The Conduct of Life

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“Kant’s philosophy represented an uncompromising philosophical criticism; and Spinoza’s philosophy stood for a radical scientific naturalism. But their philosophies also illustrated the dangerous consequences of rational enquiry and criticism. The consequence of Kant’s philosophy, if it were to drop its inconsistent postulate of the thing-in-itself, was solipsism; and the consequence of Spinoza’s philosophy, if it were to delete its superfluous religious language, was atheism and fatalism. Thus the two philosophies foremost in the public mind seemed to be destructive of morality, religion, and the state. But this naturally raised a very disturbing question in many minds: why should we listen to our reason if it undermines those beliefs necessary for the conduct of life?” (Frederick C. Beiser)

Assumption that morality, religion, and the state are necessary for life. No, life is more adaptable than that. After the apocalypse, humanity will live a roach-like existence until it finds new forms, new channels to pour its timeworn flesh into.

What if Kant’s mysterious “thing-in-itself” was just life, pure life, all along? A cipher, a place-holder, something to be filled in. Kant demonstrated the limits of reason, he said, in order to leave room for faith. What if this is the role of faith? To wrap a concept around your “thing-in-itself” and so create for yourself your very own form of life? Eight billion lives means eight billion forms of life, each with its own unique concept.

Henry Miller wrote that any form of life, even the life of a bed bug, is preferable to no life at all. A bed bug knows how to keep itself busy at least. The thing is to make sure you’re either working or creating. Despair and idleness are a kind of living death.

It’s not even that difficult. I’m not talking about getting a job or creating a masterpiece. There are as many ways to work and create as there are forms of life – which is to say, an infinite amount. There’s no need to “find yourself” to work out what you should be doing, because here you are already. If you go looking outside yourself for yourself, what you will bring back won’t be yourself at all, but some kind of strange fantasy. (By all means go looking. Only not looking for yourself but for the strange fantasy.)

The biggest mistake the critics of reason were making, in their rush to defend their way of life, was to think of life as something you conduct. No, life is lived, first and foremost. It’s whatever is left over, whatever would otherwise just get in the way, that you must conduct, this way and that, to make a space for yourself.

(I’ve been reading Frederick C. Besier’s The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte.)

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Why are giants so cruel? Because they are made of ice and poison.

Before the earth was created there was Niflheim, a dark and cold place from which poisonous rivers flowed and which had existed forever.

Far to the south was Muspellsheim, a land of light and fire.

The cold rivers of Niflheim flowed slowly from their source, their noxious waters gradually hardening into frost as they entered a region even colder. This place of ice became known as “Ginnunga Gap” or “The Greatest of Voids”. It is difficult for the human mind to imagine a place emptier. It was utterly devoid of life.

Slowly the ice moved further south, and the fires that burned in Muspellsheim sometimes reached far north enough that they licked the ice in those regions, and melted it, and the cold poison from the ice rose up, and hardened again as the fires receded. And later the fires approached again, and the ice melted and rose before hardening again, and on it went. Hot battling cold for countless millennia. Until finally a great tower of poison ice stood just south of the centre of the void.

And more ages passed beyond counting, the ice dripping, then hardening, and dripping again, until the tower was shaped into something strange and complex and utterly unique.

So intricate the twists and runnels and flows of melting ice on this tower became that it was a whole world unto itself, of liquid flows and hard ice blockages and rising and falling – a system of pure primordial machinery and barren of life.

Until the tower of ice began to move of its own accord, moving the strange and many legs that had formed, and shaping the ice around it with its many arms, and the poison water moved around its great many frozen brains, carrying its dreams and plans around its body as it began to think its own thoughts.

The first giant, Ymir, had come into being.

(I’ve been reading The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson and John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.)

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The final judgement of the gods. All their deeds – and crimes – rewarded and punished here. Most are guilty, and so almost all perish, but few without some deserved glory.

Thor is permitted to die with a smile on his lips, having finally been allowed to prove his strength against the Midgard Serpent.

Baldr and Hod, the truest and purest of the gods, go in the other direction, from death to life, as a reward for their good hearts and endurance of suffering. They will emerge from the underworld once the battle is over. In the unjust world in which they first lived, Hod was seen as the murderer of Baldr and was punished. Now the judgement is reversed and Loki, the one who tricked Hod into causing Baldr’s death, is killed in his place.

Loki dies also with a smile on his lips, believing he has brought about the end of everything, but he is mistaken in this. He cannot even comprehend the rebirth of the world which is to come, in which he will have no place. He believes the final darkness that swallows him engulfs the whole world forever too, and he is satisfied.

Perhaps Loki hated Baldr because he simply couldn’t understand him or anything he stood for. Can a being really be so good and pure? What’s his angle? And the world that Baldr will inherit will struggle to understand what place such a vicious god as Loki could have in any world, and why such evil was ever tolerated.

The story of Ragnarok is the tale of a world saying goodbye to a force that it has undoubtedly required since the beginning of time: the chaotic evil of a trickster god. But great changes must be made, great upheaval endured, before the elimination of “necessary evil” is made possible. What is a world without chaos? Without suffering? And who in the world of the present – gods help us! – could even bear to live in such a world?

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Why is the sea salty?

In Denmark there were two millstones that could grind out anything. King Frodi used two strong slave women, called Fenja and Menja, to grind out gold, peace, and prosperity for him. They turned the heavy stones and out those things came, and Frodi ruled over a wealthy and peaceful land.

The women toiled year after year. And over the years the slave women hated King Frodi more and more for making them slaves, especially in a land where everyone else was enjoying freedom and wealth. And so they decided to use the magic millstones for something else. They ground out an army to oppose the king.

Fighting began, and for the first time in an age there was violence and desolation in the land.

The sea king Mysing heard rumours of the civil war and sailed out in his ship, famous for its power and size, and landed in Denmark. Once ashore, he and his warriors carved their way through the armies on both sides until they reached Frodi’s halls, killed the king, and carried off the millstones and the slave women. Fenja and Menja were now no better off than they had been before, and they cursed Mysing even as he put them aboard his ship.

Sailing away from Denmark with his spoils, Mysing told the women to grind out salt.

“Is that all you want?” they asked.

“I really like salt,” he replied.

The women had been grinding out salt for a long time before their prayers were finally answered and a storm came and sank the ship along with the king, the women, the stones, and a ship-load of salt.

And Mysing’s ship was so big that the salt it held was enough to fill the whole sea, and make its waters salty forever.

(I’ve been reading The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson.)

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Loki’s cleverness was his own undoing.

He was trying to figure out how his enemies might catch him, now that he spent most of his days as a salmon, hidden deep in the water near a great waterfall. He wanted to make sure he’d considered every possibility, so he’d have a plan for every eventuality.

He invented the first fishing net. “Yes, that’s how they might catch me, if they’re clever enough to think of this too.” Then he shook his head and smiled. “I don’t think I have anything to worry about.”

From this vantage point, camped on the hill above the water, he could see his enemies approaching. Quickly he threw the net into the fire, turned into a fish, and leapt into the water.

By the time the gods arrived on the hilltop, the net was mostly burned away, but they could just see its outline in the fire as it burned, and it was enough to give them the idea to make their own. And so they did, and fished for Loki in the water.

(I’ve been reading The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson.)

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Notes on Linda Yablonsky, The Story of Junk

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How can a person suffer this much and still want to go on living? He’s dying in a hospital bed, and even as he talks to her his eyes keep fluttering up to the TV screen. “He still wants to look at the pictures.”

William Burroughs suggested we’re all addicted to images. It’s these, rather than life, we’re addicted to. Life is a means to an end, and you might not notice it go by, or find that you valued life at all for its own sake. It’s just the pictures. (Living life through our phones is just the latest popular manifestation of this ages-old condition.)

I’m going to die means No more pictures.

Is there a next life will it be image-based? Can you remember how long it took when you came into this world to adjust and make sense of the pictures? Life a confusing blur and you just cried all the time. In the next life the images will be so strange it doesn’t make sense to call them images. Some other kind of thing. Perhaps this is why people say after death there is nothing: it’s the same thing as nothing, if you can’t make sense of it.

If you can’t draw a picture of it, well then where is it? No images, no nothing.

A heavy supposition that your next form of existence will be based on need. That you will need something or other to become addicted to. For us it’s images and you can’t imagine life without them. This is what need does: structures your life so you can’t imagine life without the thing you need.

As long as there is need there is Burroughs’s little phrase: “Wouldn’t you?” Wouldn’t you steal, in the junkie’s position? Wouldn’t you kill, living the desperate life of a pirate? It’s no good being moralistic about these things. You can’t judge someone whose need is greater, or just vastly different, from yours.

One could be critical of your complacency in the face of so much human suffering. You cast your vote and let it happen. But you might say: “Wouldn’t you?” Impossible to think of shaking the image habit – turn off the news, stop reading the papers, stop thinking.

Image-addiction: it’s not the images that are the problem. It’s the addiction. But image is an addictive substance. It’s true, you have to build an addiction. One shot won’t do it. The image has to be pushed until it’s everything. Who is pushing the image? There’s no conspiracy, no hidden agenda: we each of us push the image on each other. This stuff sells itself.

It’s just more obvious now, the way we do it. Sharing pictures on social media, it didn’t happen if I don’t share it. That’s you, in the picture. That’s you again. As many sides to your personality as there are photographs.

You have to be in the world. You have to experience and live it. It seems impossible, until you’re given an image to hold on to. This is you. Here I am. This is how you look to me. To us. To yourself. This is us. Add another image, and another. Is this the world then? Is this life?

Back in 1997, Burroughs wrote: it’s not an experience unless it’s shared. The worst thing you can be is alone. Linda Yablonsky says: when you walk away from others who need you, hide yourself away from their pain, refuse them help, your world shrinks and empties itself until you are the only thing left in it. And if it’s just you, then existence is pure darkness, because there’s no one to share it with and so nothing to see.

At customs she lies and says she is travelling alone, and does it a lot. In fact she can’t bear to imagine travelling alone. It makes no sense to sightsee without someone to point out the sights to, take a picture with. Life, in order to be life, must be a “scene” – musicians, artists, and writers check each other out from their restaurant tables. A scene: to see and be seen. More pictures, more scenes, more images.

Indifference to the images, once you realise that’s all they are. Indifference of the images: one image as good as another. Invest your energy in one image, rather than another. Nothing has value unless you give it value. Don’t look down.

A modern indifference to life: nothing can fill the holes that get wider, darker, and deeper. Nothing is substantial or real enough to fill anything.

Some of her friends say that what is needed is an alteration of consciousness, the only way to save ourselves. We’ll have to wait and see. Even the message of salvation here is a message of indifference: meditate, do nothing, wait and see, and change will come. If everything is image, then everything is the same. Anything can change into anything else. Wait and see. “You never know what will happen, but something always will. Something always happens.”

Somehow the dream is bigger than any something the world promises. Not this or that happening in the world, but a change in the world itself. A change in my relationship to it.

The dream is to feel “swallowed whole.” For the world to consume you entirely, so you become fully a part of it. A feeling of belonging.

What can you do if you just can’t be part of the world? For example, if you are a junkie, a mode of existence that is forbidden. Many others like this. Forbidden people. Nobodies.

Why do they go on then, these people, when they suffer so? Life a passing spectacle. Even if I can’t be in it, I can look at the pictures.

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His mother has always told him that his father is Helios, the sun, but now his friends tease him.

“Your mother is a liar,” says Epaphus. “No one knows who your father is, and so she told you a story. And you’re still such a child that you believe it!”

Phaethon runs home with tears in his eyes. “Mother, did you lie to me?” She tells him: “Go and seek out the sun’s palace, and ask him yourself. I did not lie to you.”

So he travels on towards the horizon for many long days. As the sun passes overhead each day he looks into the clear bright sky and wonders if it could possibly be true. And as the sun sets each evening he lets himself believe that it is calling warmly to him from the horizon, urging him onward. “Just a little further, and you will arrive one cool evening at the palace where the sun rests each night, to be welcomed by your father.”

He arrives at a palace made of a stone that glows the colours of a wondrous sunset. And inside it is bright as day. And the throne room is brighter still, and suddenly he realises why his father is necessarily a distant one: few can bear to be close to one who shines this bright. And yet when he has asked his question, and Helios has made his simple heartfelt answer – “Yes, and you are welcome” – he goes up to his father, squinting against the brightness of his shining robes, and embraces him, weeping tears of joy.

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Notes on Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy: Royal Assassin

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What is a life for? This is the question that Fitz is asking again and again, in one form or another, as he tries to find his place in the world and wonders whether it’s all worth it. It’s easy to despair in a cynical world of court intrigue, treachery, and division in the kingdom. By the middle of the book, Fitz sees the situation as so hopeless it is almost funny. So the question becomes an urgent one: what to do with the life you have, despite the fact that success is so far from assured?

Royal Assassin is the second book of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and so it deals with all the trouble set up in the first book – the ambitions of the treacherous Prince Regal, the destruction wrought on the coastal towns by the Red Ship Raiders, Fitz’s struggle to contain his forbidden “Wit” or “beast magic” – with some more problems thrown in on top of that. By the end of the book we’ll be expecting to find some of these issues resolved, with plenty left unresolved to take us into the final book of the trilogy.

In many ways this is a classic tale of a hero struggling against impossible odds. The whole story is told from Fitz’s point of view, and we’re with him through every trial. So much so that the question of What should I do? becomes really what the book is about, its main theme. So we find Fitz being lectured by the King’s Fool:

“‘This, more than anything else, is what I have never understood about your people. You can roll dice, and understand that the whole game may hinge on one turn of a die … But a man’s whole life, you sniff at, and say, what, this nought of a human, this fisherman, this carpenter, this thief, this cook, why, what can they do in the great wide world? And so you putter and sputter your lives away, like candles burning in a draught.’

“‘Not all men are destined for greatness,’ I reminded him.

“‘Are you sure, Fitz? Are you sure?’”

The answer to the question What is a life for? is: to change the world. To bring hope and joy to others. To make a difference. In other words: to be a hero. The Fool’s speech comes at about the midpoint of the book, when things are looking bleak. And throughout the rest the reader can only hope that Fitz will remember the Fool’s words, remember that it’s down to him, just as it’s down to everyone else, not to give up in the face of evil.

Something I like very much about Hobb’s approach to storytelling in this book is her decision to focus on Fitz, and tell everything from his point of view. In other novels of this kind, tales of cynicism and treachery, it can all become quite tiring, as character after character is introduced and then sacrificed to the ambition of the villain. It’s difficult not to get detached from the story when you don’t have a single character to follow all the way through to the end. Of course there is plenty of treachery and murder in this book, but Fitz at the centre gives the whole thing a beating heart, a point of view and even a certain idealism by which we can evaluate the horror of what is going on around him. And by which we can measure him when his courage slips and we find ourselves, as readers, urging him on to find his best self again.

The best thing about Royal Assassin is it’s a fantasy story that’s about something, which has a meaning and a moral you can take away from it. Perhaps that’s true of any story that you enjoy – it resonates and that’s why it sticks to you. It’s more than just entertainment, however easy and enjoyable it is to read. Either way, this is what makes Robin Hobb, for me, one of the best and most interesting fantasy writers.

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Notes on Bleak House: “Bell Yard”

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Mr Skimpole reflects on “how things lazily adapted themselves to purposes.” There’s no other way things can adapt. Let nature take its course. Principle of non-resistance. This is how Mr Skimpole lives his own life, never working or worrying.

Mr Gridley is naturally very angry at the way he’s been treated by the courts. A question of three hundred pounds has been turned into endless time and costs, and he lives now in ruin. If I were not angry I would lose my mind. He keeps fighting though it’s hopeless, and in this way preserves himself.

Anger is often seen as a failure to adapt, a failure to accept the situation, a futile railing against unchangeable circumstances. But here it’s presented as the natural way of things. Mr Gridley is going with the flow. “I am not polite,” he says. That’s just the way I am and I accept it.

It’s easy to see why things never change for Skimpole: he does not resist, does not strive, just enjoys sunshine and good company when it comes. But Gridley’s passivity – his acceptance of the anger the courts inspire in him – is harder to detect, clothed as it is in the ceaseless activity of his struggle against injustice. But his outward resistance fuels the legal machine, gives it just want it needs to go on, and even in his red-faced rage he lowers his furrowed brow and submits to its infernal authority.

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Notes on the Magic Mountain: “Mynheer Peeperkorn”

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A more than usual appreciation of – linked to his need for – alcoholic drinks. He appears to chew the liquid before it goes down, he spends so long savouring it.

His head must be blurry from all he drinks – at least one full bottle of wine with every meal, sometimes two or two and a half, and always a drop of gin. Perhaps for this reason, he talks incoherently.

But he talks marvellously, inspiring wonder with his hands as he speaks. Hypnotic these hand gestures, thumb and forefinger in a circle and palm outspread, so that whatever nonsense he speaks his audience, watching those hands, cannot doubt they have heard something wonderful, true, perfect, the very best. Close your eyes as he talks – if you can! – and you’ll hear he’s said precisely nothing.

I am speaking, I am speaking – so even to say nothing is to say something, even the mere act of speech signals one’s own existence, and can even, spoken loudly and confidently enough, seem to assert one’s own importance. Hans Castorp calls him a “blurred personality”: you can’t deny he’s there, but what is he exactly? He must be something, but there is nothing to grasp.

Blurriness within, blurriness without: it is as if he projects his own inner drunken muddle outwards, and in this way intoxicates his audience.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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