Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Poor Tom's Philosophy

-- By Tom Phillips

Poor Tom's a-cold.  Thus spoke Edgar, the hero of "King Lear," disguised as a naked beggar on the moor, adopted by the homeless King as "my philosopher."  Come in, Tom, and philosophize.

For 50 years, Poor Tom wandered on the moor, trying to understand an idea that others seemed to handle effortlessly.  They call it irony.  Somehow Tom felt irony was the key to his philosophy, but he couldn't quite grasp it.  What is it?

About 30 years ago, the earnest jester Kierkegaard offered a clue -- trying to picture irony, he wrote, is like trying to picture a dwarf wearing a hat that makes him invisible.

Thirty years later, Tom had something like a fever dream in which such a picture appeared, or at least the idea of a picture.  Irony is not something in itself, he dreamed, but the distance or disparity between things.  One can experience a gap without making it into a thing.  The dwarf is invisible because it doesn't exist, but it has outlines, therefore a shape, therefore an effect, because it is bordered by actual phenomena.  He leaped out of bed.  Eureka!

To take "Lear" as our text:  Irony appears in the gap between what we think we are and what we are (Lear), or between what we are and what others think we are (Edmund, Edgar, Kent, Fool).  Or, what we think others are and what they are: (Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and his sons)  This irony runs throughout Shakespeare -- "I am not what I am," says Iago.  The drama comes in the inexorable closing of the gap, the revelation of the truth.

I am.  I am not.  We are mortal, we are immortal.  To know the truth you have to get into the gap, crawl into the discomfort zone between opposing truths.

Ancient Chinese meditation:  "sit and give rise to a doubt."  Simply to doubt any statement is to give rise to its contradiction, thereby opening up a space in which to sit.

"There's a crack, a crack, in everything.  That's how the light gets in."  (L. Cohen)

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Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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