Sunday, January 11, 2009

Philosophy Is Hard: True Or False?

OK, people, school is starting up again and it's time for our first quiz. Don't worry, it's True or False —no short answer, no multiple choice, no essay questions.

Ready? Take out your pencils.

True or False?

1. Life is short.
2. It's important to be true to yourself.
3. Everyone is special.
4. You should live each day as if it is your last.
5. We always want what we cannot have.

Don't peek! Answer for yourself before you check the answer key.

Answers:

1. Life is short.

True.

I used think this was not only true but obviously so. Death, aging, you know, it's all really right around the corner. I was one of those 15 year olds who thinks, well, I gotta couple good years left anyway.

Then as I got older my faith weakened a bit. I mean, a person can accomplish things that take years and years and still have a lot of time left. If you're too obsessed with the shortness of life, you don't even bother with long term projects. Because you're all, "God, who has the time for that?" Not me.

But now I figure the shortness of life is compatible with the wisdom of long term projects. It's just they have to be the kind of projects that are reasonably fun in the doing, and not just a big bang at the end. Especially when you're using the scale of how able people are to put off doing things, you have to think life is short. People can put off doing things for decades.

2. It's important to be true to yourself.

True.

This one took me a long time to figure out. I used to think it was stupid.

First, I thought the whole idea of there being a true inner self that you'd be true to was silly. We're all products of our social environments. If I stop wearing my eccentric plaid scarf because the other kids make fun of me for it, how is that any different from stopping wearing my black hat because it isn't warm enough? Both things are just choosing among options given the good and the bad.

Second, I thought (along with Lynda Barry's character Maybonne), what if your true self is crummy? Then what, huh?

But I've come around. It's weirdly sad and annoying not to be yourself. It's weirdly fun and satisfying to be yourself—even when your true self is kind of crummy.

3. Everyone is special.

False.

This was a big thing "in the air" when I was growing up. Like, you'd hear it on Sesame Street all the time.

I love Sesame Street, but while you might want to say that everyone is different, I don't think it's right to say that everyone is special. Internalize that idea then it's a big disappointment when you turn out pretty much like everyone else: odds are you're not going to be a rock star, or a beauty queen, or Einstein, dude. But that's OK. Being like everyone else is good.

4. You should live each day as if it is your last.

False.

C'mon. Of course this is false. How did this idea ever get any traction at all?

5. We always want what we cannot have. True.

Sad, but true.

I'm just getting to the last book in my rereading of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (spoiler alert: stop here if you don't want to know the plot). I would say one of the things the story returns to again and again is the way something you have and control is never as interesting as something out of your reach.

Maybe you know that part of this book centers on the narrator's obsession with a girl named Albertine. Marcel is conflicted but wildly jealous; over and over again he finds himself taking Albertine more for granted the more he controls her life, and finds himself crazed with passion and jealousy when he suspects Albertine's love, attention, or sexual interest has been elsewhere, at any time of her life, with anyone else.

Finally Albertine dies and Marcel is distraught.

I've encountered on several occasions the idea that when Albertine dies, Marcel "realizes how much he loves her." Maybe. But it's complicated. Marcel's unhappiness focuses still on knowing the unknowable about Albertine: what did she do, with who, when? After some time passes, he thinks about her less and less often, naturally enough. Then he is in Venice, where he is reminded of her, and he suffers again from missing her. Then, the very next day, he receives a telegram that he mistakenly reads as saying she is alive and wants to see him, to perhaps talk of getting married.

His reaction? It leaves him totally cold. He has no interest in seeing her whatsoever.

I understand there are many possible interpretations, both of Marcel's emotions and of the text. But one of these is that even in death, Marcel's ambivalence persists: it is Albertine's inaccessibility that moves him. Sad. But true.

2 comments:

aps said...

1. Life is short.
I still think that it is so relative. To me life is long. It is the longest thing I will ever experiance. I cant even remember half of it.
2. It's important to be true to yourself.
Unless your a pedophile right?
3. Everyone is special.
I think that the people who say this imply that because we have the spark of life we are special. Also because we are all "God's Children" or whatever.
4. You should live each day as if it is your last.
Can't even play devil's advocate on this one; I completly agree with you.
5. We always want what we cannot have.
Sometimes, sometimes not. Ever heard of the endowment effect?

Patricia said...

Hi aps, it's true that the importance of being true to yourself better not be understood as the leeway to do whatever you want. No joke.

I had to google endowment effect. Interesting. It made me think, Ah, one of those happy times when we stop working against ourselves: how nice that we value what we own. A real case of non-perversity in human life.