Reflecting on life at 40

Byron is the patron saint of this blog post.

…They accuse me -- Me -- the present writer of The present poem -- of -- I know not what -- A tendency to under-rate and scoff At human power and virtue, and all that; And this they say in language rather rough. Good God! I wonder what they would be at! I say no more than hath been said in Danté's Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes; By Swift, by Machiavel, by Rochefoucault, By Fénélon, by Luther, and by Plato; By Tillotson, and Wesley, and Rousseau, Who knew this life was not worth a potato. 'T is not their fault, nor mine, if this be so -- For my part, I pretend not to be Cato, Nor even Diogenes. -- We live and die, But which is best, you know no more than I. Socrates said, our only knowledge was "To know that nothing could be known;" a pleasant Science enough, which levels to an ass Each man of wisdom, future, past, or present. Newton (that proverb of the mind), alas! Declared, with all his grand discoveries recent, That he himself felt only "like a youth Picking up shells by the great ocean -- Truth." Ecclesiastes said, "that all is vanity" -- Most modern preachers say the same, or show it By their examples of true Christianity: In short, all know, or very soon may know it; And in this scene of all-confess'd inanity, By saint, by sage, by preacher, and by poet, Must I restrain me, through the fear of strife, From holding up the nothingness of life? Dogs, or men! -- for I flatter you in saying That ye are dogs -- your betters far -- ye may Read, or read not, what I am now essaying To show ye what ye are in every way. As little as the moon stops for the baying Of wolves, will the bright muse withdraw one ray From out her skies -- then howl your idle wrath! While she still silvers o'er your gloomy path…

That’s Byron in Don Juan, one of the greatest and wittiest poems in history. (Probably the wittiest.) I remember reading it for the first time in my early twenties and falling in love with it. As I wrote in my journal,

Its sentiments are so in tune with mine—its Ecclesiastical sentiments—and its style—that its genius is but a secondary reason for my infatuation. But what genius! It’s a poem unlike any in the English language—any in any language—far surpassing even Pope’s Dunciad. Yes, its power is a negative one, unlike Shelley’s or Keats’, but I don’t consider that a point against it. It’s still as timely as it was when written, and it’ll always be timely, because life, after all, is nothingness. And yet beneath the sophisticated cynicism is a heart-rending despair, and an idealism, and a passion for life, and a yearning for salvation.

At the age of 40, I still come back to Byron, as I did at 22. I can’t escape him however much I’d like to, because he remains the spirit of modernity—the Faustian spirit of striving, struggle, yearning for beauty and truth and freedom, but hedonistic, nihilistic, disillusioned, self-hating even in his self-love, pathologically self-conscious, existentialist (broadly speaking) yet enamored of reason—torn between existentialism and the Enlightenment—in the end rebellious. Byron had no home, as modernity, and ultimately humanity, has no home.

I’ve written elsewhere, and in my first book, about the torment of being too aware of life’s ridiculousness. It’s always in the back of my mind, that knowledge of meaninglessness, that detachment from life. I don’t know what it is about me that makes me fixate on it—maybe the abstractness and self-consciousness of my mind, and the emotional immaturity. I just can’t get over how unreal life seems, how brief and questionable in all its aspects. It can be hard even to be ambitious, to care enough, when you find it so difficult to take things seriously. You start to feel like a spectator at a theatrical farce. Sometimes it seems that hardly anything except stupidity, shallowness, cruelty, and randomness (the randomness of being alive at all) confronts you—few experiences are truly satisfying, especially as you live longer and grow less excitable or impressionable. And all the while there remains the knowledge of death, the constant passage of time bearing down on you. Your own death will mean as little to people as their deaths mean to you.

To relate a somewhat trivial grievance: in a world of flakes, dating can be very frustrating. Relations with the opposite sex are rather important, after all, and if they’re “dislocated and unsatisfactory” you’ll find that your whole life tends to be dislocated and unsatisfactory.[1] It’s fashionable, even feministy, for women to publish articles inveighing against internet dating, but hardly anyone seems interested in how awful dating can be for men—sending hundreds of cute little messages and getting few replies, going on hundreds of first dates (literally: in the last two decades I’ve been on hundreds, with some long and short relationships, including a brief marriage, interspersed), regularly encountering the most incredible flakiness, all while grappling with the pain of sexual frustration. It’s no wonder that “incels,” millions of them, are driven to despair, suffocated by loneliness and frustration, suicidally sick of mere masturbation. (And then self-righteous liberals and leftists ridicule them, laugh at them, which is a pretty sick reaction to the suffering of another human being—and drives them into the loving arms of right-wing frauds like Jordan Peterson.) It requires strength and native buoyancy not to will a renunciation of life in these atomized conditions, starved of love and, frequently, sex.

On the other hand, that’s one of the perks of getting older: you start to care less, since you develop a more full-bodied, self-confident, even good-humored appreciation of the fact that everything is bullshit. (It helps that your hormones begin to take pity on you, at long last.) Deep down there remains a certain resentment toward the world for being such a senseless place, so senseless that it seems actually unreal, illusory—I wholly sympathize with the Buddhist teaching that life is saturated with illusion—but, to paraphrase Nietzsche, you’ve grown so used to your diffuse disgust that you’re almost fond of it now. “I’ve given a name to my pain,” Nietzsche said, “and call it ‘dog.’ It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog…”

Anyway, leaving aside post-pubescent hormonal urges and returning to more pretentious matters of the “intellect”… As a young lad I wanted to get to the bottom of things—I wanted to answer all important philosophical and historical questions, I wanted to intellectually tie everything, all of history, up in a bow, even while waging “the revolution” to establish socialism or communism. It was this that would give my life meaning, this quest for and achievement of near-perfection. Life itself was not enough: it was only a means to something greater, something timeless. Actually, I think I did make intellectual progress and answered many questions to my satisfaction (more or less). Still, my “achievements,” such as they were, were very far from approaching what I had dreamed of—something like transcendence—and coming face to face with the mundane reality of my limitations was depressing. (So was the general lack of engagement with my writings.)

I’m finding it hard, though, to express the source of my restlessness, or even the meaning of my restlessness. Compared to most people in the world, I’m ludicrously privileged. But internally I can hardly imagine “happiness.” I think it has to do with a peculiar contradiction: the contradiction between my knowledge of the miraculousness of being alive—the impossible majesty of the human brain, the wonders of the cosmos itself, the unfathomable mysteries, down to the quantum level, contained in a single eukaryotic cell, the astounding privilege of being homo sapiens (the “sovereign of nature,” as Marx said)[2] and capable of listening to a Beethoven symphony or even of playing a Beethoven piano sonata (think of how the brain has to somehow coordinate the activity of ten fingers, exquisitely calibrating every movement according to a continuous flood of sensory input from the tactile, auditory, and visual systems that it first has to instantaneously process, sift through, analyze, compute, at the same time as it attends to innumerable other matters of internal bodily monitoring and regulation, all while processing memories of the music that has been practiced repeatedly and anticipating what the next notes are, what the next finger movements are—and remember that all this activity, unconscious and effortless, is on behalf of something totally luxurious and purely aesthetic, the creation of music, a capacity only humans have)—and the frequently dull, grim realities of actual life. Each of us is a practically divine miracle, and yet each of us is subject to extraordinary social, physical, and metaphysical indignities. It seems as though every moment of life ought to be transcendently and timelessly beautiful—for that is what nature is and what our existence is[3]—but in fact life is shot through with mediocrity, mundanity, disappointment, shattered hopes, and death. Indeed, strictly speaking, the only “meaning” of life—the reason we’re here in the first place—is the exceedingly mediocre and animalistic one of procreating. Richard Dawkins is surely right that we’re mere “survival machines” for our genes, tools of DNA propagation (for that is the basis of evolution, the self-replication of DNA). As reductive as it sounds, we’re organisms that DNA constructs just so it can survive in a harsh environment and replicate itself. We’re driven to do the bidding of this arrogant and selfish molecule without even knowing why—we just crave sex, it’s out of our control, we’re robots programmed to serve our master.

But what a strange master that has given its creation the capacity to rebel and refuse to procreate! Instead, we often devote ourselves to “higher” pursuits like philosophy, like observing life and contemplating its “meaning”—an absurd and comical activity that only serves to increase unhappiness, sometimes to the point that the robot—or, better, the puppet, the human being—kills itself and thereby the chances for its DNA puppeteer to replicate itself! Homo sapiens is indeed a paradox!

Be that as it may, the point is that, given my awe at existence itself, even my gratitude, I had a desire to achieve things commensurate with this awe and gratitude. I wanted to intellectually assimilate as much as possible, through intellectual creation that would have a universal significance and be read long after I died. These desires, in a sense, weren’t much different from the dreams of a lot of young men, who boldly leap into life determined to conquer the world and by some means or other overcome their mortality and relative insignificance. Fame is a typical goal, for example. A young man glories in possibility and can tend to be rather self-enclosed—as manifested, for instance, in my naïvely self-publishing three books at least one of which I could and should have used a traditional publisher for. (It would have been a better book, dammit!)

As you approach middle age, the ambitions subside. Life wears you down. The regrets pile up (although, truth be told, I had plenty of regrets already at 23); you go unnoticed for things you think deserve notice; you tire of your own mediocrity and the even greater mediocrity of so much that you encounter; you grow more aware of the brevity and lack of gravity of life. The “fulfilling experiences” you longed for fail to materialize, and you realize you’ll never overcome the hollowness, the “ontological emptiness,” at your core. (“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being, like a worm,” Sartre said.) At least, that’s been my experience. You’ll write, but people won’t read. You’ll read, but you’ll wonder what’s the point of it when all the reading and writing leaves the world more or less as it is. You’ll still desire intellectual stimulation but you’ll feel guilty when indulging in it because what matters in our era of catastrophe is activism; but you’ll be bored when doing or writing something related to activism because you miss intellectual stimulation. And the years will go by, year after year, and before you know it you’ll be on the verge of death, and your former thrill at the miraculousness of life will seem as if from a quaint, forgotten land.

In short, it’s the ordinariness of it all, and the transience, that gradually dissolves the element of inspiration that had once made life interesting. The times I’ve felt most satisfied were when I was writing something I thought had merit, because it was as if I was (“permanently”) putting truth and profundity into the world, as if I was “beautifully objectifying” myself—being validated by Reality itself. But that’s only a pleasant conceit, and one that fades as you grow older.

Nor does it help, in my case, that I’ve always been susceptible to depression, and to doubt of my own reality (I’m sort of a detached observer). Still, I can’t be the only one who sometimes thinks that, notwithstanding all my experiences and my world travels, not enough has really happened in my life. Not enough moments of deep love; not enough meaningful connections with other people; not enough sex or drugs or debauchery. Lately there’s been a lot of “running on autopilot.” A lot of sleeping, literal and metaphorical. I need a change, but what sort of change isn’t entirely clear.

Well, whether I like it or not, a change is coming by the end of this year: I’m going to be a father. Thanks to a tryst with my ex-wife. I don’t know how involved I’ll be with raising the child, but conceivably fatherhood will make my life seem more meaningful. And yet, bringing a person into this world… By nature I’m actually quite cheerful, believe it or not, but I recall some hilariously dark thoughts I once wrote:

When you bring someone into this world, you introduce them to suffering. A lifetime of suffering. I don't see how Buddhists are wrong about that. Or how Schopenhauer is wrong. You come into the world in pain and you leave the world in pain. In between, you experience more than your fair share of pain.
At this point in history, there is no need to elaborate on these claims. Just read Schopenhauer or the Buddhists. Or use your common sense. Either you end up with the dull drumbeat of ordinary middle-class unhappiness or you suffer misery. It depends where you were born, in what circumstances, who your parents were, how lucky or unlucky you were in life. Indefinitely many horrible things might happen to you. Or maybe you'll get lucky and you'll merely have a boring career, a couple of annoying children, thousands of lonely hours, and get cancer at an old age and die painfully. That's not so bad compared to some of the alternatives.
The supreme act of love is to refrain from conceiving a child. It is a beautiful, unselfish act of pure kindness.
Think of what a contribution you've made to the world, how much suffering you've subtracted from it (ahead of time, as it were), by not having a child. It is virtually a holy thing, a saintly thing. To save one life is to save the world entire. You save a life by not creating it.
Even if you have children, your not having had more of them is noble. Whenever a man doesn't ejaculate inside a woman, he can imagine the millions of little people in his semen thanking him that they will not exist. To masturbate, far from being immoral (as religious loons sometimes think), is a moral act! Or at least more so than impregnating a woman.
To have an abortion is moral, humane, compassionate…

A one-sided point of view, to say the least, but not without a particle of merit. I hope my child’s life doesn’t provide more support for those grim thoughts!

Meanwhile, I’ll be publishing (not self-publishing) a book next year—a version of my Ph.D. thesis—which I suppose will be satisfying. Not that I care very much (I don’t consider the book particularly interesting).

I’m aware that, in a sense, everything I’m saying here is just a lot of unseemly, “unmanly” complaining. I don’t have much right to complain. That’s one of the many things I like about Chomsky: he is without self-pity, he’s a hyper-rational machine who cares only about what is true and what is right. He has remarked that existentialism—which in its concern with subjectivity, anguish, death, and the like is sort of a philosophical expression of human self-pity—doesn’t resonate with him, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone who doesn’t have an iota of cultural or psychological decadence. He’s like a Bach fugue. He’s a pure scientist: a scientist of language, of the mind, of society, and, most importantly, a scientist of morality, a rigorous and consistent paragon of morality. Life is what it is, often difficult and sometimes horrible but not in itself an evil, just a neutral thing that we experience and should make the best of. What’s the use of whining about it?

Moreover, insofar as I’m unsatisfied, it has more than a little to do with my own issues and is, to some degree, my own fault. I’m not as good a writer as I’d like; I’m not as hard a worker as I should be; my original life goals were wildly unreasonable to begin with (as I knew), and in any case I’m still fairly young; if I find it hard to take pleasure in most things, that’s my problem, not yours; whatever malfunctions there are in my brain chemistry (I’ve taken anti-anxiety and anti-depression pills most of my life) are, again, my own problem, not something general that should interest others. As a Marxist, I’m perfectly aware that each of us is situated: our experiences, perceptions, and thoughts emerge from particular conditions, particular economic, social, and psychological conditions that largely determine our discontent. It isn’t necessarily life itself that is the problem; it’s the conditions that prevail in any given case.

Okay, fine. But the test is, does what I’ve written here resonate with others? If not, then I’m just a freak; if it does, then the particular conditions are to some extent general, perhaps resulting from the nature of capitalist society. They seem even more general than that, though, since similar grievances have motivated the lamentations of poets, philosophers, theologians, and others for millennia. I do have “my own issues,” but it is plausible to suppose I’m just one of those people in whom the general grievances about the human condition are sharpened, because I had the great good fortune to be born with a maladapted brain chemistry. As for the unbecoming and childish nature of whining about “the human condition” (or “the modern condition”), well, can’t we permit ourselves a little bit of whining now and then? I think we’re entitled to it.

I’m 40, the age of the midlife crisis. I recall the comedian Jim Gaffigan’s joke about being in your 40s:

It’s amazing how our attitude on alcohol changes. Even as a teenager, you know it’s wrong. You’re like, “You know, I don’t like the taste of it, but I want to look cool.” And then in your twenties, you’re like, “You know what, this kind of gives me confidence to talk to the opposite sex.” And then in your forties you’re like, “You know what, this is the only thing I like about being alive.” [Uproarious laughter from the audience.] It’s only funny ’cause it’s true.

You still have a lot of living left to do, but you’re less excited and interested than you used to be, so you’re in an awkward position. How are you going to spend the rest of your life? That’s the question that occupies me these days, especially considering I’ll surely never get a tenure-track job—I don’t even think I want one—and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life adjuncting. But most non-academic options aren’t very attractive either.

Aside from the career questions that plague young generations now, there are the more intimate, sad psychological facts of middle age hinted at by Gaffigan’s joke. Once again, I think of Byron:

But now at thirty years my hair is gray—

(I wonder what it will be like at forty?

I thought of a peruke the other day)

My heart is not much greener; and, in short, I

Have squander’d my whole summer while ’twas May,

And feel no more the spirit to retort; I

Have spent my life, both interest and principal,

And deem not, what I deem’d, my soul invincible.

No more—no more—Oh! Never more on me

The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,

Which out of all the lovely things we see

Extracts emotions beautiful and new,

Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee:

Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew?

Alas! ’twas not in them, but in thy power

To double even the sweetness of a flower.

No more—no more—Oh! never more, my heart,

Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!

Once all in all, but now a thing apart,

Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:

The illusion’s gone forever, and thou art

Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,

And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,

Though heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.

The freshness of the heart, the freshness of life, is gone. But at least Byron had lived intensely, had had fame, wealth, innumerable love affairs, incredible highs and lows. It’s probably more painful for people who feel as if they haven’t lived enough and yet by their late 30s are weary and bedraggled anyway, the victims of epidemic social atomization, loneliness, the petty bureaucratic hassles of contemporary life, colossal waste of nervous energy over decades, the weight of postmodern unreality—the unbearable lightness of postmodern being. (I just thought of Billy Joel’s song “Running on Ice”: not the greatest of songs, but expressive of this existential syndrome, particularly from the urban perspective that dominates life today.) I rarely knew the freshness of the heart, of youthful love, despite being a great romantic who pined for it. And now the time is long past when I could have felt it, so…the only thing is to just move on, cut your losses, keep looking ahead, fight the good fight—whatever cliché you like.

Meanwhile, as Gaffigan said, be grateful that alcohol exists.

The idea of getting older is, perhaps, especially uncomfortable for me because in my essence I’m just a child. That really is the key to my identity, I think. Not that anyone should be interested in me, but, hypothetically speaking, if they were, they would have to start with my childlikeness. There’s a Jim Carrey-esque silliness in me, and it may be this trait, this ingrained humorous attitude, that leads me to see silliness everywhere in the adult world.[4] There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but, as I indicated earlier, it does make it hard for me to take seriously the pursuit of professional and worldly status, honors, “success.” My youthfulness means that most things that matter to me are internal; whatever is “external,” from quotidian responsibilities (e.g., grocery shopping, a dreaded imposition) to professional goals, seems false and unsatisfying. Doubtless this fact, incidentally, is yet another reason why I can’t help but think “life is a dream,” to quote the title of Calderón’s famous play.

Childlike interiority: I think that helps explain the difficulties of quite a few people in adjusting to modern life, and to aging. The world can seem external and alien, not only in the ways it does sometimes to everyone but in a deeper, “ontologically insecure” way. The psychoanalyst R. D. Laing used this concept of ontological insecurity to analyze schizoid and schizophrenic patients, who he interpreted as being divided between a true, “inner” self and a false, “outer” self. But it isn’t only in the extremes of schizophrenia that you find a sort of intense interiority that can interfere with the enjoyment of anything that doesn’t emerge organically from one’s inner life. A lot of “creative people” likely suffer from this condition—a condition that’s largely responsible, by the way, for the popular association of creativity with madness. “No excellent soul is without a tincture of madness,” Aristotle said; or in the words of John Dryden, “Great wits to madness sure are near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” Being too much in your own head can take both constructive and destructive forms.

One “destructive” form, for example, is that the process of aging can seem surreal and paradoxical. You still feel rather young and immature (though tired) on the inside, but you’re old and decrepit on the outside. Indeed, the continuity of life is disturbing: instead of there being some sort of break between youth and maturity, or some process whereby you wholly shed your immaturity and become a Fully Grown Adult, you really just feel kind of young—at least in my case—your whole life. It’s like you’re a 25-year-old who gets older and older while staying approximately 25, never becoming a “different person.” At 70 I’ll feel like an old young man, the same person as decades earlier but bizarrely wrinkled, weary, and weak. How different from what I used to imagine aging would be like!

Lest I seem overly negative, however, I should note that whatever disadvantages there are to having a juvenile and abstract cast of mind may be outweighed by the advantages. It can be pleasant to exist on a rarefied plane above daily cares, professional worries, material grievances, the phlegmatic character of the self-serious adult mind. My boyish curiosity gives me more insight into people than they have into themselves, these lumbering mental hippopotamuses who are far more particular than universal. (As I’ve remarked elsewhere, stupidity is particular, utterly immersed in itself; intelligence incorporates others.)[5] It’s also pleasant to have the sort of childlike aesthetic detachment that makes it possible to, say, experience inexpressible joy listening to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, a pure love of life that makes you want to dance around the streets just to contain the frantic energy bubbling up from your heart. This aesthetic receptivity, thank God, is something that will never leave me—life would be unbearably gray without my love of music.

Anyway, in the end, whatever advantages or disadvantages there are to my particular “situation”—my own situatedness—my only firm conclusion is that it’s all a mystery to me. Like Socrates, I know only that I don’t know. Why or how we’re here in the first place, what this thing called “time” is, why people are so callous and cruel, how one is supposed to keep trudging on even into one’s 80s or 90s, what the grim future will look like, what my child’s life will look like…I don’t have answers to any of these, not meaningful answers. I’m still almost as full of wonder and bewilderment as I was in my teenage years.

There are certain pat things I could say here, nuggets of pseudo-wisdom. For instance, it’s clear that the very enterprise I’m engaged in with this blog post is unhealthy, this stance of stepping back from life and abstractly evaluating it: it’s decadent and unnatural, in itself already symptomatic of alienation. You should just live, throw yourself into life without fixating too much on its underlying “conditions” (mortality, transience, chance, frequent loneliness, injustice, “absurdity”). As Nietzsche always insisted, the naïve and spontaneous attitude is healthier than the navel-gazing attitude. The latter indeed fosters the discontent that it thrives on! It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But how a thinking person is supposed to avoid asking these sorts of questions, and sometimes fixating on them, is beyond me. I suppose it helps if you’re psychologically well-adjusted to begin with.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’ve thought about dipping my toe into freelance journalism, likely in the labor sector. I could try to write articles of “commentary” that are more serious than most of what I’ve published. My mind, by its nature, will always be more comfortable with and interested in abstract philosophical questions than concrete political ones, but the latter are of more human significance and infinitely more urgent in the twenty-first century than the former, so I just have to adapt. I might even try to re-embrace academic historical research, although I find it more satisfying and socially relevant to write short pieces that aren’t necessarily read by an academic audience. (An immense amount of work goes into a scholarly paper, but how many people read it?? Its primary use is to be another item on your CV.)

To get even more personal than I’ve already been: last year, feeling somewhat down and out, I tried taking the drug ketamine in the hope that it would jumpstart the rusty old engine in my head and reintroduce me to life. No such luck. The four doses I took over several weeks at least brought on some fascinating experiences. A recent article in the New York Times described the experience well: “the room dissolved around me in a transcendent swirl of lucid dreaming. I traveled backward in time, inhabiting memories in a pleasantly detached manner. I traveled forward, too, and visited places I’d never been. It felt as though I’d shed my corporeal form and was melding into the fabric of the universe.” It was wonderfully trippy, especially as I was listening to a beautiful trippy soundtrack the treatment center had curated. The boundaries of my being dissolved as I was suffused by an expansive love for everyone and everything, a longing to show people how sublime life is. Time dilated: ten minutes felt like an hour, or maybe two hours—I really had no notion of time. I felt “enlightened,” albeit disoriented and overwhelmed by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings that flowed together with the music.

Pleasant after-effects lingered for days, perhaps weeks, but no longer. So that was that. It wouldn’t be so easy to jolt me out of my semi-anhedonia.

But, as with most people, the satisfaction and the dissatisfaction come and go; the contentment and the sadness come and go. Most of us manage to muddle through. We find ways to occupy ourselves for eight or nine decades. At the end we look back and think, “Wow. That was a lot. But it went by rather quickly. And now, whatever it all was, it’s over…” –How terribly strange to be seventy, to quote Simon and Garfunkel. I’ll let those two old poets have the last words:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences.

Long ago it must be, I have a photograph—

Preserve your memories: they’re all that’s left you.

I’m not yet at that terminal age, but someday I will be, and it will be sad and surreal.

In the meantime….we have to push these kinds of thoughts out of our mind, just keep living, keep struggling (“life is struggle,” Marx said), keep being honest with ourselves and others, and keep spreading compassion, of which the world has too little.

[1] I’m quoting from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals: “A highly endowed man with good intellect & good conscience is a Man-woman & does not so much need the complement of Woman to his being, as another. Hence his relations to the sex are somewhat dislocated & unsatisfactory. He asks in Woman, sometimes the Woman, sometimes the Man.”

[2] In the words of Chomsky, another great humanist, “none of the other 50 billion species [that have existed on Earth] can even form a thought, at least any thought that can be formulated in a symbolic system.” The gap between humans and all other animals is vast, and utterly mysterious.

[3] Well, strictly speaking, that isn’t true. Nothing has positive or negative value in itself. But it certainly is easy to think of nature as being beautiful and magnificent in many ways.

[4] I’ve given examples of such silliness in other blog posts, but here’s (a non-political) one I was just reminded of after seeing a picture of the fat-headed gorilla Donald Trump: ceteris paribus, being a man with a large head confers great advantages with respect to social presence, confidence, people’s impressions of you, “charisma,” sexual success, etc. Think of how often “leaders,” for instance American presidents—from Bill Clinton to FDR—have large heads. Women tend (though it’s only a tendency) to be more attracted to big-bodied and big-headed men, because size does matter: it communicates dominance. Humans are, after all, mere animals, beastly primates, in some ways more pathetic than any other species because of their self-deceiving pretensions and indescribable idiocies (for which, unlike other animals, they don’t have the excuse that they lack the capacity for abstract, symbolic thought).

[5] But most “intelligent” people are no less deluded, in their own way, than those who are judged unintelligent. The kind of intelligence that is wholly and ironically aware of itself, genuinely self-insightful, is rare.

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