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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 26, 2020

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Philosophy is dying

Philosophy is dying
Vivian Lam

The prime time to produce exceedingly quotable material is when life is (perceived to be) at its most “concise”—when there’s an unspoken injunction to be prone to “pithiness.”

The invalid is the tortured philosopher, the rational artist, the lucid prophet to whom we prostate ourselves with pens ready, ears open, eyes wide. Mouth gaping—ready to swallow every nugget of gold that could be wrought from the last few paragraphs of the tome (because that’s the most important part of the text, surely). We dare not call them pretentious, dare only to mask jealousy in held-breath-wonder because it seems now that these new bodhisattvas are levitating above the clean white sheets of their deathbed. Let “one’s hate- and disgust-filled head slump onto one’s chest”—comforted by these words as we circle the casket (Kafka, aphorism 42).

Qohelet is suffocating with the life coursing throughout his anointed body. Kafka coughs up blood and feels an incredible peace. And now Paul Kalanithi, on his last day as a neurosurgeon at Stanford, finds an aphorism in the last drops of water falling from his hand into the sink. Cancer presses into his spine, kindly grants him a charmed life. Every moment endowed with an incredible earnestness, levity, triviality, profundity. In the parking lot, his colleague, mouth open in mid-question, is thrown backwards into the hospital with a beep of his pager—“I’ll catch you later!”

No line in The Gay Science could be as pithy or moving as “I’ll catch you later!”

What could be more intensely aphoristic than a number—“70% chance of survival” vrs. “30% chance of death.” Running is 40% on the ground, and 60% in the air. 1.4% of worldwide deaths are by suicide (in 2012). No words are as cruelly stark and mercilessly obscure as a Kaplan-Meier curve—we are made predictable, interpretable. Opportunities unfold. Our prophesy is handheld.

It seems that the only way to take leave of the “transcendental homelessness” that Georg Lukas claims we are trapped in is to find death. Death—in which life has become whole, has taken on the size of a massive totality seeped with an unbearable meaningfulness and an unbearable meaninglessness that becomes meaningful in its suffocating intensity. Our neurosis is to question, quantify, qualify—for we cannot believe, and we will not believe in some fanciful purpose that some archaic epic gifts to every living being. But we cannot in our skepticism deny our nostalgia for significance: for something quotable to mull over, ruminate, regurgitate, and chew as cud. We worship these heroes who take the time to make poetry of the mundane, find sublimity in the worthless.

Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.

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