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The Narrows of Life - Faculty essay by Stuart Warner, Philosophy

Faculty Essay: The Narrows of Life

Posted: 05/22/2014

By Stuart D. Warner, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Montesquieu Forum at Roosevelt University

From the Spring 2014 issue of the Roosevelt Review [PDF]

I remember. I was 12 years old and in Maimonides Hospital. My feet had swelled up, probably from spending too much time running around on the hard concrete streets and sidewalks of Brooklyn, but the doctor wanted to be safe. It was in the early evening when my parents came to visit. My father was walking ahead of my mother, excited to see me, a smile creasing his face. He reached out his hand to grasp mine, but it was not to be. In that infinitesimal moment just before our hands would meet, he collapsed, the thud of his head hitting the ground seemingly reverberating through the entire universe. A massive heart attack had gotten in our way. His life was no more, and mine...

The world went on, although my place in it surely changed. We moved two years later from the lower floor of a two-family house in Flatbush to an apartment in a public housing project, in Sheepshead Bay, where I would soon enroll in a high school of that same name. To say I was a decent student would be a glaring overstatement: poor grades coupled with poor standardized test scores a decent student does not make. But I was more than a decent runner, and I found another home of sorts on the cross country and track teams, which kept me occupied for three years. Graduation arrived, and around that time my life slowly began to unravel, for I had no answer to the question of what to do next ... and it plagued me.

Stuart D. Warner, professor of PhilosohyNo one in my extended family, much less my immediate one, had ever attended college, so that wasn’t an obvious choice, but several months of depression finally gave way to the clarity of a desire that had been percolating within me. I realized I wanted to be a high school physical education teacher, where I might be able to coach the sport that provided me so much enjoyment. However, I learned that that required going to college.

Armed with my newly clarified interest, aided by a small inheritance left to me by my paternal aunt, and encouraged by the ready support of my mother, I somehow found my way to Sullivan County Community College, in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., a location best known for being part of the “Borscht Belt,” where Jewish comedians plied their trade, and where I would be housed at what had formerly been the Green Acres Hotel.

It’s so strange to think back on those days. Was that really me? Well, in fact, there I was, and not having any inkling at all about registering for college classes, I arrived in January at the end of the registration process, with many sections of many classes already closed. The way in which it worked in those days was that each department had its own table in the gymnasium, all of the tables arranged in alphabetical order by department, to which one would go seeking a card that would give one entry into a class. So there I stood at the physical education table, nervously seeking courses to take, standing directly between philosophy and physics

The summer before a friend, who would be off to Brown University, told me that he had been reading Friedrich Nietzsche, the nineteenth-century German philosopher. Perhaps he was showing off to me, perhaps not, but he had made the subject sound so urgent and enticing. I thought of that summer’s conversation at registration as I turned to the left of me and then to the right. Physics was an impossible choice: I had taken earth science in high school because I didn’t have the grades to get into physics. Introduction to Philosophy would be one of my courses: maybe my friend was on to something. And then for good measure, being unable to find another course to fit my schedule, I enrolled in Ethics as well. Two philosophy classes for a prospective physical education major! It took just three weeks of school before I planned on being a physical education and philosophy double major, and shortly thereafter the first gave way completely.

After several years and myriad twists and turns, I decided to attend graduate school at Michigan State University, where I encountered several wonderful teachers – and a young woman who would soon enough become my wife and mother to our children – and from where seven years later I received my doctorate. I had somehow stumbled upon and then given myself over to what I eventually recognized to be perhaps the deepest of human longings – philosophy.

I remember. My father was lying on the ground, nurses and doctors gathering around him. Someone quickly pushed me away in the wheelchair in which I was sitting, to take me back to my room. My mother was calling out my father’s name, pleading, “Don’t do this to us; don’t do this to us.” In that moment and its aftermath her life had been torn apart. It would never be the same. Nothing could ever mean the same. When she awoke that morning and headed off to work as a school crossing guard, she couldn’t have imagined that she would awake the next morning alone. When my father awoke that morning and headed off to work as a handy man, he couldn’t have imagined that there would be no next morning. We know when many insignificant things will come to an end, but this most significant thing of all, life, about this we are always and everywhere in the dark.

""How I wish my father had lived longer. No doubt my life would have been different. But how much so? I surely would have attended a different high school – but would I have succeeded better there? Would that have led me to attend a different college? Would I have found philosophy beside(s) physical education? Would I have even known about philosophy, for who would have mentioned Nietzsche to me? Would my father, looking out for me, have urged me to study something more practical, the adage “philosophy bakes no bread” alive and well? Different people would have entered and exited my life, and what effect would they have had upon me? But if the circumstances I encountered would have been markedly other, would my life have been markedly other, also? How did I arrive at the life that is mine? How does anyone arrive at the life that is one’s own?

In the opening chapter of Willa Cather’s beautiful and poignant novel, My Ántonia (1918), two teens, unbeknownst to each other, are heading on the same train westward toward the plains of Nebraska, where they will become fast friends and spend several years together growing up. Jim Burden, a ten-year old boy from Virginia, is off to live with his paternal grandparents, both of his parents having died – his life, as he knew it, completely effaced. Ántonia Shermida, four years his senior, is traveling with her whole family, looking for a new life in a new world – their original point of departure, Bohemia. 

But Jim is the narrator of the story, penned in his early 40s, looking back, piecing together the arc of his life through memories of the most memorable person in it, Ántonia. Jim would be educated in Black Hawk, Neb., then attend that state’s university, where he would fall under the sway of a professor of Classics, who, upon accepting a position at Harvard University, would arrange that Jim would be able to follow him out east, which he did, and from where he would succeed, both as an undergraduate and then in law school. Jim eventually would become a prominent attorney, working for a railroad, traveling the country by rail to and fro, seeking opportunities for would-be investors along the line. 

Ántonia, one of many immigrant girls in those environs, would survive the first cold winter – living with her family in a hovel built in the ground – and her father’s suicide. In her teens, there was no time for school – only work (and a bit of fun), both on a farm her family was able to establish, and in town, doing housework. Ántonia would settle around Black Hawk, where she would marry “a good man,” and give birth to some ten children.

Jim stayed away from Nebraska from his early 20s to his early 40s, afraid to return, afraid to see what had become of the young woman with whom he grew up and for whom he had such deep affection: why allow what might be an illusion to be shattered. The most moving moment in the novel occurs in Book V, “Cuzak’s Boys” – for indeed that is Ántonia’s married name – when Jim finally returns to Black Hawk, and is ushered into Ántonia’s kitchen by her second oldest daughter, who hasn’t the slightest idea that he is part of her mother’s life. And then, in Jim’s words, “the miracle happened.” Ántonia walked in, stalwart, deeply tanned, previously buxom and now flat-chested, her hair partially grizzled. Of course, Jim recognized her immediately: he was gazing at Ántonia’s vital and inimitable eyes. She peered back at him – “My husband’s not at home, sir. Can I do anything?” “Don’t you remember me, Ántonia? Have I changed so much?” Yet physically he had barely changed at all. Ántonia screams with glee upon recognizing him, and hugs and an introduction to her children and her husband, who had been away, ensue.

As the novel draws to its end, we realize that the title of that fifth book refers not just to Ántonia’s sons, but to Jim as well: he understands himself to be one of Cuzak’s boys. With that understanding in hand, he pledges to keep returning to Nebraska, to spend time with Ántonia, “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races,” and her family, especially her husband and sons. Jim comprehends that it was “fortune” that brought them together in the first place, but it is his deliberate decision that will bring them together many more times in the future.

Much more so than we’d like to acknowledge, our lives are governed by fortune, both good and bad. Some of the most important things in our lives are startlingly due to it. Sometimes fortune is the manifestation of nature – storms, disease, one’s genetic constitution, et cetera; sometimes fortune is the manifestation of human action – to whom one is born, where and when one is born, the political constitution under which one lives, the people one encounters, accidents of various kinds, et cetera.

Every single one of our lives, in myriad ways, is profoundly affected by the incursions of fortune: there are no exceptions. Fortune creates opportunities, and fortune takes them away. It indiscriminately rewards and punishes both the bad and the good (think of the Book of Job in this light, recalling that not even the God of the Bible in speaking to Job attempts to justify what has befallen him, as Job has suffered from the ravages of nature and man). Fortune resists but is not immune to claims of fairness and unfairness, although the line between misfortune and injustice is sometimes razor thin and difficult to discern.

Nevertheless, we risk distorting the human situation if we credit fortune too much. However pervasive it is, essential to being human is the capacity to think, to plan, to plot, to deliberate, to decide. We do have more than some fair measure of control over our lives. Some have this capacity more than others, in part because some lay a claim to this capacity earlier on in life, and it becomes a more practiced art. 

This understanding of our situation is evident in the writings of the four philosophical founders of modern life: Machiavelli; Montaigne; Francis Bacon; and Descartes. Each, in his own distinctive manner, attempted to plot out a course whereby fortune, and misfortune in particular, could be tamed by new methods of understanding and acting in the world. Descartes, for example, in the conclusion to his Discourse on the Method (1637), went so far as to declare the possibility that we might become “as masters and possessors of nature” – and by nature here he seems to have meant both human nature and the natural world.

But however exemplary this theme is in modern philosophy, it should not be surprising that it is also exhibited in ancient and medieval philosophy. Indeed, if it is the case that human life is inexorably perplexing, and that in part this is due to the difficulties of understanding ourselves both as passive beings, subject to fortune, and active, thoughtful ones, then perhaps Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed (c. 1190s), a work written under the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and Al-Farabi, is not only aptly named, but might prove helpful to us: “Sometimes truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first.”

It is near impossible to live without being shaped by the opinions and conventions of our day. However, these are subjects of the empire of fortune, and to the extent to which we don’t subject them to critical reflection, is the extent to which we are complicitous in fortune’s sway over us. 

I remember. I was a young boy going to camp. We would travel many a day by ferry between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Those two land masses suggested something firm, immovable, and inescapable, two things, in coming and going, that the ferry’s captain always had to take account of, otherwise he risked great danger. At the time I did not know the name of the body of water upon which we traveled between shores of those two boroughs. I now know it is The Narrows.