Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Continental philosophers and other animals

Next month, I will be going to Melbourne to attend the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Continental Philosophers (I know, it sounds like something out of a David Lodge novel, but it’s real). Continental philosophers are not people who think deeply about the significance of living in a nation that’s also an entire continent. Nor, you may be relieved to learn, are they sponsored by Continental Airlines (although the concept of the “bar in the sky” developed by that company is somehow in keeping with the spirit of many continental philosophy discussions).

Rather, the term “continental philosophy” refers to philosophy from or inspired by thinkers from the continent of Europe, which mainly means France, Germany and Italy. Even more importantly, it designates philosophy that is NOT part of the (predominantly) Anglo-American tradition of analytic thought. Somewhat confusingly, analytic philosophy is said to originate with the work of a German philosopher, Gottlob Frege. It is scientific in spirit, whereas continental philosophy is anchored in the methods of textual interpretation and inquiry of the great religious, literary and historical traditions that inform European culture. The split between the two is a recent phenomenon, dating only from the Twentieth century, when the school of analytic philosophy emerged.

Although (or perhaps because) their school is a mere baby of the Western tradition, analytic philosophers tend to show a fundamentalist, reformatory zeal, asserting that their approach to philosophy is the one true way. As David Attenborough might have observed, had he ventured into the jungle of contemporary academia, analytic philosophers will fight fiercely to protect and expand their communal and material interests. Sociable, loyal, even charming among their own kind, they become territorial and dangerous in dealings with philosophers from other schools, insisting that continental philosophy (which, mind you, covers pretty much the whole tradition of Western philosophy before the arrival of analytic philosophy) is not worthy of the title “philosophy” and ought to be stamped out wherever possible. And indeed, it has proved close to possible in many philosophy departments in Australia, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. Analytic philosophy is clearly in the ascendency in these countries.

It should be admitted that most of the philosophers grouped under the rubric of “continental philosophy” are secretly equally dismissive of the value of analytic philosophy, considering that should it magically disappear without trace, this would be no loss to the world. However, they are much less organized or unified in their opposition to their natural enemy, tending to be preoccupied with depressing problems of their own, such as how to continue a tradition of thought which is implicated in the terrible events of European history in the last century, particularly the Holocaust. Busy deconstructing, critiquing, and declaring “states of exception” involving the suspension of the authority of their own intellectual heritage, continental philosophers have been in a weak position to withstand the energetic and strategic advances of the analytic philosophers. While retaining a foothold in philosophy departments, they have tended to scatter into other disciplines, such as literature, fine arts, cultural studies, and the social sciences.

Hence the need for an Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP), to bring the diaspora together. There is no equivalent society for analytic philosophy. The analytic philosophers simply dominate the Australasian Association of Philosophy.

This year, the ASCP conference has been given the theme, “The Times of our Lives.” I am preparing a paper on Walter Benjamin’s concept of Now-time. This is a suggestive understanding of historical time, not as an empty, homogenous expanse in which events occur sequentially, but rather as an intense experience of the present as a moment that is full to overflowing with the past, to the point of catastrophe or possibly redemptive revolution. To get a better sense of Benjamin’s work as a whole (his oeuvre, to be continental about it), I have been reading Howard Caygill, whose summary of Benjamin’s project goes some way to explaining why continental philosophy is not in a stronger position in contemporary academia:

Walter Benjamin
“To a large extent Benjamin’s thought may be understood as an attempt to extend the limits of experience treated within philosophy to the point where the identity of philosophy itself is jeopardized. In place of a philosophical mastery of experience, whether that of art, of religion, of language or of the city, Benjamin allows experience to test the limits of philosophy. The work of philosophical criticism according to the ‘method called nihilism’ allows experience to invade, evade and even ruin its philosophical host.”

This is the kind of thing that makes analytic philosophers see the work of continental thinkers as akin to a parasitic disease. But to “allow experience to test the limits of philosophy” need not amount to a suicidal flirtation with destructive forces. In less melancholic mode, it might involve allowing experience to invite, lead and even enliven its philosophical partner. But that would mean moving on from the oppositional category of continental thought, and adopting the ‘method called tango philosophy.’ 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Strange sympathies: Fritz Lang and reptilian aliens

This week my movie mate, Tom, came over with a dvd of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film “M.” This classic black and white crime thriller tells the story of a German community’s response to a series of child murders. The police and the criminal network of the city both mobilize to track down the culprit, using almost indistinguishable techniques: highly bureaucratic organization directed exclusively by men, their discussions wreathed in tendrils, building to clouds, of cigarette and cigar smoke.

Cutting through the haze, the head of the underworld comes up with the idea of delegating the task of surveillance to the “beggars’ union.” One step ahead of the police, the beggars find their man, and the criminal network swings into action. A chalky “M” slapped on the back of the suspect’s coat brands him, he is captured, and brought to a kangaroo court in an abandoned factory. And here the moral argument of the film becomes clear.

The murderer defends himself by claiming that his actions are involuntary – he is continually persecuted by demons and by the ghosts of the mothers of the children he has killed. He finds relief only when he “does it,” but remembers nothing of his actions, only learning of them through the newspapers later. As he speaks of his compulsion, several of the criminals in his audience are shown nodding, evidently identifying with the unconscious, unwilled nature of his experience.

The crime boss responds by declaring that the man has condemned himself by his own words: he is clearly a danger to society and must be done away with. But in keeping with the way the criminal network mirrors every other aspect of respectable society, the accused has been appointed a defence counsel who is permitted to plead on his behalf. The lawyer speaks courageously of the rights of the accused, demanding that he be handed over to the police and tried according to the rule of law; he is sick and ought to be sent to an asylum, not executed.

The mob are not convinced; a woman raises her voice on behalf of the mothers who have lost their children, arguing that they should be the ones to determine the murderer’s fate. This incites the crowd and they move to attack the man, but just at this moment, the police arrive. The members of the criminal mob all raise their hands – suddenly the tables have turned and they are the ones exposed to potential arrest for attempted murder. We see a hand laid very gently on the accused’s shoulder, about to lead him away to another scene of judgment.

The final speech of the film is given to a bereaved mother we met in the opening sequences of the film, who declares that we all share in responsibility for such murders – we must take better care of our children.

After we finished watching, Tom said he had felt himself identifying, for a moment, with the mob who wanted to lynch the murderer. He looked at me, “But you didn’t, did you? You were the lawyer.” He was half right. I did identify with the lawyer, not so much as a defender of due process, or the institution of the law, but as the protector of the accused against the passions of the mob. I have a strange sympathy for criminals – or more specifically for the isolated individual accused (even fairly) of crime.

My maternal instincts lead me not to share the mob’s anger, but to fear for the fate of their lonely target. At a gut level, I feel that every criminal is in danger of being scapegoated, punished personally for a crime with collective dimensions, caught in a social web spun of passion and sticky prejudice, which sweep the rights of the unpopular away, rather than the even strands of measured judgment which would keep them intact. Where mob passions take charge, the punishment of individuals risks becoming like the persecution of Christ, with the difference that punishing an ordinary human being for the sins of a whole society (its failures to “look after its children”) brings no redemption. To use a more ancient metaphor, the concern is that without the safeguards provided by law (and love), crime and punishment operate on the ouroboric model of the serpent which endlessly devours its own tail, a single force, constantly feeding upon and regenerating itself, with no opportunity for justice or mercy to break the cycle.

Given its historical context, an obvious reading of Lang’s magnificently ambiguous film would be to take the marked man accused of child murder who is ignorant of his crimes, only learning of them in the popular press, as a figure of the Jew, while the portrayal of a society in which the underworld and the institutions of law and order are disturbingly difficult to distinguish would be a prescient portrait of Nazi Germany. But there are contemporary parallels that also spring to mind.

Lately, I have repeatedly come across references to the strange conspiracy theory of David Icke, who teaches that the human race, and the US administration in particular, has been infiltrated by shape-shifting reptilian aliens. It is a more extravagant, imaginative version of the idea that any powerful (or simply unpopular) person who shows signs of the ruthlessness that is encouraged by the system is a psychopath, a being that is constitutionally, and irreparably, different to the rest of the human species. It is worth noting that these theories make the same rhetorical moves that the Nazis used to brand the Jews as inhuman, and deserving of elimination. But the interesting aspect of the alien reptile theory is that it also evokes the sense of an ouroboric element alive in society, writhing beneath the surface of liberal institutions like the rule of law. Lang’s film points to the idea that the real reptile, its jaws closing on its own thrashing tail, is a social (or these days, social media) body – a mob moved by paranoid fear and generalized anger, which generates and feeds upon the dangerous attitudes it claims to expose and eliminate.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Was Prince Siddhartha gay? A (very) free app of the Buddha’s life story

Last week I went to the Apple Store in George St with the friend I mentioned in my last post (the one who thinks that Buddhism makes you want to kill yourself). She gave me the low-down on the cheapest way to get yourself an iPhone, and showed me some of the cool features of the iPad. We discussed the ethics of remaining loyal to Apple, or going over to a competitor who has “reverse-engineered” (ie ripped-off) the iPhone, but made its operating system open-source, so there can be free exchange of new applications.

In amongst all this, I mentioned my last blog-post about suicide and rebirth. My friend immediately reiterated her view that the teachings of the Buddha encourage a wholesale rejection of the life of the world. I mentioned the story of Prince Siddhartha abandoning his life in the palace and she leapt on the example, insisting that as a young prince, Siddhartha had everything the world could offer, and he rejected it. I questioned whether a prince’s life is really so ideal; has Prince Charles’ life been that easy? What about all the expectations laid upon someone in this position? My friend dismissed these doubts: Prince Siddhartha wasn’t Prince Charles; he was a prince in ancient India, endowed with every luxury, every pleasure that life can offer a young man. But he saw all this as suffering, and the religion he started encourages us to see it the same way. No i-phone for a true disciple of the Buddha.

I had to admit that I had become suspicious of my own desire to believe that Siddhartha might have left the palace, not out of a sense that all worldly pleasure is suffering, but simply out of an expansive desire to live more fully. When he rode away on his white horse, his wife had just given birth to a son. Surely the decision to abandon them, without even letting himself see his new-born child, must have been made in a state of anguish. The idea that he was just calmly choosing an open-source life over a more protected one based on family loyalty doesn’t seem plausible. So why did he leave his wife and son? This is an aspect of the Buddha’s life that has troubled many people.

In the middle of the Apple Store, I put forward a half-serious hypothesis: maybe Prince Siddhartha was gay. He felt that his life was a sham, that he was playing a role he couldn’t sustain, and the birth of a son made this painfully apparent. How could he be a father, a model for his child, when he was living a lie? He couldn’t enjoy the luxuries laid daily at his feet, or the even greater pleasures of fatherhood, because he felt he didn’t deserve them. Tormented by his own lack of integrity, he turned away from the people he most loved and went into voluntary exile. This was only the first step in his punishing treatment of himself. He then took up the most extreme possible ascetic practices, expressing his self-hatred in visceral form.

He went on like this until he had almost killed himself. His life would have ended in suicide if not for a simple act of kindness from a woman called Sujata. Finding him on the verge of starvation, she offered him some milk-rice, and he ate it. This was the second major turning-point in Siddhartha’s life-story, one that is too often overlooked, especially in Theravadan Buddhist circles: the turn back toward life, and self-acceptance. At last he began to take care of himself, and appreciate the good things that were offered to him. He saw that life is not just suffering and causes of suffering: there is also the ending of suffering, and the way to the ending of suffering. The noble truth is not two-fold, but four-fold. This is the insight that prevented Siddhartha from killing himself, allowed him to find the middle way that leads to enlightenment, and enabled him to found a spiritual community that would come to include his wife and son.

Of course, it’s possible to tell the story this way without supposing that Prince Siddhartha was gay – there could have been some other trigger for the crisis that led him to abandon his young family and walk away from the life of plenty he was born to. But to my mind, there is a certain restrained gay sensibility in the teachings of the Buddha. Maybe it’s just that his perspective comes from outside mainstream, heterosexual society, and that a lot of the teachings are concerned with men who spend most of their lives in the company of other men, and develop their deepest friendships in this context. There’s also a certain archly humourous take on the foibles of human nature, and the occasional outburst when the Buddha excoriates some poor monk who’s asked the wrong question by telling him and everyone listening what an idiot he is. When reading the suttas, there are times when I feel I could almost be reading Patrick White - which is a compliment to the great Australian novelist as well as a testament to how entertaining, as well as enlightening, the suttas can be.

Patrick White - looking startled at being compared to the Buddha

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Suicide and Rebirth

Ven. Robina Courtin
I recently had a troubling conversation about rebirth and suicide. I mentioned to a friend of mine that I’d seen Australian Tibetan Buddhist nun Robina Courtin on Judith Lucy’s tv show Spiritual Journey. The comedian told the nun that she was attracted by Buddhism and convinced by a lot of what it has to say, but just couldn’t get her head around rebirth. Venerable Courtin took this in her stride. “Darling, that’s fine. Just take what works for you right now, practice with that, and then see where it leads you.” This seemed like pretty good advice to me.

Judith Lucy
My friend, on the other hand, thought it was problematic. She said that if you accept the Buddha’s teachings, but reject rebirth, then there’d be no reason not to commit suicide. Why? Because the Buddha teaches that all worldly experience is suffering. If you take this seriously, you’ll gradually recognize that all your experiences, even the ones you used to value as pleasurable and desirable, are unsatisfactory. Anyone can tell that being in intense pain from an incurable disease is suffering. It takes a Buddhist to recognize that having to decide which of two delectable dishes to eat while surrounded by charming company in a beautiful restaurant is also suffering. Suicide would seem like a good way to get out of this pervasive web of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) if only it weren’t for the prospect of being reborn into an even worse situation.

This argument upset me. I was depressed by this vision of Buddhism as a religion that convinces people that life is suffering, to the point where even if their lives are full of abundance and opportunity, they’d prefer to be dead, if only they could be sure they wouldn’t get reborn. My own interpretation of Prince Siddharta’s rejection of life in the palace was that he left because he wanted more of life, not less. I like to think he wanted to experience the full gamut of what life had to offer, suffering and joy, and the deep peace and bliss that lies beyond these dichotomies. Far from wanting to kill himself over an exquisitely painful choice between two desserts, he was ready to give up such luxuries in order to live more fully.

But then I started to wonder, what does the Buddha have to say about suicide? I discovered a sutta in which a monk called Channa kills himself, and the Buddha endorses his action as blameless (MN 144).  Channa is gravely ill and is not getting well, even though he has suitable food and medicine and a proper attendant. His painful feelings resemble those described in other suttas as willfully cultivated by ascetics: “just as if a skilled butcher or his apprentice were to carve up an ox’s belly with a sharp butcher’s knife, so too, violent winds are carving up my belly…” He has lost his desire to live. Venerable monks (Sariputta and Maha Cunda) offer him assistance, tell him they want him to live and give him wise teachings, but none of the practical, emotional and spiritual support he receives relieves his pain, or changes his decision to “use the knife.” 

The commentary on this sutta focuses on the idea that Channa must be an arahant, a fully enlightened being, meaning that he will not be reborn – this is why suicide is blameless in his case: the doctrine of rebirth no longer applies to him. This argument follows the same logic employed by my friend: rebirth makes suicide stupid (and blameworthy), absence of rebirth makes it smart (and blameless). But in the sutta itself, Channa’s status as arahant is only indicated, somewhat obliquely, at the end of the text. First we hear about the dire state of his health and the fact that none of the many types of support he is given can relieve his pain. It is also shown that Channa is not clinging to his self-identity in any way: he sees clearly in regard to all sensations and thoughts, “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” Only after his death do we additionally learn that he was not one who “lays down this body and takes up a new body.”

There is no hint here that just any old (or new) kind of dukkha could have motivated Channa’s suicide, or that the extreme pain he experienced can be compared to the suffering occasioned by a frustrated desire to eat every dish on offer, or a nervous inability to appreciate the one you’ve chosen. The sutta makes it very clear that Channa’s pain was not self-inflicted, and nor could it be relieved despite the abundant attention and care of his fellow monks, and his own loving devotion to the Buddha and the way of practice. His decision to “use the knife” was not motivated by self-centred distress or despair; it was an act of kindness and last resort - less a rejection of life than a measured, peaceful acceptance of death as a counterpart to life. It seems to me that this was why his act was blameless, something that makes sense whether or not you believe in rebirth, or arahantship.