Reading Philosophy as a Quest for Fascinating Life
BY DR.MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
The key challenge and the question life asks from all of us – that religion, philosophy and art treat in their own, arguably complementary ways – is how to live well. Religions are doctrinal support systems for patterning life into an art of rituals for participation in the sacred time that mirrors a sort of eternity where hearts find rest or fulfillment/salvation. Art reconciles us to life by unearthing its beauty while goading us to its riches that we find irresistible. Philosophy provides cognitive resources for clarifying what we really want and living without illusions while appreciating our limits and interpreting our dreams and myths. It is to this last task that the slim but provocative and scintillating volume of aphorisms, apothegms and apologues Creative Obsession: Philosophical Life in Broad Daylight invites us. Forcing on us a soum (fast)/hard discipline of the mind with little regard for our fears and sentiments and daydreams, one is rewarded with a feast of insights and hard won wisdom of those doctors who treat diseases of the mind with cathartic and purgative agent of doubt and irony.
Our philosopher of the week, Viator E. O’Leviter, notes that “Phenomenal success, truckloads of money and lots of great sex are nice things to have, and so naturally, we want them desperately. But what most people really want, beyond all the obvious trappings, is to have interesting, positively fascinating lives.” Boredom or monotonous routine of life is killing. But “humans are absolutely nuts to have interesting lives.” What stops us from living with gay abandon, creatively, soulfully and “experience the most engrossing, astonishing events” and “why do so many irrepressible souls grow so amazingly decrepit?”
The plausible answer suggested is that “we succumb to our fears. We feel it in our bones that an interesting life is a dangerous desire.” How to cultivate this deliberate and consuming engagement is what is, for him, the philosophic life. Cultivating “clarity of thought, courage of choice and a circumspect knowledge” philosophy has offered us “a noble, perilous ethic, where one’s own existence might become one’s own creative obsession.” O’Leviter invites us to take plunge into life and dissolve the nagging worries that have been raised by those who have seen life from a distance and taken refuge in certain abstractions and habits of mind and body.
The protagonist and narrator of this work is Homer Dogg who is “a hardcore traveler, an honest scholar and an infatuated artist.” The book is not for everyone but for those who have traded fame and honour with infamy of love like Hafez and have chosen to be dancers instead of preachers like Rumi and those who, like the Shakespeare of Keats, have the virtue of negative capability or Khayamian knack for living with uncertainty.
This book of aphorisms is dedicated to “the fearless artists and epic travelers who got there first” and seeks to wean us away from comforting illusions that fail to sustain thorough going analysis. One recalls Buddhist and other great Masters and adventurers of consciousness who have invited us to plumb the depths of life by peeling away layer after layer of cocoons of ego and other “fillers of void” or shams of civilization. However, it doesn’t offer us a classical mystical or other exit out of the abyss and chaos when grandiose system making projects wedded to naïve and prosaic understanding of language and reason have seemingly crumbled.“How embarrassing when I catch myself believing that I know the truth of my faith. Just like some fully functioning fanatic, I think in terms of “belief,” “knowledge,” “truth” and “faith” all at the same time (white noise of the brain), and the gods appear again before me like doting slaves and magic elves. Once again, I have mistaken a moment of extreme confusion for a moment of crystal clarity. It happens all the time, this wishful thinking.” While one may take exception to the dogma of reductionism (jarring “white noise of the brain”) as the author himself would propose for the sake of consistency, it is striking to note that sages like Sankara and Ibn Arabi have warned against fixation with absolutes that are linguistically or textually posited and proposed that our deliverance and true faith (gnosis) lies in absolute openness to experience and steering clear of every interpretation of that which is/which is encountered.
Every aphorism makes a point that compels one to pause and, in most cases, one feels like agreeing and if not agreeing, somehow jolted out of complacent posturing of ideologies and systems. A few shorter aphorisms one may note for an appreciation of style and method that is ably clarified in longish “Afterword” by the author.
The first we note (“Last Act”) describes terminal moments of someone facing death while plane crashes.
“‘God forgive me! God save me! Why this, God? Why now? Why meeeeee!? Oh please, please God forgive me all my sins!’
So screamed and sobbed
Who was sitting in 26-D,
While the flaming jet-plane
Into the icy sea.
Life is strange. The hysterical young man never had the chance to conceive that his pitiful begging was useless in the eyes of God, except to show finally the wanton shallowness of his God-fear¬ing soul, and the bottomless conceits of a mind so willingly mired into blind faith.”
Indeed this criticism of feigned or forced piety in the face of death is warranted when God has merely a use value as distinct from being our ultimate concern and is invoked to save one’s concocted projects of ego to resist nothingness/reality.
Our second example is titled “Hero Worship.”
“Every lie, blasphemy, snafu, error and false assumption ever devised by human beings started out as something that was supposed to be true to somebody.
The Goddess of Truth is a poor and eternally abused creature. She is covered in mud, battered and bleeding. Yet once again we will dress her up, unwashed, in new shining armor, then throw her back down into the pit and imagine she’s up on some magnificent pedestal, resplendent and invulnerable.”
While portraying philosophic life for “the firstborn of the Third Millennium” Creative Obsession celebrates life of creativity and passion that basks in the open sky (of “transcendence”). It marshals battery of arguments against those who sell ideologies and interpretations under the label of truth. Here are a few for consideration of those self-righteous people who claim they know (and act as advocates of God or secretaries of the prophets):
“Surely there must exist, within this finite universe, an absolute “epistemological” limit to human understanding and the ultimate “ontological” theory-of-everything… But where would such a limit and such a theory be found? (Not in musty passages. Not with our nascent language.) The Holy Grail lies buried under megatons of ash, in a brutal, terrifying wilderness, and it’s still a hundred thousand light years away—the ends of the universe are all but unexplored, so many generations are not yet born, and so much of the human experience remains invisible.” “..all that is out there is pure awesomeness.”
Avoiding airy abstractions and temptation to dream beautiful dreams, the book appropriates resources of human, all too human view to confront our tragic lot squarely. “We shall rest upon sweet, eternal dreams of Peace on Earth. Or we recognize the greater challenge and the greater hope—we seek to change the rules of war.” “There is no peace, only peaceful moments, in a life well led.” “There’s no such thing as traveling back. Always take a good look. Every look is a last look.” “My personal advice? Avoid the system.” “The cosmos does not need our permission to exist. The mountain doesn’t care. The climber is truly alone.” Few know that dreams or hopes often sold to us in the name of exoteric religious heritage are, for mystics/sages, clutches or worse idolatrous fillers of the void we are required to transcend to grow spiritually. The book alerts us to the role of philosophy as a gadfly that disturbs the given or assumed structures/interpretations. Philosophy’s sacred task is to bear witness to gaps and absences, to what is new, to unthought and what remains on the margins and resists totalization or pigeon holing in familiar categories. A consistent “skepticism” will be skeptical of its own claim to assume God’s view of things human and divine and leave room, happily, for any discipline or inquiry or conviction that is able to face tribunal of reason/experience and pass aesthetic and tests that humans have consensually valued. One emerges healthier – immune for life – after encounter with the virus of doubt. One may better appreciate the endeavor of “skeptical” trends in various philosophical cultures to which our philosopher invites us by noting that sages and poets of all cultures have invited us to ask questions and as Voegelin would note, God/Consciousness/Transcendence may be better taken as a Question. The consensus of the dead and the best of living philosophers across cultures remains that beneath every ruin of civilizational projects and grandiose objectives set by certain ambitious minds, man’s unconquerable mind (to recall title of wonderful work of Gilbert Highet) asserts its claim to stay and live singing on the way. In its task to help us navigate dangerous circuitous bylanes of life, philosophy avoids taking its own positions but helps to show how credible are the signposts we find erected on the way. Taking cognizance of (post)modern sensibility that is alert to pathologies of humanly posited absolutes without buying modern and postmodern arguments for a radically historicist view of conscious experience, we can, with Voegelin, assert that we are, primordially, ceaselessly self transcending creatures constituted by the creative “tension” of questioning and that “Consciousness is in essence the Question itself, arising from wondering ignorance and continuing to press beyond everything that comes to be known.” Doubting claim to absoluteness of every discursive conceptual or linguistic construction, dis-identifying with every this or that projection/manifestation of consciousness, remaining open to the revelations of being in every experience and embracing only the absolute of intellection/intelligence that knows/judges/doubts we approach doubts and questions on the way as artists and consecrate or “justify” life by on aesthetic plane. And it is indeed a fascinating life open to wonder and beauty.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philosophy, literature, religion and mysticism