Category Archives: literature

words we throw at each other

An Old, Very New Poem

A couple of workshop sessions back, an offhand remark from one of the participants reminded me — with a little shock — of a poem I had written almost fifty years ago and forgotten about.

I told everybody about this, and recited the poem from memory (it is quite short).  It got a strong response; we spent some time taking it apart, and putting it back together for the sake of its spirit.

So now I’ve typed it into a file.  Here it is.  Makes a sort of fitting conclusion to the year, I think.


You were a cartoon,
A figure in outline,
And now stalk me:
Footsteps under bare branches
Knocking late as I walk home.

©Jim Michmerhuizen

What Philosophy Is

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a path of inquiry undertaken by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited or paradigmatic cultural patterns.

Is it intellectual?

Most commonly yes, but not necessarily so.  Every one of us, as we come to our adulthood, may find apparent discrepancies, or outright contradictions, among the various systems of thought in which we have been raised.  Some people, depending on their personal inclination, may ground their personal living exclusively in one such system; some, in an adhoc synthesis of elements from several systems; some turn, in early adulthood, to some new system – new to them, at any rate – that appears to render all previous ones obsolete or irrelevant.

Is philosophy necessary?

For every person?  No, not at all.  It is possible to live fully, completely, satisfyingly, entirely within the range of a single cultural system and its vocabulary and practice.  Many do.

Then what is it for?

The inquiry is undertaken only by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited cultural patterns.  In general, these are resolved when the fault-lines are eased, the dislocations cleared, the colliding conceptual systems brought into harmony.

Can you give me an example?

As a child, I absorbed the religion of my family and culture.  I also absorbed the ideas about science common to mid-century schoolbooks.  By the time I was fifteen it was clear that many things asserted in one of these systems were incompatible with things asserted in the other.  I began trying to figure these out.

The effort of doing so constitutes a path of inquiry.  Every person undertaking any such inquiry is engaged in philosophy, whether self-consciously or not.

The work of philosophy, as I am characterizing it here, is not intrinsically an academic subject.  It may be, in some times and places; in the high middle ages, it was academic, but during the renaissance it was not.  It became academic again in the early 18th century and remains so to the present.

Can you give me more?

Other situations likely to put someone on such a path might be:

  • a person disinclined to spiritual language might devote a lifetime to understanding those who speak such language;
  • conversely, someone who uses the language of spirit naturally and fluently might devote a lifetime to understanding those who don’t;
  • a person naturally committed to logical methods and abstract thought might evolve anthropological sympathies, and come to completely rework the deepest foundations of his thinking (i.e. Wittgenstein);
  • a person of great mathematical ability, possessed of a profoundly mathematical imagination, might attempt to describe or interpret the entire range of human experience in essentially mathematical concepts (i.e. Descartes).

But philosophy, you said, is not necessarily intellectual.

People who devote themselves to this inquiry may find themselves engaging in dialog with others, to establish their path, their errors, corrections, indubitable premises, even the naming of things.  Each path is solitary, but it is necessary to confer with others on their paths.

The most obvious medium of discourse for such dialog is human language; and if language, then concepts, logic, argument, syllogism.  And so a great deal of the history of philosophy can only be told in stories of reasoning, of logic, of conceptual exercises.

In addition, however, there are paths of inquiry that express themselves within the domain of conduct alone.  In such contexts – e.g. monastic practice whether Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise – profound communication may conduct itself at the level of action alone, unmediated by dialog or indeed by any verbal commentary whatsoever.

So one might conduct his inquiry in total silence.


I have some difficulty with that.

Yes.  So do I.

But it does me good to think about it that way.


Enough chitchat…

…let’s talk about Marilynne Robinson.  Let’s talk about polemics, and rhetoric, and true speech.  Back when Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published, Marilynne Robinson reviewed it in Harper’s Magazine.

I read the review earlier today.  It did my heart good.  She dissected the book, and Dawkins’ prose, and Dawkins’ arguments, with astonishing finesse, craft, precision, and intensity of spirit.

It’s a big world out there.  I encountered Robinson for the first time only ten years ago, when I read her novel Gilead.  I read it with great pleasure but in total ignorance of her religious commitments, and attributed the candor and precision of her storytelling to nothing more than straightforward artistic integrity.

When I became aware of her Christian convictions a couple of years later, that had a double-whammy impact on me: artistic integrity can be, and in her case is, grounded in the commitments of her worship and witness.

Facts such as those should not be surprising.  That we find them so, in our public discourse, is an indicator of just how distorted that discourse has become over the last several decades.

The Great Gatsbys

Driving back from Panera’s, Rosemarie and I fell to talking about Gatsby. I’ve never read the novel – at least, all the way through – but within the past several months we’d watched both the Redford and the DiCaprio movie versions.

Rosemarie described the reaction of a friend of ours.  “I don’t understand it,” she said, “she loves Gatsby more than any other movie ever.”

“And some people praise it for presenting a faithful picture of that segment of American society in the twenties,” I said.  “That might be appropriate praise of a history book, or of a sociological study, but for a novel I think that’s pretty dim praise.”

“Well, even allowing for that,” said R, “I thought the Redford film was way better than the DiCaprio version.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And it wasn’t just Redford versus DiCaprio.  Remember how you exclaimed about Mia Farrow?  And I did too?”

“Un-huh,” said R.  “Who was Daisy in the DiCaprio version?  I can’t remember her name.”

“Neither can I.”

“Well, anyway, we don’t like any of the people in the story, do we?”

“Except Nick who’s telling it to us.”

“I’m not even sure about him.  Look, why is he telling us the story at all? He admires Gatsby for being able to hope in a supposedly hopeless situation.  And he wants us, I suppose, to understand what he finds admirable about this.  But, given the circumstances in which he exercises it, I don’t find anything admirable in Gatsby’s hope.  Gatsby exemplifies that old saw about repeating the same actions in the hope of a different outcome; he believes with all his heart that he can restart his romance with Daisy from scratch and make it come out differently. Gatsby faces the same lesson as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

“But Nick finds this admirable.  His moral outrage is directed against Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  I share that outrage.  They deserve it richly.”

“Ok, I’m with you,” says R, “they’re scum.  Go on.”

We passed the old quarry on Grove Street.  For ten years, every time we drove that route, I had promised myself I’d stop with the camera and get what I could out of images of the old buildings, the rock-crushers and their conveyor belts, the rotted wooden offices, the heaps of sorted gravel.  Two months ago operations had ceased, the buildings demolished, the machinery silenced.  The camera was now useless.

Thinking of this, I had fallen silent.  “You’re not sure about Nick,” said R, as a reminder.

“Oh, yeah.  I’m not sure.  I guess I’d want to sit down and have a long talk with him.”

“Summon him up from literary limbo?”

“Something like that.  From what I can tell, he admires Gatsby for some qualities that simply aren’t actually admirable.”

“And these are…?”

“I said that already: for hoping – no, imagining – that he could re-enact with Daisy the whole sequence of events from four or five years ago, and produce a different outcome.”

“Well, but come on, that’s not the way it looks to me at all.  Look, I think Nick is judging the Buchanans’ use of their wealth compared to Gatsby’s.  Isn’t Nick just pointing out that Gatsby at least had a recognizably human motive for achieving his wealth, and for the uses to which he was putting it, while the Buchanans had none at all?”

I had to think about that, and did for a minute.

“Um, maybe so.  But that’s pretty thin ground…” I paused again; R had just opened her mouth to say something when I continued: “…actually I don’t think that even reaches the status of a moral judgement.  It’s more like what I’d call a vaguely psychological estimate of somebody’s well-being.”

“You mean like Gatsby had goals while the Buchanans had none?”

“Something like that.  Anyway, if that’s what Nick admires, Nick is almost as rootless as the Buchanans, isn’t he?”

Rosemarie chuckled, evilly.  “Now I can just imagine someone commenting like who are you to judge Nick?

“Oh, come on.  You know damn well I wouldn’t even bother to respond to a remark like that.  I’m identifying the questions I’d have if I could have a talk with Nick.  I’d want to dig deep into his state of mind at the end of the story.  What I’m saying now – which our hypothetical commenter construes as my, um, condemnation of Nick – is nothing more than the starting point for an imaginary conversation.

“I can easily imagine that conversation – and my subsequent sense of where Nick is at morally – taking any one of several different paths.  And since Nick can’t be here, I can’t possibly have a final position.

“Your proposed commenter is jumping the gun.”

That was weeks ago.  I still don’t like the story; I can’t muster any compassion for Gatsby himself, the Buchanans are repulsive, and Nick is a sentimental fool.

I suppose I should be able to say more than that.  I can’t for the life of me make any sense out of the notion that The Great Gatsby is a great novel.

I’ll be sure to let you know if I change my mind.

True Names

Wizards, in the world of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, know the true names of things.  And of the powers that are in the world.  And sometimes of each other, or of the persons they deal with.

The true speech is primordial; in that language it is impossible for a wizard to lie.  Dragons can lie, however, even in the true speech; it is their native language.

Do we have anything analogous to this in our world?

Maybe.  Surely, for example, a toddler’s first language is like this.  His speech is a near-miraculous power over things; each new word, all by itself, is an incantation, a spell that creates a new thing in the world.

Roy Rappaport, in the introductory chapter of Ritual, Religion, and the Making of Humanity, noted that our acquisition of language, both as individuals and as a species, furnishes us with two important powers:

  • lying
  • imagining alternatives to what is

But before a child achieves either of those, there is perhaps a brief time in which all speech is the true speech of Earthsea: words make things exist, parents enact things into existence by the power of their voice alone,

This is the magical time, before one learns falsehood.

Remnants of true speech are left to some among us, I think.  Those remnants cannot be written down.  There is no dictionary.  There are only ostensive definitions.

Denise Levertov’s poem The Elves comes to mind.  It has bound Rosemarie and I together from the beginning, forty-six years ago.