Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mai Pen Rai

What is all the hoopla about Descartes? Blake is the third philosophy PhD (he has two years to go at Rutgers; see earlier blog for visit of philosophy profs) who claims Descartes as his favorite philosopher. “Favorite” seems like a rather pedestrian word to associate with such a high thinker. Descartes, just so we’re on the same page, is the “I think, therefore I am” guy whose roots lie with Aristotle and St. Augustine. He also founded analytic geometry, by the way, and insisted on the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation. Descartes was no lightweight.

Blake and his family arrived at Fern Forest on a chilly Friday night in the midst of a nor’easter. It’s not winter yet in Vermont, but there was a deluge of rain and pretty stiff winds. We told Blake, his wife Ruth and their four-year-old twins that they were welcome to camp out in the guest room of the main house, but Ruth, who is from Thailand, said they were up for the adventure. They had skidded on slick roads in their old Subaru Outback on the way to Fern Forest, ran into a guardrail, and acquired a deep gash along the passenger side of the car as well as taking out a headlight. Fortunately everyone was all right.

The motto in Thailand mai pen rai, which means “no worries” or “it's nothing.” Even with an accident and two active four-year-olds in tow, Blake and Ruth were in a state of mai pen rai all weekend.

Which probably has nothing to do with Descartes, but hang on and I’ll try to segue eventually.

Blake met Ruth when he was teaching in an international school in Thailand. While he’s in grad school, Ruth is home-schooling the children, teaching them to be bilingual. “I want them to know the Thai culture,” Ruth says. She and Blake take them to Bangkok a couple times a year to see their grandparents and soak up the language and the customs. Leorah is a bright and mature little girl who likes nothing more than an intelligent conversation or a good book. She can count to 15 in Thai and understands her mother, who speaks to the children only in Thai. Isaiah would rather wrestle but will count to 20 if coerced—in English. His favorite word in Thai is
ผู้พิพากษา (pronounced "poopi paksa"), which means "judge." Maybe he'll go into the legal field when he grows up.

Their first night, the treehouse rocked in the wind so that the chimes hanging inside rang all night. Blake slept on the single bunk, and Ruth cuddled in the loft with the children. In the morning, a bit damp, they dried out by the wood stove, ate a hearty breakfast, and set off in more rain to climb a mountain. In the evening I put on some lively music. The children and I danced and afterward H got down on the rug to play dominoes with them, giving Blake and Ruth a chance for a little mai pen rai and for Blake to talk about his thesis. He’s not sure yet what direction his argument will take but Descartes will likely play a role.

I’ve been doing some research of my own recently, looking up old friend Giorgio Tagliacozzo, who was a scholar of Giambattista Vico, a 17th century Italian philosopher at odds with Descartes. According to Vico—at least as far as I understand him—the criterion of what is true is according to what one has made—not, as Descartes says, according to what one thinks. In other words: I create, therefore I am.

It seems to be Vico’s idea that one makes oneself. According to Caroline Myss, author of books on energy healing, ‎"Choice is the process of creation itself," or the choices we make determine our level of existence. I guess that means that if a person gets up in the morning and sits on the couch watching TV all day or goes to a grunt job, watches a clock and then punches out to go home and watch TV, one doesn’t exist. I tend to agree with Vico on that.

One of Vico’s other ideas is that there are three stages of civilization: the divine, the heroic, and the human. If you think about it, America was founded by seekers of the divine, Puritans who came on the belief that they were following a plan laid out for them by God. The heroes were the adventurers who carved a society out of the wilderness, who led westward expansion, who fought battles and braved the unknown to make settlements. Now that we’re at the human stage, we’re attempting to thrive, to make technological and medical advancements, to find out what makes us tick.

I suppose the analogy can be made with stages of human life as well. When I look at Blake’s and Ruth’s twins, I can see that they’re in the divine stage. When they’re hungry, their parents feed them. When they’re dirty, they get bathed. When they’re sleepy, Blake and Ruth put them to bed. Every need is met—or else there’s the devil to pay. Leorah and Isaiah are faultless, pure, innocent—as close to divine as they will ever be. I don’t remember that stage in my own childhood; perhaps that’s because the other two stages have overshadowed that period.

Eventually Isaiah and Leorah will be forced to approach the edge of the cliff that marks the transition to adulthood. They’ll have to jump, which will be a heroic act. They’ll crash at the bottom, or they’ll find a soft landing, or someone will catch them, or they’ll sprout wings and fly. In any case, the act of leaping will take huge courage. I’m sure you remember this stage. I recall the heroism it took to go out in public with my parents, who knew nothing and were an embarrassment and didn’t understand me at all.

When the twins reach the human level, they’ll experience pain, pleasure, disappointment, joy, terror, satisfaction, self-doubt, and ultimately the realization that life will end. They will have lost their divinity, and heroism will be a thing of the past. There will have to be an acceptance of finality. That’s where I am now—and probably where most of you reading this are settled as well.

I apologize to you Cartesians, but I guess I’m in Vico’s camp. Vico is said to have influenced writers like James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bertrand Russell, Samuel Becket, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. As with these writers, if you want to be truly alive, you’d better get cracking and create something.

As for Blake and Ruth, they’re wonderful parents, and I gained a lot from visiting with this sweet family. I learned that it’s important to chill out when adversity rears its ugly head, that it’s fun to dance, and that four-year-olds are, well, just divine. The family has promised to drive up again next fall—maybe this time with Isaiah’s and Leorah’s grandparents—and give us another lesson in philosophy, fun, and a little more lofty thinking. Speaking philosophically, I look forward to that.

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