Suffering, Creativity, and Genius

What would Nietzsche make of us? What would Nietzsche make of the T-shirt you can find on Facebook that is a spoof of a beer label. It reads, “Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Superior Quality/It’s Beyond Good/Zarathustra & CO. Distillery/Consume Responsibly.” If there were a God who gave him a soul, would Nietzsche turn in his grave? What would he think about the fact that over the years I have viewed his writings as a kind of self-help? That is, and perhaps ironically, if I have not sought comfort in Buddhism, I have sought comfort in Nietzsche’s writings. I have often been inspired by his call to greatness, his call to take on profound suffering in the name of creation, in the name of genius. And I realized long ago that it was inspirational because it appealed to my ego, as I’m sure it does to the egos of other, predominantly white boys/men. The inspiration works like this: “Don’t you want to think of yourself as a creative genius, then quit your bitching about your suffering and embrace it!” The implication supposedly: if I’m reading Nietzsche, and I’m embracing my suffering, then I, too, am a higher type. On top of Nietzsche’s writings in some sense inviting this sort of poor reasoning, there is the danger that goes along with dedicating your life to reading the works of geniuses: One, of course, would very much like to be a peer of the authors one is reading. It is difficult, particularly if you’re introverted and spend much time in isolation with the work of geniuses, not to long for some measure of equality.

However, neither suffering nor our embracing of it are sufficient for creative genius. So much is obvious. Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to think about the connection between genius and suffering and/or madness. In today’s essay, I want to explore in a loose way a number of issues concerning creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy.

Consider Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” which provides an interesting way into these issues. As his title indicates, Berry is concerned to challenge what he sees in 1974 as the specialization of poetry. Briefly, Berry contrasts the poet specialist with the “ordinary person” who happens write poetry in addition to doing other work. He considers, for example, William Carlos Williams who is both a poet and a community engaged doctor. For Berry, the poet specialist runs the risk of making their poetry divorced from more communal, public concerns, choosing to focus instead on interiority, in particular on their suffering. Among other things this is marked by the reader’s interest in the poet’s life itself, her views on all manner of things, instead of simply the poetry itself. In addition to the poet’s turning inward and away from shared experience and public concerns, Berry notes a concomitant turn to the art of words. The words themselves, not what they say, takes precedence over engagement with experience and tradition. But Berry’s main problem seems to be that with a focus on suffering there is a focus on people as sufferers (victims) and not actors responsible for their fate. Hence, there is a contrast between the passive poet responding to her suffering and the activist poet who takes responsibility for themselves and what is happening in society. Further, Berry thinks that the poet’s focus on interiority goes along with an absence of narrative in contemporary poetry and the lack of narrative goes with the lack of communal engagement. While we won’t be engaging all or many of these issues, I want to give the reader the context of Berry’s discussion. Continue reading

Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness


My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.

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Midlife Crisis: Or First Draft of a Book Preface

It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.

I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect. Continue reading

Dying. Suffering. Death.

I have suffered death since 3—
Grandmother’s open casket—
casting a shadow on everything since

I have suffered the death of
insects—some drowned,
some squashed
many on their backs refusing
to go gently

I have suffered the death of
animals, some by my hand—
both accidental and with tear-shuddering
some on the vet’s table
some on the bathroom floor
all struggling, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the dying of
never death itself, that moment.
The hospital bed.
The nursing home bed.
And again,
the struggle, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the death of
myself—or at least its
thought and imagination—
countless times in the weight
of the shadow.
But how to die? In my sleep?
So easy and not suffered.
on the table?
on the bathroom floor?
struggling and gasping: suffering?

I want to die
sitting upright
actualizing the wholeness and
depth of the grasses and trees,
the mountains and waters,
the true human body.

I want to die in
solidarity with this world.

Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?” What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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Not So Single-Pointed Philosophical Activity

Meditation, particularly in the tradition of Dōgen, is the paradigm for single-pointed activity. Whether you follow your breath or “just sit,” openly aware of the present moment in its entirety, Dōgen makes clear that you are not to judge whatever arises as good or bad. And when thoughts, images, desires, etc., arise, you let them go and return to the “object” of meditation. In so doing you are contributing to the re-habituation of your mind, getting “better” at letting go of everything that tries to pull you out of awareness of the present moment, letting go of judgments of good/bad, and thereby establish a foundationless foundation of calm in the ever fluxing and flowing waters of experience.

I want to leave aside issues here having to do with the sitting just-to-sit and not sitting so-as-to-achieve-a-future-enlightenment-experience. Rather, I’d like to continue with the theme of my earlier piece on single-pointed activity. That is, leaving aside the problematic nature of speaking of progress in the context of Dōgen’s Zen, the assumption behind continued, regular meditation practice seems to me to be that the more you do it, the better you will become at being present and letting go of what arises, letting go of habitual patterns of judging everything moment to moment in terms of its pleasantness, etc. In other words, the longer you do it, the calmer your mind will become, the less often thoughts will come up unbidden, until there is just the moment in all of its transitory, interdependent oneness.

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Conversing with the Universe

In the classroom I’m explicit with the disclaimer that since we’re doing philosophy, nothing is off the table for questioning, including religious beliefs. It is this “nothing’s off the table for question” attitude that is so particular to philosophy, particularly as it is constantly calling itself into question. And it is this attitude that has implications for the roles we play, the masks we wear.

We all play various roles, whether student, professor, parent, brother, close friend, etc. The question is whether those roles are better seen as masks or actual identities. What I mean is: should we identify ourselves as our role or think that there is something more basic underlying the roles, something that we are, such that those roles are really “just” masks or personas that this more basic “thing” wears? I want to argue that there is a more basic aspect to ourselves that implies that these roles are more akin to personas. However, this aspect should not be thought of as some kind of thing or (simple) essence, e.g., pure consciousness or a soul. Rather, this more basic aspect is a particular way of comporting oneself to the world and one’s personas, such that a person is both her personas and not her personas.

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Something about the self

With some questions we
just can’t help our-
Buddhists answer one way.
Hindus answer another.
Both say we’ve got the wrong idea
of what the self is or isn’t.
I’m not sure what to think…except…
that they, that we, are likely all a bit off
in our estimation.

Is it a bit like when in
the Boy Scouts, on a camping
trip, the older scouts would make the
younger scouts excited about snipe hunting?
And so off we’d go
looking for something we could never find
because it didn’t exist,
though we were convinced that there must be some-
thing to which “snipe” refers.

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The Limits of Science, Philosophy, and Poetry: Opening Moves

A view of knowledge that acknowledges that the sphere of knowledge is wider than the sphere of ‘science’ seems to me to be a cultural necessity if we are to arrive at a sane and human view of ourselves or of science. (Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, 5)

There are, of course, a great many things that humans do quite naturally, e.g., acquire a mother tongue and fall in love. Just as naturally as those, there is the human need to understand the world, not just the Great Clod under our feet, but ourselves, where we are and who we are, each other and our relationships, and our relationship to the world as a whole. While we may make a distinction between understanding and knowing, the desire to understand the aforementioned things is reasonably seen as understanding through knowing. We seek to know that such and such is the case—specifically, what constitutes the world, how those “parts” relate to one another, and how we are related to those “parts.” We seek to understand via propositional knowledge.

This need to understand, to know, has been attempted through such “things” as religion, philosophy, and poetry. But perhaps the most “successful” means we have found is that of science and the scientific method. We have to be careful, however, for we need to be clear about the kind of success we are talking about. There are two main ways that science is successful, ones that are closely related, but which while still separate are easily confused or mixed together.  There is the success at discovering the truth about particular areas of inquiry, e.g., the structure of the animal cell and the atom, and there is the success of technological innovations used to solve practical problems, e.g., ways of communicating over long distance, and to provide various luxuries, e.g., air conditioning. Again, the two are obviously related, the former providing the partial means to the latter. This distinction is important to keep in mind, I believe, because its being ignored is partially responsible for the denigration of the success of philosophy and poetry as means of knowing certain truths of our world.

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