Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"We're all temporary."

D.H. (everyone I knew called him by his initials) worked at the bookstore I frequented. We would occasionally have conversations about philosophy, as he looked over the titles I put on hold and (sometimes, eventually) bought. By the time I came to work at the store, D.H. had landed his dream job, teaching philosophy himself... well, it was as close as he would come to a dream job: a position as adjunct professor, ill-paying and forever insecure, but a job where he could do what he had longed to do -- pass on the Socratic itch.

Much later, when I was working at the store and D.H. was the browser instead, we'd still have these conversations. Once I ventured some half-formed thought about the way questions are more important than answers or some such, he sort of thing that seems crucial as you are saying it, and which upon writing it down later (now) feels a little bathetic. But D.H.looked at me intently and said, Yes; then he cited a passage from the Phaedo in which Socrates, after having built up a long case for the immortality of the soul, says (I paraphrase): "Well, then. If what we have said thus far is valid, then .... " Everything hung on that If, D.H. said. Even at that moment on the threshold of death, Socrates is not grasping onto a false certainty; he is conducting an open investigation.

The last time I spoke to him, D.H. called the bookstore to say he was too ill to make it to the yearly New Year's Eve party. I wished him a recovery, promised to pass on his greetings, and said goodbye. Two days later, he was dead of a thyroid condition no one had suspected. He'd been much sicker than he'd let on; sicker than he had known, himself. The bookstore, which bought his enormous philosophy collection, has kept a rotating philosophy window display the entire year so far in his memory. Not a few of his books are now on my shelves. He filled his columns with marginalia, mainly in a riddling shorthand. I squint at the asterisks and circles and try to guess.

I didn't write about it right after it happened; I didn't know D.H. well enough to do him justice, I felt. But this month two articles appeared about him, in the Seattle Times and Seattle Magazine, and I gladly link to them here. They are partly about D.H. himself, partly about the tenuous academic life he lived as an adjunct, partly about the way that fragile life is symptomatic of something deeply wrong in the University system. Well, I think, we all know that, right? But good though it is that attention be focused on something so broken, I don't want to reduce D.H.'s fate to a symptom. "I repeatedly reminded David that his teaching situation was temporary," the head of his University philosophy department remembers. "But like a good philosopher, at one point, he responded, ‘Yes, well, Paul, we’re all temporary.’"