Category Archives: personal memoir

What Philosophy Is, Concluded

Within a couple of weeks of that revival service, and my tear-stricken response to the altar call, it was all over for me: the spiritual exaltation had vaporized, my masturbatory activities had, in spite of all my resolutions, resumed.  (That I could ever have expected them to cease testifies to the naivete that bathed this whole conversion experience of mine.)

In generic form, narratives such as this one are common.  Christopher Hitchens tells of abandoning his religious beliefs when he was just nine years old.  Hundreds of other such stories and anecdotes can be found online.

I did not, however, find my religious beliefs eroding, not at all.  I lost faith in my emotions; I began to put a great deal of effort into thinking through how humans could have anything to do with divinity, or divinity with them; I read all of the college library texts on philosophy of religion (which was the origin of my lifelong distaste for theology and religious philosophy in general).

By the time I was ready to graduate from college, it was clear that my own way toward god was going to be by taking thought, by more or less rational paths as opposed to emotional ones.

I said to myself, finally, that problems may arise, at the level of feeling and emotions and spirit, which cannot be solved at the level of feeling and emotion and spirit.

And that, over the years, has evolved into my definition of philosophy:

Philosophy — loving wisdom — is the effort to personally resolve problems that arise as feelings, emotions, or spiritual conflicts, but cannot be solved at that level.  Such problems may arise in individual, communal, or institutional domains.

What sort of problems are we referring to here?  Mine, as you can see, deal largely with, or originated in, religion.  Others in my generation — and every generation of humans over the millenia — find challenges in science, in psychology, in political history, mathematics and logic, cultural mores.  Here’s a small selection of the questions that began to arise as I reflected, during high school and college, on my failed conversion:

  • is there actually a divinity at the other end of all this altar-call hokum?
  • if there is, why didn’t it respond to my traipsing up the aisle, my tears, my repentance?
  • what’s the difference — if any — between this revival stuff and the kind of church services I’d been raised with?
  • where, really, can I find anybody else who knows this territory well enough to provide a little advice and counsel?

what philosophy is, continued

How it all began for me:

When I was around fourteen my dad — who was a born-again Christian, which led to tension with the rest of the family who remained Dutch-immigrant Calvinists — took me to a revival service.

I had no experience of revivals.  I didn’t know about altar calls.

Some of my readers may not have encountered that expression before.  An “altar call” is when the choir sings Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling, while the revival preacher suggests that while everyone’s eyes are closed you can surrender yourself to Jesus and come up the aisle and kneel to signal your repentance.

Well, that revival service ended with an altar-call.  I surrendered to it — and walked up the aisle — with tears in my eyes.

My family worshipped every week at a Christian Reformed church; prayed at every meal and read a bible passage at dinnertime every day, attended Sunday School half of the year and catechism the other half.  I had no complaint to make about any of this at the time, and — in general — still don’t.

But the religion we practiced every day of our lives was not the sentimental evangelicalism of that revival service.  It was Dutch Calvinism, for farmers.  It did not consist of altar calls, but of doing good for your neighbors and for your family and for people in need.

The call I surrendered to that night came from far outside my ordinary experience of what might be involved in the worship of God.  It’s no surprise that I was so bowled over by the sentiments and the emotion of the altar call.  Especially by Softly and Tenderly.

It was a powerfully spiritual moment for me, at fourteen.  Such moments do not generally deserve the mockery they get in some public discourse.

But spiritual moments, inevitably, must subside, and become less exalted, more mundane ones; by the time we got home that night, I was wondering what was supposed to happen next.

To be continued… .

The Seventy-Fifth Year

…just ended yesterday.  I’m entering my 76th.

Here’s what I can report, more or less long-term: compared to the state of my heart, soul, mind, and strength as of, let’s say, ten years ago.

  • Time — or rather, the passage of time — really does speed up.
  • But nothing really settles down either, or comes to a steady state.  I have, if anything, changed more in the past ten years, since 65, than in any previous decade except perhaps my first, from 1940 to 1950.
  • I know I’ve changed, because the world looks different from the way it looked to me ten years ago.  Call this a shift in perspectives.
  • The language of elder generations is very different from the language of their juniors.  Though it’s composed of the same words, it does not carry the same meanings.  Not even close.  Maintaining decent communication with younger generations requires more energy, every year, than the year before.


I have a useless, and not quite honorable, interest in comparing my longevity with that of people I have admired, or emulated, or been in some way close to.

My father died in 1977.  He was only 67; I’m eight years older than that.

His father was 92 when he died in 1973.  It’ll take me seventeen years to reach that from here.

J.S.Bach only made it to 66.  I have 9 years on him.

Socrates was executed at 70.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was 62 at his death in 1951.

The philosopher J.L.Austin was only 48 when he died in 1960.

Olivier Messiaen, the French composer, died in 1992 at the age of 84.

Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, is 83.  God bless him.

The Platform — WordPress

I will comment on how this WordPress thing is working out for me:

Pretty damn good.  The first blog (I still hate that word, if anything more viciously than I did ten years ago when I instituted my first blog) went dry after only a year or so.  There have have two more since then — one on, and one on an earlier version of WordPress.  I don’t even remember how the first one was hosted.

There are some continuing irritations.  I don’t blame WordPress for them; clearly, they come with the territory.

The first irritation is that every day brings several “comments” which, in fact, are not genuine comments at all, but  pretty transparent efforts to build somebody’s position in the SEA listings.  It only takes about thirty seconds to delete these.  But it’s tedious nonetheless.

The second irritation is directed at myself: I don’t post as often as I should.  Since initiating “uptime” in January of 2014, I’ve created a total of about 14 posts — maybe one a month.  Several more, in draft from, I’ve left unpublished.

Roughly, here’s how I intend to handle future postings: some — like this one — will be devoted only to my own more or less introspective reflections.  I’ll categorize these are “personal memoir”.  They are my concession — reluctantly — to the fact that I am by far the most interesting person I know.

The others, on such topics as philosophy, J.S.Bach, and literary observations, will have their own categories.

Rosemarie is currently in the hospital, undergoing rehab at Braintree Rehab Hospital for a dual fracture of the hip that she suffered in a fall on Sunday afternoon.

Strange Music

I have had a strange experience with a piece of music.

Surfing YouTube a couple of evenings back, I stumbled onto Beethoven’s Op. 106, the so-called “Hammerklavier” sonata. The pianist was Wilhelm Kempff.

That brought back a lot of memories.  When our family acquired its first record-player in 1957, an Opus 106 LP from Kempff’s 1954-7 set was one of my first purchases.

Well, it’s true that my first love was Bach; the Hammerklavier LP had been preceded by Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and Rosalyn Tureck’s WTC II, and a few other things.

But the slow movement of the Hammerklavier began to do things for me that no other music – not even from my beloved Bach – had ever approached. I was in high school, omnivorously literate,  a piano student stoned on Bach, in agonies of ignorance and pain over emotional states and intellectual vistas that my reading had provided no names for.

The adagio spoke to that solitude. It spoke to my spiritual discomfort, my loneliness, to the diffidence and uncertainty that attended my every social undertaking, the endless failures in friendship. Of course, I had read the man’s life, and his own travails, the Heiligenstadt Testament, the deafness; I had read, and wept at, the story of his premier of the ninth symphony. And so I identified myself in that music.

That continued for many years through high school and college.

As time passed though, the angst and the pain of my adolescence subsided.  I cooled, like slow Hawaiian lava.

And so did my connection to Beethoven and the Hammerklavier.  There was folk music to discover, and the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Dylan, all the modalities of popular culture.  I could always depend on friends to tell me about the new music I needed to hear: the guy who introduced me to acid in 1966 brought an LP of Ravi Shankar to accompany our trip; I got hooked on the music but not the acid.

And always my collection of Bach recordings, and scholarly books, grew larger and larger.  In the 90’s I undertook to create synthesized performances of the Bach keyboard and organ works.

And that gets us to two nights ago, hearing the Beethoven slow movement for the first time in thirty, maybe forty years.

It was a devastating experience.  A rare experience.

You know the bit where you reread a book, or see a movie that once affected you deeply, and find it disappointing?   It’s uncommon, upon returning to a work of art you once loved, to find it even better, greater, deeper, richer, than you remembered; but that’s what happened to me with the Beethoven.

Yes, that’s uncommon; but it’s not, in and of itself, strange.

What’s strange with this adagio: since my re-encounter, it has suffused, ennobled, and dignified every kind of music – Joplin, Shankar, assorted Bach fugues, Creedence Clearwater, Billy Joel, childhood hymns – that has crossed my mind.  I experience all of these, now, as though they were episodes in the continuing saga of the Hammerklavier.

I don’t quite know what to make of this.  I hardly know how to describe it with any clarity.  Stay tuned.

Helluva way to begin a new year, right?

Stories From My Childhood

I taught myself to read at four or five.  The  book was called, I think, “Henry the Helicopter”; there’s an image in memory of calling out “Mom, what’s this word: ‘T H E’?” from my upstairs bedroom in the house we moved out of before I was six.

By the time I was eight, many more books and stories had entered my experience.  Three in particular stand out; I read each one many times, and have never forgotten them.

Each of those three started something.  Each one set me on a path that has continued over the intervening sixty+plus years.  I’d even say that each one generated a new version of myself; all three of which have lived together ever since, sharing my thoughts, my spirit, my sensibilities.

The first one was Dickon Among the Indians.  It started me on a lifelong absorption in tribes, cultures, religions and their stories and their agents.  I’ll say more about that later.

The second one was Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.  This was crude science fiction.  Four years later, when I encountered the real thing in writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke, they felt familiar.   For me, at the time, SJFF was my first thrilling adventure story, a Star Wars for the late 40’s.

The third one was Pilgrim’s Progress.  The path that this set me on eventually became philosophy and literature.  Of course, the religious concepts were familiar to me, even at eight; but the story seemed a little odd.

I read it with curiosity and bewilderment.  I had the vocabulary (or acquired it on the fly, from context), the bare facility with reading, and plenty of imagination.  But I had only eight years experience of being human.

We were not well-to-do.  We lived on forty-four acres at the dead end of what, three miles to the west, was the main street of the town.  Our nearest neighbor was a little over half a mile away.  There were my parents and us five siblings, I being the middle.  Grandma, in decline, had come to live with us a couple of years earlier, and would move in another year to a rest home in Grand Rapids.

My mother’s father had been a pastor — we referred to them as “domine” — of the Dutch Reformed Church.  I knew him only through the library of books we inherited after his death, in 1917, of influenza.  These included some large sets: I remember two or three dozen volumes of 19th-century poets, a dozen of European history, a six-volume set of myths and legends from Greece and Rome.

The Pilgrim’s Progress must have come to us from him, the Reverend Meengs.  It was a late 19th-century edition, with many illustrations which had evidently been collected from a variety of earlier printings and publishers.  They were a wildly diverse set; I wasted a lot of effort trying to reconcile discrepancies in their presentation of Christian, his companions, and the geography of his journey.

Well, what, really, did I absorb from John Bunyan?  Surprisingly, not much in the way of religion.  Which brings us back to DAI .

Dickon Among the Indians was fire-damaged: the dust jacket was missing, and the covers were warped, the spine discolored.  My brother Phil, seven years older than I, had bought it at a flea market.  (He was also my source for Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.)

DAI was a window into another kind of life, another way of living, speaking, learning, and even worshipping.

It’s been said that to really know one’s own native language, one has to acquire a second one.  That’s what Dickon did for me: I understood, reading it, that the religion of my family and of the surrounding community — its services, offices, institutions, and creeds — constituted a vocabulary of conventions  for addressing whatever in human experience was divine.  And I came to understand that the Delaware Indians Dickon lived among in the book used another set of such idioms.

Of course I could not have said this at the time.  I simply enjoyed being with Dickon, among the Indians.  But the position I’m articulating here was pretty well established in my thinking by the time I reached high school.  And all of that had started with my reflecting on Dickon Among the Indians.