If we have our why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that. (Nietzsche, TI 12.)
Anchored misery, misery that has something external to the sufferer as as both its cause and its object can, in some ways, be easier to bear. At the end of her penetrating essay ‘Joy’, Zadie Smith quotes Julian Barnes on the subject of mourning: “It hurts as much as it is worth.” If we have a ‘why’ of suffering, it doesn’t diminish it or make it any lighter to drag around with us, but it does give it a place and an importance in our ethical lives. Misery is the appropriate response to loss of something valued, whether that is a person, a relationship, innocence or even a rosebush. Continue reading
I’m currently reading the brilliant, wry and completely heartbreaking ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A.M. Homes. (With serious thanks to Hannah G for lending it to me.) As some measure of these things, yesterday on the train the man sitting opposite me asked if I was alright because I was making anguished faces and clutching my collarbone so hard with my fingertips that they left marks. After a time I trawled my eyes upward from the page to realise he’d moved away.
Many things struck me in the book, but the below extract struck me because of the obvious relevance to Wittgenstein:
“I’m thinking of days that never were, the perfect childhood that existed only in my imagination. When I was growing up, the playground wasn’t so much a well-coiffed green as an empty lot. Our families had no desire for us to have a safe, clean place to play- as far as they were concerned, playing was a waste of time. Supplies were limited; one guy might have a mitt, another guy a bat, and the rest of us caught barehanded, sucking up the incredible sting, hands smarting not only with pain but with the thrill of success at having plucked the ball out of the sky, having interrupted the trajectory and likely spared someone the cost of replacing a window. The bottom line was, if you had time to play, you didn’t tell anyone, because if your parents knew, they would find something for you to do.
So we played quietly and out of sight, making toys out of whatever happened to be nearby- my father’s shoes made a most excellent navy, his size-nine wingtips gliding in formatting across the carpet, the smell of leather and foot sweat. And what did I use as the aircraft carrier? A silver platter that I borrowed from the dining room. And when my mother discovered the platter surrounded by shoes, she accused me of having mental problems. Why wasn’t it obvious to her that the carpet was the ocean, the battleground? She called me a nogoodnik, and I remember crying and George thinking it was all so funny.” (p. 102)
“Linguistic practice is not for something…[it is not] a means to secure some other end specifiable in advance of engaging in linguistic practice- not adaptation to the environment, survival, reproduction, nor co-operation- though it may serve to promote those ends. Even if.. those functions explain why we came to have language, once we did have it, our transformation into discursive creatures swept all such considerations aside. For discursive practice is a mighty engine for the envisaging and engendering of new ends.” – Robert Brandon
If this is true- which I believe it is- then the languages we use to talk and write are weighty, wonderful things.
But it is also true that there are simpler languages, ones which skulk around the edges of our linguistic practice and cannot hope to transform us in the same way. These languages are sometimes imagined, sometimes stipulated, sometimes required to fulfil a certain role. They rub uneasily against our native languages- too different for adequate translation, too similar for us to not try and attempt it. Continue reading