Sunday, March 6, 2011

Love Life

The docent at the Hammer Museum has come up to me to talk about the painting. Doctor somebody Italian. It seems the focus is on his hands, and on pulling tight the belt strings of his dressing gown, because he was famous in the late 19th century for his "manual manipulation" cure for hysteria. A famous womanizer. The wife has come over to listen too, and comments, "it's true, it works." Docent is appropriately shocked. The wife re-joins me at the next painting I stop before, says "kiss me here", tapping her cheek. I oblige. "Do it better," she demands. I make the attempt. "Again," she orders. "Why?" I ask. "It's a trick. What about the doctor you said you are in love with? I don't mean the doctor in the painting."

- The doctor says I am enchanting him, enslaving him.
- I'm sure he's right. So what do you want from me?
- I love you both.
- Why do you need us both?
- I know you.
-You don't love the doctor. You love his money.
- I love his hands.
- Like the doctor in the painting?
- Yes.
- True love.
- Yes.

She ruffles my hair, wanders off. Shortly after she disappears in the museum crowd.

The night before I had been to a lecture at UCLA, the poster announcing it to be on the subject of "The Examined Life". Socrates is mentioned. Strangely it is to be given at the business school. Jesus not overturning the tables of the money lenders but giving them a commission?

The auditorium is overflowing with attendees, I make my way to the front row, find an empty seat between a man who introduces himself as an officer of the group which is presenting the lecture, Veritas by name but it turns out not by fact, and on my other side is the man who is going to speak, Dr. Oz Guinness. Book writer, public speaker, Washington think-tank member, one of the Irish Beer Brewing Guinesses. I ask the Veritas man why he is so friendly, introducing himself to me the way he has done. Do I find it unusual, he asks. Yes, I answer. Usually people run away from me. What are you doing to them? he asks.

Here we are interrupted by a young woman at the podium on stage. She makes remarks preparatory to bringing on the speaker, who after some applaus gets his well rehearsed speech underway.

He informs us he is an old guy who has been to the best schools in England and has met all the famous people of the last century. He tells a story about Winston Churchill. His life was a quest for the meaning of life, and this is what he has come to talk about and recommend to all the students in the audience. They need his advice, because their generation is leading meaningless lives of entertainment, careers and ambition for the sake of money making and money spending. They believe they are immortal. And might never, the way they are going, ever wake up to their error until evidence of mortality becomes unavoidable in middle age. If they took seriously the certainty of their death they wouldn't be wasting their time they way they are. And when they started looking at death, they would have to start thinking seriously about why there is both good and bad, and look for ways of distinguishing the good and bad ways to spend the time we have. They would have to look at the different general ways there were to describe the existence of both good and bad. These are the Abrahamic group of religions -Judaism and its descendents Christianity and Islam - and Buddhism, and Athiesm. Buddhism says the world is evil and you can be happy if you know it and detach yourself, Atheism says the world is evil and knowing it is the best you can do, you can't really be happy, and Christianity says the world was created good but the presence of evil creates problems. Only Christianity gives a program, fighting evil, and promises a future of greater good. It has given him, for one, meaning in life. Thanks for listening.

There is applaus, but not overwhelming. The Christians are happy, the students who've been told they're leading meaningless ignorant lives are not so happy. It is the audience's chance to ask questions, and a student stands up to complain: they come to school to learn, not to listen to claims about the existence of spirits and miracles that can't be tested. The practiced public speaker knows how to answer: everything good in life cannot be seen: love, truth, beauty, etc. The student doesn't know how to respond immediately. Another student stands up to speak, a similar complaint, similarly out-maneuvered. That's enough, the moderator announces, the speaker has to appear at the reception downstairs.

The emminent man returns to his seat beside mine where he has left his things, and I say I would like to ask him a question. There are people waiting for him to autograph copies of his books, so I offer I'll return when he's finished. I do that, and 10 minutes later after loading up my bag with free food downstairs I am back and suggest we walk out of the lecture hall together.

So, walking up the steps, followed by a few stray autograph seekers, I make this little speech:

You have said that for you, the alternative of Christianity is the only one that explains both the good and evil in life in a satisfactory way. You mentioned famous writers, Lewis and Chesterton, who following this reasoning like you went from being athiests to being Christians. But since your lecture was on the subject of the examined life, I wanted to asked you the question that came to mind when I read those two writers' books, when I as it were examined their reasoning. Listening to you I thought you if anyone could give me an answer. One of the eminent schools you said you were associated with was Harvard, right? So you know the philosopher George Santayana? His variety of pragmatism?

- No, I don't know philosophy.

- Really? (I think he is lying.)

- Then I will summarize what he says about religion. His idea of living sensibly is to look for the best way of learning how to connect the experiences of things we perceive in the world, with the experiences we find within ourselves, moods, emotions, whatever. The things outside us in the world we can separate out and study their mutual relations, and we can try to understand how what we see outside us, and what we do in the world, changes and affects how we feel within ourselves. Santayana says religions give us models of this relation, in which gods symbolize things within us we have not clearly learned how to separate and identify, and relate these inner things to the things outside in the world. But it is possible to learn to look clearly at our different ways of feeling and thinking, and identify them and rank them in order of usefullness in establishing our relation to the world we see outside us. This is the "know yourself" and "moderation, nothing too much" of the ancient Greeks. Of Socrates too, who supplied you with the title of your lecture. If this is true, isn't the model unnecessary? And isn't your chosen model, Christianity, an anachronism?

- If Plato works for you, follow Plato.

- I follow what Plato followed. But the question I want answered is why anyone seeking truth should follow Christianity when it is merely a model, a useful story, when it is possible to study the thing itself, our own experience?

- I think there will come a time when your Plato fails you, and you will see Christianity is more than a model.

- But all religions make the same claim to be the only consolation. Even philosophy can claim to be consoling. I am reading a book now by Iris Murdoch (once a professor at Oxford,one of your schools) in which a character is saved by, finds his consolation in reading Proust. You're argument only says your model works just like, no better than, all the other models.

- People are waiting for me.

- I'm disappointed.

And he goes off, as ordained in prophecy.

In the novel by Iris Murdoch I mentioned The Good Apprentice there are stories of many different kinds of love. A woman after a two year secret love affair with her husband's best friend, an affair of intense mutual love kept hidden by continuous conspiratorial deception, decides to return to her husband because her life with him and her child is more real. Her affair never was allowed to progress, because it was kept hidden, whereas her married life has a history which has established obligations, especially to her child, and has a future.

Living with someone you love and are loved by, you look ahead to everything you do being approved by your lover. Your return to your lover's presence is not just a pleasure, it is moral, confirms your sense of good and bad. The wife saw that her perfect pleasure, and perfectly recipricated pleasure in her love affair was lacking this moral element.

In other words, love when a foundation of life together is something better than love isolated, and somehow fitted in with the other aspects of life like work, finding how to make money, and entertainment.

The isolation of love from other aspects of life is the problem with having recorse to models like Christianity. We are reminded we should love, but who tells us how we should do it? The model can help us compare a life without love to a life with love, but it doesn't for example tell a student (or my wife) why it might be a mistake to not be true to her husband. If love is the answer the more love the better.


Relying on models, we are liable to making the mistake of trying to build a society of roles in which there are the loving, the thinking, and the doing. We become specialists in each, one at a time. Our faculties are isolated from each other in the symbols of our models, like so many jealous, competitive gods. We become like the UCLA students were charged with being: overly ambitious, thougtlessly sexual, inhumanly technical. In fact this way of life has been with us more or less since the garden of Eden, when the loving Adam followed the advice of the thinking, calculating Eve under the instigation of the doing, persuading Snake. This is a fall from the grace of being able to build upon love, thinking out the right things to do to make the life of love better.

True politics is based on love, not fear. If we hold onto love as a foundatiion, and not merely a consumer's choice, we should be able to find our way out of some of our present difficulties. For example, a people who have recourse to terrorism argue to democratics, who don't much like the idea of murdering children, "we only want what you have, our own country; we are comparatively powerless, our only tool is murder of children, and our children are being killed too. It's fair." How do we answer if we believe in love of land, love of children, any love being equal? Why shouldn't they have their land, why shouldn't they kill children if their children are killed?

We go back to the example of the wife who decides to leave her intense perfect love affair to return to her family, because that life though less perfectly loving is higher, something more human involving learning to make life better. It has more meaning.

We can say to the terrorists without land, what would you do with that land? Would you construct a state under Muslim law, in which it is illegal to convert to Christianity or any other religion? And in which it is illegal to construct churches and temples to other religions? Are we obliged to respect the call to continuous occupation of a land to be put to no higher purpose? If the land was lost in a war the terrorists themselves began, if it is a fatality of history they lost their land, how is that different than the wife's lover losing his true love when the wife returns to her husband? He must accept fate. The husband and his family have no pity for him. She has chosen the better, left behind the worse.

Our reasoning concludes: we do not accept the terrorists' deliberate murder of children because the love they are trying to re-establish is inferior, not worthy of paying for with one child's lilfe.