Monday, August 31, 2009

Extremes

"The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In." --HST

We philosophers and runners (pardon the inference if you do not count yourself as one or the other) tread a thin line. We both seek a sort of pure experience. In running--most particularly in racing--the experience is one of the run consuming you. It is an intense and highly private experience, something like what Hunter S. Thompson describes as pursuing the edge: the place of total commitment, say two miles into a 5k or 20 miles into a marathon, in which a choice is forced upon the runner. The choice, broadly, is this. To drive on quite madly, face grimacing into the raging inferno, with courage. Or to jump back into the game that we are accustomed to play, that one where we are sane and in control and having the sort of experience of gently moving safety that modern life calls fun. "I could have approached the edge," we tell ourselves, "but there was the fact of my training lately and the heat not to mention the ugly rotten fear of Putting It All On The Line."

The same goes for philosophy. What we are up to, we philosophers, is the articulation of what Bergson called "elan vital." There are many tricks to this trade. We have at our disposal a vast compendium of concepts, a wide range of historical figures, and schools upon schools of thought. But whatever concepts we choose to employ, whatever philosophical camp we choose to align ourselves with, this is a matter of little importance. What is important is that the philosophy be borne out of a pure experience. Listen to Bergson:

A great impulse carries beings and things along. We feel ourselves uplifted, carried away, borne along by it. We are more fully alive and this increase of life brings with it the conviction that grave philosophical enigmas can be resolved or even perhaps that they need not be raised, since they arise from a frozen vision of the real and are only the translation, in terms of thought, of a certain artificial weakening of our vitality. In fact, the more we accustom ourselves to think and to perceive all things sub specie durationis, the more we plunge into real duration.

James says elsewhere something to the effect that our philosophy expresses our dumb sense of the world. The urgent direction of our vitality. It is only rarely that this gets articulated: language is not the sharpest of tools. When we read philosophy, then, what we are seeing articulated are the vague and plural outlines of specific vitalities. Philosophies are monuments to these passing visions, ruins of old civilizations that buzzed in their times but now lie dead on abandoned hills. They are signs of a life that affirms its overabundance, that says: I can solve unanswerable problems. Thus philosophy must be read. It is only in this context, the context of a life bravely attempting an answer in the face of its own clear absurdity, that the ridiculousness of philosophy becomes sublime.

This is, of course, a happy fact. It means that philosophy in its purest form, like all living things, can never be completed. It is not in the answering of puzzles, in the response to classic questions, or in rational analysis of cultural problems that philosophy finds what is peculiar to itself. Philosophy in its pure form, when it is done well, is like a race fully run. It is a full plunge of the intellect into waters that threaten to drown it, a thrashing about, the finding of the edge, a wild cry: "yes, here I am, a voice, fighting to make some sense, still alive."

3 comments:

  1. As you know, I am not a philosopher, but am a runner. Just as you say philosophy can never end, I've come to realize what frustrated me as a younger runner. This is that training never ends. It seems obvious, but becomes very frustrating when months or years of the grind doesn't yield an increase in performance. I've found that I've come to enjoy the training again, just like I did in high school. Now I'm trying to learn to enjoy the battle of racing again.

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  2. Hey Jamey,

    Thanks for posting. I hear ya. I was totally burnt out on the training process after college. I think partially because as much as I loved to run, I really saw the training as a means to an end--the way to racing fast.

    Now, I love the training--probably more than the racing, which is a problem. Part of it I think is just being 32 instead of being 15 or 16 or 19 or 20. Back in the day we were burning white-hot. Racing every day. Now the burn is slower, more sustained. Better for training, not so good for racing.

    Ain't that always the challenge? Balancing safe, smart, progressive training with that wild-man self that makes it happen on race day? Maybe that's why you peak as a runner in your mid-to late twenties and early thirties. On the right day, we've got both.

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  3. Good luck in the 5k. Sub 16 has been the monkey on my back, so hopefully we can both knock that down in style this year!

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