11 January 2012
Following on Alain de Botton's essay on Montaigne, I post here a version of de Botton's an examination on wisdom. I'd be interested to see your answers. Remember, I am interested in your ideas, nothing more. You get an 'A' just for taking the test, in my book at least. Begin:
1. What is a good parent?
2. How can one tell if one is in love or infatuated?
3. How much regard should one have for oneself, and why?
4. How much weight should one give to what other people think?
5. How should one deal with death?
6. How should one end a relationship?
7. How can one live happily with other people?
8. What does it mean to be wise?
9. What is the good life?
10. What does it mean to be a friend?
Extra Credit: What is the meaning of your existence?
07 January 2012
I stood beneath the lamp post in front of my building and looked up and down the sidewalks, across the street, and up at the windows of my neighbors. All was quiet and still, though it was only just after 10pm. I have always been a night owl of sorts, and have lived in many places where observable nocturnal adventures are common, but here people went inside early and, though they may not be sleeping, or may be having unobservable nocturnal adventures, the windows and doors in this city close early to the observer. What a challenging city this must be for the voyeur, or the peeping Tom, at least at night, during the hours when it is most fruitful and interesting to observe people in secret. Of course, observance with the ears was a different matter. Nothing could be heard at this time of night down on the street, but often I had heard the sounds of my neighbors through the walls, or through the pipes if I stood quiet enough and listened, or put my ear to the plumbing. I could rarely ever hear distinct words, but I could hear the music of conversations, the loud clashes of angry overtures and the sotto voce of banal melody and chitchat. As the night progressed, talking was replaced by amatory sounds, most often coming from the young married couple who lived next to me. Grunts, moans, an occasional scream. Once, when the husband was away for the night after I had heard yelling from both of them throughout the afternoon, there was an exceptionally loud explosion of moans and screams, and the voice of a strange man yelling “oh god, mmmm” at the top of his lungs, followed by an hour of silence and, later, by female weeping and the sound of the man leaving, swearing as he went. Often after, whenever I would chance to meet the couple, or worse, the husband alone outside the building or in the hallway in front of our doors, I felt a sense of guilt, because I had been made an unwilling and unsuspected accomplice to the young woman’s infidelity by my own proclivities. I carried that knowledge, and yet did nothing, said nothing. A few days after their fight, I happened upon the husband in the hallway, and he waved and offered an apology for the noise of a few days ago. That was what he said: ‘Sorry about the noise a few days ago.’ The noise of a few days ago! Like he had any idea of the true nature of the noises that came from his own bedroom that night he spent away. Yet, I couldn’t tell him what I knew, all auditory and circumstantial and gathered by me in a dubious manner as I listened against the wall. And I suspected, perhaps only as justification, that the husband might have been occupying someone else’s bed that night as well, and that there could be another soul out there entrusted with the same silent burden of having overheard an infidelity, though they might not know the encounter was an infidelity at all. The young couple possessed all of the passions of youth – they were roughly the same age as my students –and the same impulsive flare for folly. ‘You won’t last,’ I often thought to myself, passing judgment. ‘You’re irresponsible and young. Your passions will devour you. Your flame will go out. You will grow bored or disgusted with each other. You cannot even whether the storm of a single evening without recourse to an outsider’s touch, to cuckolding the one you love.’ Then I followed that though with a reprimand: ‘I don’t know a thing about them. What do I know?’
I stood on the street observing the shut blinds and extinguished lights, and I thought I did know, not just about them, but about Maria as well, about what I had seen when I looked at her, about how I’d begun to read her when she was upstairs in my apartment, and how she had read me, too – she could also read people very well, much better than I could, or ever would – and I thought I knew this despite some of the truth in Maria’s words about the past. Perhaps the past is a fiction of sorts, in that we have to remake it as we recall it, and in that our memories can never be trusted to be faithful, because our memories are like irresponsible young lovers. Perhaps. Yet, the very existence of the past has become something to be despised. Teachers, especially teachers of the past, are told to make the material relevant to the student, to make it fresh and exciting and interesting. The assumption is that the material can never be interesting to a modern student until it involves them in some way. In other words, the past must be spruced up to account for the selfishness of the present. People don’t want to think that great and horrible things happened and they weren’t around to witness it, that it had nothing to do with them and their world. Even events such as the holocaust that robbed Maria’s old woman of her family are not mentioned for the reason that they once existed, they are unalterable facts, but because someone saw a movie about the event and wants to overlap an opinion over history, wants to involve themselves, wants to give a review, thumbs up or down, or wants to inject their sympathy or pity, which gives nothing to the people of the past. These interlopers are like the callers on the bridge that day Jala jumped to her death, reporting to their unseen confessors the events, not because they happened, but because they were witnessed. And am I not as guilty in remembering all of this? Few are the ones who see the past independently from themselves, with dispassionate interest. And because of this selfishness, people often say that some long past event ‘just doesn’t interest me’ but they never stop to think why that might be. We fictionalize our pasts and our memories, but there are facts, events, melodramas, happening even now that we want no part of, because on them we cannot impose ourselves. And we choose not to see things as they are because to do so is to make a judgment, and such things are impossible to do on unconnected things by those who cannot see past themselves, cannot impose themselves, or superimpose themselves on the lives of others. And worse is when we impose ourselves where we shouldn’t. How arrogant modern leaders are in offering apologies for the sins of their long-dead predecessors, and how equally vile those who accept them as if any of them have any right to speak for the dead, as if their apologies and forgiveness carry any weight for the victims of former ages, as if any consolation can be given to the past. The past, and the dead of the past, stand alone, separate and inconsolable, pale abstracted mourners, alone in the loneliness of this hour of the dead. And this I would learn in the weeks after Jala’s death.
I turned away from the shut windows and silence of the building and leaned against the door frame, as Maria had a few hours before, and I pulled my coat closer to me as the chill of the night began to take bigger bites at my flesh. In the distance, there was dull light, growing brighter and more distinct as it drew closer, until it was very bright. I put my hand up to shield my eyes, and was able to make out the headlights and top light of the taxicab. It pulled up beside me, and I got inside.