Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gabriel Marcel: E. M. Cioran

To my mind, the friendship sustained for many years by E.M. Cioran and Gabriel Marcel must rank among the most improbable (and appealing) of the twentieth century. According to Cioran’s report, the two were neighbors and went to the theater together regularly. The conversations they had while wandering the streets of Paris after a performance must rank, along with Aristotle’s dialogues, among the most precious artifacts that have been lost to history forever.
Though neither thinker would be considered “mainstream” today, Cioran is probably the better known. His aphoristic writings, collected in works such as The Trouble with Being Born and A Short History of Decay, are relatively accessible, and as these two titles suggest, they’re steeped in pessimism and bile, though they’re also leavened by an acrid humor and a lyric sweetness, as if Cioran were really a disappointed sentimentalist rather than an angry scourge.
Though Marcel earned his living as a theater critic and wrote quite a few plays himself, it’s as a philosopher that he’s best remembered today. His writings along these lines differ radically from Cioran’s in both tone and shape. Marcel was adept at crafting lengthy, meditative essays that were often assembled into collections with titles such as Creative Fidelity and The Existential Background of Human Dignity. His goal, when baldly stated, takes on a whiff of grandiosity: to tease out the reality and (perhaps divine) significance of finding ourselves in the presence of other people in the world.
Nowadays Marcel seldom appears in surveys of philosophy, and when he does, it’s usually in a footnote or subordinate clause, as the thinker who coined the term existentialism. With the passage of time, and the rise in stature of his younger contemporary and sometime student Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel himself grew dissatisfied with that association, preferring to describe his work as “neo-Socratic,” and this term may give us a clue to the foundation of his long-standing friendship with Cioran. Marcel craved dialog; he loved opposition.
Cioran may well have been a perfect foil. The two men were both temperamentally religious and both tended to push ideas to extremes.
In his eloquent though occasionally long-winded essays, Marcel offers us his entire train of thought as he ponders some seemingly unpromising event or situation—a child bringing a flower to show her mother, for example. He develops his lines of reasoning cautiously, prodding and poking, circumnavigating and re-examining the situation from every angle, in Socratic fashion. The end result is usually a modest set of assertions expressed in everyday language.  And, once again like Socrates, Marcel is comfortable acknowledging when the heart of the issue under consideration may have escaped him. Nevertheless, he leaves open the possibility that the investigation itself might offer flashes of insight to those who follow along, regardless of its inconclusive character.
 Cioran more typically gives us the end-point of his dire ruminations in a few caustic sentences:
  I anticipated witnessing in my lifetime the disappearance of the species. But in this the gods have been against me.
Read somewhere the statement “God speaks only to himself.” On this specific point, the Almighty has more than one rival.
Such relentless teeth-grinding would soon grow tiresome, but Cioran also has his appreciative moments.
Music is an illusion that makes up for all the others.
For Mallarme, who claimed he was doomed to permanent insomnia, sleep was not a “real need” but a “favor.” Only a great poet could allow himself the luxury of such an insanity.
The son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran was born and raised in a small village in the Romanian mountains. He attended the university in Bucharest, where, along with playwright Eugene Ionesco, essayist Mircea Eliade, and other young intellectuals, he fell under the spell of the fascist ideology of the Iron Guard—an enthusiasm he later regretted and disavowed.
On the strength of his first book, Tears and Saints, a set of idiosyncratic reflections on the Christian mystics, Cioran received a scholarship to study in Paris from the French Institute of Bucharest. He remained in France for the rest of his life, avoiding starvation until the age of forty by eating in student cafeterias. In 1949, he published A Short History of Decay, his first work to be written in French. The book, in the context of the fashionable existentialism of the postwar era, was a success, and with the proceeds Cioran moved into a small garret apartment in Paris where he lived for the rest of his life.
Reflecting on his own background, Cioran once wrote, “I come from a corner of Europe where outbursts of abuse, loose talk, avowals—immediate, unsolicited, shameless disclosures—are de rigueur, where you know everything about everyone, where life in common comes down to a public confessional, and specifically where se­crecy is inconceivable and volubility borders on delirium.”
The son of a high-ranking government official, Marcel was raised in a typically haut-bourgeois Parisian environment, though the death of his mother (a non-practicing Jew) when Marcel was four cast a shadow over his early years. He excelled academically as a teen, in part due to the incessant demands of his step-mother, and eventually specialized in philosophy. But he found the mechanized character of his education chilling, and the relative emptiness of the material itself was brought home to him in the course of World War I, during which he was employed by the Red Cross to locate missing soldiers and inform their relatives of the often unhappy results of his researches. 
Marcel published his first play in 1914 and established himself as a thinker of note during the 1920s with a series of essays and journals culminating in “On the Ontological Mystery,” and the Metaphysical Journal (1933). He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1929, but orthodoxy had little place in his researches, which remained grounded in common experience to the end. 
Although the subjects Marcel addresses vary widely, they all impinge in one way or another on questions of the meaning and value of personal life. If a single phenomenon lies at the heart of his reflections, it’s l’exigence ontologique, which might be translated as “the need to exist,” or “the need to be.” On the face of things this expression seems absurd: after all, we already exist, we already have being. Yet Marcel detects within himself, and also notes in the thoughts and actions of friends and colleagues, a degree of doubt on this score, which manifests itself in a compelling urge to exist more fully.
Several of Marcel’s eminent contemporaries devoted their careers to highlighting the alienation and absurdity of human existence, but Marcel found such veins of thought, when stripped of their rhetoric, neologisms, and bizarre totalitarian undercurrents, to be self-dramatizing and shallow. Yet he didn’t deny that the condition of alienation presented a genuine problem to be examined and overcome.  “...being and life do not coincide,” he once wrote, “my life, and by reflection all life, may appear to me as forever inadequate to something which I carry within me, which in a sense I am, but which reality rejects and excludes.” Such a disjunction is not only unpleasant but life threatening.
Despair is possible in any form, at any moment, and to any degree, and this betrayal may seem to be counseled, if not forced upon us, by the very structure of the world we live in. The deathly aspect of this world may, from a given standpoint, be regarded as a ceaseless incitement to denial and to suicide.  It could even be said in this sense that the fact that suicide is always possible is the essential starting point of any genuine metaphysical thought.
The allure of negation has become the stock-in-trade of modern philosophy. Marcel singles out Nietzsche, somewhat dubiously perhaps, as one thinker for whom such a turning toward despair was “the springboard to the loftiest affirmation.” And although his affirmations can hardly be called lofty, Cioran is clearly cultivating the same plot.
Marcel’s own investigations led him in a different direction: toward the realization that although “I” am inseparable from “my body,”  I begin to participate in a higher order of being when I make myself available to, interact with, and come to love others. Cioran would no doubt acknowledge the importance of such a quest, while denying that any progress toward its fulfillment is possible. Thus: “Of all that makes us suffer, nothing—so much as disappointment—gives us the sensation of at last touching Truth.”
In Marcel’s view, the pursuit of what we might call transcendent value is far from futile, though he would be the first to point out that the word “transcendent” should never be taken to mean “divorced from life.” First to last, he remained committed to exposing the distinctly personal and incarnate character of the realm he was exploring. That being the case, it’s interesting to note that the love for others Marcel describes seldom takes the form of a man loving a woman. Far more often he couches this “incarnation” of spirit in terms of friendship, family life, or the goodness we come upon in unexpected places.
...I cannot stress too emphatically that the word “fulfillment” can take on a positive meaning only from the point of view of creation. Moreover, it is clear, as we have already suggested, that creation is not necessarily the creation of something outside the person who creates. To create is not, essentially, to produce…I think that we must all, in the course of our lives, have known beings who were essentially creators; by the radiance of charity and love shining from their being, they add a positive contribution to the invisible work which gives the human adventure the only meaning which can justify it. Only the blind may say with the suggestion of a sneer that these individuals have produced nothing.
“Oh, isn’t he sweet?” “Oh, isn’t she a saint?” We hear such sentimental remarks from time to time and even make them ourselves when acts of thoughtfulness and selfless generosity take us by surprise. Look closer (Marcel is saying) and you will see here a more ample manifestation of “being” than there is to be found in any path of phenomenological reflection, ponderous chain of logic, or histrionic, alienated aside.
From such observations and reflections Marcel arrives at the conclusion that truth itself is participatory rather than empirically verifiable. Here Cioran might well agree, in his own way.
It is never ideas we should speak of, but only sensations and visions—for ideas do not proceed from our entrails; ideas are never truly ours.
Early in his career Marcel, reflecting on the buoyant and invigorating potential of human interactions, sensed the emergence of a presence to whom he cautiously granted the epithet divine. Thus, to the arsenal of everyday terms he had developed to limn the character of being—availability, participation, love, fidelity, embodiment—Marcel found himself reaching again and again for yet another: faith. This concept served him—I may be putting words in his mouth, here—not as a substitute for reason, but as a means of describing an orientation of the personality toward the good.
 To some readers this will all sound somewhat imprecise, not to say mushy. What is goodness, after all? And how much can we expect to accrue by means of an availability that seems to be largely passive? But Marcel’s own essays are far from mushy. On the contrary, his reflections flesh out several aspects of the movement of being toward goodness. His problem lies not in conceptual mushiness so much as in rhetorical prolixity. As he moves from everyday experiences into more numinous regions, Marcel peppers his train of thought with phrases like “Great is the temptation to...” “But it will be objected that...” “I am inclined to think that there is...” “We cannot go on to a deeper analysis of this suggestion without...” and so on, to the point that we wish he would just get on with it. At some point we might yearn for a dash of Cioran’s brevity:
The essential often appears at the end of a long conversation. The great truths are spoken on the doorstep.
The unorthodoxy of Marcel’s religious views may be suggested by the following remark:
I can say no more than that between God and me there is the relation of one freedom with another.
Yet this supposed freedom notwithstanding, Marcel occasionally oversteps the range of conclusions that follow logically from his analysis, tiptoeing into the realm of dogmatic assertion that he’s keen to avoid. The remark previously quoted, from the Metaphysical Journal, leads on to a long-winded analysis of the relation between love, faith, and God, during which he lets fly with several curious assertions:
When faith ceases to be love it congeals into objective belief in a power that is conceived more or less physically. [So far, so good.] And love which is not faith (which does not posit the transcendence of the God that is loved) is only a sort of abstract game.
At this point we’re starting to leave the track. Don’t we all love plenty of things that aren’t God? It might be said, on the contrary, that love rooted in an act of positing anything is ipso facto an abstraction. Unless we’re merely loving an idea inside our heads.
Marcel compounds his error a few lines further on in this terminological juggling act when he writes,
Just as the divine reality corresponds to faith (the former can only be thought in function of the latter) so divine perfection corresponds to love…I cease to believe in God the moment I cease to love him; an imperfect God cannot be real.
While the association of belief and love might be solid, that between love and perfection is weak. Most of the fiber and character of things is rooted in irregularities, idiosyncrasies, and imperfections. Here Cioran brings us closer to the truth when he remarks:
Every anomaly seduces us, life in the first place, that anomaly par excellence.
 No doubt, there are aspects of Marcel’s analysis here that deserve greater attention. Plato’s famous remark that “Love is the desire to generate perfection” has more obvious appealing than Marcel’s passing observation that “divine perfection corresponds to love,” but Marcel is less likely to considering “young love” than a deep-rooted, abiding love between two people. How is an individual to respond when such a relationship is severed by misfortune or death? At this point the theological dimension becomes more germane.
By choice, Marcel was never a systematic thinker, and it’s not easy to summarize his position. Such glosses are prone to vacuity and abstraction, but I’ve got to give it a shot.
Marcel’s  vision is of being that recognizes itself in both reflection and recollection. I am not the same thing as “my life,” he reasons, but there are undeniable connections between the two, since “my life” is certainly mine. At the core of my recollection is “my” being, an entity both greater and more tenuous than “the things I have done.” The realization that other beings are in a similar situation leads me to a revelation of shared life that I can cultivate by remaining “available” to others, or ignore by promoting myself at their expense in a attempt to establish myself in being independently—an attempt that’s likely to fail because it lacks the shared ground of being in the midst of which my own development actually takes place. The domain in which interpersonal relations develop dialectically, in Marcel’s view, constitutes the only genuine reality. It consists not in consensus or compromise, but in interplay. From such a domain springs all the things we value, and all the things that endure.
By way of contrast, in one essay Cioran praises playwright Samuel Beckett, another seemingly misanthropic emigrant in Parisian, in the following terms:
To fathom this separate man, we should focus on the phrase “to hold oneself apart,” the tacit motto of his every moment, on its implication of solitude and subterranean solitude ,on the essence of a withdrawn being who pursues an endless and implacable labor…as relentlessly as “a mouse gnawing on a coffin.”
It’s a curious fact that although Marcel lived through a turbulent era in European history, and spent a large amount of his time reviewing plays, evaluating works of fiction for a Paris publishing house, and translating foreign authors into French, relatively few of his opinions on specific aesthetic and political issues are available to us. It’s as if, being beset by issues of a deeply personal and ontological orientation, the middle ground of value in its specific manifestations—art, politics, history, belle letters—was of only secondary interest to him. On the other hand, I might suggest that his broader views underscore what we all know intuitively yet lack the courage or persistence to explore or defend—that life, value, and being are just about everywhere, either actually or potentially.
As for Cioran, read him and weep…and then laugh…and then weep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Bark River Chronicles

The Bark River flows for 67 miles across southern Wisconsin, heading southwest toward its confluence with the Rock River. Neither waterway was considered worthy of inclusion in the River of America series (1937-1974)  perhaps being aced out by the Yazoo, the Santee, or the Chagres. But the Bark does have a story to tell, and in Milton J. Bates it’s found a chronicler more than worthy of telling it. Bates and his wife, Puck, have been canoeing various stretches of the river for years; they’ve participated in clean-up drives and visited the nearby mills and museums. Beyond that, the author has delved deeply into the archives of the Wisconsin DNR to track the fate of this or that marsh, millpond, or dam-site across time. What emerges is a picture of the changing role played by the Bark as an avenue of exploration, a source of waterpower, and a recreational resource.

The “chronicle” in the title refers to the attempt Bates and Puck make to canoe the entire river in the course of a single summer. But anyone expecting a whitewater adventure ought to steer clear. There are more fallen trees than horsetails, more marshy bends than windswept expanses. Bates’s progress downstream is far less memorable than the associations he drums up along the way, which provide him with opportunities to dilate at length on such topics as ice harvesting, the circus industry, the changing technology of milling, the issues associated with dam-removal, Indian mounds, objectivist poetry, the growing threat of invasive species such as carp and zebra mussels, and the Blackhawk War of 1832.

In one of Bates’s more interesting digressions, we find him acting on the request of one Joanne Cushman to locate an aluminum pot that has sunk somewhere in the river downstream from her house.  A few pages earlier we learned the story of “Reverend” Robert Cushman, who, eight generations back, arrived in Massachusetts in 1621. This Pilgrim Cushman delivered the earliest sermon in the New World of which we have any record. It’s not so famous as the one John Winthrop gave nine years later, but in Bates’s opinion, “ …it may nevertheless have the better claim to being the keynote address for New World civil and economic order.” And he tells us why this might be.

But Bates doesn’t merely rely on far-flung associations to make the Bark River seem interesting; he shows how various levels and eras of history are in evidence, even today, along the river’s banks and in its communities and environs. In Cushman’s sermon—to take the current example—he emphasized the need to balance entrepreneurialism and neighborliness, which is precisely the issue facing those today who own private dams along the Bark River that they can neither afford to fix nor to remove.

The book has an easy pace and it’s very well written. Bates is equally at ease whether he's describing Indian (and white) scalping methods or the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, a writer previously unknown to me who was raised on the banks of the Bark River. The conversations that take place from time between the author and his wife seldom really come alive. Rather, they seem like yet one more vehicle for presenting  information to the reader. But that’s a minor blemish on an otherwise well-paced and engaging riverine portrait. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Late Quartet

Do you need to like chamber music to like A Late Quartet? Probably not. In fact, viewers hoping to sink into long stretches of Beethoven’s opus 131 may come away from the theater disappointed.

The film examines the lives of a group of musicians—and not only their musical lives—in the course of a few weeks during which the cellist (Christopher Walken) discovers that he’s suffering the first stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Will he be able to finish out the quartet’s twenty-fifth season? If not, who can be found to replace him?

A few pivotal scenes take place in Walken’s elegant Manhattan flat, during which the members of the quartet practice little but discuss much in thoughtful, measured tones. They’ve spent a quarter of a century being attentive to one another’s playing, and that same sensitivity and deference comes out in their conversation.

We find ourselves more often at the apartment of the violist (Katherine Keener) and second violinist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who’ve been married for decades. Their daughter (Imogen Poots) is an up-and-coming violinist herself, and early-on in the film she starts taking lessons from the group’s first violinist, an icy perfectionist (Mark Ivanir) whose dedication to his art leaves him with little patience or tact when it comes to doing whatever’s necessary to ensure the future of the group—or teaching a young student who lacks his extreme devotion to the art-form.

Tensions between  Hoffman and Ivanir surface early as they dispute whether to play the Beethoven opus 131 with or without the years of notes they’ve been penciling on their sheet music. (Skyfall this ain’t.) The situation grows more heated when Hoffman points out that if they have to hire a new cellist, the quartet's sound will change, and in that case, it might be a good time for Hoffman to take over the 1st violinist part on occasion. “That’s a horrible idea, coming at the worst possible time,” is Ivanir’s acerbic response.

The situation grows yet more complex when Keener fails to support her husband’s new idea with enough enthusiasm. She’s always had strong feelings for Ivanir; in fact, it appears they’ve been meeting regularly on a bridge in Central Park for decades. (Why? To discuss the opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” quartet, I guess.)

Throw in a flamenco dancer with whom Hoffman often goes jogging, and the fact that Walken’s wife has recently died, and you have all the makings of a high-brow soap opera…Yet somehow, the creaking gears of the plot mechanism don’t detract much from the depth of emotions being exhibited on the screen. Declining health, professionalism, parenthood, mortality, honesty and tact,  mentorship, infidelity, artistic abandon—these things are all exposed in the course of A Late Quartet, and they get to you in a big way.

They got to me, anyway. I choked up on several occasions, and for entirely different reasons.

Then I went home and listened to Beethoven’s opus 131.