Sin necesidad de dramatizar, la más modesta objetividad era una apertura en absurdo de París, de la vida gregaria. Puesto que había pensado en los poetas era fácil acordarse de todos los que habían denunciado la soledad del hombre junto al hombre, la irrisoria comedia de los saludos, el “perdón” al cruzarse en la escalera, el asiento que se cede a las señoras en el metro, la confraternidad en la política y los deportes. Sólo un optimismo biológico y sexual podían disimularse a algunos su insularidad, mal que le pesara a John Donne. Los contactos en la acción y la raza y el oficio y la cama y la cancha, eran contactos de ramas y hojas que se entrecruzan y acarician de árbol a árbol, mientras los troncos alzan desdeñosos sus paralelas inconciliables. “En el fondo podríamos ser como en la superficie” pensó Oliveira, “pero habría que vivir de otra manera. ¿Y qué quiere decir vivir de otra manera? Quizá vivir absurdamente para acabar con el absurdo, tirarse en sí mismo con una tal violencia que el salto acabara en los brazos de otro. Sí, quizá el amor, pero la otherness no dura lo que dura una mujer, y además solamente en lo que toca a esa mujer. En el fondo no hay otherness, apenas la agradable togetherness. Cierto que ya es algo”… Amor, ceremonia ontologizante, dadora de ser. Y por eso se le ocurría ahora lo que a lo mejor debería habérsele ocurrido al principio: sin poseerse no había posesión de la otredad, ¿y quién se poseía de veras? ¿Quién estaba de vuelta en sí mismo, de la soledad absoluta que representa no contar siquiera con la compañía propia, tener que meterse en el cine o en el prostíbulo o en la casa de los amigos o en una profesión absorbente o en el matrimonio para estar por lo menos solo-entre-los-demás? Así, paradójicamente, el colmo de soledad conducía al colmo de gregarismo, a la gran ilusión de la compañía ajena, al hombre solo en la sala de los espejos y los ecos. Pero gentes como él y tantos otros, que se aceptaban a sí mismos (o que se rechazaban pero conociéndose de cerca) entraban en la peor paradoja, la de estar quizá al borde de la otredad y no poder franquearlo. La verdadera otredad hecha de delicados contactos, de maravillosos ajustes con el mundo, no podía cumplirse desde un solo término, a la mano tendida debía responder otra mano desde el afuera, desde lo otro.
- Julio Cortázar, Rayuela (Chapter 22)
One of the more understandable misconceptions of the study of Philosophy concerns the study of human morality. I’d hazard to guess that the majority of a randomly-selected population sample would have a pretty specific view of moral philosophy as an academic subject—that is to say they’d probably think it largely involves indulging in a prescriptive study of human action. (As an aside, shouldn’t everyone want to be a moral philosopher if this could really change one’s actions for the better?) This is half-right: your average philosophy student will, say, study Epicurean (and non-Epicurean) hedonism, stoicism, utilitarianism and the categorical imperative—all of which to varying degrees have prescriptive consequences—but s/he will do so primarily to analyse and deconstruct the arguments undergirding these respective approaches. I think the layman’s appreciation for ‘eastern’ philosophy (e.g. The Tao Te Ching, The Bhagavad Gita) largely stems from this prescriptive view—these works are, as religious works are wont to be, pretty helpful if one simply wants to inhabit or defend (as oppose to explain) a moral worldview. But an equally important emphasis of Western analytical philosophy concerns itself with the origins of human morals, whether for its individual/microcosmic implications or for its social/macrocosmic merits. Here, the philosopher’s role is more akin to that of an anthropologist—we want to explain how moralities (sic) came to be. This descriptive approach doesn’t exclude the prescriptive one; on the contrary, I think a proper study of morality involves both, with the latter flowing from the former.
This brings me, rather circuitously, to the cheeky title of this post, a pithy motto cherished by my friends and me. ‘No judgements, only prayers’ was our flippant response to critiques (joking or otherwise) of certain aspects of our lives, during those heady college days when the words ‘youthful indiscretions’ were a massive understatement. This motto of sorts was mostly meant as a joke, but there was a clear, reasonable and in fact emotionally satisfying harmony to its meaning. It makes a number of implicit assumptions—that judgement from others is usually cheap, hypocritical, pretentious and unwarranted; that as moral equals, we should therefore try our best to avoid judgement; that there are, nevertheless, good reasons to concern ourselves with the affairs of others (out of love and concern for our friends); and that, consequently, we could at least hope for the best to result from their actions. All of these are debatable assumptions, but they make powerful, intuitive sense to young, rather hedonistic students—and at least to me, they still do, even if I am not so young any more…nor, indeed, so indiscrete.
I would suggest a final assumption, or implicit premise in this view: it presupposes a certain degree of randomness to our individual character. I think we were generally of the view that we would occasionally do things others didn’t expect of or from us, but that all else being equal, this wouldn’t be a problem.
I suppose this moves us to the study of personal identity, and the Janus-like multiplicity of the self. I’ll leave that for another day. For my purposes here, and accepting for argument’s sake what I’ve said above, I’d suggest that that this conjecture has an important conclusion—that we must at all times be prepared to accept that we don’t ever actually, truly know anyone, even those closest to us. There are a host of barriers to total, intimate knowledge. There’s the physical barrier—I am not in someone else’s brain, literally—and the psychological barrier—I cannot peer into someone else’s dreams or nightmares. There are the psycho-emotional barriers—our fears, appetites and desires are our own; and much that could be spoken about and said is often withheld or closeted.
Even when words are forthcoming, they more frequently than not fail us. Language (unassisted) can only take us so far. Take the following passage I wrote one late summer night, four years ago, while at my parent’s home in Los Angeles:
There’s a seductive sense of nostalgia creeping over my sleepiness right now. An almost unnervingly beautiful light-headedness I most always associate with warm nights, an intoxicating feeling you can’t quite emulate or recall wilfully…you sense it, you recognise it—but you don’t quite find explanation for it…a rather queer mix of sensation, emotion and memory…[a heightened awareness of] the warm breeze, the sighing drone of a fan, the sound of the sea, the chirping of crickets, the vague muskiness in the air, the moonlight itself…memories and memories…it’s as if all existence becomes a shade more important, more noteworthy…They are bewitching and bewildering at once… In them I recall the sounds and textures of my past—of the Uruguayan pampa, or the moonlit rivers of New England; of palm-lined streets in México, or of any given evening of my childhood…It’s on these nights most of all that I wish I could stay awake forever… to dream and study and love and ponder—yes, ponder—every night for the rest of my life…
Cheesy much? You betcha. These rambling words were my silly attempt to describe (for myself) a particular feeling, a state-of-mind. To this day, I can recall exactly what I meant by this god-awful prose—but could I or anyone (short of one possessing a Proust-like knack for writing) really, fully put into words what I felt that night? No. Here, language is at best tangential to life; it grazes just so our combined sensory-psycho-emotional experience, barely conveying the actual fact of our experience.
And so a certain degree of alienation is at the heart of our existence, and of our emotive appraisal of who we are and where we stand. This further defines our relationships—it guides our yearning for the approval (or sometimes, denigration) of others, our elevation of carnal acts to spiritual connections, and in tandem, our opinions of the actions of others. I suppose that we can at least recognise that we’re all trying and always failing to possess, or inhabit, or fully understand those we care about. We should recognise that we will never understand why we do each individual thing we do, to each other or to/for ourselves, and that (in truly philosophically-prescriptive fashion) we should be more accepting—not just tolerant of, but accepting—of what we might initially consider the shortcomings of others. And there’s a reciprocal duty on others to recognise that separation, perhaps even to fill-in the gaps of knowledge impeding others from understanding who we are. Simply doing what we do, and expecting nary a judgement, only uncritical acceptance, is as unrealistic as it is unfair.
None of us wants to be judged, but I think we’d all like to be understood. If nothing else, our fumbling attempts at understanding often reveals our regard and love for those whose actions we question. And what could be more worthy of our attention than that?
NB These thoughts are made apropos some events in the last few months. They are largely a consequence of a certain amount of bewilderment, and a large degree of live-and-let-live. My apologies if only the bewilderment is explicit in the sloppy, late-night writing.