Thursday, October 13, 2005

Random Philosophical Musings of a Reeling Raconteur

It was a dark and stormy night. I staggered out of the consultation room, reeling from the after-effects of having debris sucked out of my ear with an improvised vacuum cleaner.

It was a dark and stormy night. I staggered out of my friend’s room, reeling under the emotional impact of “Lost in Translation”, the Sofia Coppola movie I’d just finished watching.

Right ho, then. The nights in question here are tonight (nowhere near dark and stormy, in fact, hot and muggy would be a much more accurate description), but if I’d mentioned that earlier, I couldn’t have infringed on Snoopy's copyright, now, could I? Anyway, the point is I’m reeling. And when I reel, I philosophize. I don’t know about you, but having clotted blood sucked out (and very painfully, too) of my ear and watching what is one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen immediately after makes me reflect on profound stuff such as the meaning of life and the purpose, if any, of existence. I understand that the ear part was definitely information that you could have done without, but if I am to subject you, Gentle Reader, to philosophy, then it is only fair on my part to provide at least two (ostensibly) good reasons for doing so.

As far as philosophy goes, I was first introduced to it when I was 14, when one of my English teachers at school, on learning that I had more interest in books than the average 14 year old recommended Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I loved it then, and while I’ve revised my opinion slightly now, I still retain something of a nostalgic affection for it. I later came across Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s books such as Jailbird, Slaughterhouse Five and others. Somehow I’ve always preferred this kind of writing to the otherwise grave and heavy handed works such as those of Spinoza, Aristotle and the like. I mean, most of the time, we take ourselves much too seriously. Similarly, Catch 22. This book has to be one of the best I’ve read, without doubt a modern classic. Yossarian’s words still ring in my ears: “If something is worth dying for, isn’t it also worth living for?”

Then I went through the stage that, I suppose, any 17 year old with an interest in philosophy would go through: that of being a Howard Roark wannabe. One of my friends (probably the only other guy in school who read such stuff) introduced me to Ayn Rand, though with a warning: don’t get carried away. Well, looking back now, I guess I did get carried away a little. I could identify with much of her writing; I loved her ideas of rational self interest and admired her protagonists with the kind of breathless admiration that, I guess, teenagers reserve for their idols. Almost as quickly, though, I became disillusioned with them, I began to feel that such characters couldn’t really exist. And the more I thought about it, it seemed to me that most of her writing was exactly the opposite of what she claimed it to be: rational. Sometimes I feel she’s the one who got carried away.

It was around the beginning of the second semester of college that my Dad, noticing my interest in philosophy, told me to check out Bertrand Russell. The first book I read of his was a collection of essays called ‘Skeptical Essays’; I enjoyed it tremendously. It seemed to me that I had finally found what I was looking for, somebody who had tried to evolve a set of ideas that helped to deal with the world as it is, and not go on posturing about how it should be. Here’s a small example of what influences my thinking:

The question....

And maybe the answer....?

"Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power."
-Concluding passage of Russell's A Free Man's Worship

A Free Man's Worship is undoubtedly the the finest piece of prose that I have ever laid my eyes upon; it is written with a grand, quiet passion that I haven't found anywhere else. In my lowest, darkest moments, I have always turned to it for renewed strength and hope. It has never failed me. It reminds me that there is still beauty in this world; in art, in science, in literature, in nature and in our relationships with people. And that as long as this beauty remains, there is still reason for hope.

P.S. For those who are interested, the entire text (it isn't very long) of the essay can be found here: