And on the other hand...

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Searching for Life's Meaning

Dessicated Cicada, Dried Orange Leaves,
Water-worn Fragments of Temple Tiles*

How unusual for me, it's been three weeks since last I posted here. (Not counting a couple of weak movie reviews over on my Yin diary.)

For various reasons including dreary asthmatic weather, moderate illness (even missing a Chinese painting class), and career stress, I have been in quiet retreat with myself. (Still there was an opera, La Traviata, a girls' night out with nice food at Cafe Sistina and pretty music. But without the commitment of a pricey season ticket and female companionship --the Wizard was traveling so missed the Verdi--I might have forgone the show and the very fine martinis served amidst the faux-Michelangelo decor of the the Italian restaurant.)

I have been pensive these weeks, contemplating the meaning of life and vitality (thinking of my father's birthday last week, his 91st, had he not died four years ago)...and in part because my latest Teaching Company course is "Philosophy, Religion and The Meaning of Life,"** which was pretty much my major in college, enhanced by the very interesting available extracurricular activities of the late '60s.

The 18-hour audio course, which probably sets me up to be miserable on arrival at my day-job, is a classic survey of Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought and its implications, within a hero/saint framework (do we live for ourselves or others?) to consider the arguments of figures from Plato and Abraham to Jesus...and Marx, Darwin and Freud, ending with Simone Weil and Hollywood. Last night's lecture on my way home from work, number 20 of 36, on Nietzsche ("The Return of the Tragic Hero") seems to have put me back at the keyboard.

No Buddha or Lao Tzu or Confucius here: Asian thought, which also has much to say about my favorite question, was consciously left out of the course, the way the militant athiests today tend to intentionally ignore the Eastern religious traditions in their rants. The Asian tradition (and Islam) was also largely absent from my undergrad studies as well, except for one survey course on mysticism and the reading of Hesse's Siddhartha in some philosophy class. And the extracurricular decades-long borrowing of The Gospel of Ramakrishna from the humanities library. (I eventually returned it, and I'm sorry I did.) Now revisiting the Western body of thought has been from a somewhat broader perspective; for the past several years I have been deep in exploration of Asian thought, particularly Taoism.

The TC course has really pointed to nothing new for me; when I went to college, at a small "church-related" liberal arts school, it was imperative that we middle-class baby-boom provincials all take a Western Civilization seminar ("Great Epochs in World Culture") on arrival, and in addition, a course on Biblical History. These freshman prerequisites were to expand and correct the narrow views many of us graduated from high school with. There was also a senior concluding seminar called "Integration of Art, Knowledge and Conduct," that was to put the cherry on the top of our education. This was a last ditch effort to dissuade us from those inculcated narrow views. (The actual events of the '60s --civil rights movements, Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock and roll--were probably more effective than that last seminar. Experience was the best teacher, despite the occasional overdose, war casualty, or unintended pregnancy.)

No matter your major, these courses were mandatory. The school at the time distributed its curriculum in three "Divisions." Division One was the humanities (art, history, language, philosophy, theology and religion); Division Three was the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, math). Division Two was the blurry no-man's land, the interface, the "soft" sciences of psychology, sociology, political science and economics, anthropology and...home economics. (My first roommate was a home-ec major; she left the school after her sophomore year to go to a more "party-oriented" university with sororities. Last I heard, she had gotten a job with the Singer Sewing Machine Company.) Apparently this classic Aristotelian division of disciplines has since given way to career-oriented "tracks." As a Division One major (who, in my case, started out in biology but quickly left that world), what jobs could one get apart from continuing in academia or law school? Teaching, journalism (the outcome I was lucky to enjoy, for a time).

So there is a nostalgia as I enjoy the 36 lectures of "P,R & MoF." It is good to have a structured tour of this stuff that I once studied but have not thought of in an integrated way in years. (It must be the appeal of those "learning cruises," also aimed at the demographic the Teaching Company exploits--educated, reasonably well off old farts; nothing makes you feel alive and young like taking a course...without tests and papers. Not the person in the New Yorker cartoon who says to her travel agent, "I'd love to take a cruise, as long as I don't have to learn anything.")

I don't feel like writing a paper (or a blog post) on this course, although I may have something to say later on the hero/saint motif in contrast to Eastern icons. Sage/shaman? Son of Heaven/slave? Enlightened man/wandering ghost?

In any case, this driving study (Commuter Courses) gives me something to think about during the day, when I am bored and blinded by email, spreadsheets and voice messages. In meetings, I look for the heroes and saints (even sages or shamans) in hopes of finding meaning.

And in a saintly attempt, I will begin Lenten fasting come Wednesday, but more heroically to adjust my stagnant liver qi than to earn credit for suffering. I will be thinking about those martinis consumed amid the reproductions of Michelangelo's astonishing naked men at Cafe Sistina. Do I abstain from those martinis for myself or for others? That's a question of the meaning of life.

*I discovered this cicada (a Chinese symbol of immortality) in a brass hulu (bottle-gourd shaped vase, a magical tool in Taoism) I bought in Wudangshan. The tiles were gathered from a stream where fragments of destroyed temple walls had washed down, perhaps from Cultural Revolution damage. The leaves are from an orange that was given to me by an old Taoist hermit. I find some meaning in this "still-life" arrangement.

**Note: If you become a customer of the Teaching Company, which I highly recommend, you can ALWAYS get these courses substantially cheaper than the advertised retail price.


The Rambling Taoist said...

I'll be anxious to learn of the answers you find...if you decide to share.

Brandon said...

Is there a way I can email you? I was hoping to discuss something about Taoism with you, a question I had.

Brandon said...

hahaha, I just read that link about liver qi, and it lists the majority of my diet:

coffee, sugar, dairy, wheat, peanuts.

What a wreck I am. Could help explain the depression.

baroness radon said...

So far, my observation is that there are no answers, only questions!

sybil law said...

What an awesome post!