A Meditation on the Perils of Reading Philosophy

It was about a two years ago, on a fateful and sunny day, that I made a terrible mistake: I decided to read Martin Heidegger. I admit that i did this of my own choosing, but no one warned me of the toil I would face when I innocently picked up a copy of Being and Time, Heidegger’s principal work.

The cover was beautiful—a picture of a leaf spread over a page of wispy script—but it was the title itself that won me over: two words that complement each other nicely, unified not by an “or,” “over” or “between,” but a solid “and.” I merrily carried it home, opened it to the first page, and thus my troubles began.

It seems that Heidegger resists translation in two ways: first, he is a philosopher, and second, he is German. Heidegger has this concept of Dasein, a quaint little noun to which he refers on every page of Being and Time without ever explaining in layman’s terms what it is. He strings together words with dashes, such as Being-In-The-World, which sounds interesting-if-a-bit-clunky but makes no sense.

So I went back to the library and picked up the original German book, Sein und Zeit. It was at this point that a philosopher friend of mine noticed my interest and shook his head.

“No, no,” he said, “you can’t just read Heidegger. His work is meaningless unless you try out the other Existentialists.”

Very well, I thought. I’ll read the other Existentialists. Undaunted, I picked up the colossal Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre. The title was slightly less attractive, and the introduction far less hopeful, but I gave it a shot anyway.

I managed to skim three pages before putting this mammoth tome away and reading his plays instead. When these failed to explain Sartre’s outlook (much less Heidegger’s), I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Then I really found myself in a fix.

As it turns out, The Stranger is often perceived as a depiction of the Ubermensch, or Superman, an idea thought up by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The Superman is only half-understood unless you have read about Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of “Will to Power,” the can-do attitude that fuels the Superman’s spirit.

Of course this is sort of a tangent, my friend tells me, because Schopenhauer wasn’t as much of an Existentialist as Soren Kierkegaard, but I should read both if I ever hope to understand Nietzsche.

However Kierkegaard is a lightweight compared to Immanuel Kant, who really got the ball rolling in the 18th Century by inaugurating what is now known as Modern Philosophy. His Critique of Pure Reason challenged the world of theory, and so no philosopher in his right mind would think to avoid it.

So I picked that up, got a migraine in 10 minutes, and decided that if Kant was challenging the world of theory, then I should probably find out what the world of theory was doing that put him in such a tizzy.

So I flipped through the works of David Hume, whose theory of religion goes almost hand in hand with Thomas Hobbes’ theory of a purely material world. But what was the significance of a purely material world?

“You just don’t understand,” my philosopher friend muttered, pulling out a dusty volume of Rene Descartes’ Meditations. So I meditated on those, and learned, in not so many words, that we can’t be sure of anything.

“Oh, great!” I exclaimed. “You mean I’ve borrowed 16 books from the library and I can’t even be sure they’ll say the same thing tomorrow as they do today?”

“Don’t worry about it,” my philosopher friend said consolingly.

So Descartes posited to me that the existence of God can be proven, but this wasn’t enough. I had to read St. Thomas Aquinas for further details on the proof-of-God model, which is based, to my dismay, on Augustinian principles and Aristotelian logic.

So I tried out the Confessions of St. Augustine, which advised me to leave my wife, and then I attempted half the works of Aristotle. Aristotle was at least straightforward, but I ostensibly knew nothing of Aristotle unless I fully appreciated Plato, and to read Plato I needed to read about the trial and death of Socrates, who, it seems, is the origin of all human cognition.

In short, I read Plato to understand Aristotle, Aristotle for Augustine, Augustine for Aquinas for Descartes for Hobbes for Hume for Kant for Kierkegaard for Schopenhauer for Nietzsche for Camus for Sartre for Heidegger, and I still don’t have any idea what Dasein is.

If anyone can explain it to me, I’ll be very happy. In the meantime, I need some Advil.

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So We’re Living in the Information Age, Eh?

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The following appeared in The Pitt News in 1999.

Photograph taken around that time, in Oakland.

It took me at least two years to learn the shoes are used by drug dealers.

“Look at that,” I said to the guy next to me in the checkout line, pointing to a copy of Time. “It’s Princess Diana on the cover again. The press just eats her up.”

The guy gave me a strange look, before informing me that Princess Diana was, in fact, dead.

“What?” I said, taken aback. “She died?

I soon learned that she had been dead for six days.

It seemed idiotic at the time. How could I have missed it? How had six days transpired since her fatal car accident without an audible mention of the event? One would think the headlines, the explosive manufacture of biographies, or at least the televisions in shop windows showing the footage of weeping masses would have dropped a significant hint. Don’t we live in the Information Age, after all, when I should be able to know about the car wreck before the police do, even as it’s happening?

And what about the Internet, with its infinite websites commemorating the late princess and her cultural legacy, talking heads disputing the fate of the British royalty, critics bashing the scandal as a paparazzi-fest that eclipsed the real tragedy, the passing of Mother Teresa? What about the email chains paying homage to Diana’s name, the documentaries lining supermarket shelves, the cartoons portraying Prince Charles as an open-mouthed rodent? Surely I might have learned of the death from somewhere, certainly in less than 120 hours.

What excuse did I have for not knowing about such a landmark event? What had I been doing in the meantime?

The truth must be told: I was studying.

The crash occurred in the Fall of 1997, my first month at college and my first of many happy years without a television. I was unaccustomed to email. I laughed at newspapers, and my room in Tower A of Pitt’s campus was resistant to radio transmissions. All my tools of the Information Age were in the shed, as it were.

And yet I had interacted with hundreds of people in those six days—friends, professors, panhandlers—and not a single one had mentioned it. Here was the focal point of the biggest media swarm since O.J. Simpson, and it didn’t even warrant a casual remark. I had to go yogurt shopping for the faintest whisper.

Nowadays, I browse through a couple papers and occasionally catch the evening news. This is how I learned about another world-shattering accident, the plane of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and its unfortunate descent. I learned of it only an hour after Tom Brokaw did. For that evening, I was well informed.

Whatever my friends’ feelings about Kennedy’s death, I never heard them. No one lamented over it, or even brought it up in passing. The least I expected from a catastrophe of this magnitude was an insensitive joke. If I hadn’t been watching the news that week, the event would have slipped my notice altogether. Years later, I’d wonder why John’s name no longer headed the articles of George.

Then again, what was there to say? Every news station in the United States felt obliged to cover the search, arguing ad nauseum which part of the plane probably touched down first. When the helicopters came up with bodies, everyone from Coast Guard pilots to President Clinton wanted to express just how terrible this was (as if someone had mistaken death for a good thing).

Between July 18, when the plane actually crashed, and July 23, when the burial at sea took place, the victims were more famous than if they had miraculously survived. Pundits couldn’t shut up about it. Archivists dug up Danny Farrell’s epoch-making portrait of John-John saluting and showed it off like baby pictures from their own wallets. Suddenly, everyone was an expert on the morals of the age. After all these reports and opinions, who needed small talk about it?

But for people who live in a world of limited media, the din of human voices is getting softer. Thousands can die in an unheard-of Turkish earthquake because the assumption is that everyone is already tired of hearing about it. The media have limited us to two options: the deafening roar of the Information Age or the silence of mere human interaction.

Forget Commandments: Post Hammurabi’s Code

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph taken by my brother at the Capitol.

It is in the light of the new Juvenile Justice Bill that I commend the U.S. government. I can clearly see the need for schoolchildren to be exposed to unceasing religious scripture. Every day, when they walk down the halls of their schools, the Holy Word should direct them on their paths.

But the Ten Commandments aren’t going to cut it. Religious though they may be, they aren’t of my religion. As an active Mesopotamian Pagan, I fervently support posting the Code of Hammurabi in American high schools. While Moses’ 10 statutes are too vague and poetic, the Code includes 282 no-nonsense regulations for life and the afterlife.

Why should we accept the Code? Any good reactionary will tell you: First, it’s extremely old, and therefore wise. Second, it’s absolutely right. And why shouldn’t it be? It was, after all, written by Hammurabi, prince of Bel, the fearless conquerer of Isin, Kish, and Ur. Who better to transcribe the word of Marduk, overruling son of Ea, the One True God of Righteousness?

Moreover, the Code is perfect for cracking down on juvenile crime. It states very clearly in rule 22 that anyone caught stealing should be put to death. Forget this “three strikes and you’re out” nonsense. Why fill up prisons with freeloading adolescents when we could eliminate the dark followers of Shamash in public stoning sessions?

Youths who act out against authority won’t face mere detention. Indeed, rule 202 states that if some poor kid makes fun of a teacher, he earns 60 blows with an ox whip. Greasers who resort to fisticuffs in the schoolyard get their teeth knocked out, and teachers who grow especially fond of their students can keep them as personal servants (rules 200 and 188).

As to sexual promiscuity, rule 132 prescribes that any young woman accused of sleeping around should be drowned in the nearest river, with or without evidence. If the accuser is actually just joshing the faculty, he gets the skin of his brow cut off (per rule 127).

The Code even extends into the domestic circle, which is where virtues and vices are first engendered. According to rule 195, a son who disobeys a father loses his hand. Divorced mothers who take their children for a weekend drive are promptly executed, and according to rule 193, if you say out loud that you’re an adopted child, you get your tongue cut out (but only if you really are an adopted child). Now those are family values.

I even advocate reforms in the judicial branch that more closely correspond to the Code. After sacrificing a goat to the gods and swearing honesty, each witness will give a brief testimony, which will be recorded in English and Cuneiform. Having dispensed with the concept of lawyers, the anointed judge will rule on the evidence. But if the ruling is later found unjust, the judge will live in exile.

Critics have argued that this plan is unconstitutional. I reluctantly agree, and I have thus expanded the reformation to include overthrowing the legislative and executive branches as well, which will otherwise challenge the One True Faith of Babylon. The president will be renamed Prince of Heaven and Earth, and all Americans will accept the cultural norms of the Anunaki. Our first act of foreign policy should be to eradicate the Iraqis and reclaim the sacred Tigris and Euphrates rivers for our own purposes.

People have no reservations about labeling me an extremist, which always makes me laugh. I shake my head and wonder why they turn away from the Revelations of Hallab. But why do I feel justified forcing other people to accept my ways, even in the secular arena? I wouldn’t, but certain members of the government clearly think this is a good idea. And as long as one religion has to push its way to the top—dominating American institutions by erecting commandments in its own name—that religion might as well be mine, because my religion, unlike everyone else’s, is the True Way. Long live the glory of Ishtar!

Searching for a New Look

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 1999.

Photograph of me and my Pitt News editor, Dave Madden.

And that is, in fact, the jacket I purchased.

My trench coat was a veteran of four bitter winters and was so heavily stained with street grime that restaurant hosts would hesitate to seat me. Splotches of dried ketchup and streaks of bicycle grease clung to an already gloomy piece of attire, but I defiantly excused these as pronouncements of character.

But the elements finally won their battle, and my coat longed for retirement. At this point, it was hardly a trench coat at all, but rather an outstretched parka. The insulating fabric was so torn that I snipped it out with scissors. Most of its buttons were missing in action. Former pockets were vacuous pits that sent change dribbling into uncharted nether-regions. Thus I decommissioned my loyal accomplice, and now it rests on a shelf at Goodwill.

This left me with two choices: I could find an exact replica of this trusty warhorse—knowing it would never desert me, never fail, and dedicate its existence to keeping me warm and dry—or I could try a new style. I chose the latter.

I started at the mall, where I faced cold disillusionment: I’m not the demographic posh men’s stores go for. The floor-to-ceiling portraits of pumped Italian-Americans with their pensive frowns and devilish good looks reminded me of a lot of guys I know, myself not among them. I studied the racks, looking for something simple but functional. Instead, I found a salesman.

“What sort of coat are you looking for?”

“A winter coat, preferably.”

“I see. Would you like any particular style?”

“Simple but functional. Sleeves are a plus.”

It dawned on me that this was not a matter of finding a coat. I was searching for a new identity. Freud had weaseled his way into my life, clucking his tongue and reminding me that no choice is made without some psychological backstory.

Very well, I new identity. But what kind? A trench coat had served my image nicely, and I couldn’t dishonor the noir look of my past. I needed something that matched all the connotations of a trench coat: grit, industrialism, retro-Bogart glory.

But Tela Ropa didn’t provide it. Counterculture they had in spades, but warhorses stomped other grounds. I tried to picture myself in a jean jacket, a bomber jacket, a really heavy Windbreaker—hell, maybe I could try to reintroduce Paleolithic animal skins to the fashion world.

I tried working backward. Sports jackets were out; it seemed hypocritical to show off a Steelers logo when I had never seen a game. And while suits and blue blazers tend to flatter my demeanor, ties and three-pieces look hopelessly out of place in Oakland. Nor could I chance an ulster or a chesterfield ever since they made those accursed Jane Austen movies. And I couldn’t bring myself to advance the slaughter of minks or rabbits. Fur doesn’t do a thing for me, anyway.

I even flipped through catalogs. It was like a photographic study in high-school cliques: The men in Harvard sweaters sipped tea on Page 3, while the gun-toting hunters trampled through brittle grass on Page 35.

Clothes weren’t just defining my identity; they were choosing my friends for me. A leather jacket would send me bikers. A plaid suit would mean golf carts and old men. For all I knew, a mackintosh would make me the head of the Trench Coat Mafia.

Price was also a factor: I could buy a Western-style raincoat from Kaufmann’s for $300, or buy it used—fresh off the back of a cowboy—for an eighth of the price. The Operatunity Chop nearly won me over with a soft blue trench coat costing only $30. But I have no clothes to go with blue, so my crusade marched on.

At last, I dropped in on Crimes of Fashion, a tiny shop on Forbes Avenue. It conserves space like no other store I’ve seen, jamming shirts and blouses together with a naval compactness. And there, hidden among leather jackets James Dean would be proud to wear, hung my future coat: a long suede piece from the 70s, with belt, buttons and that deep maple brown that blends in anywhere in Pittsburgh.

So began my days as the New Me, which, after all this heartache, is basically the same as the old me, minus the ketchup stains.

Sifting Through the Free Stuff: Easier Said Than Done

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 1999.

Photograph of Pitt Campus, ever charming in winter.

Usually, the distributor stands at an old fold-out table with frayed edges, smiling happily as I approach. He’s wearing a T-shirt promoting his cause, company or sect, and he’s cradling in his arms a pile of multicolored brochures. The sidewalk has never seemed so narrow or deserted. Suddenly, he and I share the same interpersonal space, and there is no way past him.

Just look ahead, I think. Don’t make eye contact.

But it’s too late. My hand reaches out—against my better judgement—and I snatch the brochure from his hands and maybe even utter a “thank you” as I pass. All I had to say was “no,” maybe even break into a run, but my arm was predisposed to do otherwise. He was, after all, handing out Free Stuff.

Back at the dorm, I examine the brochure and frown. It’s an advertisement for a radio station I can’t even pick up on my stereo.

Swell.

This phenomenon is nothing new; my reflexes have betrayed me before. I have applications for free trial memberships to Time Magazine, National Geographic and the Isaac Asimov Fan Club. I have postcards from the most prestigious advertisers in the country—including the Wall Street Journal’s division for students savings—and free information on how to make thousands stuffing envelopes at home (“Fun and Easy!”).

I have a free VHS tape from the NRA: a 15-minute documentary about how the government plans to brainwash me in my sleep. The military lobbies for my service with infinite pamphlets, imploring me to be all I can be, get tough, and find out what I’m missing in malarial jungles. And each of these charities grants me an ample supply of business reply mail, postage prepaid.

I’m also an avid collector of religious paraphernalia. Chick Publications sends me pocket-size comic strips about salvation. I don’t care one fig whether Bad Bob Found the Lord, but I take it because it’s free, and then I read it because it’s mine. A Christian missionary was kind enough to give me a pamphlet about how I’m bathed in sin and will burn in Hell for eternity. I’m also the proud owner of the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata and the Upanishads, courtesy of the local Hare Krishna.

Why do I take these? It’s because my culture has programmed me to consume at the lowest price, and free is by far the lowest. Even if I don’t need what it is my distributor offers, he is invariably prepared to convince me to take it anyway.

“Come on, everybody needs shampoo!”

“But I already have a bottle at home. And I need a special brand for my psoriasis.”

“Take it anyway. Give it to your girlfriend.”

In that moment it sounds like a brilliant idea. Sure, I can give it to my girlfriend, at no cost to myself. Then I take it, and a second later I realize that this is a cheap and superficial idea. But the distributor is already gone by that point, and I’m left with a package of scented shampoo and conditioner.

Advertisers love to offer Free Stuff because it attracts customers; it’s the last-resort business ploy that never fails. But by the time I collect my mail, walk down Forbes and open a magazine, I have already accumulated more material than all my assigned readings for the semester. And somehow I’m still compelled to keep it because you never know when a best-soft-rock-of-the-1970s cassette might come in handy.

But a Kaplan brochure? A quarter-pound Guide to Good Times in Pittsburgh? The volume of Free Stuff dominates my personal space, and my desk is visibly strained beneath its weight. I examine the useless mass with apprehension, wondering if any of it is worth the price.

Fall Rush Brings Gratuitous Texts and Violence

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 1999.

The photograph was taken near Louisa Street,

where I lived that summer. My building looked almost as lustrous.

“Here!” a young woman exclaims, thrusting a sheet of crumpled paper in my face.

I unfold it and see that it’s a class schedule for the Fall Term. I nod and scratch my head, then set it down in front of me. A long silence follows before she gives me a sour look.

“Well? I don’t have all day, you know.”

So begins another afternoon at The Book Center’s text department, where I have been working for the past four months. This customer, a nameless face in a crowd of impatient freshmen, has just made the all-too-common assumption that I have nothing better to do than track down her books for her.

“What a coincidence,” I reply. “I don’t have all day, either.” Then I draw my own sheet of paper—a photography my colleague has prepared for this exact occasion—and hand it to her along with her tattered schedule.

“What’s that?” she asks suspiciously.

“Directions. If you follow them, you should be able to find your books on the shelves.”

The freshwoman pouts and summons reinforcements. Her mother, a woman who could crush me between her biceps like an egg, tries the diplomatic approach.

“Isn’t serving the customer your job?”

Allow me (on behalf of the Book Center employees who are too modest to say it themselves) to inform everyone that it is not our job to teach students how to read. If kindergarten teachers failed, there is nothing we can do. The directions we distribute are explicit: Books that can’t be found on the shelves are probably hiding.

I can’t explain why, but certain customers seem to hate us. They try very hard to ignore what we say, no matter how often we repeat ourselves.

“Are you telling me the books aren’t here yet?”

“It depends on what course you’re taking. Some of the shipments are unusually large, numbering as many as 1,200 volumes, and many of the professors haven’t handed in their requisition forms, so for certain classes, we don’t know which books to order…”

“So what you’re telling me is that the books aren’t here yet.”

Sure, I think. Why not?

Something to keep in mind is that—alas!—books are expensive. We have no influence over the prices. If you want to blame somebody, start with Alan Greenspan and work your way down. If you’re a chemistry major, you have my condolences, but I’m powerless to save you from bankruptcy.

The worst customers are the parents who are shopping for their children. They telephone us and act as reluctant interpreters.

“What I’m going to need from you,” I advise, “is your department’s abbreviation and course number.”

“What? Department?” The hapless mother calls to her child, who is watching TV in the background. “Jimmy? JIMMY!! SHut that crap off and tell me what your course number is!” Minutes pass as I hear them arguing, their voices muffled as the mother tries to cover the receiver with her hand. Finally, she sighs and says, “The class is History of Modern Architecture.”

“Ma’am,” I answer through gritted teeth, “my computer doesn’t list the names of the courses, like I said. I need a course number. It’s the four digit code on your son’s schedule.”

“Oh, okay, it’s right here. It’s 43423.”

“That’s five digits, not four!” I want to shriek. “Can’t you count, for heaven’s sake?”

Most customers (including you, I imagine) are respectful of our limited time. The snags that aren’t obvious, such as cards that have been rearranged for the sake of shelf space, you tend to figure out on your own. For that, I offer you a most gargantuan “thank you.” As for the bad apples, this newspaper is too respectable to print what I’d like to say to them.

This is my first and last Fall Rush as a Book Center employee, but for several of my associates, it’s just one of many rushes they will take on as a means of paying that old tuition. Most of them are too nice to say so, but I am a lousy and irritable clerk, and I plan to resign because I can’t take the stress. But as a personal favor, please be kind to the people I’m leaving behind. And leave your mother at home.