By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
DURING MY THIRD year at grammar school our English teacher once asked us to prepare a short presentation on any subject we chose. Being a bookwormish little swat at the time I did a piece on Socrates. When it came to my turn to read it out I had only got into about a minute of it before the class idiot and his friend interrupted indignantly, complaining that they thought I was going to talk about soccer teams. It was my fault for not enunciating clearly, I have to admit, but it was also my fault for thinking that talking about a long-dead Greek philosopher to a class of generally intelligent boys, but one that included the year idiot, was anything but casting pearl before swine. Most of them would indeed have preferred a talk on soccer teams, or the Jaguar E-Type, or the space race.
For them, and for me as it turned out, a little philosophy is more than enough. Or sometimes too much. A grasp of basic ideas such as “the unexamined life is not worth living” and the process of Socratic reasoning (ie, keep asking questions till everyone gives up out of exasperation and leaves you alone at the bar) has been sufficient for me. I could include in that a fuzzy understanding of Plato’s Forms and all that stuff about the cave, but anything else in philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to the post war Eurocharlatans is as substantial to me as a cloud of vapour. And I’m sometimes convinced that it’s best not to examine your life too closely in case you end up in a state of moral and existential paralysis like Hamlet. Oh yes, the Existentialists, I’d forgotten about them. There are bits of their work I can grasp but Kierkegaard is too abstruse and anything by Sartre that is not fiction may as well have been written by a Martian.
This lack of sympathy for the philosophising mind may just be the innate anti-intellectualism of the British psyche, given to a more empirical view of the world and suspicious of the abstract. It could also be the result of years of listening to what used to be known as the intelligentsia (a term that seems to have followed the Soviet Union down the drain of history) talking highly-referenced nonsense about human life, society and the natural world. They were busy examining life, no question, but not life as the rest of us know it.
Or maybe I am too thick to understand it. I’m happy to accept that as well, because it’s no loss to my own life, examined or otherwise. It’s no loss to most of us in fact, a thought that occurred to me as I was reading an interview with Zygmunt Bauman in Spiked magazine. Bauman was explaining his idea that our general marginalisation from the existing political and economic global order has changed the way we look at the past and the future:
…the future (once the safe bet for the investment of hopes) smacks increasingly of unspeakable (and recondite!) dangers. So hope, bereaved, and bereft of the future, seeks shelter in a once derided and condemned past, the home of superstitions and blunders.
It’s neatly put but how much truth is there in it? That word “hope” carries too much freight — and yet nothing at all (as those who voted for Obama found out). I don’t think most people concern themselves with “hope” in the grand sense that Bauman does. They hope they won’t get ill. They hope they’ll have enough money to live a decent life. They hope their children will be healthy and happy. As he told the Guardian, they feel anxiety about incipient collapse; they hope their streets and towns and cities will be safe, and so on. I don’t think many, apart from politicians and intellectuals, believe in some grander vision of hope, any more than of progress, which is another concept discussed by Bauman. Hope for most of us is a belief that we will get through the next day, week, month or year without having anything painful to contend with, and that constitutes a working idea of the future. I don’t believe we’ve reached a situation where we’re all so terrified of “the future” beyond those things that we cannot bear to think of it and turn instead to some sort of some romanticised past.
We’re back on solid leftist ground here, though, aren’t we? It’s the old accusation that we’re obsessed with the past and are therefore reactionaries. There’s no indication of which past is being referred to (makes a change — usually it’s the 1950s) even if it is one “retrospectively imagined after having been lost and fallen into ruins”. All memory is imagination and all imagination is memory — how about that? But we do know the past has happened. The future has not. To think about the future is to reimagine the past rearranged. That’s one reason the more idealistic of our young people are so keen to create change: they have no past of their own and therefore cannot appreciate what consequences flow from causing change. The future they imagine is uninformed by their own experience of the past; instead they are reimagining a past they do not have and which is at most constituted of bits of someone else’s past (ie, society’s).
It’s getting too complicated already, you see? I’m starting to appreciate what the class idiot felt all those years ago (even though the severest self-examination of his life would still have left him an idiot). I’ve always believed that the proper purpose of philosophy is to help us live a better life. That should not involve getting bogged down in abstractions. It should include enabling us to cope with hardship. As my late mother used to say about anything distressing or difficult: “Best not think of it.” She lived through tumultuous times and died when she was 86. The older I get the more I think she had the simplest and most workable philosophy around. She had a longer life than Socrates, that’s for sure.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.