Purpose, Meaning, Feeling

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Oh how we have longed
for something that would
make us feel so…

– Kate Bush, “Somewhere In Between”

I went to the last humanities lecture of the semester the week before last. It was outstanding, probably my favorite lecture all semester.

While UNCA’s HUM 324 lectures are hit and miss, this one was a hit. It was about existentialism, and it was my first encounter with philosophy all year that didn’t leave me cold, but completely fascinated.

I didn’t find the school of thought airy or boring or even all that intellectual at its roots, but moral and grounded. I won’t bore you with specifics I don’t have the time, knowledge or skill to present artfully, but I think it was an important moment in my life to view myself as affected by and interested in the study of philosophy. To view myself as not always rational and logical but as feelings-based, as a searcher of not only knowledge but purpose, meaning, feeling.

What followed from that is I think I began to see at last, with time and perspective, that all my ideas of the last few years about myself as a logical, rational science-based being are largely incorrect.

I might love reason. I might love knowledge. I might love learning. But my world is more than that, ultimately including a Dionysian aspect I didn’t so much ignore as fail to recognize.

I love performance, literature, music. I go to church, not as a mindless exercise in morality, but because I love the music, the community, the lessons from the wise person who delivers the sermons there. And when I walked into humanities class late for my exam and my professor smiled at me and made a joke at my expense, the kind you make when you like someone and are comfortable with them, I sat down realizing that humanities classroom was more my place than I had ever realized.

For all my bitching and moaning about that damned humanities class, I have been won over, if not quite to the program as it is run, but at least and definitely to what I learned.

And what I learned is that an education is what happens when you learn things that serve no value other than to deepen your understanding of yourself and of the world and how you fit into the world. If that’s not something that matters to you, go spend your life making money and buying things, and leave the rest of us to the pleasures and responsibilities of doing what’s right and living in ways that matter.

I don’t know that I am presenting this eloquently, and I know that these are the trite and common realizations that people have as they take in the surprisingly big lessons that years of study offers. All I can say is that this is what is happening to me, and when it happens, while it may not be anything no one’s ever done before, it is certainly an awakening of the mind when it happens to you.

I suppose it’s the difference between watching a car crash on t.v. and feeling the crash and the terror as you are broadsided by a Chevy and spin out of control into the brush by the side of the road. I suppose it’s the difference between knowing in your heart and mind that knowledge is valuable and beginning to feel the first stirrings of how differently you see the world once your mind is opened to new, poweful and useful ways of categorizing and digesting everything you know and everything you have yet to learn.

Something else happened with that class that affected me.

It happened last week when we students studying for our comprehensive, weighted humanities final. We gathered in the lobby of the college’s main auditorium, a best-kept secret of a studying place with a central coffee table, a few couches and chairs, and a glass front that lets in sun and night and the idea of weather.

I guess there were about seven of us. In the middle of studying, Hilary admitted that she’d reread the Kierkegaard essay because she liked it, and thought it contained interesting and valuable information.

I suppose it was then, given her strange subtle signal, that we started talking about things the class has encountered in this section differently somehow, purportedly studying but really just sharing information for reasons of pleasure and interest.

The young man beside me, who’d done his paper on Franz Kafka, told us about Kafka’s life, how “The Metamorphosis” is really just a transreal version of Kafka’s own family life. Another young man talked about Freud’s perversion of the scientific method. I contrasted Freud and Jung, and explained archetypes and the mythic imagination.

It wasn’t like we were a salon of intellectuals or anything. We were a perfectly ordinary group of college students. But we were, in the most natural and unaffected way, sharing new and interesting information, sitting quietly and listening. For the test, yes, but also out of a completely genuine and natural interest in the material.

It was all low-level stuff, junior-level undergraduate humanities, really not as intellectual as might sound. But I left with a far, far better understanding of and appreciation for Kierkegaard, whose work I had previously not gotten a drop of understanding from.

The following day I finished my test with barely 5 minutes left, turning in nine handwritten pages of answers, answers, answers. Because I’d had so much to say. My hand hurt from writing.

Holy shit. Something happened that night in the lecture hall lobby, and something else happened when I walked into class feeling welcomed, and something else happened when I stopped hating philosophy, rather foolishly and categorically dismissing an entire discipline for no defensible reason.

I still think the college’s humanities program is too ambitious. I still think that — that one strangely magical evening aside, if indeed one could brush aside something like that — my class had hardly any really good or interesting discussions. I still note our textbook has errors, and that I don’t feel discussions were facilitated very well.

I also note that if UNCA is trying to produce a thoughtful person willing to engage the world on the terms of more than just common sense and the cell-deep prejudices she grew up carrying, it has done a rather fine job.

I’m going to get nerdy here. Cynics and people who hate liberal arts may wish to move on, and in fact should probably not come back, ever.

From my professor’s syllabus (click if any of the text is cut off):

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I’m not looking to change the world, except in the ways that anyone can. But I welcome the efforts of anyone or any institution willing to shoulder the terrific burden of teaching things of such great complexity that it’s difficult to explain exactly what you’re learning.

So this was the semester that saw that death of logic, or if not its death, the idea that I am not only not cut out for science, not only better cut out for writing, but that I have an imperfectly rational (irrational) mind with a thought process like a dog chasing chickens, one that seeks and requires purpose, meaning and feeling as keenly and needfully as it does fact and information.

As I finished the first question on my humanities exam, I had to refrain from writing “PS: I love Jung!” at the end of it, like an excited child.

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