right?  If I'm wrong, please help me understand the difference.  And a love that is unconditional, indiscriminate enough to embrace everyone and everything, everlasting, and unvarying strikes me as the very definition of "indifference."

So here's where the Stoic part of me comes into play.  I do believe in duty.  There is a place in the world for indifference.  But it is a last resort--as is, by the way, justice--the insistence that everyone get what (and only what) he deserves.  Duty and justice step in where love fails.  Love steeps us in ourselves and in blissful mindfulness of our individual existence, but duty and justice make it possible for us to live in peace with others, letting them live and love as we wish to be let to live and love, freely and uniquely.  But duty and justice stand at the endpoint of love, so as important as they are to human society, to our ability to live with each other, one should carefully select the number and kinds of duties one undertakes and temper one's desire for pure and perfect justice with mercy, which is to say "laxness"--because there are glittering ideals (purity, perfection, consistency, permanence--ideals that look good enough "on paper") that may and often do kill life and love.

This is what I believe--for now--perhaps.

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