Here’s what I read this month in chronological order:
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin, 1970.
One day, I’d like to write a lot on the subject of transcendence, suffering and love (you get a glimpse of it here) and since Schopenhauer (and his most influential student, Wagner) wrote a lot about these subjects, I thought it would be good to get a head-start reading. He is, quite frankly, one of the most depressing philosophers to read and you’re bound to get schadenfreude while reading him. Ironically enough, I found him quite comforting.
Essays and Aphorisms is exactly that, a short book of shorter chapters filled with concise statements about a variety of topics: from religion (surprise, he’s an atheist!), to women (surprise, he’s a misogynist!), to suffering and suicide (surprise, he’s for it!), and so on. Much of his work was greatly influenced by The Upanishads and other Eastern Sacred texts, so his philosophy ends in asceticism. It’s like Ecclesiastes for Atheists.
As is much of Schopenhauer’s writing, this book is basically one big quote fest. Here are some of the happiest (see above picture):
- “In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear . . . Nonetheless, everyone desires to achieve old age, that is to say a condition in which one can say: ‘Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse — until at last the worst of all arrives.” (47)
- “We shall do best to think of life as a desngaño, as a process of disillusionment: since this is, clearly enough, what everything that happens to us is calculated to produce.” (54)
- “Many books, moreover, serve merely to show how many ways there are of being wrong.” (90)
- “No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose.” (235)
Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947.
Before I begin, I’d like to remind you that my birthday is coming up and one of these would be quite nice! Originally a 1945 lecture, L’existentialisme est un humanisme is a very easy-to-read presentation of the major tenets of his atheistic Existentialism.
He begins with the idea that since God doesn’t exist (so he says), then man’s existence precludes his essence. In a word, you are born without meaning and purpose, and you are ultimately responsible to make your own meaning, yourself. You are “condemned” to this responsibility to make your own essence, to this freedom. Because of the weight of this freedom, it gives way to anguish, forlornness and despair. How can you know if you are choosing the right path or the right essence? Let it go, Sartre writes, your essence can only be found through living.
- “. . . First of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards defines himself. If man . . . is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he something, and he himself will have made what he will be.” (18)
- “I’ve got to limit myself to what I see.” (36)
- “In one sense choice is possible, but what is not possible is not to choose.” (48)
- “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.” (61)
Sartre, Jean Paul. The Words. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller, 1964.
This is Sartre’s Autobiography of his first ten years of life, focusing on his relationship with words through both reading and writing. Of course, he also applies his existentialism to his life story. While part of me doubts that he thought all of the things he’s claimed to think as a ten-year-old, I’m more inclined to believe him than not.
One of the threads that continues through the book is his struggle with the superfluous nature of his life. He is not essential anywhere, except in his writing. No one in his life says, “You know what’s missing? Sartre!” Also, he writes much about faking it, play-acting and impersonation to the point that one doesn’t even realize when doing it. Personally, I have felt the first for much of my life and struggle with the second almost continually.
This book has deeply affected me. So, I give it four cigarettes and a beret.
A few good quotes:
- “They believe in God long enough to enjoy a toccata.” (27)
- “. . .genius is only a loan: it must be merited by great suffering, tested by ordeals that must be accepted modestly and firmly. One ends by hearing voices and writes at their dictation.” (63)
- “Mysticism suits displaced persons and superfluous children.” (100)
- “. . . whether I die in order to be born to glory or whether glory comes first and kills me, the eagerness to write involves a refusal to live.” (191)
- “The past has not made me.” (237)
Winner, Lauren F. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.
Lauren Winner spoke at my Alma Mater and, needless to write, I was immediately smitten by her dry wit and cat-lady glasses. Raised Jewish, Winner converted to Christianity (Anglicanism) in college and started writing about our Faith shortly thereafter. She’s even written a book on sexual purity and celibacy that doesn’t make me want to dash babies against rocks. I’ve read just about everything she’s written. I’m glad my friend MAF passed it my way a few weeks ago.
Still is the story of her own struggles with The Dark Night (even though she doesn’t use that term), her crumbling marriage and ultimate divorce. Even though Christianity is obsessed with alphas and omegas, Still is a meditation on the middles of life, like: what to do with boredom; why you’ll probably still go to Church, even though you don’t want to; and grabbing wisdom wherever you find it.
Other than her brazen honesty, what I appreciate the most about Still is that she is more likely to use other people’s words (be they poets or laymen) instead of her own. Dark Nights have a tendency to do this. I heartily recommend it to you.
- “The next morning the psalms are dull again, and I am not even really paying attention; except their dullness is enlivened slightly by the small new knowledge that once (and so maybe again someday, maybe this day) the psalms prayed me.” (66)
- ”(A traveling salesman) asked why she was offering him coffee, when she wasn’t even going to let him show her the vacuum cleaner, and she said it was because she worships a God who has said that he may be found in any person . . . ‘So, I’m offering you coffee because you might be Jesus’, Sarah said. The vacuum cleaner salesman said it was the strangest house call he’d ever made, but he took the coffee.” (128)
- “Maybe I can make my loneliness into an invitation — to Jesus — that he might withdraw into me and pray.” (141)
Paul Cleave. Blood Men: A Thriller. New York: Atria, 2010.
I really like reading really badly written thrillers. While his ideas were interesting, Mr. Cleave never hit his stride in his writing. It was always disjointed with lengthy, almost run-on sentences where metaphor would pile onto cliched metaphor like a gaggle of children just freed to summer vacation, rough-housing in the side-yard of their newly-divorced mother as she laughed at them from inside the house while on the phone with her newest lover. Followed by sudden stops. His prose lurched.
Here’s the first sentence of the first chapter: “The alarm clock dragging me into the Friday morning before the Christmas break sounds like laser fire from an old sci-fi movie, the kind where the special effects budget runs the production company up about a hundred bucks.” Literally, pages and pages of this stuff! Dear sweet Lord, I felt like Dostoevsky or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, comparitavely!
Don’t worry, I’ll mention this to my confessor, too.