Monday, October 24, 2011

an examined life

At his trial for corrupting youth and atheism, Socrates famously said “that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living [...]” I recall learning about this as a kid, but most of the focus was and is on that last fragment taken out of context – that you should know yourself. And I have kind of taken this on faith. That being a critic of your place in the world is important. That thinking critically about yourself is a value unto itself. And while I am not sure that I am ready to cast this away, to eschew the self-referential philosophical gaze, I am wondering about it a bit.

My roommate and I were chatting the other afternoon and he asked me if I had ever thought of just writing a traditional memoir, a non-fiction account of my life or some part of my life. And I said, isn't that what I am doing? And he said, bluntly, “no.” I was perplexed. He went on to explain that I speak very vaguely and generally about the events in my life, always in the context of some idea or another. And he went on to say that this was a way to remove myself from the narrative. To keep the pathology or trauma or love or whatever from really appearing. In other words he was saying that I was using philosophy to obscure the realities of my life. And I must admit that there is something to this.

I try and write honestly. I try and and be direct. But it seems true that overlaying a theoretical concern on living and remembering gives you a sense of distance. When I write about, say, a break up, I think it's not really about a break up, instead I am writing about gods and mortality or whatever else. And as much as I insist upon the specificity of individual experiences in the world, writing generally about my own is kind of nonsensical. The particulars of my reality are left out, and thus the authenticities of it are left out as well. The other thing that occurs to me is that telling these sorts of stories is also an attempt at mastery over the feminine in myself, over the spaces in my consciousness that resist rationalization.

It could be that this Socratic fragment is just plain wrong. That I have been wrong in not examining the push to self reflection. What is beautiful in daily life might never need to be reconsidered. And those spaces that resit all attempts at rationalization might be best understood irrationally. More likely though, these are false dichotomies. Thinking is also living. It is not possible to (successfully) suppress the irrational.  And significantly, examining life, uncovering it's richness and complexity, makes life messier, contradictory,  more rich and complex. Indeed I love my life most when it is filled with critical stories and tensions alongside of fantastical mythologies shared only between a lover or a friend. I guess I want to know that I am tilting at windmills, even though I have no intention or capability of stopping.

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