All of us are a little like Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels — sailing the sea of time in our fragile bodies, repeatedly finding ourselves shipwrecked on our voyage to the Unknown. In this parable of the human condition, Gulliver’s accidental voyages take him to strange worlds inhabited by odd creatures. Perhaps most bizarre is Laputa, the island world that floats like a Zeppelin in the sky high above the ground.
The Laputans who inhabit this island have one eye permanently turned inward as though in literal introspection, while the other is turned upward as though in permanent contemplation of the stars. They worship the abstract sciences and have a passion for theoretical reflection; they are devoted to the study of mathematics, music theory and astronomy.
The cerebral Laputans are masters of a wide array of esoteric arts and sciences that gives them the ability to control the land below and hold subject the ordinary earthly citizens. However, they have difficulty in social situations. When they go out into society, they must be accompanied by a servant carrying a stick to bash the Laputans on the head so that they don’t drift off into flights of absentminded speculation, ignoring the person in front of them.
The world of Laputa is so strange as to seem wholly unreal. But to me, the product of an Ivy League education and two decades as a college philosophy professor, that fantasy world is all too real. Increasingly over the years I have come to feel that as an academic I live in Laputa.
I entered the academy to be able to more firmly grip reality through study. So what am I, a commoner with an allegiance to the earth and not the stars, doing living in an island in the sky? When I think back at my journey into the academy, my life seems no less strange than Gulliver’s.
Forty-four years ago, when I was 7, I was drifting, like Gulliver, on the open sea aboard a cargo ship. My family and I had left the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and were headed for New York City. But the steering mechanism of the ship broke down off the coast of south Florida, and we had to be towed to Miami. We made the rest of the trip by rail. In retrospect, it is fitting that I first saw America from the instability of a disabled ship swaying on the open sea, and that I first caught sight of the phantasmagoria of the Manhattan skyline from the window of a rattling train. All this, it turns out, prepared me well for what was to come.
When I was 9, I found myself sitting in a class for the mentally retarded at Public School 101 in Brooklyn, New York. The people around me spoke a foreign language and behaved in odd ways. Even the name I had to use was strange to me. The school forced me to call myself “John” instead of my birth name, Juan.
I was placed in that class, the principal told my worried mother, because I scored just a hair above what an orangutan would have scored on the I.Q. test I was given the year before. The I.Q. test was in English, of course, and the only English I knew were a few curse words my friend Fat Tony taught me in the schoolyard. I eventually escaped that class, but not before learning to always question authority and to never trust the world with my fate.
While my lifeboat has taken me to other strange worlds, none has been stranger than the one I entered 25 years ago when I attended an Ivy League school to study for my doctorate. On my first day on campus I found the building where the philosophy department was housed. In the hallway I encountered a man who had just emerged from the men’s room. He was wearing bedroom slippers, fancy suit pants with cigarette-burn holes in them, and a T-shirt covered with stains. He had a toothbrush in his right hand. He looked at me, cracked a smile and said “Hi!”—revealing a mouth of crooked, smoke-stained teeth.
Minutes later I learned that I had just met the most brilliant member of the philosophy department—the very man who would be teaching me, of all things, logic, the science of correct thinking. The experience sent me into a tailspin, but I knew that if I could make it through the class for the mentally retarded at Public School 101 in Brooklyn, then I could certainly make it through graduate school at an Ivy League university.
Life is indeed strange and unpredictable. One never knows what tomorrow will bring nor what one will be able to do with it.**
What is truly astonishing, however, is not the mystery of life, that some things move and other things don’t, that in every life’s voyage there are shipwrecks, that you never know what tomorrow will bring, that I am now teaching philosophy to college students rather than selling pizza on 86th street in Brooklyn. No. These mysteries are merely the tip of the metaphysical iceberg hiding beneath our everyday concerns. What is truly amazing is the fact that there is anything at all.**
Being itself—to be!—is the most uncanny datum of our experience, and yet it simply stands for everything. It is this very act of writing, the air we breathe, the space we move through and this time that we are sharing. It is here, there, all around us, between us, it is us. It is now. From the atoms that make up the paper of this magazine, to the thoughts in your mind, to the most distant galaxy: All this, the world itself, is, and it is wondrous that it is. And yet we tend to lose sight of the wonder of it all in the midst of it all.
It is our capacity to wonder at the mystery of being that makes us human and separates us from the rest of creation. To wonder about being is like having the top of your head removed and feeling with your naked brain the icy cool presence and unfathomableness of everything.
When you fall into wonder only one sentence forms on your lips: Why is there anything at all and not, rather, nothing? I am not seeking a “cause” or a general explanation of what is, which might or might not be provided by philosophy, religion or science. I am, rather, acknowledging a deepening experience of everything around me. Prior to the experience of wonder, I now realize, I took the full weight of existence for granted, as most people do most of the time.**
You cannot, however, deliberately choose to wonder. You can only ready yourself for it. Wonder always happens as though from the outside in. One slides into wonder, is surprised by wonder, is overtaken by wonder; but one cannot will to wonder. And all of this happens under the most ordinary of circumstances. Maybe it has already happened to you. Maybe you have already fallen into wonder. Or maybe you have been touched by wonder but turned away.**
Maybe you have had the experience, as I have, of awakening in your familiar bed only to find it inexplicably alien, and not because of what you drank or took the night before. A morning when, for reasons unknown, you woke up before the alarm rang and, somewhere between a dream state and clearly felt reality, found yourself bathed in astonishment at your mere being. At the fact that you are at all, let alone here, now, in this particular place at this particular time in this familiar yet so strange bed of yours. A moment when everything you cast your eyes upon—your shoes on the floor, the plant on the windowsill, the pile of books on the desk—fills you with a mixture of awe and anxiety as you let yourself admit to yourself that the mystery of life, of being itself, is so overwhelmingly shocking that it leaves you powerless and speechless.
I could not leave my room for days when this happened to me when I was a student in Europe. When I did I walked around in a haze, astonished that the whole world did not feel as I did. Only the innocent, superficial or deluded will think this experience weird.
Many of us, however, have had such existential epiphanies, such moments of realization of what it is and means to be. If you have, then you know that no amount of description can capture the actually lived felt-sense of being in awe of being. You also know with certainty that it changes you forever. You know that you have rubbed up against the very edge. There is nothing that could be further or deeper.
No one knows what being is or why it is. Not Plato or Aristotle or the Buddha or Einstein. There is no knowing the what or the why of what is. There is only the understanding of life that is acquired through the asking in the state of wonder. But that’s enough. And it better well be because that’s all there is for us mere mortals.
The experience of wonder brings the world into relief and makes a person take life seriously. In wonder you realize that this is it. You have the opportunity to swim through the river of life rather than just float on it, to own your life rather than be owned by life. If attended to, the experience of wonder gives birth to self-examination and to a mindful awareness of the world. In time you come to know yourself as you have been and are—and this gives you the possibility of choosing how to be. Through the experience of wonder we become true individuals and true citizens of the universe.**
Most people, however, live out their lives unaware of the mystery of existence. Everyday routines of work and entertainment keep them from seeing the world and themselves in the light of wonder. They drift quietly through life like the autumn leaves that float on the surface of a river, barely noticing that they are adrift even as their place in the river of time empties into the ocean of death. This is the most common kind of life, literature and art tell us. It’s the life of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, Arthur Miller’s Willy Lohman, W.H. Auden’s Unknown Citizen and Kierkegaard’s aesthete. The average life of the average person seeks to become just that, average—to be “just like everyone else.”
But why do people drift through life like dead leaves? The answer is simple: Drifting is easy and has obvious advantages visible to everyone, while the advantages of letting wonder teach you to swim through life are known only to those who actually do it. Yes, drifting can lead to worldly success, but it can cost you the only thing in life that you can truly call your own—your self. And therein lies the tragedy.
What good is it to know the world but not to know yourself —to be the scientist who succeeds in mapping the 30,000 genes of the human genetic code and thereby hold the biological secrets of all of mankind in the palm of your hand, but not to know the very person who_ holds_ this knowledge in his hand?
What good is it to satisfy the administration of the college and become promoted to full professor, but in the process fail to become a full human being?
What good is it to find a high paying job, fit well into the community, be well-liked and thereby succeed in “living well” but, for a lack of time or attention, fail to succeed in dying well?
I am no different from any other middle-age tenured professor. I enjoy mastering esoteric fields of knowledge, I would love for the college to award me a chair of philosophy, and I could surely use and would love to have a Lincoln Navigator to take my four kids camping. I do not doubt the value of scientific knowledge, worldly success or material pleasure; I only question the importance that people give to these values.
We are all adrift in the sea of time. What matters most is to be aware of what and where we are. What could be sadder than to have lived but not have noticed that one did; to have been born into Plato’s cave and died there without ever having realized that it was a cave in which one lived? And yet, this is the fate of most of humanity, and it always has been.
Experiencing wonder is essential for becoming a complete human being. Unfortunately for you and me, the character of the modern world does not provide the conditions that are necessary for wonder to easily grow into wisdom. We live in an abstract, impersonal world fueled by a mindless hunger for efficiency, progress and profit. In this world life has become a blur that produces confused anxiety rather than insightful wonder.
Wonder needs a sense of place to take root. It unfolds when the familiar is noticed to be unique. For that to happen people need to become embedded in the place where they live. But in the last 50 years we have built a society in which a large number of people live like rootless nomads, traveling across anonymous landscapes of identical-looking lonely suburbs chasing one promotion after the next. In a landscape where strip malls, hamburgers and residential areas are indistinguishable from one another, nothing calls for our attention. We take being for granted.
Wonder also needs time to come into being. But the marriage of capitalism and technology is racing us through time into oblivion. Speed is our god. We go to sleep fast, make love fast, wake up fast, travel fast, eat fast, work fast, read fast —and all this so that we can keep on going fast. Fast for what? When things go too fast, reality blurs and wonder has nothing to latch onto.
Wonder finds no support in our age of analysis, calculation and technical reason. We don’t value or teach people how to feel or attend to their experience. The art of self-examination, which can lead to self-knowledge and virtuous living, is not even a part of the secular curriculum of our schools. Instead we value and teach the abstract arts necessary to operate the machines and bureaucracies of the economy.
The individual hungering to awaken will, unfortunately, find little help. Not only is the character of the modern world inhospitable, but the fire of wonder seems to have gone out in our culture in the very places that were created to protect it.
Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle said, begins in wonder. Yet for most contemporary philosophers it seems to begin in puzzlement or intellectual curiosity. In our age philosophy has become a discipline mired in theoretical and textual minutiae. It is so removed from the actual existence of men and women that much of it does not even recognize existence to be a mystery that disturbs.
Willard van Orman Quine, perhaps the greatest American philosopher of the past century, said that the question of the meaning of life was not worth asking. When our brightest philosophical minds neglect the one question most human beings want answered, philosophy has stopped nourishing the soul.
Science, too, disappoints the hungry heart. Science has become so driven by research grants that one wonders if scientists can stand back from their instruments long enough to feel the wonder of the world they are pinning to paper like so many dead butterflies. In physics, the legacy of positivism is so strong that many physicists are content to believe the universe began with a Big Bang—but don’t feel the need or think it’s legitimate to ask “Why did the Big Bang bang?” How can such a question not disturb one’s sleep?
I may be a Philistine, but I find mostly disappointment where you would expect wonder to flourish most radiantly: poetry. Read the poetry of today and you smell the musty air of the study carrel, not the fresh air of the forest or the pungent smog of the city. Cut open the poems of today’s poetry professors and ink spills out, not the blood of life or the pus of pain.
Education, ironically, does not guarantee arriving at the wonder that can lead to wisdom. Obstacles abound in the life of learning and study. The most treacherous obstacle is education itself.
Students of the humanities are in danger of falling victim to the most serious disease that can befall a spiritual pilgrim. I call this disease of the mind and spirit “Academentia.” It is the scourge of intellectuals of all types but especially of academics, writers for The New York Review of Books and theoretical Marxists.
Academentia is the delusion of confusing the order of thought with the order of being. Victims think reading is knowing and book knowledge is the same as being. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no necessary connection between studying the humanities and becoming humane. History has proven this better than logic. Some of the biggest creeps in the history of the world were well-educated in the liberal arts.
When Academentia reaches its climax, the afflicted become so consumed by reflection that they stumble into existential contradiction: the difference between words and things, ideas and actuality, theory and practice become confused. The teacher of Romantic poetry may be moved to tears by reading Byron but fail to behold his own wife sleeping by his side. The sociologist may get so caught up in gathering and analyzing statistical data about families that she neglects her own children and husband.
The simple lesson here is that there is more to being good than knowing the good, more to wisdom than the accumulation of knowledge, more to virtuous living than refining intellectual capacities. In order to_ be_ you must do, and the doing that brings about personal transformation occurs in the streets, in your jobs, in relationships — and not in the classroom or the library.
A second danger facing the educated elite is the burden of privilege. History is filled with victims of privilege who had to spit out the silver spoon in order to become authentic individuals: Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha; Don Giovanni di Bernardone, who became Saint Francis of Assisi; and Count Leo Tolstoy, who gave away his wealth and became a simple Christian, are but a few examples.
The lives of these great men serve to remind us of the vain promises of privilege. Privilege* *can buy you many things. As time has shown again and again, it can’t buy you happiness or a meaningful life. These have to be earned the old-fashioned way: one virtuous act at a time.**
Death and the Art of Living
Though obstacles abound, and the ethos of our age impedes the growth of our spirit, nothing can entirely kill it. We will always be creatures who have been thrown into being without explanation. For better or worse, we are so created as to realize this.
So long as human beings die, so long as we go out of being as mysteriously as we come into it, the occasion for wonder will remain present. Nothing provokes wonder like death.
When I was 17, my cousin Richie got killed in Vietnam. Richie was an incredibly charismatic person, exploding with life. He was cool, good-looking, and he could play the guitar and sing like John Lennon. I loved him. I wanted to be like him, maybe even be him.
Richie was drafted at age 18 and was in Vietnam barely a few months when he stepped on a land mine and got blown to pieces. His death changed my life forever.
He was given a full military burial that unfolded like the absurdist plays of Ionesco. At one point, Richie’s mom threw herself onto the casket and tried to open it. The soldiers desperately tried to preserve decorum as they forcibly subdued her. As I watched this horrifically surreal scene I felt as though I was being transported into outer space by some alien force.
Before they lowered Richie’s casket into the grave, one of the soldiers folded the flag that was draped over it very neatly into thirds and then into triangles while another soldier played taps on a bugle. With every fold of the flag I felt myself drifting further and further into outer space until the last fold that made a triangular pillow. The moment the soldier placed the folded flag into my screaming aunt’s hands, I completely lost my sense of being there.
The next thing I remember is sitting with my mother in the kitchen of our Brooklyn apartment. We were drinking coffee when all of a sudden I regained the sense of my body’s presence but simultaneously felt like I was going to faint. I went into the bathroom and began to furiously splash water on my face, not so much to wash away the tears as to vainly try to wash away my overwhelming awareness of death. When I looked up into the mirror I not only saw Richie’s face staring back at me, but my face, my mother’s face, my father’s face, my sister’s — Everyman’s face. There and then, suffering the most unbearable of sorrows that a person can feel, I knew I had uncovered something big, the biggest thing there is.
Death has been my constant companion since that day, not filling me with night terrors but, instead, always reminding me of the_ brevity_ of life, the preciousness of every moment and the absurdity of fate. The lessons that are learned in facing death cut to the bone and can never be forgotten. Death frees a person from all of the trivial bull in life and helps the mind focus on what truly matters. Death is the master teacher of the art of living.
You cannot will yourself to wonder any more than you can will yourself to love, but you can prepare yourself for it just as you can for love. You can choose to move slowly through this fast life mindful of your experiences. You can strip down to your bare self and press up against what is.
Juan de Pascule is a philosophy professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. From 1980 to 1984, he taught in Notre Dame’s program for Liberal Studies.