What Value Do the Humanities Have?

Stanley Fish has yet another piece on the value of the humanities. Fish argues that we shouldn’t defend the humanities on any sort of utilitarian argument–that by having students take humanities classes, they will learn how to think, how to write, to become better people, etc.–but rather that we should argue that they have an inherent value in and of themselves. He points out that if we justify the humanities in relation to something else, we are playing by another game’s rules, and we’re not likely to do well by doing so.

While I think Fish is a little too apt to reject any sort of justification of the humanities in the creation of well-rounded humans (perhaps because he’s being a bit elitist himself in his definition of what constitutes the humanities), and while I think he doesn’t actually understand the real value of the digital humanities (something to which I contributed in my dissertation in a chapter titled Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in a Text back in 2004), I do think there is something to his Oakeschottian defense of the humanities. And I think that he would have made an even stronger argument had he understood the spontaneous orders argument underlying Oakeschott’s point.

Science is not justified by its contribution to the creation of technology nor to the improvement of health care. I would go farther and say that science has made almost no contribution to the creation of technology, and has rather come along most of the time to explain the technological advances being made. That’s certainly what happened with the steam engine–the science of thermodynamics was developed to explain the working of the engine; the engine wasn’t invented after we understood thermodynamics. While that may be changing with biotechnology, the overwhelming majority of science throughout the overwhelming majority of the history of science has worked this way. Science is self-justified. We learned why the steam engine works because of curiosity, not to make a steam engine.

The same is true of math. Developments in math have come about because people wanted to solve mathematical problems. That is all. The fact that some math has proven useful to understanding some aspect of the world have been fortunate, but there’s a lot of math out there that has no correlation in the real world.

Math and science are two different spontaneous orders. That is, they are epistemic ecosystems. Mathematical developments are made for their own sake, not for the sake of anything else–not even science. Yet, some of those developments in math have proven useful in understanding the world insofar as they are integrated with science. Equally, scientific investigations are designed to help someone learn something they are curious about, and literally for no other reason. Sometimes those discoveries lead to a practical advancement, but very few people are doing science to make technological breakthroughs. Those who are primarily interested in solving technological problems are working in their own spontaneous order. They may draw on the work of scientists, but often they are doing nothing of the sort.

The humanities–as well as the arts–are similarly epistemic ecosystems. People participate in them not for any “practical” purpose, but because they want to solve some sort of problem, to discover or create new knowledge (or, in the arts, to solve an artistic problem). While it’s theoretically possible for someone like Steve Jobs to take a calligraphy course and be inspired to offer different fonts on his word processor on his computers, I don’t think anyone can truly justify the teaching of calligraphy on the off chance that something like that is ever going to happen.

If we take a broader view of the arts and humanities and include TV and film, visual rhetoric, communications, etc., we can perhaps begin to understand the degree to which the arts and humanities touch literally everyone on earth. Few may read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading and understanding it can help one to understand the degree to which those ideas have permeated Western culture and even world culture, permeated our stories and the ways in which we think. That is something which I find worth knowing, but which others may not. And that’s okay. But it should be okay among those who don’t find it personally worthwhile for me to do so. A little less dismissive snobbery from both camps might be in order.

The fact is the humanities help us to understand our social world. Those who enjoy TV and film ought to be among the first to defend the study of works of great literature and the visual arts, because TV and film are always drawing on the past great stories that have lasted for decades, centuries, and even millennia, and they are always drawing on the visuals created over that same period of time. Most of our common cliches were first coined by people like Shakespeare. There are pop songs that directly reference Romeo and Juliet. How many songs in recent years have referenced Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The humanities are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Science is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The free market is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Math is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Technological innovation is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The arts are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. So is philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, the social sciences, and any number of other spontaneous orders. They are justified by people simply being interested in doing those things.

Of course, the reason people want to justify what they do is because they need to pay the bills. How do we get people to pay us to do what we love doing? Often we have to argue that there is some value beyond our own interest and the interest of a handful of others. The sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and math, among others, are luxuries only those with leisure time can dedicate themselves to creating. At the same time, the universality of things like storytelling suggests there is a necessary element to some of these things.

We spend way too much time and energy in storytelling–myth-making, gossiping, reading novels and poems, listening to songs, watching TV, watching movies, etc.–for it to just be a luxury. There has to be some kind of selective advantage for humans to do something so energy-intensive so often. I do believe we need to spend some time and energy learning why this is. Of course, that too is a self-justifying argument. We don’t have to know these things to keep telling and enjoying stories. But we might want to know it for the sake of knowing it–and if knowing that happens to help justify some money being freed up for the humanities, all the better.

Advertisements

The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

The Euphemism Treadmill

In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker talks about the use of metaphor in politics, leading him to discussing George Lakoff’s recommendations to the Left on how to come up with metaphors to support their ideology. For example, Lakoff recommends that “taxes” be reframed “as “membership fees” that are necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which we belong” (246). Let me suggest why this won’t work by referring you to another of Pinker’s works, The Blank Slate. In it he talks about something he calls the “euphemism treadmill.” That is where “People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on” (212). He then points out that we went from “water closet” to “toilet” to bathroom” to “restroom” to “lavatory.” He then observes that “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long” (213).

In other words, no matter what name we give taxes, it remains a fact that when you are taxed, that means that someone with more power than you is taking money that you earned and using it for projects that either directly or indirectly benefit them and which my or may not benefit you and which you may or may not agree with, and threatening to do you harm unless you hand over the money. When a private citizen does it, we call it being mugged. It is theft, plain and simple. Calling it a “membership fee” isn’t going to change that. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

Ridiculous

When someone is laughing at us, it seems cruel –- if we take ourselves seriously. But people who laugh at themselves cannot hate others. Hatred of others come more from taking ourselves seriously as children take themselves seriously than from anything else. There is no one more serious than a child –- and no one is more easily hurt by others.

Mature people know not to take much seriously, and that not all things should be taken equally seriously at all times. Adults know that not every action done by others involves them or that, if an action turns out to be harmful or hurtful to them, that the person doing it did not necessarily always mean it that way. Adults are aware that not everything is meaningful, and that not everything is as it may at first appear. In other words, adults are aware of irony. Only children do not understand irony. And those who find meaning in everything are of a totalitarian spirit.

People who laugh with each other about each other do not want to kill each other. They do not even want to hate each other. Laughter dissolves meaning in a meaningful way, so we do not take each other so seriously we see each other as a threat. And when people do not take us seriously this way, we should not be offended –- they are learning to love us through laughter. But only if we laugh along with them. If we choose to get offended when people laugh at us we in turn show them that we are contemptible, that we do not or can not have a sense of humor. If we are perceived not to have a sense of humor, we will be taken seriously –- and if we are taken seriously, we are in danger of being hated.

However, we want people to laugh with us, not at us. All laughter is aimed at folly –- when we are acting good, we cannot be laughed at. Self-deprecating humor fits here too: people laugh with us as we laugh at our own shortcomings. Good people see the world as serious, but funny (as Aristotle says, serious people don’t take much seriously –- and know when to take something seriously). Good people laugh the most. Beware of the humorless -– even they know they are not good people.

Let me make a serious suggestion. How do we recognize a bad law? Can it be laughed at? Can we make a joke about it? If so, it is a bad law. Who jokes about the laws against murder, theft, or rape? You cannot vilify the good. You can only ridicule the ridiculous.

Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

No Regrets

Aphorism 341 — from Nietzsche’s “The Joyful Wisdom”

The greatest weight. — What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life you will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question is each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

* * * * *
When I first encountered this aphorism, it was in R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it became associated forever in my mind with part of part 10 of “The Intoxicated Song”:

Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woes as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love;
if ever you wanted one moment twice, if ever you said: ‘You please me, happiness, instant, moment!’ then you wanted everything to return!
you wanted everything anew, everything eternal, everything chained, entwined together, everything in love, O that is how you loved the world,
you everlasting men, loved it eternally and for all time: and you say even to woe: ‘Go, but return!’ For all joy wants – eternity!

The typical scholar would first point out that the aphorism from The Gay Science is a response to Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324), and that the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra was in response to Goethe’s Faust, and Faust’s inability to want one moment twice. But these things are not what I want to focus on. At least, not right away. I wish instead to discuss how these two passages came together for me, to affect me as they did.
* * * * *
While aphorism 341 gives us the demon’s offer, it is the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra that gave me the reason why I should accept it. I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1995, in the summer after I had finished the classes for my Master’s degree in biology. All I had to do was do the research for my thesis, and write and defend my thesis. Instead, I moved an hour and a half away from the campus to live with my parents. While living with them, a friend of mine got me a job as a security guard, which I thought was a great idea, because it would give me the time to read and write – I was starting to become increasingly interested in writing fiction and reading philosophy. Nietzsche in particular. Thus I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra while guarding a coal mine entrance. And it is here that I encountered this question: was I living my life in such a way that I would want to live it over and over? And further: Was I living such a life that I would want the moment I was living in to eternally return to me? Was I so happy with my life, with who I was, that I would want to become the person I was at that moment? In other words, did I have any regrets? And was I living my life at that moment in such a way that I would want to relive it, to come back to that moment? And what of other moments, future moments? Every decision I would make, every action I would take, were they going to be decisions and actions I would want to repeat? I was working as a security guard at a coal mine, and I had finished two years of graduate classes in molecular biology, a field I had grown bored with. Was I living a life I would want to live over again?

The thought crushed me. Under the weight of such a thought, I collapsed – not once, but twice. I had two nervous breakdowns – one in the summer, the other in the winter, almost six months later. The first while I was working as a security guard, the second after they fired me for applying for another job. I could not take the weight of this thought, that I should be living life in such a way that I would want to relive that life. I would not want to relive the life I was living at the time. It was a terrible life, filled with psychological pain I would not talk to anybody about – and I was getting a degree in a field that I enjoyed learning new things in, but did not actually like doing, and I was working at a job that I felt at the time to be degrading. I had a college degree in recombinant gene technology! How could I be working as a security guard at a coal mine in rural Kentucky? I had to make a change. The first change I made was to get a job as a substitute teacher, so I could at least do something with my education. And that caused me to get fired from the job I felt to be degrading. My world was out of control. And then my grandfather and my uncle both had strokes. There was nothing I could do. The world was out of my control.

One of the things Nietzsche is trying to do with aphorism 341 is get us to affirm the possibility that the world is completely determined, that everything that will happen will happen in a predetermined way, because of the way Newtonian physics saw the world. The world was determined because of its past. If that was the case (we now know, through chaos theory, that it is not – the past is postdictable, but the future is not predictable any further out than the weather is), we could either despair, or we could affirm it and find joy in it. The demon’s offer is an offering of a completely determined world. Your life would turn out the same way over and over, for eternity. And there was nothing you could do about it. If you came to realize that you lived in a world that you could not control, that would turn out the way it would turn out, no matter what you did – that, in fact, everything you did was itself determined, and would turn out the way it would turn out, no matter what – how would you react? One could argue that you would react the way you were determined to act, but this is a thought experiment. And history has shown us how people have reacted to this idea. The Romantics and the Existentialists both rebelled against the idea, and tried to assert human freedom despite our living in a deterministic world. The German philosopher Kant even went so far as to say that there were two worlds: one of Newtonian determinism, the other of human freedom. Nietzsche chose instead to affirm the Newtonian world. If that was the way the world was, we should rejoice in it, not despair. What, after all, could we do about it? So why not rejoice in the world as it is?

As it turns out, the world is not how Newton, the Romantics, Kant, and the Existentialists thought it was. Chaos theory shows us that the world is both determined and free, simultaneously. Thus, freedom of choice is real. But that does not negate the fact that we do live in a world full of things that happen that are outside of our ability to affect or change. If my grandfather and my uncle both have strokes, what can I do about it? Nothing. No more than a doctor could directly do anything about their having strokes. And I was not even a doctor. But at the time, I could not see that. I raged against the universe: Why couldn’t I do something? How dare the universe present me with anything that I could not affect! But dare it did, and there was nothing I could do about it. The world around me was doing what it was going to do, and there was little I could do to change it. The world was crushing me every bit as much as the greatest weight.

After the school year was over, I decided to put my life back into my own hands. At the same time, I came to realize that I could not control everything. And I became reconciled to that thought. Most of the world was outside of my direct control. And that was okay. What was in my control was how I would react to the world, and what I did with my own life. So I moved back to Bowling Green, lived with some friends, worked odd jobs over the summer, realized as I was working on two novel manuscripts that I wanted to write fiction for the rest of my life, looked into English graduate programs, realized I needed at least a minor in English, and signed up for a full load of English classes that Fall, deciding at the same time that I was not going to finish my thesis for my master’s in biology. And I made all of these decisions knowing I would not ever regret having made a single one of them.
* * * * *
To affirm your life as it is, you have to live it without regrets. To regret something is to say that you wish what happened had happened differently than it did. And that means that you wish that everything that had happened subsequent to that action had happened differently. Take a look again at the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To will your greatest moments, you have to have willed everything that happened up to that point. To reach the point you are now at, everything that happened to you had to have happened to you exactly the way it did, at the time it did, with all of the ramifications, or else you would not be at the point you are at now. To say that you regret any part of your life is to say that you wish that your life were other than what it is. To regret any part of your past is to admit to self-hatred, to self-loathing. So you need to ask yourself what I asked myself: is your life one that you would want to relive it, so that you could come back to the present moment, or even some moment from your past? And are you living life in such a way that you would want to relive it? Or are you one of those people that Schopenhauer said would not wish to relive their lives?

I made my decision. I wanted to live a life I would want to repeat. I wanted to live such a life that the very thought of reliving it brought me joy. I wanted moments that I would want to repeat forever into eternity. I could not imagine working in a molecular biology lab forever into eternity. Lab work bored me, and the thought of being bored forever was much too great a weight. But I was doing something that I could imagine doing over and over, for all of eternity. I was writing. I loved writing – the very process of writing, the creation of characters and the weaving of stories, developing pictures and ideas in words. And when I finished my first novel manuscript, it brought me such joy and clarity as to what it was I should be doing with my life that there was little question as to what I should be doing with the rest of my life. I should be writing. I have loved reading from a very young age – whether it be science or literature. I had loved nature so much, science seemed an obvious choice. But now it became clear that I love the word even more. I loved reading fiction, reading philosophy, reading everything. I still loved reading about molecular biology, but that was all. I had been told that I was good at explaining complex ideas in simple ways – and I brought that to my writing. I was taking creative writing classes to help me with my fiction, and I was applying to graduate schools in creative writing so further help me with my fiction. And I had, in one of my undergraduate short story writing classes written a short story that I was immensely proud of. It was a story I knew was the best thing I had ever written, and, as I continued to write, it became clear that it was a benchmark I would need to work on reaching again. That story was one of those moments of joy – it was a moment of creation I wanted to relive. And each new short story was an attempt to repeat what I had experienced in creating that story. It did not matter that it was several years before I could write another story that good. And it did not matter if I ever wrote another one that good. I had done it once, and that moment made it worth repeating my life. It was at that moment that I regretted nothing in my life – nothing that had ever happened to me, good and bad, nothing that I had ever done, thought, or had not done. Everything was affirmed in that one moment of creation.
* * * * *
To say that I do not regret anything in my life, anything that ever happened to me, is not to say that I live my life without learning from it. To refuse to regret anything from one’s life is different from recognizing that one has made poor decisions in the past that one can then learn from, and not repeat in the future. What this does prevent one from doing is worrying over something that happened in the past. There are no more “I wish I’d never done that.” Instead, there is “Well, I did it, and I have seen the repercussions from it, and I don’t want to do that again in the future.” The first one is negative, the second one is positive. The first one denies the value of the experience. The second one affirms the value of the experience – and properly treats it as a learning experience.

Yet, when I have told people that I regret nothing from my life, I have gotten looks of terror. I do not exaggerate. People have looked at me as if I were some terrible, terrifying monster. How could you not have any regrets? Do you not have a conscience? Of course I have a conscience. This is not an issue of conscience. This is an issue of what attitude one has toward one’s life – which is to say that it is an issue of what attitude one has toward life. Do you affirm or deny life? Your life? Do you live a life of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would have it? Or do you live a life of quiet joy? I choose joy over desperation. When faced with such a person, how would you expect them to react? I am no monster, but having once been the person they now are, I can understand why they may misunderstand and think that someone who lives a life with no regrets could be a monster. People are filled with awe at both the awesome and the awful. I claim to be neither, but I do understand how someone who does not know me can think of me as being potentially awful for living a life of no regrets.
* * * * *
There is a correlation to having no personal regrets, and that is not regretting another person’s past. My decision to drop out of graduate school in molecular biology to pursue graduate programs in English and in Arts and Humanities is one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. My decision to major in recombinant gene technology and minor in chemistry and do two years of graduate classes in molecular biology is equally important and positive. I could not have done any of the things I have done, thought the things I have thought, done the scholarship I have done, or written the stories or poems I have written if it were not for the education I have received in biology and chemistry. Every decision I have made in regards to my education have been good decisions, they have been exactly what I needed to make me who I have become. How do I know this? Because I did have this education, and I have become the person I have become. Had I made any change – any change – I would not now be the person I am right now. And I would not want that. However, my own father cannot see this.

I have had several discussions with my father about this issue. He has asked me if I regretted not getting my Master’s in molecular biology. And I have told him that I do not. He has claimed that I wasted my time doing biology when I could have been concentrating on what I am now doing. Which is ridiculous on the face of it. I could not have decided to go into the arts and humanities until the crisis that led me to start writing as much as I was. Further, the first novel manuscript was based on an idea I developed in molecular biology – so I would not have even started, let alone finished (and, later, destroyed) the manuscript that put me on the path to writing fiction in the first place. Everything had to happen exactly as it happened in order for me to be in the exact place I am at the present time. For him to say that I should have done something different is the same as him saying that he wishes that I was a different person than I am. To object to someone doing something in the past is to object to who that person is. Remember that the next time you say that someone should have done this or that different. You are objecting to that person being who they are. What we should do instead is discuss past episodes as learning experiences. We should only criticize those we love for not learning from their past mistakes (though in my case, I reject the idea that what I did was even a mistake). If that person has clearly learned from what they did, then there should be no criticism. In my case, it would be just to criticize my dropping out of graduate school the first time if I repeated that pattern in getting my MA in English, or if it seemed as though I were going to not finish my dissertation for my PhD. It is ridiculous to criticize someone for dropping out of graduate school seven years before when they have 323 pages of a dissertation sitting on a dresser in the house. The product is there to look at. How can you wonder if what is clearly almost done will get finished? And there are several more reasons why this is a ridiculous complaint, aside from my having already finished a Master’s thesis before: I am a completely different person now than I was seven years ago, and I am doing a completely different kind of project for my dissertation, in a completely different field of study. In other words, there is almost nothing similar to compare.

What my father cannot seem to understand is that I am a completely different person now than I was when I dropped out of a graduate program in molecular biology, and he cannot understand the fact that I do not regret any of the decisions that I made, and that I would make those same exact decisions over again if I could somehow go back in time and change them. Of course, to say that I have no regrets and that I would not go back in time to change anything is to say exactly the same thing.
* * * * *
In aphorism 341 of The Joyful Wisdom (also known as The Gay Science), Nietzsche gives us in the demon’s offer a chance to affirm life as such through affirming our lives in particular. In other words, he asks us how we would react if a demon should offer us eternal recurrence. How would you respond? Would you be crushed by the idea? Would you curse the demon? Or has there ever been something in your life so wonderful that you would want to repeat your life in every detail so you could relive that moment – and become the person you are at the moment of the offering – over and over again? For those who would reject the offer – thus accepting Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324) – Nietzsche has nothing more to say. But for those who would accept it, Nietzsche offers, “Incipit tragoedia” and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the further development of the tragic, recursive geometry of time introduced in the demon’s offer – an offer which Oedipus accepted at the end of “Oedipus tyrannus,” providing the model for the tragic view of time. Only those who can say “Yes” to the offer are ready to hear what is to follow – Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera shows the consequences of this Schopenhauerean rejection, with the fictional example of Mirek (the individual) and the nonfiction example of communist Czechoslovakia (the country/society/culture) of attempting to erase their pasts – the most active rejection of Nietzsche’s demon’s offer one can undertake. Mirek thought he could control his destiny by erasing (forgetting) his past – just as the Communists thought they could do the same for the destiny of Communism. He wanted to “destroy his own hated youth” just as the people of Bohemia “rebelled against their own youth” (18), resulting in Prague Spring, which, as a “bad memory” is not even remembered, having been “carefully erased from the country’s memory” (19).

By attempting to erase people “from the country’s memory,” the Communists showed us how dangerous is the desire to forge, to erase our memory and our youth. But this is only a natural response, as Schopenhauer recognized, when he said “perhaps at the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again,” since “everything excellent or admirable is always only an exception,” and “as regards the life of the individual, every life-history is a history of suffering, for, as a rule, every life is a continual series of mishaps great and small” (WWPI, 324). But, natural as this response may be, we can see that it is also a tragic response, resulting in people being imprisoned or killed and erased from photographs and history books. Those who would refuse to go through it again are saying No to their lives – and if they are in power, this No-saying can turn deadly.

Unless we affirm our lives, whether that be our own individual lives, or the life (history) of a nation or a people, the consequences can be tragic. This is, in one sense, ironic, considering that Oedipus’ life is precisely terrible and, therefore, tragic, because Oedipus, in the end, would have accepted the demon’s offer, knowing full well what that would entail. This is what makes Oedipus both wonderful and terrible, truly awe-ful. But at the same time, this is what makes one’s life beautiful, this affirmation, as it now gains a certain depth – of time. Since it is unlikely one is going to actually encounter such a demon, one can take this idea metaphorically, and chose memory over forgetting. Of course, this too is tragic, though perhaps a considerably less bloody tragedy, at least for people other than oneself, as we see with Hölderlin’s idea of tragedy being connected to memory, with memory’s failure over time. As Dennis Schmidt points out in On Germans and Other Greeks, in discussing Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion for Hölderlin, “A separation in time cannot be overcome . . . since such a separation is the province only of the past. . . . Separation in time can only be suffered” (131).

The problem with forgetting is that it is “absolute injustice and absolute solace at the same time” (Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 130) – and often the former is used in hopes it will lead to the latter. But both of these point to precisely why forgetting is tragic – it is an attempt by a finite creature to attain infinity (the absolute). In attempting to forget, we attempt to overstep our bounds, as defined by physis (we are a remembering being, and as such, we overstep out bounds by trying to make ourselves forget – we try to make ourselves other than human). The attempt to deny the past is the attempt to deny tragedy. And it is the attempt to deny ourselves.
* * * * *
Heraclitus says that “to God all things are beautiful and good and just, though men suppose that some are just and others unjust.” Do you understand what this means? The affirmation of your life also means the affirmation of all of life – of everything that ever happened in the world. If your life as it is could not be where it now is without everything that happened in it, then this is equally true of everything in the world – even of the universe. Think about it: everything had to have happened exactly as it did in the world in order for you to have even been born. Thus, to affirm your own existence, you have to – to take an extreme example – affirm the existence of Hitler and the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust. That does not mean you have to like, approve, or promote such behavior – but it does mean you have to recognize that the world as a whole – all things – are beautiful and good and just. If you have ever had a great moment you would want to experience once more, then you have affirmed the existence of Hitler. And rather than denying what he did, or pretending that what he did was another generation’s fault or problem, we have to come to terms with what happened, and learn from it, and learn how to avoid something like it happening again. We have to also come to recognize all the good that came out of what happened. Good? you ask? If you cannot see the good, you are refusing to look hard enough – and you are negating your very existence, and the beauty of life itself. In other words, we have to do something eminently Christian: we have to forgive Hitler. That’s right, we have to forgive him. For only in forgiving him can we heal ourselves. Only in forgiving him can we affirm our lives, our existence, and life itself.
* * * * *
In an odd sort of way, many will find it easier to forgive Hitler than to forgive those closest to them – those we have to forgive the most. Our lives are full of resentment toward others – and the easier our lives have been, it seems the more resentment we build up against others. Especially those closest to us. People just barely surviving do not have the luxury of resentment — they actually have to live physically. Resentment is a luxury. It comes from idleness and boredom. And there is nothing more destructive to ourselves than resentment. With it we separate ourselves from others, especially those closest to us, and barricade ourselves not just from them, but from others. We sever social bonds, and in severing such bonds, we sever ourselves from much happiness. We are a social species, and our bonds of family and friends are so very important to us for us to live healthy lives. Resentment cuts those bonds. Resentment only makes us bleed – it does little if any harm to those we resent. Resentment is the knife we use to cut ourselves, to watch ourselves bleed. It fogs our sight as the blood runs in our eyes. We stumble and fall, and then blame those we resent.

Resentment is the world’s greatest poison. A slow poison eating away at our lives, at our selves, killing us slowly. Do you think that your slow dying will harm those you resent? Why hurt yourself to harm others? But if you are not big enough to avoid resentment, you are not big enough to refuse to harm others, you are certainly not big enough to forgive. And thus your life is poisoned, and the lives of everyone around you is poisoned. Almost every sin against others comes directly from the sin of resentment. Hatred, including self-hatred, and all the self-destructive things that come with it, and racism, theft, lying, true sadism, true masochism – all of these have their sources in resentment. Let go of your resentment – affirm life – these are the same things, the same things that will make life not just worth living, but a true joy.