Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 8—Hard Fate and Black Bile, Section 1.

APP Editors’ Prefatory Note:

In “Philosophy Unbound,” we resolved to publish original works of real philosophy freed from the constraints of professional academic philosophy, come hell or high water.

Our first project flowing from that philosophy unbound resolution is the five-part, four-book series, The Rational Human Condition, which, starting on 3 July 2017, is being published by us here and on Medium, section-by-section, in weekly installments appearing on successive Mondays. The first installment of that is here.

The second project flowing from that same resolution is Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, which, starting on 28 July 2017, is hereby being published by us on APP and on Medium, in fourteen weekly installments appearing on successive Fridays.

Its author is Mark Anderson, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.

In both cases of The Rational Human Condition and Thinking Life, we’ve updated the 19th century mode of serializing novels and other literary works in hard copy, to works of real philosophy and the free-access internet.

Thinking Life will be of authentic, serious interest to all those who believe that real philosophy in general, and more specifically Plato and Nietzsche, are still worth thinking about, and simultaneously to all those who are either overtly or secretly APP.

After we’ve published all of Thinking Life, it will be deleted and later appear in paperback.


THINKING LIFE: A PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION

BY MARK ANDERSON

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Editor’s Introduction                                                                                      

1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions

Section 1

Section 2

2. We Scholars                         

Section 1

Section 2

3. Divine Madness                          

Section 1

Section 2

4. Hard Fate and Black Bile

Section 1

Section 2

5. The Wanderer and His Shadow

6. The Art of Philosophy

Epilogue

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The Next Installment

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CHAPTER 4.  HARD FATE AND BLACK BILE

SECTION 1

This world is such a dastardly place, and life so damnably hard, that perhaps we should grant to everyone the liberty to live as they see fit.

So one thinks from time to time, and a noble thought it is too. The imagination of those who cannot entertain the possibility is no doubt impoverished. Yet noble as it is, this idea runs up against the insight that some ways of life lead almost inevitably to ruin, even from the point of view of the man who lives as he sees fit. From this then comes the impulse to evaluate, judge, advise, implore, and prescribe—to children, for example. And from this in turn spring laws pertaining even to adults, if only to prevent them harming the young through their pernicious example. In this way liberty and law are tangled up in endless cycles of conflict, and there is no final resolution. And here we have an instance of life’s being hard, which brings us back to our original thought…

I wrote the above in my notebook aboard a train on the day I departed the Val di Sogno, earlier than I’d intended, summoned to the hospital in which my father lay dying.

I had not seen my father in many years, and I’m not sure I knew for certain where he was. But three weeks into my stay in the mountains I received a letter which prompted me to curtail my visit to tend to him. I would have to take the cure another time, and my friend and I would have to postpone our conversations. The latter fact distressed me far more than the former. Regarding my father’s plight, I don’t know quite how I felt. I suppose I was ambivalent. He had brought his ill health on himself, yet had he been born into a world more suited to his nature, he may well have flourished.

My father’s father farmed the lowlands between the Greisler and the Little Nettle which has no name but which the locals refer to as the “Moss-Pines.” The twenty hectares of land had been in the family since the middle of the eighteenth century, and its fertile and abundant soil sustained generations of my ancestors. Of course they suffered the occasional season of hardship from drought or heavy rains, but they always recovered in time. Yet this cycle of good fortune came to an end with the so-called “Century Floods” of the late-70s, two years of rainstorms relieved by only irregular breaks during the summer months. The inundation finally obliterated the family’s ancient patrimony. In the autumn of ’78 the peril was such that my grandfather abandoned the land altogether, and when he concluded the following summer that the waters would never recede, that in fact the rivers’ banks and courses had been permanently distorted, he migrated to the city.

My father was still a boy at the time; he must have been seven or eight years old. Having been reared as a simple child of nature, he was uprooted and grafted onto the city. No, not grafted—a metaphor drawn from the natural world—but rather affixed, as if welded, or nailed, artifact to artifact. From the plow to the Pullman; from meandering paths to gridded avenues; from stars to gas-lamps, flowers to fashion, free play to the burden of alienating labor. I’m sure the relocation and consequent existential reorientation traumatized him. How could it not have done? Besides, one of my great-aunts once told me as much.

My father was born to live outdoors. God had intended him for a farmer. Yet evidently the deity had also willed that his farmland should be destroyed, flooded and lost forever. So, well, I don’t know what to make of that. Perhaps the divine is nothing like we have been taught to believe. Perhaps there is no God. In any case, my father was brought to the city, and there he suffered profoundly. He strayed through his days as if he’d been displaced and was pining for his natural home. As a child he regularly tramped the mile to the city limits and roamed the meadows and woods beyond, picking flowers and climbing trees, wading through streams and swimming in ponds, singing along with the birds, napping in the grass beneath nomadic clouds. I’m told there were occasions when my grandfather had to go out at night to find him and bring him home. It was as if he were tracking an animal returned to the wild when the poachers who’d captured the beast finally admitted it could not be tamed. But my father was no wild animal, however much he might have longed to live as one. He was human, and the human animal, alas, is easily broken.

My father was naturally gifted working with his hands, and in the summer of his tenth year my grandfather enrolled him as apprentice to a master smith the family had known for years. As an intimate friend the man was likely the only master in the region willing to abide the boy’s frequent absences and absent-mindedness. He trained him whenever he turned up and let him be when he didn’t. He had other young apprentices to perform the necessary chores, and he reasoned that my father would be no use when lost in one of his “nature moods.”

As sporadic as were his efforts to learn his craft, my father was blessed with the intuitive spirit that guided him almost instinctively through a recapitulation of the stages magician, alchemist, metallurgist, apprentice, and master of the smithy. His combination of natural talent and acquired skills carried him far beyond his peers. The fact was evident even from his youth. Over the years he produced all manner of articles, from simple nails and hand-tools to such larger and more intricate works as the gears for water-wheels and various components of the movements of tower-clocks. His every piece was a work, not merely of craft, but of art. Observing the best of his productions one caught a glimpse of the abysmal difference between the absurdly homonymous “ingenuity” and “genius.” A miniature pulley-and-gear mechanism, which he cast from iron and coated in brass, a masterful execution, was for years displayed under glass in the city-hall of a nearby town. When the object disappeared, a rumor went round that a visiting collector had absconded with it under his cloak. Who knows whether this is true, but I would not be surprised to learn that the rumor was grounded on fact.

Everyone in our region who had need of a smith thought first of my father. As skilled as he was, and as in demand, his services were easily affordable. In fact, often when his work intrigued or delighted him he refused payment altogether. However persistently his customers pressed him, he declined with a smile or sneaked off the moment they left him unattended. Usually he insisted that conversation during his breaks was sufficient compensation, for the man loved to talk, which to him at times was a mode of musing and dreaming aloud. He had in him the soul of a poet. This no doubt contributed to the artistry that infused his craft, and it manifested also in the rolling flow of his speech. When inspired he spoke as if nature herself were disclosing her private meditations through the rhythm of his words.

All this is to say that my father was something of a late-born Romantic. Unfortunately, although his poetic sensibility made him an object of admiration, a wonder to the farmers, laborers, and clerks among whom he moved, his eccentricities contributed to an irregular and unstable existence. I have just mentioned his often refusing payment for his labor. Worse than this, however, was the fact that he worked only intermittently, only when the spirit moved him. Much of his time he spent, as he had done in his youth, roaming through the open spaces between the hamlets, villages, and towns of our region. When the weather was warm and dry, he often slept outdoors and bathed in natural springs or streams. In winter he sometimes returned home to stay in his father’s house, which the old man left to his sisters—my father’s aunts—when it became clear his son had no intention of settling into the routine required to maintain it. Some winters, however, he didn’t turn up at all, and to this day I have no idea where he stayed. I suspect my mother didn’t either, for they fell out not long before I started to school, and even when I spent time with him, she had little use for the man.

As a child I mostly accompanied my father on his nature walks. We crisscrossed the meadowlands together, explored the local forests and hiked up into the mountains, my father all the while commenting on the flora, the trees and wildflowers in particular, noting their seasonal alterations and their complex interconnections, one species to the other, to the insects and animals that shared their habitat, and to the broader ecosystem of our region, our state, our continent. He interrupted his discourses only to break into exuberant song or, alternatively, to curse the encroachments of the steadily expanding townships.

When I was older, though I saw my father less often, I learned of his one reconciliation to urban life: the tavern. In his company I came to appreciate the pleasures of drink. In doing so I realized the other cause of his wayward life, and of my mother’s disappointment in him—not to say her animosity.

It would be unfair to call my father a drunkard, but he did enjoy lounging in his cups. I believe the distracted light-headedness elevated him above the melancholy he experienced from the impracticability of a productive natural life. As I have said, he was born to work a farm, to cultivate the land; but he was cast into a world in which the spread of homogenous fabrications was incrementally displacing nature’s idiosyncratic art. He drank to forget the brutishness, or at least temporarily to reconcile himself to it.

My father was not an angry drinker; he harbored no latent bitterness. To the contrary, the alcohol often enkindled his finer poetic sensibilities. His melancholy touched, and thereby lightened, by the intoxicating flame, his heart quickened and tongue loosened, the whole of his being suffused with an aesthetic rush—the result was a flow of mellifluous sentiment which regularly rapt the attention of our bar-mates. Then my father could move a crowd to tears of merriment or sorrow, or both in alternating waves, and those who happened to be also acquainted with the artistry of his handiwork looked on him on those occasions with astonished admiration, tinged with sympathy, as if he were a force of nature subdued by the might of man while nonetheless retaining a sad magnificence.

I recall one evening after such a performance. The both of us were more or less impaired, to put the matter delicately. Moreover, the hour was late and we were a good long walk from my mother’s house, in a neighboring village in fact. We sang as we exited the tavern, my father descending from the heights of his earlier jocularity, I attempting to distract myself from our predicament:

The yellow daisy, so like the sun,

She makes of our meadow a sky.

Oh, why must you fade as the seasons run,

In flight from the moon’s pale eye?

My father had improvised the melody and lyrics when I was a boy. We sang the song whenever we walked together outdoors, warm in the morning sun, dewy hills lambent on the horizon, waist-high stalks of chicory blooming beside the river bank in wide lavender bands.

But to return to my reminiscence: with our walking-song resonating we made our way through a maze of alleys and lanes, my father directing our steps until we drew up before a door upon which he knocked in a distinctive rhythmic pattern. Soon a woman appeared, and seeing my father she smiled as if she’d expected him. Then she let us in. As I stumbled over the threshold the woman took me around the shoulders and set me in a chair beside a diminishing fire, then embracing my father’s waist and whispering in his ear, she led him into an adjacent room. I must have fallen asleep there and then, for I awoke in the morning to my father shaking me gently by the arm. He asked me to bury the embers in the hearth with ash, and to be quiet about it, then he slipped out the front door. When he returned he carried a bundle of hand-picked wildflowers which he arranged in a vase and placed on a table by the door. The pungency of their sweet aroma struck me as we left, stepping lightly, moving in silence, my father’s finger to his lips. To this day the unprompted recurrence of this scent returns me to that moment, quiet in the morning haze, the muffling mystery of secret passions and plans. Walking through the awakening fields toward my mother’s house, the pale red sun rising at our backs, we sang and spoke of many things, but my father made no mention of the woman in whose home we’d passed the night.

This was the last such adventure I recall experiencing with my father. I rarely saw him after leaving home to attend university. Busy as I was with my studies, I did not often return to town; and he receded further into a solitary life. It may be that he drank more often, and more excessively. I caught sight of him once through the window of a train returning home for holiday. He sat in a meadow with his back to a tree, napping, or day-dreaming, or lost in hazy recollections of his youth, a half-eaten apple in the grass beside him. He appeared unwell, disheveled, unshaven and thin. I sallied out to look for him several times over the course of the week, but to no avail. I believe that glimpse from the train was the last time I laid eyes on him until I visited him in the hospital.

My father was not especially old, but he had lived a hard life, and his body showed the signs. He was conscious when I arrived to see him, but I could not tell whether he recognized me. He could barely speak, and when he tried to vocalize, his words were slurred beyond all understanding. So sitting down beside him I leaned in close and spoke directly into his ear, told him who I was and that I loved him, that he had been brought to hospital but that I was with him and would stay until he recovered. He seemed to try to smile and he squeezed my hand, a sign of recognition and comprehension, as I wanted to believe. I sat with him throughout the afternoon, alternately consulting with his doctor and reminding him of my presence. I spoke at length of our walking tours, described his favorite landscapes. Before I left I assured him once again that I, his son, was with him, and that I loved him, and that although I had to go I would return early the next day.

On my way to the hospital the following morning it occurred to me to sing to my father the verses I could remember of our walking-song. I was sure the melody would spark his memory and bring him much-needed cheer, maybe even hasten his recovery. I hummed the tune as I walked, summoning the lyrics from the depths of their subconscious deposits. Anticipating my father’s reaction, I smiled at the thought of his taking my hand and trying to sing along, or at least mouthing the words. When I arrived, however, the nurse in charge of the ward informed me that my father had died not long after I left him the previous afternoon. They had wanted to contact me, she said, but no one knew how to reach me. She assured me that he passed peacefully, in his sleep. It was as if he had waited to see me one last time, and, having done so, could finally take flight from a world that had provoked in him such oppositions of gaiety and gloom.

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The Next Installment

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