Picking up Shards & Pieces of Philosophy

Dieser alte Heilige hat in seinem Walde noch nichts davon gehört, dass Gott tot ist” (1)

The day I learned about the end of philosophy

The day's work had been done, supper eaten, dishes washed, current affairs section in the paper diligently read :  time to withdraw into more congenial spheres. Ensconced on the sofa, I was absent-mindedly perusing the paper's cultural pages, quite absorbed in the music that was playing (savouring the consonance of a growling cello and a dainty piano melody (2)).   But, hey, this looked like an interesting article – something about Erasmus and philosophy?

Pushing up my glasses on my nose, I expectantly focused on the article : « The Erasmus university of Rotterdam is to abolish its faculty of philosophy ».  Erasmus abolishing philosophy… ?!(3) So that's where we have come to, on this bleak december day in 2014?

We have of course witnessed the demise of quite some traditions in the West. We all have long heard that God is dead, but frankly, I hadn't yet fully realised that philosophy, too, apparently, is dead.

Philosophy Lives On! (at the French second hand bookshop)

Philosophy’s stubborn afterlife in the 20th Century may have fooled me.  Too much browsing of French second hand bookshops perhaps: all those shelves & shelves of mass-published books initiating humble lovers of wisdom in the higher realms of philosophy.  It was there that I picked up a small booklet from the “philosophes” series, just a pocket, but all the same carefully bound and designed: “ Simone Weil - an introduction to her life and works by Marie-Magdeleine Davy”.  

The name Weil does ring a bell –  and also rouses suspicion: wasn’t there a mystical streak to Weil’s  work,  which, by contemporary standards,  would disqualify her as a source of wisdom?

Reading the introduction I am startled how swiftly I come under the spell of this text – how surprisingly well I still can relate to its tone and vocabulary.  It’s a language of attention and contemplation, of thoughtful dwelling (4) . Here one still dares to speak without irony of the “unshaken sense of beauty and harmony relegated to us by the ancient Greeks”. 

Simone Weil is described as a thinker with a wide ranging erudition spanning antique Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, classical Indian texts and mathematics. (5)
Weil seems quite disabused about the fate of philosophy – she reflects on how philosophy seems devoid of progress and utterly lacks the concrete deliverables of science, the handmaiden of technology - humorously concluding:  
 Today’s fashion is progress, evolution. But progress is even more than a mere fashion, it has  become a serious constraint.  If the general public knew that philosophy is not likely to progress, they would probably ill suffer philosophy as part of public expenditures. It’s not in the spirit of our times to budget for that which is eternal”  (6) 

Wistful sympathy for echoes of an age long past

As fascinating as the excerpts from Weil’s philosophy are, I dwell longest on the two opening pages of the little booklet. Wistfully wondering what touches me most – the title page (with that reverent subtitle “her life, her work, a presentation of her philosophy”, and with that emblematic Greek image of a driver in a chariot spurring on four horses) or the left page with an overview of the works of Marie-Madeleine Davy, the all but forgotten author (7) of this booklet.

It’s a breath-taking enumeration, a summa of medieval Christian erudition:  A treatise of the solitary life”, “Two treatises on the love of God”, ”Commentary  on the Song of Songs”,   
I feel a sense of awe and wonder, reading these titles – mesmerized by echoes coming from so  far away – dazzled by these fragments of a civilisation forever (?) lost.

The same kind of dizzying sense of awe which I felt when standing on a hill in Rome, early in the morning, looking out over the deserted, near 2.000 years old ruins of the Foro Romano.

Notes, Shards & Pieces

(1) Nietzsche - Also sprach Zarathustra – “ This old saint in his forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead”
(2) Schubert piano trio opus 100
(3) Not profitable because none of the remaining students choose philosophy as a major, but only as a   minor (for which no subsidies are received)

(4) « la faculté d’attention est le but véritable et presque l’unique intérêt des études »

 (5)  Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Weil’s thinking is reportedly permeated by a Greek sense of harmony and proportion but encompasses vary varied sources of wisdom – she exulted in analogies amongst myths and ideas from different civilisations and eras.  Her thinking aimed at a sort of ‘universal understanding’, perhaps last attempted by her beloved Greeks, for whom science, art and philosophy were all related.  (“La science grecque […] était parente de l’art. Or l’art pour les Grecs c’est pouvoir ‘rendre sensible une parenté entre l’esprit humain et l’univers’ “) . She also had an acute sense of suffering, a deep awareness of the unredeemed injustice of suffering – which is where a certain vein of Christian mysticism comes in. “  She considered herself a Christian but was regarded with suspicion by the Catholic establishment since she choose not to be baptized, for fear of joining a collective institution which would bridle her intellectual liberty.   (« ce patriotisme d’Eglise, qui fait dire ‘nous’ , constitue un piège »)

(6) (written some 75 years ago) « La mode aujourd’hui est de progresser, d’évoluer. C’est même quelque chose de plus contraignant qu’une mode. Si le grand public savait que la philosophie n’est pas susceptible de progrès, il souffrirait mal sans doute  qu’elle ait part aux dépenses publiques. Il n’est  pas dans l’esprit de notre époque d’inscrire au budget ce qui est éternel »  

(5bis) It’s not clear how much Weil knew about the full extent of the nazi-horrors, but she was acutely aware of the horrors humankind is capable of in general. She was politically active but proved to be  an uneffective combatant (she did join a republican anarchist unit in the Spanish Civil war, but was too clumsy and  short-sighted to be trusted with a rifle). Of Jewish descent, she had to flee France, after a passage via New York she then emigrated to England, where she worked. She fell ill and died in an English sanatorium in ’43.  
 « Réflexions sur la barbarie (1939) » :
 “ Bien des gens aujourd’hui émus par les horreurs de toute espèce que notre époque apporte avec une profusion accablante […] croient que, par l’effet d’une trop grande puissance technique, ou d’une espèce de décadence morale, ou pour toute autre cause, nous entrons dans une période de plus grande barbarie que les siècles traversées par l’humanité au cours de son histoire. Il n’en est rien. Il suffit, pour s’en convaincre  d’ouvrir n’importe quel texte antique, la Bible, Homère, César, Plutarque. Dans la Bible les massacres se chiffrent généralement par dizaines de millliers. L’extermination totale, en une journée, sans exception de sexe ni d’âge, d’une ville de quarante mille habitants n’est pas, dans les récits de César, quelque chose d’extraordinaire. […] La croyance contraire, si commune à la fin du 19ième siècle et jusqu’en 1914, c’est-à-dire la croyance en une diminution progressive de la barbarie dans l’humanité dite civilisée, n’est, me semble-t-il, pas moins erronée. Et l’illusion en pareille matière est dangereuse, car on ne cherche pas à conjurer ce qu’on croit être en voie d’extinction. […] A cet égard, rien n’est plus dangereux que la foi en une race, en une nation, en une classe sociale, en un parti. Aujourd’hui nous ne pouvons plus avoir dans le progrès la même confiance naïve qu’ont eu nos pères et nos grands-pères ; mais à la barbarie qui ensanglante le monde nous cherchons tous des causes hors du milieu où nous vivons, dans des groupements humains qui nous sont étrangers. Je voudrais proposer de considérer la barbarie comme un caractère permanent et universel de la nature humaine, qui se développe plus ou moins selon que les circonstances lui donnent plus ou moins de jeu »

(7) Marie-Madeleine Davy (1903-1999) 

I never heard of her, but then of course, in retrospect, she was not in tune with the spirit of the times. Writing about medieval philosophy, about Christian spirituality in the 60s? The currently prevailing history of thought obviously chronicles quite another set of milestones and icons for the 60s …. On the web I found her biography and a wonderful photo: a pensive woman  in front of a bookshelf. Web-entries say she travelled a lot, and lived long, ending her life in a house in the country, in the midst of nature, surrounded by nature and books, devoting her final years to thinking and contemplating. 

what remains?

I'm not sure they’re true believers – not any more than I am” – she laughed, but also started wheezing slightly. We were fast marching uphill, from the Synagogue down on the Avenue de Stalingrad back up to the Jewish museum in the Rue des Minimes – and we didn’t want to miss the second part of the museum reopening programme. 

We paused for a while, and after a deep breath, she continued: 
But these men want to preserve a tradition – keep the stories alive.  As to me, I no longer believe and I resent how traditional religions diminish women – I am my own person, I’m not going to sit demurely in some kind of Synagogue-gallery watching the men saying their prayers. It’s a very long time since I last was in a Synagogue, but now, as I grow older, I feel the need to go back.  Nostalgia perhaps - all these Jewish traditions will be forever linked to my childhood (1) ; the magic of the Jewish feasts, the family meals, the sheer beauty of the recited texts. It would be a disaster if all that were to vanish forever. I suppose that’s why these men go to such lengths to keep the old synagogue running”.
These men” had been the hosts at a synagogue open-door day, patiently explaining Jewish customs and stories to a very diverse group of visitors (2).   They were in their late forties - early fifties, soberly-but-smartly dressed, looking more like typical secular, fashionable French intellectuals than like devout Jews.  They did wear skullcaps. 

One of them had explained how with a few friends they had lovingly adopted this synagogue, ensuring both its material and spiritual continuity.  

We love this place, it really looks like one of those old  east-european ’Shuls’.   It represents such a long and rich tradition. I used to be secularly minded, but then I realised with quite some dread that if my generation would renege on this heritage - then the line of remembrance would be forever broken (3).  So I started studying the Thorah, reading the Talmudic texts, and became more or less the president of this synagogue.  Meaning that I fix the lamps and repair the heating system when it’s broken, but also that I do a lot of reading, arguing and disputing over the old texts with the other members. Each Saturday we try and gather 10 Jewish men to reach the required quorum for public prayers and readings.  We don’t always succeed. My own children are not at all interested in religion – sometimes my son does come over, but in fact only to do me a favour, to fill the quorum when needed”.   

The visitors had looked around, full of curiosity – some aspects familiar (the seven branched candelabra!) others puzzling.  They were timidly peering at the unfamiliar letters in a book, but soon emboldened to take pictures all over the place – click-click- click- whoosh-flash .
In-between the flashes, the president had unperturbedly continued his reflections:
 “in fact, in daily life I work at a building restoration company – we do a lot of work in France, in small villages. Often the local church is in bad shape – materially and spiritually, with leaking roofs, crumbling walls and no priest or faithful left.  But when the local population is then offered the choice between either tearing down the church or investing in a costly restoration, they usually choose the restoration. Because that church is part of their history, part of their heritage."

We were back at the museum – where security measures had definitely slackened since the draconian screenings earlier in the morning. There hung a kind of elation in the air – a mixture of relief (no incidents) and proud excitement (we did it , we’re open again! And  with so many visitors!).

In one of the rooms a second hand book fair was going on – my companion immediately set course to the tables of books,  smiling wryly – “yeah you know, we Jews and books – if nothing else, at least the books remain ” (4)

A few cross-reading references and an enumeration

  1.    At the youngest age, when words can be magical and stories spellbinding, a unique vocabulary came along with the sweet and savoury Sabbath-meal offerings.” (From “Jews and Words” by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger).
  2.     The little group of visitors consisted of a keenly interested European expatriate, an awkwardly looking older couple of local neighbours, a nervous young man asking very critical questions (eg “do Jews think they’re God themselves? “ – answer : “heavens no [hearty laugh]  it’s just that practicing Jews do not need intermediaries such as priests”), a few people with Jewish roots (judging by their remarks), a trendily dressed Muslim couple (identified as Muslim because of the headscarf the woman, which in the present circumstances functioned as a very nice statement of cross-cultural goodwill) and, of course, an ever pensive & watchful flâneur. 
  3.     relay the narrative” – [avoid to have] “countless lines of memory irretrievably broken” (Ibidem) 
  4. Not a genetic continuum, but rather a series of people carrying texts, burdened with ideas, stubbornly and lovingly passing them on”. (Ibidem)

doing art history at night

 It was a dark night, but it was definitely not a nightmare, seeing all these dying barbarians and writhing bodies before my mind's eye, quite the contrary. 

With a surge of happiness I welcomed the unsolicited apparition of images of the Palazzo Altemps, a Roman museum. It were images from such a long time ago, happy images from an all but forgotten visit.   And yet, how astonishingly clear the memory was – strolling around as a tourist on a languorous September Sunday afternoon in Rome.

I had walked by the piazza with the undulating Borromini façade,  then into the stern street with the unobtrusive entry into an imposingly classical courtyard.   
The sheer marvel of this palace, with the many rooms full of silent statues, redolent with bygone Roman glory and  gravitas,  the fading frescoes on the walls, the cool interior with its filtered light contrasting with the windows opening into glaring Roman light and noise. 

How come these luminous memories had popped up, uninvited but so very welcome, nearly 15 years later during a dark restless night?

Lying awake at night,  I had been pondering again last weekend’s visit of the  De Bruyckere exhibition , with its sculptures of vulnerable flesh, its visions of frayed flayed waxen bodies in tormented postures. Some of the poses had vaguely reminded me of an ancient Roman statue - a warrior prostrated on the ground, bleeding from a wound, trying to get up. 
 A dying barbarian, a dying slave? I tried to visualise the association more clearly, but the precise image escaped me.  Then, slipping into a slumber, my mind came up with a marble statue, a "Dying Gaul", and treated me at the same time to a visit of the Palazzo Altemps where it seemed to have its abode. (1)

Now, fully awake at my computer, I further ponder art history’s visualisations of tormented bodies.
From the hardness of Roman marble (2) to the impressible vulnerability of contemporay wax.   
They’re both statues of lone suffering beings, though the Dying Gaul is far more publicly and heroically struggling than these inwardly turning waxen creatures.

And how about that long pictorial tradition of descents from the cross , how about all those depositions and  burials   of Christ? The sheer sinister lividness of those dead bodies, with the grisly streaks of blood - not unlike the tortured texture of that frayed wax.  But at least  those descents, depositions and burials were communal events, Christ’s body taken down by faithful followers – the images brimming with empathy and devotion. 

De Bruyckere’s creatures are quite alone, faceless even, without an individual identity – what could be worse: a lone suffering body – with only the spectator possibly offering redemption. Or rather, with each spectator facing recognition –  le dernier acte sera sanglant”.

historical corrections

  1.  My sleepy memory was playing tricks on me – an old museum guide and the internet indisputably confirm that there is no Dying Gaul at the Palazzo Altemps. The Dying_Gaul  is in the Musei Capitolini. The Palazzo Altemps however does have a cousin, the Suicide Galatian.  So far for  the accuracy of my subconscious art historical referencing system ...
  2. Late Roman marble copies of earlier Hellenistic bronze originals