Full circle

Sitting on the floor of my room, drinking coffee, sober as a stone. My ass hurts. I took apart my futon and now I’m waiting on someone to pick it up. I’m glad to see that thing go. It’s the last of my furniture. Nothing left now but my clothes, books and guitars. And even that is more than I want to mess with.

The last three or four times I’ve moved I’ve thrown away half my books and I still have too many. There are books still with me that I’ll never read, that I can no longer defend or explain. For the last five years I’ve been bleeding books but my collection remains oversized.

Back when I was a bibliophile I would spend most of my extra money on books. I wanted an imposing library, an entire room devoted to reading and referencing great works. The primary problem with my approach was that I collected awful books no one in their right mind would ever want to read.

I stocked my shelves with translated works of philosophy. French philosophers commenting on dense german texts. As if there were any hope of that being readable. When you take french frivolity and mix it with the theoretical groping of the germans, the result is an indigestible stew of obscurity, a grueling, confusing and cheerless reading experience.

But I insisted on breaking through the impregnable. I would spend hours alone reading and analyzing lines until they began to make some semblance of sense. Most of it was murky enough to imagine whatever I wanted. Philosophy tends towards the unintelligible or the mundane and rarely finds a middle ground.

I still have Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit and I don’t know why. I can’t imagine reading him now. If you’re thinking about reading Hegel, get a summary. There are thousands of summaries and commentaries and conflicting interpretations of what Hegel meant, but just pick one and get a general idea and then be done with it.

Hegel wrote the phenomenology of spirit in a rush as Napoleon raped Prussia. The book is an adventure story of the human intellect evolving from crude sensations to the certainty of absolute knowing. Hegel wrote in a dizzying, migraine inducing style that I felt I needed to master because it would make me smarter than other people.

Back then I thought that ideas ruled the world. History was a conversation or debate between great thinkers. The masses toiled while the philosophers thought. The average man was an insect, a buzzing nothing swept up in the ephemeral, while the great thinker dwelled in the unchangeable, forever preserved in the written traces of his lofty meditations.

I don’t like this view of history or humanity anymore. I don’t understand the casual contempt for the average person embedded in the ostentatious reverence for great thinkers and monumental ideas. Not that greatness is entirely illusory or that we can’t admire or learn from exemplary figures in our history. But there’s often misanthropy girding the pursuit of knowledge, and disregard or dismissal of following tradition and custom without making a name for yourself.

As if the only life worth living was a life of enduring, singular achievement, of building a name and a body of work that resounds through the ages. As if everyone else would have been better off never having existed because they didn’t soar to the peak of creation on the strength of their intellects.

Socrates said the unexamined life isn’t worth living. We hear it as a celebration of challenging assumptions and striving after a higher truth. But it’s also a harsh, cold and bitter condemnation of anyone who lives differently. Is an unexamined life not worth living? At all? Under any circumstance? To what extent should we examine ourselves? Do we believe that only unblinking thinkers who shred certainty at every available opportunity are the only ones who’ve lived or are worthy of life?

People who worked and laughed and played, who fought and struggled in the stream of a greater tradition connecting the past of their ancestors to the future of their children were all worthless because they didn’t ponder the ideal nature of beauty with world rending creativity and originality. Because they didn’t walk around pestering people about justice. Anyone who made shoes or farmed the land and held widely shared beliefs without questioning them was a clump of clay, a forgettable sod.

Human life doesn’t need grand justification or strenuous exultation. It’s okay to live in a common way among common people and pass yourself down through your children without doing anything outstanding or unprecedented.

Read and think all you want, but don’t be an asshole about it or despair over the (apparently) ordinary lives of others. This is what I now think after examining the matter for years.

I’ll be sleeping on the floor the next couple of nights and I won’t be reading Hegel or Nietzsche. They’ll be donated to a thrift store. I need to lighten my load.

Author: The Empty Subject

Born curmudgeon

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