Four Thinkers

The Buddha, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche: A Personal View

For a long time, I’ve been wondering how these thinkers can be put into dialogue.   I have seen Freud and Marx combined in Herbert Marcuse, and, after I did a basic Google search for Freud and the Buddha, I found a number of articles on the subject.  But no one to my knowledge has written on the Buddha, Freud, and Marx, let alone adding Nietzsche to the mix.  What I’ll do here is to sketch out some ideas very informally, with the hope of starting a discussion, as I feel it’s important that public intellectual discussion should be open to all and not left to experts.  If it’s not already clear, let me state that I’m far from being an expert on any of these thinkers.

My first encounter with Buddhism was the Dhammapada, which was provocative and fascinating.  A few of the aphorisms remain with me, such as “there are no chains like hatred.”  I had never seen over-attachment (or clinging, craving) analyzed and criticized so thoroughly.  After reading this book, I was consumed by Buddhism; ironically, I was over-attached.

In my early twenties, I read Nietzsche.  Again, I was captivated.  Nietzsche’s critique of morality was liberating; I read the concept of the overman as an encouragement to each of us to overcome our previous selves and create our own values, the values by which we live.  Also, Nietzsche gave me an idea of what it would be to live non-metaphysically – that is, without a sense of a larger meaning to existence.  For Nietzsche, the meaning in human life is limited to humans; there is no God figure.  Pema Chodron, too, claims that the Buddha avoided questions about the afterlife or gods.  He didn’t see such questions as relevant.  In this vein, Joseph Campbell recounts the story of the flower sermon.  When the Buddha was asked what the meaning of life was, he lifted a flower.  Clearly this action can be interpreted in many ways.  One way is that the meaning of life involves flowering, flourishing.  But the meaning cannot be spoken or articulated, is not separate from life itself.

“Before one reads Nietzsche,” Martin Heidegger said, “one should study Aristotle for fifteen years.”  Not everyone has that kind of time.  But Heidegger makes the influence clear; Nietzsche addresses Plato in his writings far more than Aristotle, but the latter’s notion of eudaimonia (often translated as “flourishing”), as well as his views of ethics, friendship, community, tragedy, and art were often incitements to Nietzsche, spurs to the later philosopher’s thinking.  Thus Nietzsche absorbs Aristotle, responds to him, and often opposes him, though he may not mention him; the earlier thinker is present as a strong interlocutor.

To this day, I have read more about Freud than Freud himself.  However, when a thinker’s writing style is not as important as his ideas, this approach becomes more acceptable.  Nietzsche was supposed (by Walter Kaufmann, among others) to have had a deep effect on Freud, though Freud did not acknowledge the debt, if there was one.  The impact of Freud for me was in part similar to that of Nietzsche: you are not bound by another’s values; live according to your own.  Freud withheld moral judgement of his analysands; what they did was not labelled right or wrong.  According to Kaufmann, when asked about morality, Freud replied that it was a matter of course.  Perhaps this means that morality is a given.  If so, Freud would seem not to have read Nietzsche, for whom morality was highly constructed, taking shape over centuries.  But Freud’s concept of the super-ego (or “over-I,” in literal translation of the German) owes much to Nietzsche: the super-ego, to put it perhaps oversimply, is our inherited morality: what we believe we should do, according to the influence of teachers, parents and others, whose words and actions we invest with value.  Another aphorism from the Dhammapada that Freud seems to have absorbed – perhaps from another source – is that “the mind without judgement watches and understands.”  An analyst can understand her client better when considering the latter’s actions as “beyond good and evil” (to quote the name of Nietzsche’s book).   Moral judgement in this sense impedes understanding; moralizing puts another’s actions into our terms, seeing them from the perspective of our values; withholding judgement generates empathy.

I read Marx first while in my early twenties, starting with The Communist Manifesto and going on to excerpts from Capital.  I was drawn to his idealism and his passion.  The principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is beautiful and reminds us of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  To leave Marx out of a discussion of key modern thinkers would be egregious; Marx has taught us that our lives are not lived in a vacuum.  We live under a man-made economic system called capitalism that enslaves us as completely as any empire has.  There is a financial hierarchy that involves power and control, and there are economic requirements that we are born into, depending on our class.  To claim that ideology is unimportant is another ideology.  To have the time to think and write involves a certain position within capitalism – a certain education, sufficient leisure time – which are privileges and are paid for with the labour of others.  It is because of the goal of unlimited corporate growth that we are facing climate change.  Rather than putting environmental ethics first – and thus, valuing humans, plants, and animals above profit – making money continues to be the engine of industries based on fossil fuels, with their highly damaging pollutants.  The prioritizing of profits led to colonialist genocide even before the highly interconnected system of capitalism that now exists (as globalization), but the intensity of the current system has put the long-term survival of large numbers of human beings at stake.   Marx thus showed the many ways that capitalism profoundly shapes us, including how much we sleep, what we eat, and how we feel.

Freud and his students – many analysts, but also therapists in general, and pop psychologists – can help with the current ecological situation and the excesses of capitalism, as can the Buddha and his students.  Through psychoanalysis and Buddhism, we can get a better understanding of what we desire and what we need, of addiction and craving, of sexuality and empathy.   Nietzsche shows us how all of our actions occur within a framework of values, involving ethical, political, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions.  Every choice we make is a reflection of our values.  Pitting Marx against Nietzsche involves a rich, exciting debate.

These four thinkers respond to each other in subtle ways, and it seems worth exploring their points of intersection, worth imagining a dialogue between them.

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The Window

She stared out of the window.  Mists were rising from the wheat fields.  The train rolled along.  Early morning.  She hadn’t slept well, couldn’t listen to music, hoped to nap later.  She didn’t like how often he came to mind.  “Do ghosts exist?” she wondered.  Her mother loved ghost stories but they just scared Jocelyn.  Freud said it was erotic, the pleasure of horror stories.

How much longer on this train?  How far to Vancouver?  Maybe she should have flown.  She’d bought a one-way ticket to Toronto, stayed with her sister, and then decided to splurge and see the country.  All her life, she’d only travelled around BC and been to Toronto.  She wanted to connect these places, put ground under her feet.

But the prairies were deadly dull.  Endless, flat, not enough colour.  She couldn’t wait to see the ocean again, feel the sand at English Bay, where she’d first felt at home in the world, at 20, 5 years ago.

She mused a little and felt the encroachment of ex-boyfriends.  Promiscuity had had its phases.  She’d needed to feel desired again after each breakup.  Until this last one when she just got on a plane, flew to her sister’s, cried alone on the couch at night, and ate cold pizza for breakfast, left over from last night’s delivery.  She didn’t want her sister’s sympathy—not in words.  She wasn’t ready to tell the story of the ending, how he just suddenly ended it, not in anger—that she could have handled—but with resignation, giving up.  That enraged her.  There was no drama, just a sense of futility.  How dare he end 14 months this way?

And she couldn’t speak of it to anyone.  Friends were nice: no one said I told you so, but she felt it, like a chill on her cheeks.

Over for tea, her best friend Sarah asked, “Where did he end it?”

“In his living room.”

“When?”

“Thursday.”

“So you had to work the next day.  Couldn’t he have picked a weekend?”

Jos was silent.  Was this relevant, the righteous anger on her behalf?

“You didn’t see it coming?” Sarah probed.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sarah chose her words carefully.  “He didn’t give you some warning?”

“No.  I didn’t see anything like this.”

“What a bastard!  Who does that?”

“A lot of guys.”

Silence.

“How are you doing now?”  It was the first Sunday after.

“I’m…not good.  Not okay.  I have to leave.  This city.”

Sarah hesitated.

“Where?”

“Maybe stay with Shaylin.”

“You guys haven’t talked in how long?”

“I think she’d let me stay with her.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know.  Till classes start.”

“How about rent?”

“I’ve got savings.”

“I feel like a cigarette.”

“Don’t.  You’re doing so well.”

“A week.”

“Let’s go for a walk.”

“It’s pouring.”

“You can borrow an umbrella.”

“Okay, but only because I love you.”

Jos looked Sarah in the eye.

“I don’t know if I can hear that right now.”

Sarah’s mouth dropped.

“From anyone.”

Sarah got up, gathered the empty mugs, put them on Jos’ counter.  “Where’s that umbrella?”

Jos emailed Sarah: “I love you.  Thanks for being patient with me.  Don’t give up.  I know you never have.”

Soon breakfast would be served in the dining car.

Good, I’m starving.

The mist started to rise, yield to the sun.  More wheat.

Sex with him.  The time they’d roleplayed.  She was the secretary.  He’d taken some acting classes and said how natural she was.  But it was fun, like jumping on a trampoline: no audience, just him getting turned on, seeing a new side to her, possibilities opening up.

That sex was hot.  He started on top as usual, but soon she wanted to dominate.  Took his tie off, wrapped it around his neck.

But they’d only roleplayed once.  Less than a month later it was over.  What if they’d started earlier?

When she was much older, she began to remember.  Climbing rocks with her father.  The yellow house in Surrey—such an incongruous colour for her family.   Studying for final exams in Grade 12.  It all came back now, in her forties, on a beach in Mexico, single again, childless.  Living off an inheritance, now in her third month, without work, journalling, not responding to emails, having her meals brought to her hotel room.  Where was she at 42?  Adrift, cut off.  Her mother had died first, then her father.  She kept going through her regrets.  Why hadn’t she married Craig when he’d asked her, at 28?  Because she couldn’t imagine spending the rest of her life with him.  But did you have to?  Why couldn’t you just think of marriage as a mid-term, not a long-term, thing?  Or David at 34.  He’d had an 8-year-old from a previous marriage and she was hung up about starting fresh.  He adored her though, buying her flowers every week for the first two months after they’d kissed.

Now at 42, no one, nothing; too risky to have children and she couldn’t see herself adopting.

Should she go on a cruise?  Travel the world?  This inheritance wouldn’t last forever.

She picked up the phone in the hotel room, then decided to use her cell instead.  It felt more personal.

She called Sarah and got her voicemail.  Sarah had 2 kids now and rarely answered the phone.  She’d usually call Jos back a few days later, as if she didn’t really want to talk to her but felt obliged.

Jos didn’t leave voicemail this time.  They talked once a week for half an hour when the kids were in bed, Sarah sounding exhausted.  Jos knew Sarah sympathized but also just wanted Jos to do something, take hold of something.  It was indulgent, this lifestyle.  Jos felt judged but as if for her own good: I say these things because I love you.  That’s what her father used to say when she was a child.  To her and her sister.  She believed him but—why couldn’t he show more love instead of just saying it, indirectly, on the way to something else, like “We punish you because we love you.”  Then there was “Who’s going to take care of you when we’re not around?”  That was always terrifying.  How could there ever be such a time?  But that time had come.  For 3 months now, it had been that time.  After her father’s funeral, which her sister had mostly arranged, she caught the first flight to Puerta Vallarta, where she’d come after the breakup with David.  She’d stayed at a friend’s friend’s parents’ hotel for $25 a night.  The cleaners in the balconied courtyard would yell at each other at 8 in the morning and Jos would wake up hearing them through the opening above the doors.

This time she could afford more.  $125 a night plus meals.  But she knew she’d have to do something different.  She was starting to hate herself, to be unable to trust herself.  The journalling seemed to be going nowhere.  She was paying rent on her apartment and it was empty and she couldn’t care less if her seven plants died.  After the death of your parents, what are seven plants?

She knew she hadn’t always been like this.  There was a depression in her late teens, but after that she’d had a fairly balanced life with the usual ups and downs.  Until her mother’s death and her father’s, just over a year later.  Her sister had kept on working, taking two weeks for bereavement each time; flying out from Toronto, taking care of the funerals, then home and back to work.

Jos was disoriented when her mother died, but she was closer to her father and felt she’d disappointed him, not having children, not marrying.  At least her sister was married and an accountant.  He never said anything.  Never said he was proud of her, or her sister.  He tried to treat them equally.  But now she felt a chapter had ended and she was expected to go on to the next one and she couldn’t.  Expected to grow up and she resisted.  She didn’t know why.  Something was wrong in all this.  She wanted to start again at 20 or even 30.

She didn’t know, retracing her steps, where she’d gone off the path.  That was infuriating.  Bread crumbs on the trail and then someone or something had taken them.  Or the wind had blown them away.

What was the point of going on?  She knew she would go on—she couldn’t end her life—but there was this hollowness.  She didn’t want to teach anymore.  Eight years of Grade 10 was enough.  She didn’t have any other skills.

She lay herself down slowly on the bed, suddenly grateful for the soft, firm pillow under her head.  She reached for the sheet, pulled it up, slipped under it; felt the crisp, clean linen on her skin.  It was 11.12am.  She’d had breakfast, drifted around her room, checked email, and now lain down on the rumpled bed and gotten under the sheet.  A pillow for her thoughts.  She wasn’t tired.  She was well-rested and so didn’t have that excuse.  Nothing.  Another open day before her.  Hot outside, air-conditioned cool here.  Space lay before her.  Time pressed on her, shapeless.  She closed her eyes.  Forced herself to take a deep breath.  It was time.

She got up, put on her robe, sat at the table, pulled a pad of lined paper toward herself and grabbed the pen she journalled with.

Dear Jos,

I hate you.  How can you be so fucking self-pitying?  Move your ass.  They’re dead.  You can be sad awhile but then you’re done.  You’re not gonna kill yourself, so if you’re gonna choose to live, you better fucking live.

With love,

Jos

She threw off her robe.  Stood naked.  Glanced at the mirror in the distance, not seeing herself, and strode into the shower.

She was now 63.  What did that mean?  She wasn’t sure.  She felt 43, the year her daughter was born.  She’d left Mexico after 3 months and met a man in Vancouver.  Their eyes locked on a bus.  He moved to be beside her.  In an hour they were fucking.  His name was John.  The thought made her smile now.  Then she was pregnant.

When they were lying together after he’d come, she’d asked if he was hungry.  He said he was.  They got up.  She made toast, brought peanut butter.  They talked for 20 minutes—what kind of work they’d done, where they’d travelled.  He said he had to go.  There had been no talk of exchanging numbers. They hugged goodbye.  No kissing, no intimacy; and she decided to keep the fetus.  A good choice, she reflected now.

The phone rang.

It was Gabrielle, her daughter.

“Mom, can I go away next weekend?”

“With who?”

“Friends.”

“Which ones?”

“Michelle, Bronwen, Shelley.”

“Where?”

“Camping.”

This would be Gabrielle’s first camping trip without adults.  But she was 20 now and her friends were basically sensible girls.  Were there any boys involved?  Should she ask?  Make a joke about condoms.

“Just girls, eh?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should take a few condoms just in case.  You never know who you might meet in the woods.”

She’d said it.  A weak joke, heavy-handed, but it was done.

“Mom.”

And she knew she’d overstepped.  But her daughter had gotten the message.

“It’s okay, just give me places and times.  It’s your first—”

“I know, Mom.  Sure, sure.”

“Okay.  Will I see you for dinner tonight?”

“Not sure, Mom.  I’ll call you if I’m not.  Oh, my bus is coming.”

“Okay, hon, see you later.”

“Bye.”

No time to say I love you.  You were the best thing that happened to me.  You rooted me, grounded me.

She inhaled; exhaled slowly.

Maybe when she was older.

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Night Suit

“Get ready for bed,” Mum and Dad would say in India.

“Go put on your night suit,”

which became “pyjamas” when we came to Canada.

But the Hindi word was less exotic:

Imagine!  Night suit, flying suit, diving suit!

Ready for the adventures of sleep,

Captain Dreamer!

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Variations

 

aria

what i see in you:

a principle of inhabitation

a ritual of birth and thirst and laughter

the curves of your knowing

                

       1

dew forming

 

       2

this lower register

a lilypad in darkness

 

       3

a completion to you

so that i wondered

when you said your age

 

       4

you told me things that made me smile and shake my head for days:

in elementary school, you were indiana jones for hallowe’en

you’d ask your mother to say “yo-yo” in front of your friends

so she’d say “jo-jo”

 

       5

this warm night

moon out

and all the stars like trinkets

or jellybeans

waiting for your quarter

 

       6

evenings out

in your forties

often there’s colour

in your cheeks

kindness

in your wrinkles

 

       7

the vitality of walking

skirts in the morning

reading to children

grinding, needing

 

a smile at the opera

silence while driving

squint at the wheat

scarf in your hair

 

on the bed crying

close the door slowly

not lying, sitting

dumb fist at your side

 

       8

live like a kite-flyer

string paper colour

live like the wind

lifting your voice

 

sweat on my forehead

is cooler in summer

fields lie in winter

sleepy with snow

 

       9

me: foraging in darkness

who can hear the spanish whisper

separating archer from target?

 

you laugh

i feel like teiresias opening for aristophanes

 

       10

shall i compare thee to a well-made diaper?

thou art more absorbent and unclinging

responsive as a kneecap in reflection

 

the bionic woman was a cyborg like you

but you know what techne shares with poiesis

 

       11

ah, residence on earth!

hourly costs, daily rents

the kisses and the bruises

 

language gives

 

       12

impassioned dreams

quiet rapture

 

i smile

that was a time

 

aria da capo

your tones formed my desire

found me

thankful

sensing

your knowing

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Sprung

Twilight blossoms billow and scatter,

Cover concrete

Embellish windshields

Like Indian weddings.

Night’s blue glory fills

Ocean, land, sky.

I walk and scents trickle in,

Tree-dimmed lamps,

Rhododendrons bursting like soft fireworks

A swan glinting in the lagoon,

Willows poring over the water, scholarly.

I head home reluctantly to avoid the sounds of cars,

Uplifted by the season,

Tranquillized by darkness.

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Autumnal

 

I pray.
I pray to the god of mountains, ships, and silver.
Finding trinkets worthless,
I chase ghosts that hide and dance and chide me.
Ravenous at night,
no silk or cotton fills me like her skin.
Candlelight gathers and overcomes.

Bring the holy time.
Sprinkle the pillow with fairy dust.
Take me to that place
where rest resembles reeds,
breeze-drawn and molten,
to be ravished by darkness,
cannibalized by hobgoblins of plainness and bridges.

Take breaths,
give rice, give wood.
These are yours.
What will be mine?
I listen, trust, obey.
Still you elude me
and I feel alone.
Every moment, you say, I’m guided.
All you comforting spirits,
let me sense you,
melt into these sheets,
buried by these quilts.

Honour me like a bough in springtime.
Favour me with granted wishes and abundant promise
like a field of pumpkins,
seeds bursting to life.
Rain and cold, unwelcome,
pain rising, insurgent,
tides of chaos and beauty,
leaves gusting in trees,
flickering in grey.
Lovers serve the curving act,
dogs show loyalties like seasons
and pancakes tempt the clever skeptic.

Love, lift this balloon to stars I’ve never seen,
remind me how life unfolds past recognition.
Make me worthy.
Show me strength.
I want to know about china and cheeses
smell the wet earth with you,
taste corn again, juices spraying off the cob,
dance close with you,
hear that parachute
descend into the compass hollow
where we rise,
fresh and fed.

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In Search of Lost Proust

There are novels that change our lives.  For me, perhaps the most decisive work of fiction has been In Search of Lost Time.  I discovered it in the summer of 1995, and fell in love.  It took me about five years to finish the whole novel (with its 3700 pages), but it was the first volume, Swann’s Way, that remained my favorite.  And it seems to me that every summer since I finished the novel, I have returned to the first volume, trying to recapture the blush of that lost but unforgotten love.  And every summer I have failed.  Including this summer.

Seeing a new translation remaindered at my neighborhood Book Warehouse, I picked up (the freshly entitled) The Way by Swann’s with exquisite excitement.  Would I this time, finally, penetrate through to the Proust I have not been able to find for fifteen years, the Proust of the first encounter?  So far, again, the quest has been fruitless.  Perhaps it is because we vitally cherish the memory of the best of a novel that we are frustrated when it presents itself with greater banality than we remembered it ever having.  We recall most vividly the thrill of the peaks of the work, but have forgotten laboring over many foothills to get there.  It is like a past romance for which we have tremendous affection and nostalgia; we forget that the feeling we have for the whole is made up of its essence, a condensation of days, perhaps weeks and months, of forgettable mundanity, without which, however, that distillation could not have been formed.

Over the years, I have sought to return to that lost way by numerous paths: the first page of the book; the first page of the second section, of this section’s second part, of the third section; and by dipping into passages according to the brief descriptions (with their accompanying page numbers) provided in the editors’ “Synopsis” (or quasi-index).  Nothing–or almost nothing: occasionally a faint whiff of that fragrance, of past–but not entirely lost–time.

It was the same with my attempt to reread To the Lighthouse.  Certainly I have my favorite section of that novel (Part One, Section Eleven), which I return to periodically, enraptured, astonished, bewildered, inspired.  But that’s all I have.  Starting from the beginning of the novel has repeatedly led to dead-ends.

So I grieve this lost Proust: the unique extreme of pleasure, delight, awe, satisfaction, mental extension and spiritual liberation that came from the first reading.  It may never return; I have to accept that.  All I have now are shards, when once I had the whole stained-glass window.  Still I try and will keep trying.  Because even to glimpse those colours is to expand one’s being.

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