Tag Archives: philosophy

How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “A Novel from Life.” So you know it isn’t exactly a novel or she wouldn’t have invented some new category of novel for it. What novel isn’t from life? Life is the stuff from which we make novels. Maybe her life is the stuff of this novel, in which case…oh, never mind. The book is sort of Life of Pi meets Kurt Vonnegut–or something. It’s part philosophy, part exploration of what it means to be an artist, part unfiltered recollection of random sex and playwright’s ennui and painter’s acrylic navel gazing and a Zen bit about apprenticing in a hair salon.

The narrative is studded with luminous observations like: “You are only given one. The one you are given is the one to put a fence around. Life is not a harvest. Just because you have an apple doesn’t mean you have an orchard. You have an apple.  Put a fence around it.” Sheila, the narrator, wanders from Toronto to Art Basel and South Beach to the East Village and back to Canada. She has sex with an untalented artist named Israel–or she surrenders to whatever Israel needs from her at the moment. She has a female painter-friend named Margaux who waxes philosophic at every turn but is the slightest bit touchy about any number of things. Sheila can’t believe in a feminist play she has been commissioned to write, wants to abandon it, can’t abandon it, considers abandoning it–anything but writing it actually.

Art is hard. Art Basel is pretentious. Art is a business. Art is however someone else defines it. Life is art. Or not. Probably not. Life is hard, though. Good writer, odd book, interesting but a little too self-observant. If you lived inside the heads of these characters you’d go mad and end up working in a convenience store. Unless you produced some world-shattering art.  But then there’s that whole art is hard thing.

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life   Sheila Heti | Henry Holt and Company   2012

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

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I’ve always liked Julian Barnes’ writing but I’ve read only a few of his books.  The Sense of an Ending reminded me of how skillfully he strings together ideas in the guise of a narrative. The book is an examination of life and of several particular lives through the prism of one character’s point of view. The title refers to a philosphical question, the experience of aging, and the factual end of a life inexplicably cut short. It could have been deadly dull inhabiting the mind of a late middle-aged, middle-class British guy but Barnes is too good for that. The book was almost a page-turner. 

Tony Webster recalls his high school friendships and the Big Questions of adolescence with extraordinary clarity. The rest of his life has played out with amicable events–a career, a marriage, a child and household, a divorce–nothing too angsty or uncivilized. He thinks he is at peace with his world although niggling doubts about the meaning of it all sneak in around the edges. And then a missive from the blue drops him back into the relationships and confusion of his first love and most fascinating friend, opens the subject of suicide and the subjective or objective nature of it, and teases him with a truth that remains elusive but tantalizing.

Barnes creates compelling characters from what could be standard-issue sixties, middle-class Brits. The students don’t dare too much in the physical world–they live half in the mindset of the fifties and are definitely not rockers or hippies or even remotely trendy. They do test ideas relentlessly, wonder about the reliability of memory and history, and are incredibly snobby about intellectualism. As young people, Tony and his friends are self-absorbed and a little clueless. Well, one of them isn’t all that clueless but his glittering aura goes somewhat tarnished over time.  A first love is suitably nerve-wracking but oddly off-balance. Two tragic deaths seem unrelated but have more in common than first revealed. What Tony discovers holds no satisfaction and no solace but he is an earnest guy who tries to do the right thing and it’s easy to forgive his stumbling around and wish him well.

The Big Answer in The Sense of an Ending flattens the exalted worship of theory and makes sense of the anguished reactions to both random damage and logical consequences. Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize for this novel and  it is so accomplished and polished a story that it is easy to understand why.

The Sense of an Ending [Deckle Edge] (Vintage International)   Julian Barnes | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

The Book – Alan Watts

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Reading Alan Watts always leaves me feeling like a tangled snarl of string. He begins with a compelling premise, elucidates his considerable thinking on the matter, amplifying his views with quotes from poets like William Blake and from various scriptures and sacred writings. And, by the end of the argument, I have followed him down into a place where the light is either too faint or too glaring for me to see properly. I can’t get to the end of the lesson. Mostly there doesn’t seem to be an end—which is probably what he meant anyway.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is typically brilliant, ahead of its time and infinitely frustrating. Watts examines the social conditioning that teaches us we are separate beings in a physical world of distinct objects and boundaries. He counters this assumption with a mash-up of Vedanta and contemporary physics to assert that our personal selves don’t actually exist. Well, they don’t actually exist as independent beings, disconnected from everything else. We are, in fact, entirely interconnected—as much to the city bus as to the irritating dolt in the next cubicle. And to Mother Theresa and Oprah and all of our friends and to every river, cucumber, butterfly and star.

If your life is a bowl of cherry pits, the collective unconscious, including your own unconscious, created that for your awareness. Or possibly you perceived those pits from the specific level of your own awareness. Sigh.

Some of the most fascinating ideas in Watts’ book (first published in 1966) are his evaluations of the limits of technology and the damage we are doing to the planet with extraordinary depletion of its resources—all because we don’t realize that we are both divine energy and the ground of the universe. We are the creators and to wander around deluded about that is to be unhappy and dissatisfied and to make a complete muck of life.

Nearly half a century ago, Watts was warning about the loss of privacy, technology creep, the eventual restriction of travel, artificially-created foods, the destruction of the environment and the standardization that transforms Waikiki Beach into any island beach anywhere—or maybe an especially theatrical resort pool area far from a real ocean. Wonder what he would have had to say about reality TV?

The monetization of work exhausts you and turns you and your product/service/labor/innovation into cheap commodities. This holds for burger jockeys as well as architects, scientists, housemaids and oil paint slingers (otherwise known as artists). The twin skills of attention and awareness can reveal glimpses of your true nature. We need to acknowledge the existence of magic in the world because, at its heart, all of this is a mystery and there are no words that can adequately capture it, no philosophy that can serve it up to us in neat digestible bits.

I wish I could get a solid handle on the brain of Alan Watts. I think he is right and intellectually dazzling but what the words represent is elusive. I agree we are deluded—I am deluded. But my simple soul would do cartwheels at some graspable notion of how to wake up. Clearly, I will have to read The Book again.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are   Alan Watts | Vintage Books  1989

On Right Livelihood – J. Krishnamurti

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“Is it not necessary,” Krishnamurti writes, “for each one to know for himself what is the right means of livelihood? If we are avaricious, envious, seeking power, then our means of livelihood will correspond to our inward demands and so produce a world of competition, ruthlessness, oppression, ultimately ending in war.” That statement dates from 1944, even though it sounds like a cogent observation of the moment.

On Right Livelihood is a collection of J. Krishnamurti’s talks, writing and conversations about how to find what we are meant to do for a living. But it is really an exploration of the motives of the human heart and how to balance economic necessity with moral integrity.

Krishnamurti was a spiritual teacher aligned with no particular teaching or organization. He brought a deep knowledge of eastern spiritual tradition to western audiences but his message was one of inner silence, environmental awareness, individual responsibility and world peace.

His wasn’t an easy prescription to follow. An absence of ambition and indifference to material success reads like the road to nowhere in our society. We are conditioned to create hierarchies—the CEO is worth millions more than the chef, the financial advisor is revered and compensated, the farmer is impoverished and loses his land. Whose children go to college? Where is the honor in simple labor? How do we hear the calling of our true vocation in this clamor?

Krishnamurti preached non-duality and freedom. We are at once who we are and what we do, he said. We embody our beliefs. Once we learn to set aside society’s thought shackles about struggle and success, we can be truly free.

I read this book with one eye on our dwindling finances, one on the news about the little shop of horrors that passes for political discourse these days. Talk about jobs and joblessness, about the 1% who own all the money and the rest of everyone who are cast in the role of collateral damage, is repetitive and cheap. Our civilization is beyond broken, our planet is in a shambles, our leadership should be set adrift in space, maybe with the titans of industry to keep them company. But sweeping away the mess won’t bring us any closer to Krishnamurti’s vision.

His book speaks to educated people who are not captive of ideologies, convinced of their own superiority and entitlement or blind to the inherent bleakness and exploitation of consumer-capitalism. Maybe not so many people. Education is a failure system that trains compliant cubicle workers and coddles the privileged through universities that supply little more than vocational training. People learn how not to think, how to avoid painful truths, how to fill chasms of emptiness with stuff, frantic schedules and all things superficial. Krishnamurti’s advice is timeless but it seems almost too challenging for our times.

“How am I to live sanely in this world that is insane?” he asks. “To live in this insane world sanely, I must reject that world and a revolution in me must come about so that I become sane and operate sanely. That’s my whole point.”

Good point. Add: Get a Life to the to-do list. Figure out how to pay the escalating grocery bill with the proceeds from honorable and valuable work. Identify what honorable and valuable work means these days. Meditate to experience inner peace. Respect the integrity of the planet. Read more books. Refrain from manufacturing or selling weapons. And stop using plastic bags.

On Right Livelihood     J. Krishnamurti | HarperSanFrancisco   1992