Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Despair In Art, Philosophy, and Life; Or, Schopenhauer Goes To The Movies

I loved the movie Anomalisa, so I was very happy when my friend sent me a link to this piece by Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books.

I was especially happy because people kept asking me, "What's that movie about?" and I didn't have an answer. The plot has to do with a middle-aged man on a business trip who meets a young woman -- but when I say that people are like, "Oh it's about a hook-up?" and I'm like, "No, it's not about a hook-up." I considered saying it's about the human condition, but I thought that would be too ridiculous.

Now Smith has some ideas. It's about being "stuck between those twin poles of want and boredom." It's about the "horrors of the will" -- the endless endlessness of being ourselves -- broken only by moments of aesthetic contemplation. It's about loneliness. And it's all done with puppets. Did you know that it's all done with puppets?

Smith happened to see the movie with a philosopher friend, and she analyzes the movie through the lens of Schopenhauer's philosophy. I know almost nothing about Schopenhauer, beyond tiny things bordering on caricature. Dark sort of guy. Didn't like women. Down on love.

Smith quotes quite a lot from Schopenhauer, thus giving me a glimpse into his philosophy and a chance to see Anomalisa's themes in philosophical language. It goes something like this:
"Desiring lasts a long time, demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. But even the final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one."
To which my first thought is "Well -- yeah. I know that. I've known that forever. I think about it every time I see a two year old crying. "Welcome to the human condition, kid. I'm sorry it's like this!"

And to which my second thought is "Wait, what the hell am I doing with my life? I mean, what am I doing as a philosopher?"

Because this happens to me pretty regularly. I experience something in art or literature and feel all emotional and connected and I read the same ideas in philosophy and it seems completely cold and dull and inert.

So WTF am I doing? This is a thought I've had before, many time. A lot of philosophers, I find, say that they really love philosophy. But I've never really felt that. I'm often ambivalent about philosophy. I often find it dull and lifeless. I often find it annoying. Or, as I put the problem in this interview at the APA blog:
"My most favorite thing about philosophy is also my least favorite thing: the way philosophy allows you to abstract away from the contingencies of our world. On the one hand, this is wonderful, because it allows us to take a fresh perspective and imagine realities different from our own. On the other hand, too much abstraction and philosophy becomes useless, inert, and disconnected from anything that matters."  
Over time and with the help of friends I've developed talking points for myself about why I'm doing what I'm doing. Basically it's like this. I like to think about things. I find my style of thinking is particularly well-suited to the style of philosophy. It comes pretty naturally for me. I believe that in the grand scheme of things that philosophy has some really useful and important things to contribute to understanding the world. So: it's worth doing; I'm pretty good at it; I might as well do it.

As I rehearsed the talking points to myself after reading Smith's piece, I started thinking about different kinds of philosophy and about the fact that the kind of philosophy I do has very little overlap with the kind of philosophy in Schopenhauer.

There are some very complex reasons for this having to do with philosophy in Anglo-American culture and its institutional development, but there are also simpler more personal reasons. For me, those simpler more personal reasons have to do with the fact that despair, boredom, the human conditions and the meaning of life aren't things I find I can understand better by thinking about them. In fact, thinking about them gets me nowhere and makes me feel awful.

I don't know if you've ever had that experience, where you start to feel like What's The Point, and then you get into that weird delusionary mood-moment where you think that maybe, if you had some quiet time for reflection, you might possibly move forward on this question in way that makes your life better?

And then you sit and think about it, and not only do you not feel better, you really feel much worse, because not only have you put yourself face to face with the fact that there really is no point, and that awful things are going to keep happening, and that even good things are going to be disappointing -- now also instead of having those thoughts in the course of normal activities you're having them during some "quiet time for reflection" -- which makes them seem darker and more grim and more horrible.

That is partly why, while I have nothing against the philosophical study of despair and the human condition, it's not the kind of thing I'd ever work on. In fact, it's not the kind of thing I want to read other philosophers writing about.

I'm happy to leave contemplation of such matters to people like Charlie Kaufman, who had the brilliant and utterly original idea to explore the problem through stop-animation puppetry.

In any case, I knew Anomalisa would make me feel sad and maybe even despairing, so I'd planned ahead for the activities following the movie: I had a martini, with someone I love, in a crowded bar. We talked about the puppets, and I tried not to think too hard about what it's like to be alive.

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