Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Clash of Symbols

Published as "With Unthinkable Now Fact, Focus Turns to the Living,” New Haven Register, September 8, 2002

When the dust settled, I realized I had traveled back in time. The skyline was the one I had grown up with as a boy in Brooklyn Heights, walking along the Promenade and looking across the East River at downtown Manhattan. The two great bridges -- the Brooklyn and the Manhattan -- framed the right side of the scene. To the left in the distance: the Statue of Liberty. And straight ahead -- no twin towers.

One year ago. Do you remember how strange it was? For days no airplanes crossed the sky. We all took note of such things. But there was much about this event that was not spoken, even though we sensed it.

For one: the powerful Biblical resonance. Often to my mind came an image of the Tower of Babel -- its hubristic aspiration, then its destruction, when humanity was forever split asunder. “World Trade Center” -- the very name recalls that ancient dream. Was this not an event of mythic proportions? Will its memory not become legend? Will it not serve as an eternal symbol? -- although only future history will decide a symbol of what.

But will there any longer be a single history? Maybe it is just another myth that there has ever been a single history. (Could this be what the Tower of Babel story is really about?) For our culture this will be forever a symbol of infamy -- like Pearl Harbor ... and Hiroshima to a Japanese? (And now we too have our Nagasaki.)

To another culture (or cult?) it will be a clear proof that "God was on their side." This act -- brazen beyond description, so intricate, of such magnitude, and crowned by a "success" surpassing even the wildest dreams of its planners and executioners: toppling the entire towers ... and both of them! It could only be an outrageous fiction ... but it happened; hence, it must be by God's hand ... it must contain a divine message. Or so another culture could imagine it.

I think also: David and Goliath.

And if this had been Star Wars, would we not have been rooting for the small band of men who were up against the mightiest power known in the galaxy, with nothing to rely on but their will and their wits (and a lot of luck ... or was the Force with them)?

The images are so confusing, for they do not jibe with the murderous intent of the perpetrators. These were the bad guys!

But the great acts by "our side" will stir us until our own dying days -- concrete acts of heroism, even though we must rely mainly on imagination to fill in the details.

What would you have done? The South Tower has collapsed. The North Tower is ablaze, with thousands of people trapped inside. You are a fire fighter or a police officer just arrived on the scene. It is your job to try to put out the fire and lead as many people to safety as possible. You can't use the elevators, and most of the damage begins above the 80th floor. You have no idea what is going to happen or how long you have. Would it be foolhardy to enter the building? You wish you could calculate the odds, but the odds are incalculable, because the situation is unprecedented.

You are on Flight 93, which has been hijacked. You have heard via cell phone about your likely fate, unless you act. It is your initiative, and your body that must make the difference. You have nothing to lose, but there is still the wall of fear and pain to clamber over.

The firefighters performed their selfless duty. The airline passengers fought for their lives (and the symbolism of our nation's capitol). It is instructive that these very different sorts of actions were equally heroic.

President Bush's reaction upon first learning the news of the attacks was anger. "I was furious," he said. I was completely surprised by his reaction. (Would that surprise him?) What I felt when watching the scene were horror, disbelief, and sorrow. Since then I have had an overwhelming desire to enter into dialogue. He has gone to war. Is that what it takes to be a leader? I think there is a place for both approaches.

I am supremely proud to live in a country whose liberality has permitted an increase in favorable opinion about Islam in the last year (and where I can write this essay without fear). The President has led this "charge" too.

Yet, it is so strange to be hearing open talk by our government, and by its sympathizers (and proxies?) in the press, of attacking another country -- Iraq -- which has not even been implicated in the events of September 11. "Pre-emptive war" is an infinitely useful concept. I have before me a photograph in a Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria ("Invade Iraq, But Bring Friends," August 5, 2002), captioned "Iraqi training: Ripping raw chickens apart." I recall the propaganda posters that illustrated the chapter about jingoism and yellow journalism in my grade school social studies textbook.

We now have the perfect enemy. He is everywhere. Total and universal and perpetual war seems justified. There is no longer a square inch of this planet that shall be permitted to remain free of governmental control; for any desert, jungle, mountain pass, cave, or slum that is unsecured is a potential haven for terrorists.

So this is what it is like to live in history. I grew up with December 7, but it was mainly celluloid to me. Now we have been sneak-attacked on an island in the Atlantic, as before we had been in the Pacific. But this is live!

But it is still celluloid. How many times have we seen the skyscrapers of New York City obliterated? ... by alien saucers, volcanoes, floods, radioactive monsters, asteroids, even existentialist outlaws (in "Fight Club"). Will somebody create a trailer of all of these episodes, concluding with 9-11?

Had any of the hijackers ever even heard of the movie "The Towering Inferno"? It starred "Connecticut's own" Paul Newman. That flick more than any other captures for me what it must have been like to be in the twin towers on their last day.

And it was pure science fiction cinema to see people fleeing towards the camera down the middle of a city street in lower Manhattan, the buildings forming a perspectival V on either side of the frame, while a billowing debris cloud barreled down on them.

Yet the events of that day have made us aware of our actual vulnerability. I don't mean to terrorists only, but to incoming comets or whatever. Science fiction can become historical fact. A single space rock could wipe out all of humanity forever, at any moment. So will we act in time to "pre-empt" that scenario too?

And there are many other urgent realities, which, while not Armageddon, do not deserve to be ignored either. 3000 perished in one location on September 11, 2001, but 40,000 died that same year on the nation's roads. Is there a war on hazardous driving? How about hiring as many additional highway patrol officers as FBI agents and Special Forces personnel and airport screeners?

And how many millions are victims of natural and human catastrophes in other parts of the globe, which often "merit" only a filler in the local newspaper?

But, then, how much greater still would have been the devastation we ourselves were prepared to inflict with a single "Go" signal from the President to our nuclear forces worldwide (indeed, from even a single submarine built in Groton)?

We have lived with all of that. Do we refuse to live with this? Heretofore people seem not to have hesitated to reside in or visit San Francisco. Now we understand that New York City and Washington, D.C., lie in a fault zone as well.

And how quickly we forgot that, just six months before our modern double-Wonder of the World was leveled, the Taliban had demolished a 2000-year-old double-Wonder, the two giant Buddhas at Bamiyan. In fact, only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is extant. Why? Because the standard operating procedure of all "civilizations" has been to destroy one's enemy's most impressive structures (and put his citizens to the sword). Tourists must in the main remain content to view ruins and monuments and to use their imagination.

So what makes this day different from all other days? Perhaps less than we might have supposed. Our country has been dealt a heavy blow, both in lives and in symbolism. But let us hope that our leaders, while doing what they must, can see beyond the celluloid and the symbols and focus on the living. We are a nation that has been to the moon and back; we do not lack for symbols of our own.

The author wishes to acknowledge valuable suggestions by Nora Porter.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Geography of Philosophy

Copyright © 2006 by Joel Marks

The following essay was originally published in two installments in Philosophy Now magazine, issue nos. 41 (“The Geography of Philosophy,” August/September 2004, p. 41) and 42 (“The History of the World, Part 2,” October/November 2004, p. 38).

The typical philosophy curriculum in my country completely ignores non-Western traditions of thought. Apparently the latter are viewed as primarily religious in nature and so not properly philosophical, when in fact the very distinction has little significance in those other traditions. Or perhaps they are simply not considered at all; after all, if the teachers themselves were never exposed to such material in graduate school, they are not likely to incorporate it into the syllabi they devise for their students.

I am fortunate to have had a graduate advisor, Joel Kupperman, who was very much "into" Asian philosophy, and so I came to know a thing or two about it. Ever since, I have made it my business to acquaint my charges, who are mainly at the introductory level, with a true introduction to philosophy -- by not ignoring two thirds of the world's great traditions! For just as "The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality) and so traces back to ancient Greece, there are two other towering traditions that trace back to ancient India and China.

This is the geography of philosophy, if you will. I do not doubt that there have also been native traditions worthy of note in Africa, the Americas, and Australia, but the scope of my own competence is "only" the Eurasian continent (and there too it is perforce spotty, given the enormous extant literatures). It is also a tragic fact of history that those other traditions were suppressed and perhaps decimated by colonialism.

In an attempt to restore some balance to the very conception of philosophy, therefore, I will summarize Western philosophy in twenty-five words or less (as it were), and then provide a longer, but still whirlwind tour of Asian thought. I will also present a number of nonphilosophical factoids to keep the narrative moving along pleasantly. The reader is advised, however, to take everything I say with a grain of salt: This is the World According to Marks. My main intent is to motivate you to explore the philosophy (and history) on your own; it turns out to be quite accessible. Finally I will end on a meet note, in an effort to have the "twain" of East and West meet.

The History of the World, Part 1

East and West have always "met," of course: They are on the same continent, are they not? The very terms are relative. I ask my students (in America): Which direction would you travel to reach the Orient? The correct answer is to stretch out your arms to the sides and point in opposite directions. So why did Asia get pinned with "East" and Europe "West"? (Let us ignore that most of Europe resides in the Eastern Hemisphere!) I presume it had to do with the prevailing trade routes: To get from Europe to Asia, Marco Polo had to go east, and to return home, west. This is also why Asia is the Orient, as oriri is a Latin word meaning "to rise" (old Sol, etc.). (My students are surprised to learn that most of them are Occidentals [from occidere, "to set"].)

The same was true of travel by sea: Vasco da Gama went south around the Cape of Good Hope, but was heading eastward to India. Of course Columbus had another idea: Why not go west to reach the East? He was wrong: Oh yes, the Earth is round -- never any doubt about that -- but it is ever so much larger (or Eurasia ever so much smaller?) than he suspected. To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached India. That is why American cowboys and cavalry were fighting Indians all those years. (We Americans refer to citizens of India as "India Indians.") Columbus had accidentally “discovered” the Occident.

Now for the history of Western philosophy: Ancient, Middle, Modern. Let me amplify! The Ancient period lasted roughly a millennium, from around 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.; Greece and the Mediterranean were the venue. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle constituted its most impressive dynasty, perhaps in all of philosophy, but those who came before and after were hardly mere "preSocratics" and Platonic "footnotes,” respectively! Parmenides, from the pre period, is a particular favorite of mine.

The next millennium is often skipped entirely in introductory philosophy courses, as, again, indecently consorting with religion. Indeed, it used to be called for this reason the "Dark Ages." Probably that was just a lot of (so-called) Renaissance propaganda, trying to stake out its own novelty and superiority to what had transpired just previously. In fact you will find every kind of philosophy during this period, and outstanding thinkers, such as Augustine and Aquinas. Nowadays the era is designated the "Middle Ages" -- a more honorific, if not exactly brilliant appellation -- based on its having existed between now and before!

Finally, we come to the Modern period. It may seem odd to call something five hundred years old "modern," but everything is relative; and there is something to be said for the idea that our way of looking at things today is largely due to preconceptions first conceived by folks such as Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Kant (not to mention Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc. ad inf.). Some people think we have now stepped into a new epoch: the Postmodern. I myself think it's too soon to tell whether the most recent period of philosophy will have lasted only half the millennium of each of the two preceding.

Running parallel to this Western philosophical tradition has been the Western, or Abrahamic (Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed) religious tradition. What's the difference? In keeping with my thumbnail sketch, I will simplistically pronounce that philosophy and religion deal with the same questions -- Where did everything come from? What is the nature of reality? How shall one live? -- but approach them differently: Each religion provides an answer that must be believed, on pain of being deemed irreligious, while each philosophy provides an answer that must be questioned, on pain of being deemed unphilosophical.

So much for the preliminaries. The discussion of Asian philosophies is taken up in earnest in the next section below.

The History of the World, Part 2

An Asian philosopher once explained the layout of Oriental philosophy to me quite succinctly: Chinese philosophy is Far Eastern, Indian is South Asian, and Islamic is Near Eastern. I shall try to expand on that at slightly greater length below, which carries on the project I introduced above of, you might say, orienting Occidentals to Asian traditions of thought that rival our own in pedigree and scope. (I have, however, relegated Islam to the "Western" tradition due to its Abrahamic lineage.) Although not all Westerners are as geographically challenged as one of my college students who asked, "Where's Asia?" -- many Americans, at least, do show amazingly little recognition of the great philosophical traditions of the rest of the world. I'll offer a few tidbits herein that will, I hope, whet the appetite.

Let us begin with Mother India. As far back as Abraham in the "West" (Near East? Middle East?), the rishis meditated in the forests. Their communions with ultimate reality were eventually written down as the Upanishads, the ne plus ultra of the world's metaphysical philosophies. A very accessible translation into English was rendered by Christopher Isherwood and his Hollywood guru, Swami Prabhavananda. (Isherwood was also the author of Berlin Stories, on which the musical Cabaret was based.) The book is short, as are most of the editions of Asian texts I will recommend for the novice; and all of them, in one version or another, can be found in any half-decent bookstore and on the Internet. Thus, a person can establish his or her first familiarity with the essential Eastern corpus in a few evenings or in a weekend.

The tradition of India is also known as Hinduism (both names from the same root, referring to the Indus river valley where this civilization began). Midway in its history was born a prince, Siddhartha Gautama. The story of how he became the Enlightened One -- the Buddha -- is one of the world's treasures. (A depiction is contained within Bertolucci's charming 1993 film, Little Buddha.) His function as a reformer and then a founder is reminiscent of Jesus, whose anointment as the Christ would come half a millennium later. Both were princes of peace. However, the Buddha is not God, or a god, or a prophet of God, or an oracle of a god. He is, perhaps, a psychologist! I recommend Irving Babbitt's translation of the Dhammapada.

In India, Hinduism eventually embraced Buddhism (as it does all things), and the result was the Bhagavad Gita. Considered a kind of Hindu Bible, it is, again, quite short, and the Isherwood and Prabhavananda version is fine. The text is actually an excerpt from the Mahabharata, the world's longest epic poem, full of gods and heroes and great battles. Interestingly, its philosophical nugget, the Gita, was an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi's epochal campaign of nonviolent action, by which he accomplished what George Washington had required the spilling of blood to do. Gandhi's deeds and thoughts in turn inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement in the U.S., and both Gandhi's and King's successes were models for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, whose achievements eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

Returning to ancient times: China gave rise to two great schools of thought, Taoism (or “Dowism”) and Confucianism. Their seminal (and short!) works -- the Tao Te Ching (also called the Lao Tzu, after its purported author, a near contemporary of Confucius or “K'ung-Fu-Tzu,” who was himself a contemporary of the Buddha) and the Confucian Analects -- are a study in contrast: the one mystical and paradoxical, the other straightforward and conventional. Both pay heed to the still earlier tradition of yin/yang: the harmony of opposites. These two "opposites" (Taoism and Confucianism) themselves harmonized (this being an Asian trait, it seems, as witness also Hinduism and Buddhism, and contrasting to the bloody relations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their relations with the others), although Confucianism became the titular creed of the Chinese civil service for over two millennia, until Mao.

Meanwhile, Buddhism had spread eastward out of India. This fact became very belatedly known to Americans of my generation when we saw images on television of Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam immolating themselves to protest repression. This made a lasting impression of the power of meditative self-control (or selfless nonattachment, as the case may be).

A very different face is presented by the Ch'an philosophy of China, which resulted from the blending of Buddhism with the indigenous Taoism of such carefree sages as Chuang Tzu. Thus, Ch'an is a kind of culmination of the two great traditions of India and China. Ch'an continued the eastward migration of Buddhism, to Japan, where it became Zen -- as distinctive and delightful a philosophy as the world has known. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a nonpareil collection of stories and wisdom, compiled by Paul Reps.

But the eastward journey of Buddhism was still not over: In a kind of reverse-Columbus, it struck out towards the rising sun to reach the West (perhaps abetted by the American occupation of Japan after World War II). For in the 1950s on the shores of America there appeared the Beat Generation, whose main figures, such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, were heavily influenced by Zen. Kerouac's novel about "dharma bums" -- On the Road -- also became the defining metaphor of the hippies of the following decade, eponymously known (with affection by some) as the Sixties.

To conclude this wild road trip of my own, I note that the beat-niks were Buddhists and the Beat-les were Hindus (courtesy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). Thus, from island nations on either side of Eurasia, Asian philosophies migrated to the U.S., where they helped to create the current generation of my students, who have never heard of any of this stuff (except the Beatles).