Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Reason and Passion.

Woody Allen, Side Effects (New York: Random House, 1980), $13.00.
Rebecca Goldstein, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), $18.95.

I am freezing as I write this. It is about forty degrees, but there is no heat in my apartment. My landlord seems to be unaware of the legal requirement in New York to provide heat after October 15th. No wonder he is running for elected office. Our city will be in good hands if he is elected. Faced with the dilemma of freezing, I must improvise, relying on the cleverness and adaptability that has allowed the human species to survive. (Yes, this is an example of humor.)

I am wearing two sweatshirts and using socks with holes in them as gloves, which keeps my hands warm while allowing me to type. I have become a Charles Dickens character. I am Bob Cratchitt and Mr. Scrooge refuses to light the coal stove. "Will there be a 'goose' for Christmas, sir?" Maybe I am the goose.

"May we please have some heat, Mr. Scrooge?"

"Bah, humbug ..."

Never mind, philosophy will keep us warm. Open your books, ladies and gentlemen. I wish to compare two texts, this morning. First, an American thinker:

"More than at any other time in history, [writes Woody Allen,] mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. I speak, by the way, not with any sense of futility, but with a panicky conviction of the absolute meaninglessness of existence which could easily be misinterpreted as pessimism."

Now consider this bit of sobering wisdom from the writings of French philosopher Blaise Pascal:

There is internal war in man between reason and the passions.
If he only had reason without passions ...
If he only had passions without reason ...
But having both, he cannot be without strife, being unable to be at peace with the one without being at war with the other. Thus, he is always divided against, and opposed to himself.

As I was strolling through my favorite bookstore yesterday, I felt trapped between the insights of these two great philosophers. I thought that, maybe this time next year, I will see my book on the philosophy shelf. My "reason" is happy. I can enjoy the satisfaction of completing a project that is meaningful to me. I will engage in profound conversations with persons who converse profoundly.

On the other hand, will I ever get to go out on a date with Melanie Griffith before I depart this valley of tears? I doubt it. My "passion" can only conclude that Miguel Unamuno is right. Life is tragic for the philosopher -- who is not Antonio Banderas, or Zorro, of course. Perhaps we already knew that.

What solutions are to be found or created? Well, there is imagination.

I walk through the bookstore, somewhat depressed, when I approach the philosophy section and reach for the delights and comforts provided by the greatest thinkers. Someone is reaching for the same book that I want. When I look up there is a stunning blond in a beautiful evening gown, wearing dark glasses and expensive jewelry, and she is staring at me. She has green eyes peering at me over her glasses, offering a perfect smile. She looks exactly like Melanie Griffith in that red dress from Born Yesterday.

I am known for my witty remarks, so I just say ...

"Ah, ... no ... you go right ahead, I'm ..." Then I cough.

She says: "You have a way with words."

I explain that it's all the books I read. And she says, with a true understanding of the human condition, "Yeah, that must be it."

We discuss Ernst Cassirer and the philosophers of symbolic forms, which is always a kind of foreplay. She invites me to have a cup of coffee, in a subtle and roundabout way.

"You want some coffee?" She says.

"Sure." My wit is on display yet again. I even offer to pay for the coffee.

As we sit in the coffe shop upstairs, we talk about ideas and movies for hours. I explain that I was just planning to get the subway train home to see a DVD of a movie that I purchased accross the street at Tower. She asks whether I like Antonioni or Fellini, am I a Bergman or a Goddard fan? I explain that I was thinking more of the new Batman movie, with Christian Bale.

"I see that you're an intellectual," she says.

She inspires such trust and confidence in me that I pour out my heart to her, her name is Marilyn. She understands so well what I say. I explain my dilemma between passion and reason. My hopelessness and doubt. We seem to have many of the same thoughts. And she says something that moves me deeply, allowing me to understand why she is truly a philosopher, even though she doesn't have tenure yet at The New School University:

We must accord to reason the further and much more interesting function of ascending from given conditioned objects to the conditions from which they derive. Reason thus assumes its own cognitive motivation: it has to discover the conditions under which objects are as they are, and our judgments are true. Now reason can fulfill this task only if it can be brought to a conclusion, which it cannot if the regress of conditions is without end. Consequently, reason must refer ultimately to the totality of conditions -- in an unconditioned way -- for conditioned objects, which is the same as to say, of course, that it must refer to an unconditioned totality." [See The Critique of Pure Reason, A 307-B364, A322-B379.]

With tears in my eyes at these words, I thought that this was my chance to have "reason bring itself to a conclucion," as it were, so I invited Marilyn to my place to meet my goldfish, "Sheldon." I explained that Sheldon and I disagree on everything because he is a postmodernist. She thanked me, but answered that, alas, she had to go back to her place to do her taxes for next year. However, she persuaded me to sign up for her course. So I have.

As always, I discover the consolations of philosophy in my moments of despair.

As we waved goodbye to one another, she said something in ancient Greek. I explained that my ancient Greek is a little rusty, so she translated freely, very freely: "Mazeltov," she said, as she got into a cab.

I feel better already.

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