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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Atlanta Protest 11.11.16

What happened last night in Atlanta with the protest that organized in the Historic Fourth Ward Park, next to the Masquerade club, and across from the recently developed Ponce City Market (cough, “gentrification”), and then proceeded to march through Atlanta, taking an indirect route past mlkjr-drive-protest-picGeorgia State University and the State Capital building? More importantly, why were people gathering and protesting? Why were they disrupting the traffic, tying up intersections? From a variety of sources, it’s quite clear that there is either confusion or outright misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what happened and why. Having been there from 6 pm to 9:30, this is my take. I know that I leave many issues out that the protest concerned (may I be forgiven for that).

Even though I went to bed later than usual last night (around 1:00 am), I was not able to sleep past 5:00 am. This is in part because I’m still struggling with the time change, and in part because the energy, the import, and the chants from last night’s protest and march echo in my mind. So, getting up I fed the animals and sat down listening to the National News broadcast on NPR. They reported on protests around the country. In Oregon, things were more chaotic than in Atlanta, as one person was shot and police used teargas and flash-bang grenades to try to break things up. Thankfully, that did not happen in Atlanta last night.

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Nietzsche and the Slaves of American Culture

A rough sketch, particularly one that exaggerates certain features, can be more useful than a finely proportioned, subtle, and detailed drawing. This may be the case, for example, when one wants to highlight certain features that otherwise may be missed if they are buried in detail and perfect lines. With this in mind, I want to discuss a disturbing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to foreground an even more disturbing aspect of American culture.

At one point at least, Nietzsche viewed what he considered High Culture—by which I take it he meant the cultural achievements of the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner (at one time), et al., and perhaps even the work of a Darwin—to justify the enslavement of lower types/classes. While there is the alternative of opting for universal equity, that can only occur with a sacrifice of culture. Safranski writes:

In his notes, Nietzsche sharpened the problem of the link between culture and social justice. When it comes to culture, he contended, a decision must be made as to its essential aim. The two major options are the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, on the one hand, and the success of individual lives, on the other. The moral point of view gives priority to the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, whereas the aesthetic view declares that the meaning of culture lies in the culmination of auspicious forms, the “peak of rapture.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 73.)

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The Role of Beauty in Living Well

“That is beautiful!” is easy to say and easy to ignore, as it has become platitudinous. This is certainly regrettable, for beauty ought not be identified with the trite and such associations can cloud our thinking about beauty. Such clouding can also result from the mistaken association of “beauty” with beauty pageants and fashion models. All of this can make us neglect an important question: What is the role of beauty in human well-being?

Following Daniel M. Haybron’s classification scheme in The Pursuit of Unhappiness, we can distinguish between two different concepts of happiness. The first is the concept of long-term psychological happiness; the second is the evaluative notion of well-being or living well. (I’ll use “well-being” and “living well” interchangeably.) Happiness is a psychological state as is a certain sort of unhappiness, e.g., depression. The concept of well-being concerns what it is that makes a person’s life go well, what benefits a person. One question is to what extent happiness is necessary for well-being. Could you be unhappy but nevertheless live well. The question about the role of beauty in well-being is analogous. By asking what role beauty plays, I’m asking whether experiencing beauty is necessary for living well. What follows is intended to be clarificatory and suggestive. I hope to treat the topic in more detail later.

To begin, let’s ask how we might proceed in figuring out whether beauty is necessary for living well. If Kant and company are right, then judgments of beauty involve pleasure. This might lead us to a quick answer to our question, for surely pleasure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for well-being. But viewed this way, there is nothing particular about beauty that makes it uniquely necessary for well-being, since there are other ways to experienc pleasure. So what might be unique to beauty that would make it a necessary component of living well?

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