Suffocation. A poem by Demostene Andronescu

Here’s a poem by Demostene Andronescu, who was a political prisoner in communist Romania for 12 years.

There’s so much life in me, in whirl I dwell,
As if I am a tower where a bell
Has rung for an eternity, denied,
And all its sounds have multiplied inside.
Having no place from where to gush out, rather
They brawl together and they kill each other,
And in the tower overlap, up to the beam.
Becoming mad they scream, they scream, they scream.

An inner hurricane I am, a storm,
The bell in me always resounds, same form,
It rings demently, as if in the tower,
A crazy ringer found his hanging hour.

I’d cry, I’d cry, but I cannot, as if I never knew…
I’d swear, but how? And why? And who?
I’d overflow so to escape and to be emptied.
But how? In what? How can it be attempted?
For I am locked, hermetically, abrupt,
And I can’t trickle, nor can I erupt.

For those who know Romanian, here’s the original:

Sufocare

E-atata viata-n mine, atata clocot
De parca sunt un turn in care-un clopot
De-o vesnicie-ntreaga-ntruna bate
Si sunetele lui multiplicate,
Ne-avand pe unde sa tasneasca-afara,
Se-ncaiera launtric, se omoara,
Se-ngramadesc, se suprapun in turla
Si-nnebunite urla, urla, urla.

Sunt uragan launtric, sunt furtuna
Si clopotul din mine-ntruna suna,
Suna dement de parca sus in turn
S-a spanzurat un clopotar nebun.

As plange, as plange, dar nu pot, nu-mi vine…
As sudui, dar cum? De ce? Pe cine?
M-as revarsa sa scap, sa ma golesc,
Dar cum? In ce? Pe unde sa tasnesc?
Ca-s ferecat, inchis ermetic si
Nu pot nici ma prelinge, nici tasni.

The Two Old Men

There is a short story of Leo Tolstoy that is predictable and moralist at the same time: The Two Old Men. Two old friends decide to go to Jerusalem. From the first lines of the story, you know that one behaves righteously, while the other is in need of a lesson. The story reads like a Sunday school lesson and ends in a moral statement: “And now he understood that God has commanded each of us to keep our vows in this world, so long as we live, by loving others and doing them good.” If it were not written by Tolstoy, I gather that the story would have been forgotten in the ocean of poor writing.

Nevertheless, there’s one passage in it that redeems it; perhaps it is the way geniuses work: they plant jewels even behind poorly assembled words.

The story goes this way (just a short account). Elisei and Efim decide to go together to Jerusalem in pilgrimage. They leave together, but they get separated for a moment, when Elisei stops in a poor village to get some water. The people in the house are sick and close to their death, which makes Elisei remain with them to help them. He responds openly and genuinely to all the needs he perceives they have, but doing so makes him spend much of his money, so he is no longer able to continue his journey. After the family seems to get better, Elisei returns home. Efim, after waiting for Elisei for some time, continues his journey and finally arrives in Jerusalem. His pilgrimage, though, seems to be to no benefit. Another pilgrim tells him that his purse was lost, and this produces in Efim “sinful thoughts.” He either judges that the pilgrim lied, so that he could benefit from the goodness of the others, or he is afraid that someone may steal his own purse. Three times, Efim sees Elisei in Jerusalem, at Christ’s tomb, always in front and always in a divine light. He’s never able to reach him, although he tries to do so. Finally, Efim returns home where his family seems to be in disarray and where he finally understands that “going to Jerusalem” is actually “loving others and doing them good.”

In the midst of all of these predictable events, one little moment of good literature appears. Efim is on his way back home, and he happens upon the house where Elisei had stayed and where all people seem to have improved: the grandmother, the two parents, and the two children. Nothing surprising for the story so far, perhaps even too predictable, like in a bad Hollywood movie: Efim had to arrive at that house, so that the readers know the outcome of Elisei’s good deeds. But then Tolstoy gives details of the conversation. The grandma remembers how the stranger, “as soon as he saw us, took off his bag and put it down right here and untied it.”

Notice the detail: he put the bag down right here.

The little girl joins in and says, “No, grandma, first he put his bag down on the floor in the middle of the hut, but then he put it up on the bench.”

Two different accounts of a most extraordinary event, one so extraordinary that you would rather consider it a phantasy. For who would think that a stranger who is on a mission, to visit Jerusalem, would stop and spend his travel money to help some dying people? In a court of law, jurors would be entitled to say that witnesses are not trustworthy as long as they cannot agree to small details.

And Tolstoy continues: “And the people began arguing and remembering everything he had said and done; and where he had sat, and where he had slept, and what he had done, and what he had said to them.”

They remembered all of this arguing, not being able to reach an agreement about how things really took place. But this is precisely the beauty of it: the truth of the events doesn’t consist in the event itself, but in the Truth that was poured into their lives. Through love, they were given life, and so they were able to argue about what really happened. And even if they quarrel about it, they all quarrel from within it. If you look at the family from the outside, you may judge them, thinking that none of them could be truly sane, since they cannot even agree about really important things for them. For them, however, it is good to remember and talk about it, because in this remembrance they connect with a sacred moment of their lives.

Perhaps The Two Old Men is a moralist story about always loving your brethren. I think, however, that the story is also about something else: Truth and Love. This Truth can never be encapsulated in statements, but it can always be perceived in the renewed lives of the beloved.

In his Pray for Brother Alexander, Constantin Noica wrote about what he calls the spirit of exactness:

“In fact, the spirit of exactness is active everywhere, not only in the exact sciences. History, for example, can no longer be done without exactness. Man cannot bear to not know exactly what and how it happened. A French historian from last century, Ernest Renan, wanted to see exactly were and how Jesus Christ lived. He went to the holy places and proceeded scientifically to the reconstitution of the Event.
You know what happened to him? He found the traces of Jesus from Nazareth, but he no longer found the traces of Jesus Christ.”

Tolstoy’s story says something about the spirit opposed to exactness. But you cannot be exact about this spirit. Tolstoy’s account of it is masterfully accomplished in just a few lines, where he shows a family arguing about the exact story of an event that saved them from certain death. Their arguing, however, takes place in the light, during moments when they themselves take care of strangers and when they bask in the life that they had received through Love.

Medication against despondency

I read Ruta SepetysBetween Shades of Gray with a group of Romanian high school and college students, and so what I say about it is influenced by my being together with them. Every tear that this book produced in me had within it a thought about them, children who, even unbeknownst to them, carry within their bodies the traumas that their previous generations experienced during years of communist regime.

Sepetys witnessed transgenerational trauma when she visited Lithuania, to see the part of her family that remained back in Europe. Her grandfather had left the country when the Soviets invaded it in 1940, following the secret pact between Hitler and Stalin, also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact or the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. In his The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 (Basic Books, 2014), Roger Moorhouse reminds that the secret understanding between these two tyrants is not part of our collective memory, unless we come from Eastern Europe. We forget, as he says, that these “two regimes, whose later confrontation would be the defining clash of World War II in Europe, stood side by side for twenty-two months, almost a third of the conflict’s entire span” (xxiv). The pact divided Eastern and Central Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Baltic states were given to the Soviets. Ruta’s grandfather had been in the Lithuanian army, and he knew what fate was waiting for him if the Russians caught him, so he fled, together with his family. An American born in Michigan, Sepetys went back to encounter her roots. She asked for photos with her grandparents or with her father. “And suddenly the room became very quiet,” she remembers in her promotion video for the book.

Silence. One always finds it in the background of stories with deportations or with political imprisonment. Part of it is due to pain: survivors avoid bringing upon themselves unbearable suffering. Part of it is also due to the conditioning through which people have gone: it was dangerous to mention those who had left, so you had to erase their memories, as if they had never existed. You don’t talk about those whom the regime labeled “enemies of the state” or “fascists,” the usual accusation that the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, placed on its enemies, having no interest in truth, but only in a labeling that equated condemnation to deportation or death. Among these enemies, there were children barely born, who had no other guilt than coming to life in the “wrong” family.

The silence that Ruta Sepetys experienced during her trip in Lithuania had to do with the departure of her family. Her relatives had to burn all pictures and forget their names, so they could no longer be associated with them and risk prisons or deportations. They had no pictures to share. Between Shades of Gray is thus also a trip on the memory lane to recover the stories of those who Stalin wanted to erase. The silence of her relatives gave birth to the idea of the book.

The book feels real. Even if all of the characters are fictional, except one who appears at the end of the story, they feel very much alive. Lina, the narrator of the story, a teenager who is taken together with her younger brother and her mother to Siberia, will remain in the hearts of all who will have the courage to experience her pain. Perhaps more than anyone else, Elena, Lina’s mother, will stay with you. She’s the one whose light penetrates through the various shades of gray that take hold of people’s souls in Siberia, regardless of whether they are deportees or NKVD soldiers. She is always present in the moment, always embracing others, and always trying to find the eternal person that is hidden beneath the darkness that Siberia builds around people’s souls. What is remarkable in Sepetys’ writing is that she creates characters that are so authentic that you expect to find them if you decided to go to Siberia to look for them. They are as full of life as any person you encounter, and their right to live is shouted from their chests as loudly as Stalin’s attempt to annihilate his real or imaginary enemies from the face of the earth.

Nevertheless, one wonders: how is it possible to live when death surrounds you? Where do you find human dignity when you are called a “fascist pig”?

Perhaps paradoxically, Sepetys’ story finds how meaning is often discovered precisely when you are on the brink of the abyss. First, the book gives birth to anger, similar to the anger you have when you witness injustices that cannot be solved. What justice can we expect for a few days old child who dies in a cattle train to Siberia? Or what kind of justice can his mother have, after she is shot in the head, because a grieving mother is a nuisance even in Siberia? If this question reminds you of Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion, who cannot accept a world without justice, you are correct: the story has awakened the Ivan side of my personality. But I think it can awaken such feelings in anyone of us. We know that there is always this aspect of human life that we cannot change: death. In a world of uncertainty, one thing is certain, that there will be a time when we will no longer be here. Before that time, there are many aspects of human life that we feel we can change and that we have the duty to do so; one such aspect is as universal as death: suffering. We all have experienced suffering and have desired in one moment or another to do something about it, to act in way that would eradicate or, at least, diminish it.

Perhaps we can call this desire to eliminate suffering a desire to beautify the world. Exhausted by the ugliness that surrounds us, by innumerable instances of violence, treason, or boorishness, we want to change our reality and the people belonging to it in the name of the good. This is, however, the feature of all self-proclaimed saviors, be them family members or politicians: they perceive the world must be in a certain way, according to their own criteria of beauty, and they don’t understand your “inability” to live in it. The communists wanted to beautify the world according to their principles, too. If you didn’t fit, you were an enemy of the people, and they sent you to Siberia.

But Sepetys does not write a moralist story, in which there are good and bad people and desires to rid the world of evil. Indeed, faced with this question, whether life has a meaning in the context of so much despair and lack of justice, she brings forward a person, Elena, who is able to remain human and embrace others regardless of her external circumstances and without wanting to change them. She loves people. She doesn’t proclaim herself as “humanitarian,” as communists do.

At the end of her memories from Siberia, Margareta Cemârtan-Spânu, who was deported when she was a child, says, “How many lives did the ‘humanitarian’ Bolshevism destroy! […] You, an innocent man, whether old or a child, had to suffer like this, for twenty years in Siberia? For what? […] If you did not do anything, why punish you? So many young people taken to mines in Siberia! They never returned from there! For what ideal?…” (in Monk Moise’s Do Not Avenge Us: Testimonies about the Suffering of the Romanians Deported from Bessarabia to Siberia Reflection Publishing, 2016, p. 124).

No idea is worth the life of a single human. Regardless of how beautiful it may sound on paper, if it requires the blood on an innocent person, we are obligated by our own humanity to step aside from it. Ruta Sepetys’ book has this virtue, that it does not fall into moralism. Instead, brings forward people, deportees and NKVD soldiers. Are we to judge them?

“But Mother, he’s a monster,” Lina said to Elena, her mother, referring to an NKVD soldier with whom Elena was speaking. She did judge him. But Elena answered: “We don’t know what he is.” It is so simple to fall in judgments when reading such books. It is easy to hate the communists, the NKVD soldiers and officers, and everyone who somehow participated in this terrible crime. But let us remember the voice of this Lady, Elena: “We don’t know. Do you hear me? We don’t know what he is. He’s a boy. He’s just a boy.”

Sepetys’ book is a witness against despair and against the loss of meaning, even if it describes events of the 20th century that can lead one to cynicism and despondency. For what can humans do when nothing around them makes sense? What is that to which they can cling, so that they do not fall into the abyss of nothingness? One thing, perhaps: an embrace.

The Romanian Sentiment of Being

The Romanian Sentiment of Being by Constantin Noica has just come out at punctum books. If interested, you may download a free pdf on the publisher’s website or purchase a copy on Amazon. Below, you may read the short introductory note written by Elena and I, the two translators of this precious volume.

In 1978, the philosopher Emil Cioran (1911–95), friend of Constantin Noica (1909–87), wrote him a short letter. The epistle ended with some words about Noica’s newly published volume, The Romanian Sentiment of Being: “Your last book is excellent; the only thing is that it could have been called just as well The Paraguayan Sentiment of Being. In your place, I would return to Logic: where, if not there, can one rave better?”(Emil Cioran, Scrisori către cei de acasă [Letters for Those Who Remained Home] (Bucharest: Humanitas, 1995), 310.) Cioran’s irony stems from a thought that many may have when faced with this volume: why would there be any interest in a book about the sentiment of being of a people? And how can a people’s sentiment give us an answer to a question as old as Western philosophy—what is being? Finally, what would make the Romanian sentiment of being, even if it gave some insight about being itself, be more special than the Paraguayan, French, Vietnamese, Nigerian, or American ones? Indeed, nothing makes them more special than others. But this is not to say that they are not unique. And, if they are unique, revealing their uniqueness may increase the understanding of being that we as humanity have. Noica says, “But every language is, after all, the wisdom of the world in one of its versions. This wisdom of the world needs the particular wisdom of language in order to explore reality in all the ways and to transfer its knowledge into words.” This book, then, is an attempt to understand reality, the same reality, through the cultural wisdom of a people as it is expressed in Romanian language.

The fact that we deal with the deep structure of a language makes this translation very difficult. When we approached philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu, one of the most prominent of Noica’s disciples, about the translation of this volume, he gave us his approval with these words: “The project requires a courage that borders craziness; one cannot imagine something more difficult, something that is almost untranslatable. How do you want to translate into English the inner depths of the Romanian language?” These words have come back to us every day we worked on this project. Nevertheless, we persevered. After all, translating the Romanian sentiment of being into English is what we do every day: both of us have grown up in the Romanian culture that shaped our being in this world, and we live as who we are in an English-speaking country. Nevertheless, this also means that, at times, we left some Romanian words untranslated, such as the preposition întru. When we did so, we explained this choice as thoroughly as we were able, providing, at the same time, various approximations in English.

This is the second book of Constantin Noica published by punctum books. The previous one, Pray for Brother Alexander, translated by Octavian Gabor, appeared in 2018. In 2009 Alistair Ian Blyth published his two translations of Noica’s works, Be- coming within Being (Marquette University Press) and Six Maladies of the Contemporary Spirit (University of Plymouth Press).

Noica remains one of the most important figures of Romanian philosophy of the twentieth century. He was considered an anti-revolutionary thinker by the communist regime because of his writings on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit. He spent years in house arrest and in political prison, moments that were captured in his prison memoir, Pray for Brother Alexander. For more on his life and philosophy, see Octavian Gabor’s “Constantin Noica’s ‘Becoming within Being’ and ‘Meno’s Paradox’.”

The volume contains two other works in the appendix. Noica analyzes them in detail in the volume, and we thought that add- ing them here would enrich the readers’ experience. The first is the famous poem “Luceafărul” [“The Evening Star”], by poet Mihai Eminescu (1850–89), in Octavian Gabor’s translation. The second work is a well known Romanian story in the version of Petre Ispirescu, “Ageless Youth and Deathless Life.” This story was translated in entirety by Elena Gabor. All footnotes were written by Octavian Gabor, unless otherwise noted.

We remain indebted to Dana LaCourse Munteanu who had the original idea to translate this volume and who offered us helpful suggestions during its completion.

We are infinitely grateful to Lily Brewer, this book’s copyeditor, who embraced the spirit of the volume and whose gentle comments and suggestions improved it.

Octavian and Elena Gabor

Verses from Eminescu’s Evening Star

A few verses from Eminescu’s The Evening Star, a 98 stanzas poem, which will be published in Constantin Noica’s The Romanian Sentiment of Being. Any suggestions are welcome.

And step by step, behind her trace,

He slides in the lass’ chamber,

His bitter cold sparks weave a lace

Of flames that seem of ember.

And when the maiden goes to bed

To sleep her night of roses,

Her hands he touches, on her bosom spread,

And gently her eyes closes.

And from the mirror, indiscreet,

He overflows her figure,

 Her wide eyes sealed, yet beat by beat,

Her face came to transfigure.

She smiled at him with a slight gleam,

He trembled in the mirror,

For he pursued her in a dream

And her soul to draw near.

And while she spoke with him in sleep,

A sigh is born in tear:

“Oh, sweetest lord of my night, leap!

Why don’t you come? Appear!

Descend, oh, gentle evening star,

Upon a beam glide here,

My home and thought all yours they are,

Transform my life in cheer!”

He listened, trembling, passion filled,

Brighter for the king’s daughter,

And suddenly, as he was thrilled,

He sank into the water.

And where he fell, row after row,

The sea in circles surges,

And from the concealed depth below

A proud, young man emerges.

Over the window’s edge he goes

As if a threshold passes,

And in his hands a rod he holds

With reeds that seem like tasses.

He seemed a young, tall voivode

With golden, tender hair;

A livid shroud fell on his broad

Shoulders that seemed so bare.

The shadow of his lucid face

Is white as made of beeswax,

A dead man with lit eyes from space

That sparkle into climax.

“From my own sphere have I come

With pain, thy voice to honor,

The darken sea below’s my mum,

And heaven is my father.

To hold thy face onto my palm

I have come to thy quarters,

I have descended from my calm,

And I was born from waters.

Oh, come my one and only love,

Thy world behind leave, dear!
I am the evening star above,

Be thou my bride, sincere.

In high palaces come with me,

For centuries you’ll glisten,

And all the creatures of the sea

To thou will bow and listen.”

“Of, beautiful you are… In dream

Such angels do appear,

But to this path that’s so extreme

I will never get near.

A stranger both in word and deed,

You shine, a lifeless figure,

You’re dead, and I’m alive, indeed,

Your cold eyes make me shiver.”

On Christmas Night, by George Cosbuc

A beautiful poem by George Cosbuc. First, my translation in English. Below, the original in Romanian.

Outside the white snow calmly falls,
Inside, a fire’s burning,
Around my mom we children stay,
Her words our gaze are earning.

It’s dark, the bed is by now made,
But who’s going to sleep?
When mother talks of Jesus Christ,
Her voice all sweet and deep.

How Christ was born outside in cold,
In poor and simple manger,
And some warm air a calf would blow
To keep him safe from danger.

And to his place many would come,
The shepherds, early morning,
And angels sing in heaven high,
In hands, fresh flowers holding

În seara de Crăciun

Afară ninge liniștit,
În casă arde focul,
Iar noi, pe lângă mama stand,
De mult uitarăm jocul!

E noapte. Patul e făcut.
Dar cine să se culce
Când mama spune de Isus,
Cu glasu-i rar și dulce.

Cum s-a născut Hristos în frig,
În ieslea cea săracă,
Cum boul peste el suflă,
Căldură ca să-i facă.

Cum au venit la ieslea lui,
Păstorii de la stână
Și îngerii cântând în cer,
Cu flori de măr în mână.

A hotel concierge

Photo by Jason Kuffer.

I have seen this man (not the one in the photo) for a couple of days now. We’ve always been respectful to each other, man to man, so to say, regardless of the roles we play at this hotel. However, today something changed. A colleague of mine from the conference I am attending wanted to introduce me to someone. It was this concierge, with whom I had had nothing in common, except our humanity.

“He’s orthodox,” my colleague tells me, “and he was very happy to hear that we have an orthodox among us.”

When we met him, he knew why we were coming, so he came toward me with a new demeanor. He was no longer a hotel concierge, but a brother in Christ. He no longer had human dignity only, but he had something else as well: he was a member of a Kingdom that is not of this world. He was a member of a body of which I am also a member, and that made us recognize each other as such. It’s not about being saved or not being saved, but rather about an awareness of what one can be.

I found out he was Coptic, so not in full communion with the other Orthodox churches. Nevertheless, I had to acknowledge that, at that moment, in that hotel, I felt more connected with this concierge man than with any other person that shared the space with me. Why?

I will say first what had no relevance:

  • it was not because I knew about him more than about others. Of course, the fact that he was a Coptic Christian told me many things about what he may believe, about how he may approach the world, but this didn’t make me know him better than the others. There were people at that hotel with whom I share a profession, with whom I am engaged intellectually, with whom I have a history.
  • it was not because our common religion gave me the feeling of belonging to the same tribe. There were Romanians at the same hotel, with whom I am, perhaps, more tribal.

I think it was because we behaved nakedly before each other, at the same time. In our joy of recognizing each other as people who receive their dignity not from themselves, but from a body to which they are members (the Church, the Body of Christ), we lost our clothes. He recognized my recognition of him, a recognition with which he was familiar. It was no longer the mere respect that one gives to others due to their human dignity; it was rather a strange kind of love between stranger-friends, or a strong-vulnerability. Vulnerability because all social hierarchy disappeared. Strong, because in our nakedness, our communion gave us strength.

We often say that we have to treat others as persons, to look beyond their role at various moments of their existence; we say that we have to avoid treating them as members of categories. I think I did all of that prior to this moment. Nevertheless, all my treatment of him as something more than a mere individual (I’m using this term in the context of the dichotomy between ‘individual’ and ‘person’) remained a relation between two people, and as such incomplete. It was a mere attempt to transcend categories, while categories were acknowledged, as if I’m seeing the person despite the individual. When we truly met, there was no attempt to transcend anything. We were these two people, one who does philosophy, another who works as a concierge, who didn’t try to assert their equality. We were both aware of our nakedness, and aware of our awareness of each other’s vulnerability. The source of it was not him, and it was not me. Our joyful-recognition of each other had, as source, a third. Love, which is, at the same time, Alpha and Omega.

Traveling toward death

My heart didn’t beat for an hour this year. Was I dead?

*

Three months passed between my heart attack and bypass surgery, so I had plenty of time to think about death. During that time, I often imagined the moment just before the surgery, just before falling asleep under anesthesia: what will my last thought be, having above me the menace that I may not wake up? Will I have any special revelations? Will I remember to entrust the people I love to God one more time? Will I be strong? Will my fear overcome me? Will I be decent? Will I remember to call upon the Theotokos to pray for my soul? Will I have it within me to go out with grace?

I’ve never shied away from talking about death. In fact, in my home, death, my death, is a topic for dinner conversation. I still remember my son’s somewhat troubled eyes when I spoke about it when he was still a small boy. I always wanted him to be prepared for my death, and for his as well. So “wise” of me… You never are prepared, as life taught me when my own father passed.

Still, I’ve always felt as if I was ready for my death.

Statistically, I had less chances of dying during the bypass surgery than I have of dying of COVID. Nevertheless, I had three months during which I prepared for death. It wasn’t really discussed–it’s odd, but death was much more a topic of conversation when it was more of a distanced possibility than when it was palpable. In my case, preparation for death meant separating myself from the others. Not so much physically, but emotionally. I realized at that moment that this was the reaction of those close to me. They were not preparing for death, but for my death, my potential death, and it is difficult to grasp the reality that your husband or your father may just as well disappear from your existence. You need time, time alone, to process all of that. Consciously, we were together; we made an effort to be together, especially during those times, but we also needed time alone.

Even more than that, you imagine more easily how life may be without you. And nothing matters anymore. During the last days of your life you no longer remember discussions you may have had with your wife, but you rather rejoice in her existence.

*

What if there’s no life after death? What if I don’t encounter my ancestors, and what if Socrates is not there to accompany me in the underworld and introduce me to Plato, Aristotle, and, yes, Dostoevsky?

It strikes me that it is irrelevant whether this idea, that there is life after death, is true or false. What may matter, though, is how I relate myself to it: what does it do in my life? There are plenty of other beliefs that may be true or false, that we fight about, without having any power to actually prove one way or another. Shouldn’t we judge them according to whether they make this life more or less beautiful? Beauty, a new criteria for truth; beauty, something that makes even death desirable. Why would I embrace a philosophy that brings me to the brink of the abyss of despair and gives me no tool to deal with it? And I hear Elder Sophrony of Essex: “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.” He doesn’t say drink tea and, when you are sick of it, go at the brink of the abyss. Life is life when you face nothingness. Funny, though, how I truly saw the abyss only when a complete occlusion stopped the flow of blood on one of my arteries. God bless the occlusion of my LAD, which made me aware of the brink and encouraged me to have a cup of tea.

*

Socrates says in the Phaedo that philosophy is preparation for death and dying. I think the imminence of death may also be a good teacher of philosophy as well. There is one thing to look at a tree and consider, abstractly, that it may belong to a world to which you don’t tomorrow, and one other thing to do so the day before going under the knife.

*

There was no great or heroic moment before I went blank under anesthesia. I remember being taken from one surgery room to another (I had another procedure done right before bypass) and being welcome by a nurse, who actually came to visit me every subsequent day I spent in the CVICU, bless her heart. There was plenty of light in the surgery room. Another lady told me she was my anesthesiologist and placed something on my mouth. “Thank you,” I said. “These may be my last moments when I am aware of my existence,” I thought. I think I wanted to think of my family and I wanted to pray. I had no time for that.

I woke up after eight hours or so, hearing the voice of a former student, now a nurse in the CVICU.

“It seems I didn’t die today.”

Am I now more prepared to die when time truly comes?

The Socrates Express, or bringing philosophy to people

The Socrates Express | Book by Eric Weiner | Official Publisher Page |  Simon & Schuster

I rarely read books that popularize philosophy. Still, encouraged by two of my colleagues (non-philosophers), I picked up Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. If you come toward it as a professional philosopher, it is a leisure text, one in which you have the feeling of discussing philosophy with “laypeople.” I think, however, that this is precisely the virtue of the book: Weiner is able to bring philosophy (or philosophical ideas) to the level of a discussion at a Parisian coffee shop, an endeavor that, perhaps, many of us, professional philosophers, are no longer able to do. The entire approach begins with an acknowledgement of what people may think of philosophy today:

“The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called philosophy ‘radical reflection.’ I like how he imbues philosophy with the edginess and whiff of danger it deserves. Philosophers once captured the world’s imagination. They were heroic. They were willing to die for their philosophy, and some, like Socrates, did. Now all that is heroic about philosophy is the epic struggle for academic tenure.”

While the statement is false–it is quite “heroic” to ask questions differently than the world around you does and to not allow yourself to fall into the thought categories of the age, and there are “invisible” philosophers who continue to do that–I think we would be blind if we don’t see that this statement points to the precarity of academia, where economic values slowly (or perhaps not so slowly) replace the pursuit of truth. Then, even if there is a heroic attitude, it usually limits itself to the personal lives of philosophers-heroes, who detach themselves from the tumult of this world.

Be that as it may, Weiner’s book raises an important problem: how is it that a non-philosopher can be better than a philosopher at bringing philosophical ideas to the general population? What have we, philosophers, lost? I ask these questions because I enjoyed the book and because I know that the majority of my students in introductory courses in philosophy would get out of it much more than what they get from reading, let’s say, Descartes’ Meditations.

One answer may be that The Socrates Express reminds us that philosophy loses its own nature, that of love of wisdom, when it becomes separate from life, when it dismisses those who have not yet come out of their caves or, rather, those who are not aware of the various caves of this existence. Weiner may travel mostly by train, but Socrates himself (assuming that he was the one from the allegory of the Republic) traveled back into the cave after rejoicing into the nature of realities.

Should we replace philosophical books with volumes that popularize philosophy? No, of course not. But I think it is an encouragement for philosophers to stop our own Expresses, from time to time, in the various stations of this life. When we do, perhaps it is best to be like Nietzsche, who, Weiner, says, “didn’t formulate ideas. He birthed them.” As a consequence, some potential travelers may decide to buy their tickets for the journey.

Losing yourself in the depths of your being

Photo by Beverly and Pack.

I have come to learn that every moment of this life is an occasion to look deeper into your soul. The funniest thing is that every such moment is also a failure, since you hardly achieve arriving there, unless, perhaps, you go through moments when everything is taken from you. Perhaps, then, it is improper to say that I have come to learn this, since every moment is also an occasion to realize that I haven’t really learned it. Still, I say that it is an occasion to look deeper within you because the usual temptation is to go precisely in the opposite direction: to see how the other and the world itself treat you.

I’m sure you see how funny this is: you cannot look at the other or the world unless you first see “you”; that is, you have given yourself a definition, without even acknowledging it. There is no point in saying that others mistreat you and act toward you with lack of love, respect, or fairness if you don’t begin with YOU, about which you have no idea, since it is still this conceptual you that beholds yourself. A “you” that looks at “you” while none of these two “you” is you. It seems, then, that you live every day at the crossroad of two “forces.” One of them annihilates you by, paradoxically, giving you the impression that you are something, and this force can be manifested as attack on others or even attack o yourself, two faces of the same coin. The other pulls you away from the double-headed force described above, leaving you in what seems to be a state of inaction; let’s say a “force” that annihilates all forces.

I think we normally refer only to the first force, having the impression that we talk about two different things. We acknowledge that we come in contact with others and the world, and we say that we either focus on what others do to us, or we could focus on how we react before the world and learn something about it from our reaction. In this framework, we could say, for example, that you should describe how others’ actions make you feel instead of focusing on what others do. But if we remain here, in this dichotomy, it seems to me that we lose ourselves. This is because this approach leaves you in the same darkness, it creates separation between you and the other, and, primarily, it separates you from yourself, leaving you in the same space of double measure in which events gain or lose in importance depending on how you are emotionally connected with the one who tells you something or with the kind of activity in which you are engaged. This force that is so much worshiped by today’s world fixes you before yourself, so that you no longer get lost within your depths but you disappear, leaving your image have a dialogue with your image in the mirror.

The self-learning that I am talking about goes beyond this dichotomy, judging the other and falsely judging yourself. It is rather an acknowledgement that you are to find yourself in one of these previous two situations at all times. Perhaps, discovering yourself means looking at you looking at yourself in the mirror and being surprised by your heart’s movement, your patterns of thought and behavior, and your inability to avoid them even while you behold them.

It is at such moments when you no longer see problems in others, but only suffering, realizing that this suffering is a manifestation of your own disease (a disease which I would describe as your image looking at the image in the mirror).

It sounds as if you’re doomed if you get there, because you would no longer be able to defend yourself and your feelings, you would no longer be able to tell people how their actions make you feel, and so you would no longer achieve “justice.” This is, actually, a normal and, dare I say, desirable consequence: who cares of justice if it is not me who receives it, but the “me” who beholds the “me” in the mirror?

If you truly lose yourself in the depths of your being, justice is irrelevant, because you are already free.

Short philosophical plug: this is what Socrates must think when, waiting for his execution in prison, is calm and rejects Crito’s attempt to free him by also rejecting justice as “giving to the other that which he deserves” (“benefit your friends and harm your enemies”). And this is why he must have said in the same context that “the good man cannot be harmed.” Perhaps the good man came out of the mirror dichotomy. How can you “free” Socrates when he’s already free?