Thursday, April 19, 2012

Philosophy 101

If I were going to teach a course in philosophy (he said with tongue only partly in cheek), I would use for my text seven poems of John Updike, collected in a volume called Facing Nature, called "Seven Odes to Seven Natural Processes." Individually, the poems celebrate rot, evaporation, growth, fragmentation, entropy, crystallization and healing.

By "healing," for example, Updike doesn't mean some sort of spiritual redemption that you might find talked about in a traditional philosophy course, but the kind of biological healing that puts a scab on a wound, the "brilliant microscopic engineers," the platelets, threads of fibrin, lymphocytes, and microphages. "Our body loves us," Updike exults "and, even while the spirit drifts dreaming,/ works at mending the damage that we do."

These are long poems, filled with classic Updike wit, his canny gift for metaphor, his keen appreciation of science. Mostly the poems describe the physical context of "our tremulous venture," the healing that repairs the scraped knee, yes, but also the entropy, rot, and fragmentation that chisels away at our integrity. Even growth, which sounds benign, finds its fulfillment in senescence and death; the wound's scab can delay but not eliminate fragmentation's final bite. "Time's line being a one-way street,/ we must walk the tight rope or fly," our poet counsels.

Disintegration, yes, and death, but regeneration too. "The banana peel tossed from the Volvo/ blackens and rises as roadside chicory." All process is reprocessing, Updike says; give thanks for gradual ceaseless rot, nature's merciful counterplot.

Give thanks? How, then, in the grip of these natural processes over which we have no efficacious control, do we create that elusive and long-sought thing, the examined life, the transcendent self? When entropy's heartless arrow promises to grind every lofty cathedral and dog-eared book to dust, how do we assert that hopeful cry, "I was here -- and it mattered"?

Answering that question is, of course, the only reason for a course in philosophy. Art is an answer. Updike's works fill four shelves here in the college library where I write, which was Updike's way of paying attention. By paying attention we become, if even briefly in the great scheme of things, participants in the universe's consciousness of itself, which is, I suppose, no small thing. Paying attention, as many saints and poets have declared, is the highest form of prayer.