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Today's quote:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

So many books, so little time

'I was surprised when my eye was caught by an advertisement: wolf cubs for sale. A few hours later I was paying $500 to the woman who had placed the ad. I took my wolf cub home with me that very afternoon. And there we began thrashing out the terms of our acquaintance.'

This fascinating book charts the relationship between Mark Rowlands, a rootless and restless philosopher, and Brenin, his extraordinarily well-travelled wolf. Brenin goes everywhere with Rowlands, even to his philosophy lectures, where he lies in the corner of the lecture hall and dozes. More than just an exotic pet, Breinin exerted an immense influence on Rowlands as both a person, and, strangely enough, as a philosopher. He led Rowlands to re-evaluate his attitude to love, happiness, nature and death.

By turns funny (what do you do when your wolf eats your air-conditioning unit?) and poignant (in the pages describing Brenin's last weeks with Rowlands), this is a life-affirming book that will make you reappraise what it means to be human.

And what lessons did the philosopher learn from the wolf? Well, many, but one was this: that wolves, unlike us, live without hope. And what is most important in us, is what is left when time has taken our hope from us. In his words, "We do spend a lot of our time obsessing about the future and obsessing about the past in the way that no other animal does. The drawback is I think, that we have a hard time making sense of our lives once we're hooked into time in that sort of way. I think that is one of the drawbacks at least."

"Because we're what philosophers call temporal creatures, we experience time in a certain way, as a line stretching from the past into the future. We face a problem. And the problem is we know that there's going to be an end to this line. And so then we have a fundamental choice to make: what is our stance going to be to the fact that there is an end to the line of our lives? And it seems to me we have two fundamental choices: either we tell stories to the effect that there isn't in fact an end, that what we think of as the end is not in fact the end, there is something else; we can do that. Or we can live our lives in the acknowledgement that there will be an end."

"Part of what I wanted to do certainly in the latter half of the book, was to try and show the ways in which making up stories about there not being an end, about death not being the end, doesn't allow us to be what we are capable of being."

"You think of life as a game of football, or something like that, but the significance of the sort of an error that someone makes, for example, is different whether it occurs in the beginning of the game or the end of the game where there's no chance to sort of rectify it. So I think significance is tied to time, in that sense, and the fact that our lives are going to come to some sort of abrupt end."

"Which is what Janacek's opera, The Macropulos Case is all about, but life just becomes meaningless if you go on, and so Macropulos eventually ends up just wanting to die."

"The problem is, understanding how life can have a meaning if it doesn't go on, as well I think, that's the other side of the coin. So either way we're going to be in trouble. The worry about meaning that comes from the fact that our lives will be - it always reminds me of Shelley's poem, Ozymandius, when he talks about a traveller in the desert coming across these two trunkless legs of stone, underneath written 'My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings, look upon my works in mighty despair.' And the traveller looks and all he can see is desert."

"Everything Ozymandius achieved has been erased from history. That's the fate of all of us. Given that's what's going to happen, where does the meaning of our lives exist? There are two basic stories, the meaning of life on the one hand is happiness, but there are problems with that because people can be happy doing all sorts of apparently meaningless things. Suppose your conception of a good life, a meaningful life, was to sit around all day watching sitcoms, or something like that, then you're happy, but intuitively, that seems to be a sort of sad waste of a life rather than a meaningful one. So the problem with identifying meaning with happiness is that you have to be happy doing the right things, meaningful things. So happiness doesn't get us what we need."

"But on the other hand, you say OK, well it's not happiness, it's purpose. And that's the other main option. Well then we face the Ozymandius problem, no matter what we achieve, it's all going to go. There's a sort of famous myth which the existentialist Albert Camus used to talk about, the meaningless of human existence, the myth of Sisyphus. Now Sisyphus was condemned, for whatever reason, we don't need to go into, to roll a big rock up a hill for all eternity. When he gets to the top, it rolls back down again and he has to start all over again. And the analogy is supposed to be something like this: Sisyphus' journey to the top is like our lives, and every step he takes on this journey is like a day in our lives."

"But why is that punishment of the gods so nasty? What's the problem with it? Is it the fact that it's so difficult? Well, you know, you can imagine a sort of variation on the myth where Sisyphus doesn't roll a big rock up the hill, he just sort of carries a little pebble, you know, he could stick it in his pocket or whatever, stroll to the top of the hill, pebble, well it doesn't jump out, it drops out and then rolls back down again. There's no more meaning there than there was in the original telling."

"Well, suppose the gods decided to be slightly merciful and inculcate in Sisyphus an intense desire to roll big rocks up hills. He was never happier than when he's doing this. Then it seems we still don't have meaning. In fact Sisyphus' position now in some respects seems to be even worse than it was before the gods decided to become merciful; now he's the deluded stooge or patsy of the gods. At least before, he possessed some kind of dignity, you know, nothing but contempt for the gods and this stupid punishment they'd inflicted on him, but now that all is gone. So dignity is lost and in its place is happiness. It's not clear that we've made any great stride forward there."

(Mark Rowlands' books include Everything I Know I Learned from TV and The Philosopher at the End of the Universe. He is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami.)