Schopenhauer and Spinoza, a brief comparison

I took a hard fall in a parking lot while running with the dogs last night. My elbows took much of the impact, but my upper abdomen still felt as though someone had driven his fist into it. I lay audibly gasping for air and wondering what to do. I remembered that Houdini had died from peritonitis after a blow to the stomach, and I wondered which of my organs might already be spurting blood.

After finally catching my breath, I stayed on my back in the drizzle inventorying my body parts. Bonnie sniffed me with concern, while Baxter barked at an approaching stranger. I expected the man to help, but he was drunk and probably accustomed to waking up flat on his own back in parking lots.

I reflected that, just moments before, I had said goodbye to my lodge brothers, and was hurrying home to watch a PBS program about terrorism in Europe. Now, I felt quite alone in an uncaring universe. Not that my dogs didn’t care, or not that most people wouldn’t care, but that the universe is unaware of itself as a whole or of the state of its parts. Schopenhauer defined the force that is the universe as blind yet driven. He called this drive will, and he believed that it propels the behavior of people in the same way that it propels trees, rocks, gravity, weather, and all other things. He argued that the real source of all movement lies behind the scenes, invisible and as soulless as the waves that batter a shoreline hour after hour, millennia after millennia. He considered existence pointless, life a mistake.

I agree with him until his conclusion. Whether life is good or bad is subjective; because a purposeless, insentient universe would be incapable of error. Spinoza said that all that is must be as it is, and he called all that is “god.” Worship, to him, meant embracing reality. Spinoza was expelled from his synagogue for atheism, although he was later referred to as “god-intoxicated” because he lived in continual awe and worship. This is where he differed, positively, I think, from religions in which worship offers a payoff to the worshipper.

Spinoza’s worship was as natural and unerring as leaves moving with the wind. He could have worshipped as fully while lying on his back in a parking lot as while listening to a symphony. His was a happier outlook than Schopenhauer’s, although their basic interpretation of the universe was similar. I think that Spinoza came as close to living a life of beauty as is possible. He could have risen high in academia, but chose to spend his life grinding lenses for the intellectual freedom it offered.

Mountain climbers versus couch potatoes

I broke my coffee carafe this week, and spent a couple of distraught days going over my options. I finally narrowed the field to two: buy a used one at Goodwill, or a new one at Bi-Mart. After more agonizing, I decided on the latter. I went to the store like a kid getting out of bed on Christmas morning, selected a Hamilton Beach five-cupper for $15.97, failed to find one in a box, asked the clerk where they were, and was told they were sold out.

Naturally, I fell to the floor tearing at my hair and clothes while screaming, “This is the worst day of my life! How could you do this to me?” I expected an outpouring of sympathy, but the teenage clerk walked backwards until she bumped into a display of Valentine’s candy, then stood board-rigid with her hands over her mouth. So much for customer service.

When I got to the check-out with my other items, the clerk there inquired cheerfully, “Did you find everything alright?” I’m never sure whether this means, “Was everything in good condition?” or, “Did you find what you wanted without having to look for it?” Neither applied to what I had suffered, and I was too shattered to speak anyway. I merely handed her my credit card. She too looked at me strangely. Her lips began to move, and she finally made me understand that I had given her my library card. I thought that, yes, it is indeed a strange world when a man needs a different card everyplace he goes.

I sometimes think I would be better off if I went through life devoid of clothes or luggage, but am stumped by the problem of whether to carry my various cards in my mouth or my butt crack. I couldn’t talk the first way, and couldn’t sit the second, making it necessary to shift them back and forth.

On my drive home, I reflected that I had never heard of anyone wrecking a car unless he was in a car, and I decided that I would be safer if I quit driving, in fact quit going out altogether because, even if I’m not in a car, someone who is in a car might run me over.

I then remembered that most accidents happen at home, so I also questioned my safety there. Since I could hardly afford to stay in motels all the time, this only left the option of a tent, but then I wondered if whatever I lived in wouldn’t be counted as home. With this in mind, I decided that I should probably stay in my present home, but not move around much and certainly not climb ladders. I could sit in my chair and read or watch TV. Then I thought about the importance of exercise, and was stumped.
I’ve been reading a book by Beck Weathers, a mountain climber who lost his nose, one hand and part of that arm, and four fingers off his other hand while climbing Mt. Everest. I don’t mean that he misplaced his body parts, but that they froze and later fell off except for the arm, which had to be amputated due to the fact that big body parts don’t drop off cleanly the way small ones do. The big ones get infected, and the infection keeps moving higher until it becomes systemic, and that’s pretty much the end of the road unless your doctor stumbles across the right antibiotic in time, and this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Beck Weathers was on one antibiotic or another for more than a year because even though he had his arm amputated, he kept getting infections.

Anyway, he said he was still glad he went to Everest, and that he would do it again even if he knew about all the body parts he would lose because, as he said, a risk free life isn’t worth living. I’ve read that a lot, but maybe this is because I read so many books by mountain climbers, and maybe my choice of books is influenced by the fact that mountain climbers have an easier time getting published than do people who spend their lives sitting in recliners. I have no idea why this is so, but I believe that my observation is accurate because I have never read a book about a man who did nothing but eat tuna sandwiches and watch soap operas.

I, for one, would prefer his life’s story to that of Beck Weathers because I like tuna sandwiches, whereas I’m not much on mountain climbing. Of course, tuna—especially albacore—contains high levels of mercury, so it’s better to switch over to sardines from time to time for health reasons, and to make life more exciting. The key to a good life seems to be getting some excitement but not too much.

Beck Weathers and I obviously differ on how much excitement is enough. I would never want to redo something that cost me even one part of my anatomy much less a sack full. My idea of a good time is to dig holes in the backyard just to see what’s down there. Unfortunately, Peggy is not supportive of my adventures just as Beck Weathers’ wife was not supportive of his, although I suspect that Peggy would change her tune if I were to mention climbing Everest as an alternative to digging holes in the yard. If she didn’t change her tune, I would assume she had a life insurance policy that I don’t know about, and that would bother me. I would wonder if all those accidents that happen in the home aren’t really murders committed by women with big insurance policies, women who knock their husbands’ ladders out from under them.

Still, I don’t know if I should play it safe by leaving Peggy because, if she hasn’t killed me yet, it’s probably a good sign that she won’t—or at least that she isn’t planning on it. Then there’s the possibility that I might need her to call 911 someday if I do fall off a ladder. I heard of a cat calling 911 by hitting speed dial, but I don’t know of any dogs having done so, dogs apparently preferring to carry notes in their mouths, the problem being that if I could get to pen and paper, I wouldn’t need a dog to deliver what I wrote. This makes the continuation of marriage an asset if not an actual necessity.

Dari-Mart goddess

I saw a clerk in Dari-Mart this week who I took for a goddess. Her image has plagued me ever since, but she is no more than twenty while I am 55 and married and would be at a loss what to do with her if I had her. Ah, but she was beautiful. I can but grieve that the years have gotten by me. Sometimes, I wish that I had been more adventurous, although I cannot say that I would have been better off. I am content enough on my good days—those being the ones on which I am enjoying my work and am not obsessed by some woman I saw in a store.

Women have ever been the bane of my existence. If all the moments I spent lusting after one woman or another was added together, they would amount to years of pain and frustration from which absolutely nothing good has come.

When I ponder the nature of woman, of how frail she is and of how soon she loses her beauty and returns to the same dust from which I arose, I see that the esteem in which I have held her is a function of hormones and psychology rather than something innate to her being, yet it has taken me decades to reach this awareness, and even now I can scarcely believe it. I might liken myself to a man in the desert who is drawn to a mirage. Although he recognizes it for what it is, his desperate thirst makes it almost irresistible. He can but remind himself again and again that to expend energy on it would be disastrous.

The importance of subtle observances

My body jerks when I sleep. Last night, my jerkiness entered a dream. In the dream, I was at Jackie’s house for dinner and was being introduced to a roomful of people. I had expected to meet one or two, but was startled to find fifteen, all of whom were young adults that I had no interest in. I thought it ridiculous to even be told their names, but social formalities required that introductions be made and that I respond with feigned interest, so I gritted my teeth and smiled. I also began to jerk. I knew that this would mark me as either having a seizure problem or a psychological one, either of which would throw sand into the delicate bearings of the social mechanism and embarrass my hostess. I resolved to stifle the jerks. My resolution awakened me, and I lay in bed jerking almost out of control.

After the worst ended, I lay thinking—as if for the first time—about how set our social rituals are, both in form and range. For example, one could absolutely wreck an introduction simply by standing a foot too close, because unaccustomed proximity implies aggression, sexual interest, or insanity. To one from another planet, such customs might appear so subtle as to be unimportant, but satisfactory social relations apparently hinge upon the proper observance of subtleties more than upon grosser behaviors. I know very well that I wouldn’t sniff a new person’s genitals, but eliminating lust, nervousness, or boredom from my voice, demeanor, and sweat glands, is a far greater challenge.

The necessity of believing that we deserve to exist

When I think of those in Indonesia who lost their families, their possessions, and been themselves injured, the question is not whether they can survive but why they would want to survive. I can understand those in the Nazi camps who threw themselves upon electric fences, but am pressed to understand those who made every effort to live as long as possible no matter how miserable their condition or grim their prospects.

Can either choice be rationally defended, or does it simply come down to individual differences? Certainly the survivor-types are better able to carry on the species, but can even this be rationally defended? That is, can a case be made that our perpetuation is preferable to our extinction? I don’t believe it can, but this does not deter us from trying; as a species, we have no choice in the matter.

Is all happiness but an escape from pain?

Peggy is skiing with friends. The Willamette Pass temperature was nine degrees when she left, that alone being sufficient to make me glad to stay home. Add to that the $35 lift ticket, and I am very, very glad to stay home. Next, add my aversion to noisy ski lodges, my near phobia of snow, and my unwillingness to risk life and limb sliding down steep hills on slick planks, and I am practically apoplectic. It would appear that happiness can arise from what doesn’t occur as well as from what does.

Schopenhauer argued that all happiness is but a respite from pain. Eating sweets, having sex, and everything else we do in our pursuit of happiness aims to satisfy a hunger, therefore it isn’t sex or chocolate that makes us happy but rather the cessation of our craving.

I think his argument is well evidenced in addictive behavior. Drunkards don’t talk about how much they enjoy getting smashed but of how much they need a drink. Their enjoyment, such as it is, is like that of one who rubs himself to scratch an itch. I know of nothing more satisfying than a good long pee when I am desperate, but the degree of my satisfaction is directly related to the intensity of my need; and I consider it likely that all human behavior is so predicated. If it is, good would seem to lie in reducing our needs rather than in fulfilling them.