Cosmic Insignificance

Nietzsche on the nature of reflection:

When we try to examine the mirror in itself we discover nothing but things upon it. If we want to grasp the things we finally get hold of nothing but the mirror. This, in the most general terms, is the history of knowledge.

I could use the bulk of this post to conduct a close reading of the above quote, to pick apart its internal logic, illustrate its underlying tensions. But today I’ll concern myself not with what Nietzsche says, but instead what my choosing of this passage says about me.

Essentially I want to know why I’m drawn to philosophy in the first place and how this interest relates to my depression and anxiety.

Does a depressed way of thinking lead me to agree with Nietzsche that attempting to know something is futile? This sounds simple enough. My misery loves the company of Nietzsche’s pessimistic worldview.

In addition, does my anxiety recognize itself in Nietzsche’s thoughts on the impossibility of knowledge? Do I suffer from metaphysical hypochondria—the constant fear that reality isn’t real, that I have no self, that the world is an illusion? The vertigo of knowing that nothing can be known for sure? Makes sense. Afraid I’ll float away, I ground myself in doubt.

But the psyche is an ocean and so far we’ve only touched the surface. I argue that choosing this quote reflects a deep-seated existential angst that manifested itself long before any symptoms of my illness appeared.

I suffer from depression and anxiety because my entire being is engaged in an existential crisis, and has so since birth. My illness is both an expression of and response to this crisis. When I’m depressed I feel nothing because I am, at my core, Nothing. When I’m anxious I worry this Void will consume me.

Some people lift weights, get high or go to the shooting range as a means of coping with their cosmic insignificance.

I go to the library, where great minds thrive. And there I find Nietzsche. And there I find joy.


The Secret Time Won’t Tell

I’ve written many times about our inability to know the world, to understand and tame its restless energies. Often in this thought I’ve assumed a pessimistic tone, arguing that trying to know anything is futile. But that’s the coward’s way out. There are truths we can grasp; that most of the world remains unknowable does not mean nothing matters in the end.

This week I’ve been reading The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, published in 1988 by Donald A. Crosby. Among the many facets of nihilism that Crosby examines, is the nihilist’s contention that nothing is certain and thus life is absurd and meaningless. Crosby concludes much of what I mentioned above, and he finds the nihilist’s perspective regarding the impossibility of knowing anything as shortsighted and dangerous.

Crosby discusses God a lot. He writes that, at least in the Christian tradition, people assign limitless knowledge to God. Humans are destined to search and search for answers, but we’re fundamentally incapable of finding everlasting truths. To illustrate why this realization need not lead us to despair, Crosby includes an insightful passage attributed to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing:

If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left the persistent striving for the truth, and while warning me against eternal error, should say, Choose! I should humbly bow before his left hand, and say, “Father, give thy gift; the pure truth is for thee alone.”

Say we suddenly knew everything. The Quest would end. There’d be nothing left to ponder. No mysteries to uncover.

The Truth is clever, elusive. Although silence is often the answer to my calling out, in my persistent striving I’ll keep listening for the Secret time won’t tell.

Independent Study

There is no outside, no escape from the terror of Capital.

Capital devours every critique against its insatiable appetite, reducing resisters to crumbs. Fighting back is noble but ultimately futile. Still, many people make a career (far, however, from a lavish lifestyle) out of protest.

Marshall Berman, on page 116 of All That Is Solid Melts into Air, writes that professionals, intellectuals and artists are “paid wage-laborers of the bourgeoisie.” They, according to Marx,

live only so long as they find work, and . . . find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These workers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (quoted in Berman 117)

In short, professors need to eat. As long as they’re useful (to the academy, the publishing industry, liberal think tanks, etc.) they’re employed, even when they pose a threat to the status quo by reading and citing radical figures like Marx. Dissenters, like apologists, still power the machine.

I’m no radical, but I am critical of the system, and when I’m deconstructing assumptions I remain in its trap. There is no uncorrupted thought, no theorizing my way out of the maze. I don’t get paid for teasing ideas: philosophy is my hobby, like woodworking or restoring classic cars. Sharing a passion for knowledge comforts my soul.

The cost of an advanced degree triggers thoughts of bankruptcy, so I’m pursuing, on my own terms, a free PhD from the University of Indian Trails Public Library. My thesis is a work in progress, tentatively titled Sharp Left Turns.

No Ledge

I was reading a philosophy book recently and stumbled upon a random line break. The word “knowledge” jumped to another page, splitting into “know-ledge.” This led me to “no ledge,” a metaphor expressing the essence of knowing as I’ve approached it since college.

Pragmatic people see education as building a foundation of facts and figures, a baseline for measuring objective truths. They think that learning enhances mastery over the world, that it’s a tool used to increase confidence and stability.

But dynamic thinking is all about vertigo and disorientation. It’s a shock to your system. Searching for a different angle, you look out the window of your high-rise apartment and find there is no ledge. How far will you stick your neck out to glimpse what lies below?

Most people venturing into the unknown have a fallback plan that maintains the status quo. If things get too scary, they retreat to their comfort zones. Thoughtful people ask serious questions with no clear solutions. Excited by the prospects of deeper truths, we devote our lives to following ideas wherever they lead. Sometimes we have to catch ourselves before tumbling all the way down.

Chris Truman: The 4.0 (Part 2 Of 2)

As Truman worked his way through school, he had learned to cope with the mental jabs from his classmates. Somewhere along the line in his high school tenure, he decided against “fitting in,” and began to study in earnest. His late push toward respectable final evaluations enabled Truman–at his father’s urging–to complete an application for admission into Pinehurst College, a small liberal arts school known for its commitment to academic excellence. Another major plus–it wasn’t far away, so he could commute daily from safety of his parents’ home.

After a short wait, and much to his surprise, Pinehurst accepted Chris Truman and he accepted his fate. Life would never be the same, even if–as a young adult–the poet continued to fight the many demons from his youth. Bullying stays in one’s head regardless of the bully’s physical absence from his victim’s life. As adults, we fight battles whose roots can be traced from infancy–we re-live our childhood traumas well into old age. Even the heaviest subconscious trash floats to the top of our vast emotional oceans eventually.

Though he didn’t know what to expect, from day one in his post-secondary career, Chris Truman was desperate to make his name known. He demanded attention–from his professors, his classmates, his family–and achieving the ultimate perfection of a 4.0 grade-point average, he assumed, would garner him a bounty of recognition. The Void that permeated his entire being yearned to be filled–not from within but from without. Truman’s bruised self-esteem, hopelessly dependent upon others, needed constant care. Never mind that the light of one’s true self-worth emanates from the inside–the poet was desperate to learn from other people the length and breadth of his importance in academia. A simple degree in English Literature and Composition wouldn’t be enough–Chris Truman had to finish perfect.

The 4.0 became his obsession. He chased it. He ached for it. He lost sight of himself because of it. Pinehurst College, with its emphasis on do-it-yourself, liberal learning, became for Truman a place of great distress, for it was there that his desire for approval ran wild. In class after class, he strived not for knowledge in itself but knowledge as a means to earning another “A-plus.”

By his third year at PC, he was completely out of touch with his intentions in attending the school in the first place. Truman, in following his father, had thought himself fit to teach literature and writing to fertile high school minds. But his daunting pursuit of perfection prevented him from procuring such a lofty profession. He was a full-time student (and part-time Gem Foods Store stock boy) who wished nothing more than to conquer college–what might lie beyond his studies was of little concern to the scholar.

This lack in foresight would, after capturing the elusive 4.0, render the orderly-conscious Truman a total mess–spiritually, emotionally, physically, and financially. True education failed to commence until the moment he received his diploma in May 2002. The phrase Summa Cum Laude–emblazoned beneath his name–would haunt Chris Truman forever. No degree in abstraction could halt the impending doom of concrete reality bearing down his back. In less than a year, the very instrument that facilitated the 4.0–his mind–was about to implode.

That’s All I Know (Right Now)

Blogger’s Note:

The headline of this post is the title of a Sonic Youth song in which Thurston Moore declares that: “I’m yours and you’re mine / And that’s all I know right now.” What will follow here (one item per day for each of the next seven days) is not a love song but is instead a short, randomly-ordered list of all I know right now. Enjoy!


There is no ultimate Meaning of Life; each of us gives meanings to his or her own life and, by extension, the lives of others.

Everything that occurs in one’s life is, by nature, neutral as it develops. It simply is. We process and assign values to our experiences after they happen to us. This is not to say that life is meaningless; in fact, it is rife with endless meanings, all of which we supply and then call our own. The universe never tells us how to live, but we all have the ability to make (and later change) meanings for ourselves.