A Phenomenological Initiation

Monkey mind: “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical” sums up my reading practise.

Last week I began Dylan Trigg’s The Memory of Place, which is intriguing, but I felt that my inadequate comprehension of phenomenology was restricting my grasp of the book’s depths. I decided to pause and fill in some gaps before reading further. I’m slowly reading Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology, a benchmark phenomenology primer. Sokolowski, if one shrugs off infrequent religious allusions, (Sokolowski is a man of the cloth) opens up the subject with remarkable clarity.

To move into the phenomenological attitude is not to become a specialist in one form of knowledge or another, but to become a philosopher.

Though I understood the premise of phenomenology as ‘the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through such experience,’ I had failed to fully appreciate phenomenology as an (the?) alternative to Descartes’ attempt to initiate ‘philosophy by making a “once in a lifetime” decision to doubt all the judgements’ he held as true. This understanding, and a dissatisfaction with the Cartesian approach, galvanises my wish to go deeper.

The following passage deals with the belief that we have in the world as a whole, the Ur-doxa. I hope it demonstrates the vitality of the writing.

We cannot start off in the egocentric predicament; our world belief is there from the start, even before we are born, as far back as we go. Even the most rudimentary sense of self could not arise except on the basis of world belief. Similarly, even if we discover that we were wrong about very many things, our world belief remains untouched and the world is still there, no matter how ragged and tattered, unless perhaps we lost our sense of self entirely and fell into a kind of autistic isolation; but even there, some sense of what there is would surely remain, if there is awareness at all. The suffering that must exist in autism is there precisely because the world belief is still at work; if it were not, there would be no awareness at all and no sense of self.

Since we live in the paradoxical condition of both having the world and yet being part of it, we know that when we die the world will still go on, since we are only part of the world, but in another sense the world that is there for me, behind all the things I know, will be extinguished when I am no longer part of it. Such an extinction is part of the loss we suffer when a close friend dies; it is not just that he is no longer there, but the way the world was for him has also been lost for us. The world has lost a way of being given, one that had been built over a lifetime.

Phenomenology is likely to remain an idée fixe for some time. I bought Dermot Moran’s comprehensive Introduction to Philosophy as a complement, principally because it delves deeper into the work of phenomenology’s most famous thinkers.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Josef Koudelka (b. January 10, 1938 in Boskovice, Czechoslovakia)
‘Hound’

*****

Repetition enables us to form habits and to accept the world as familiar
Czeslaw Milosz
Exiles

Rhythm is at the core of human life. It is, first of all, the rhythm of the organism, ruled by the heartbeat and circulation of blood. As we live in a pulsating, vibrating world, we respond to it and in turn are bound to its rhythm. Without giving much thought to our dependence on the systoles and distoles of flowing time we move through sunrises and sunsets, through the sequences of four seasons. Repetition enables us to form habits and to accept the world as familiar Perhaps the need of a routine is deeply rooted in the very structure of our bodies.

*****

The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of The Uncanny
Dylan Trigg
Side Effects blog

Throughout the book, a central theme-and one I shall return to-concerns how our bodily identity is shape through being touched by the past. What does this complex theme signify? The phrase “touched by the past” signifies more than being merely affected or in casual contact with the past. What does this complex theme signify? The phrase “touched by the past” brings us into a region of memory and temporality that elicits the moment personal identity is marked in either an affirmative or disruptive manner by the experience of memory itself. Coupled with this exposure to the formation of identity, the inclusion of “touch” reinforces the bind between temporality and materiality. Being “touched by the past,” sets in place the centrality of place itself, implying a kinaesthetic and sensual recollection of the past. The result of this bind between identity and materiality is a challenge to the idea that memory and identity are solely temporal phenomena.

*****

Artificer
Czeslaw Milosz

Burning, he walks in the stream of flickering letters, clarinets,
machines throbbing quicker than the heart, lopped-off heads, silk
canvases, and he stops under the sky

and raises toward it his joined clenched fists.

Believers fall on their bellies, they suppose it is a monstrance that
shines,

but those are knuckles, sharp knuckles shine that way, my friends.

He cuts the glowing, yellow buildings in two, breaks the walls into
motley halves;
pensive, he looks at the honey seeping from those huge honeycombs:
throbs of pianos, children’s cries, the thud of a head banging against
the floor.
This is the only landscape able to make him feel.

He wonders at his brother’s skull shaped like an egg,
every day he shoves back his black hair from his brow,
then one day he plants a big load of dynamite
and is surprised that afterward everything spouts up in the explosion.
Agape, he observes the clouds and what is hanging in them:
globes, penal codes, dead cats floating on their backs, locomotives.
They turn in the skeins of white clouds like trash in a puddle.
While below on the earth a banner, the color of a romantic rose,
flutters,
and a long row of military trains crawls on the weed-covered tracks.

*****

*****

Mary Ruefle
Perfect Reader

I spend all day in my office, reading a poem
by Stevens, pretending I wrote it myself,
which is what happens when someone is lonely
and decides to go shopping and meets another customer
and they buy the same thing. But I come to my senses,
and decide when Stevens wrote the poem he was thinking
of me, the way all my old lovers think of me
whenever they lift their kids or carry the trash,
and standing outside the store I think of them:
I throw my arms around a tree, I kiss the pink
and peeling bark, its dead skin, and the papery
feel of its fucked-up beauty arouses me, lends my life
a certain gait, like the stout man walking to work
who sees a peony in his neighbor’s yard and thinks ah,
there is a subject of white interpolation, and then
the petals fall apart for a long time, as long as it takes
summer to turn to snow, and I go home at the end and watch
the news about the homeless couple who met in the park,
and then the weather, to see how they will feel tomorrow.

*****

Art and the Aesthete

Ethel Spowers (1890-1947)
‘Wet Afternoon’ (1929)