I read frequently in the newspaper sad stories about dogs who are killed in the street by motor vehicles. In one story, a police dog, a German Shephard, saw his master on the other side of the street and ran across it toward him. Wham. Dead. Many dogs are killed in the streets, because they escape from their yards and wander into the street, perhaps following the scents of their human family. Males dogs are frequently killed in street accidents, because they are following the scent of female dogs in heat and are unaware of their surrounding. We have had five dogs, all of whom I walked. I have pulled all of them by the leash, in many occasions, out of the street away from on-rushing cars or trucks. Clearly dogs don't have street smarts. But what are street smarts? I think, to answer like Piaget, the dogs, like babies, don't know physics.
Of course, ignorance of physics is not really the reason the dogs are killed. It is an explanation of how they are killed, some calculation of mass, momentum, impact, compression of tissue, difficulty of breath, heart smashed. I wonder whether there might not be more to dogs' deaths in the street. What about their motivations? Are we certain that all street deaths are accidental? Are we certain dogs don't have motives?
Perhaps the dogs are committing suicide. It would be difficult for a dog to kill itself, except by starving itself or exposing itself to attack by, say, as in our neighborhood, coyotes. I have seen what coyotes do to cats they capture and devour. It's not pretty and the cats' demise could not be pleasant. A dog would presumably be aware that death by coyote would involve prolonged suffering--basically being eaten alive--and it would seek to avoid such a death. Other than those instruments, what would a dog have available to end its life? Why do we assume that dogs could not formulate such a plan? Or, at least, have such an impulse? Why do we assume they do not occasionally suffer from despair and want "to end it all"?
One of our dogs died of cancer. After her death (the dog was a female), I reflected upon its last few weeks with us, its eating pattern and how it behaved in the home, at the stable where it accompanied my wife, on walks with me. I now think our beloved pet had a foreboding, for a month, of its end. We were unaware of its condition, I remember with guilt. It must have felt physically uncomfortable or some pain in its stomach (it died of stomach cancer) for weeks. In its last day, when it could no longer keep water in its stomach and could hardly crawl, I lay down on the floor with it for an hour or so, before my wife took it to the vet where it was put down. I held my dog, who relaxed into my arms. Who am I to say it did not foresee its end. She knew something was up. Other dogs might similarly sense their end and seek to shorten their terminal suffering by a quick death in front of a speeding car. Perhaps, trapped alone in their back yard, left unloved by their family, neglected in their health, they fill with despair. I can feel a dog's angst. Seeing, in the distant street, freedom from its isolation and loneliness, a canine existentialist, it digs a hole under a fence, rushes to the asphalt, and dies quickly, stunned by a speeding car's bumper, crushed by a destiny of its choosing.
Returned from a quick trip to Boston for a funeral Sunday; then jury duty. Today was last day of jury duty. Verdict reached and read to defendant. Time to pierce the shell of isolation and return to life.
In a conversation with my wife, before we left on vacation, I explained why I wanted to leave Southern California. Living in its oceanic conurbation had thinned my spirit. I need, I said with urgency, to be where the night sky is not obscured by city light. I need to stand on a hill under a clear night sky and see the stars. To be close to them. Since I moved to sprawling suburb thirty-nine years ago, I have only twice seen the celestial sphere in its vast splendor. Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I took an evening road trip to Death Valley. I drove my MGB with the top down. We were alone on the long, geometrically straight road up the valley. It was nearly midnight. The heavens were black and sprayed with infinite white stars. The stars were so close, that raising my hand out of the car, I could drag a wake of stars as if I were trolling still lake water off a motor boat. The experience was so exhilarating that we were speechless. On another occasion, we stood at the top of a San Bernardino mountain where we had a cabin at the 5400 foot level. It was August. We were above the inversion layer. Below us, a blanket of marine haze hid the endless Southern California city. Above us, the air was crystalline. The stars scattered as nearly in disorder across the inverted bowl of the night as if a Hollywood backdrop. A meteorite shot horizontally across the mid-horizon, surprising us. We thought it was an omen. As we walked down the mountain side, we felt thrill rise in us and pound our hearts.
Those rare events were all the night sky offered in nearly four decades. The celestial drama had been but a stranger, who appeared unexpectedly in our lives. I felt the visitor's disappearance as loss. Over time, lesser concerns fell off me like layers of unnecessary clothing. But the celestial guest's departure grew in significance, a repressed memory that emerged into consciousness, fragment by fragment, as experiences accidentally focused a searchlight into this or that dark corner of my mind. Eventually, loss felt like alienation. Perhaps I should have expected my predicament. Since humanity's prehistoric emergence, we have lived in two worlds, feet on the ground, minds in the heavens. Every night we would observe our privileged position. Now, only within the last few hundred years, we have buried ourselves in the dark illumination of cities, blind to the soaring spiritual exhilaration above us, standing aside from the world. So I arrived at the understanding that I was in the wrong place and the wrong time; and that, before I die, I need to find the right place and the right time.
Several days after we arrived in West Virginia on our business vacation, we returned late at night from Beckley to Greenbrier County. We are staying at a friend's cottage in the middle of her farm land, surrounded only by miles of grassy pasture, small herds of horses, cattle, goats, and sheep. The only lights were yellow dots of distant farm houses. We were unaware it was a moonless night, but felt the black air as an unfamiliarity. I parked our rental car in the middle of the field and we exited toward our dark cottage. I glanced upward. The sky was clear. From horizon to horizon, the sky was painted with millions of stars. And through the middle was the Milky Way. The air was so clear and still that I believed I could see individual stars in the infinite splash of galactic stars that belted the bowl of the heavens. I fell back against the car for support and to rest my head. I was hypnotized. I had taught the Copernican revolution and Galileo's astronomical discoveries every year of my professorial career; now I was the Italian astronomer. When the stars are unveiled, every time anyone sees them, they are seen for the first time. Galileo called the stars messengers. They are. And I know their message. I am home. I am ready.
In my 1980s journal, I listed the most important books on my intellectual development from high school through graduate school. Here is a list of books that, as I reflect, were most influential during my professional career.
By saying they were the most influential does not necessarily mean I agreed intellectually with them. I mean, rather, the books provoked me, expanded my mind, deepened my philosophical understanding, increased and sharpened my intellectual skills. I returned to them frequently, outlined them, extensively annotated their margins, lectured on most of them, and allowed them to confront me.
I will make a first try at this list, then revise it after I think about it some more. In no particular order:
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The philosophical basis for my approach to the history of science. I was interested in the history of ideas--that is, the intellectual content of science--and sought in research to critique the development of science within the sociology of knowledge. In the 1980s and 1990s, scholars largely stepped away from trying to explain the content of scientific ideas and took up explaining the form of ideas, the social organization of science, and the social anthropology of the scientific workplace and scientists' interaction. This struck me, and still strikes me, as giving up the game.
Charles Darwin, Origin of Species.
The only book to appear on both my 1980s list (link above) and this list. Darwin's great work, certainly one of the most brilliant scientific researches in Western history, must be mastered to understand nearly all intellectual history that followed its publication. I studied it continually and taught it for decades, along with Darwin's letters and other publications related to it.
Albert Einstein, "Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" (Special relativity)
Another flash of unmatched brilliance in Western thought. The product of deep philosophical thinking about the nature of the world and the character of physics. It unleashed the great revolution in physics, including quantum mechanics, which we are still exploring. I studied it repeatedly and taught it for decades.
Karl Marx, Capital.
The following chapters are the most annotated, underlined, and page tagged in my personal copy. VI "The Buying and Selling of Labour Power", VII "The Labour Process and the Process of Producing Surplus Value", XIII "Cooperation", XIV "Division of Labour and Manufacture", XV "Machinery and Modern Industry", XXV "The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation".
XV "Machinery and Modern Industry" could stand as a lengthy independent book. I assigned it to most of my doctoral students.
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization.
Almost by itself, this book made the history of technology into a coherent intellectual field, a mode of understanding Western history.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
In the 1980s, I decided to devote myself to understanding this foundational work of modern existentialism and ontology. After several years of study, I was going to incorporate it into my research that eventually became my third book. At that moment, several studies were published that showed the link between this and other works and Heidegger's Nazism. I had not made some of the connections these studies revealed. I decided that my understanding of Being and Time was incomplete. So I returned to studying it, for another ten years, then lectured on it and its implications for understanding Western society and technology.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness.
Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism Is A Humanism".
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology.
Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be.
I read Sartre and Tillich out of my fascination with existentialism. I responded positively to existentialism as a life philosophy. The philosophy also provided analytical techniques I used in my understanding of technology. Existentialism is incompatible with Marxism, of course; so it fundamentally constrained my interest in Marxism as a practical political philosophy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.
Reading Bonhoeffer, I realized that I was not finished with Christianity. Or, perhaps I should say, I realized Christianity was not finished with me. I came to feel profoundly in my innermost being that we need, most of all, courage for the world which we were and are entering. From where are we going to find the courage that we Westerners, assuredly, are going to need? I thought Sartre, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer had answers to this question. Bonhoeffer affected me, in personal revelation, most deeply and unexpectedly.
Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend The World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought.
I read this book for the first time about 1997. I was then beginning to emerge from post-modernist theory, primarily through my encounter with the history of technology. I had never read within Jewish philosophy. (I had read Jewish philosophers, such as Spinoza, but I hadn't viewed their ideas from within Judaic traditions, about which I knew almost nothing.) Fackenheim sent me to Amazon to buy a new library. I am still reading.
Bob Dunn (1, 2) died August 31, 2008. I didn't learn of his death, until an appreciative article appeared in the most recent University of New Hampshire magazine. He and I had been friends in college. We grew up in towns only a few miles apart, he in Meredith. Fellow poets. Not following the university's college sports, we spent many Saturday afternoons and evenings in the MUB, the student union building. We read and critiqued each other's poems, drinking much coffee and smoking cigarettes. I smoked Lucky Strikes, which I loved. I don't recall the brand he smoked. We wore similar decrepit London Fog raincoats. Their protection from the rain long gone and with no lining offering little insulation from New Hampshire's cold winters, they reflected our student poverty. He was a better poet than I. He always had useful comments. He wouldn't let poems get away with untruths. He wouldn't let me describe a particular bird's evening feeding pattern the way I did erroneously in a poem, for instance. He was an amateur ornithologist. He had his own vision of the poet. On one occasion, I loved a poem he had written. I suggested that he might submit it to a competition. He replied, not haughtily, but with conviction, that contests were for horses, not poets. We had no contact after college. I married, went to graduate school, buried myself in a library, and eventually became a professor. I raised a family. I enjoyed middle class security. From articles appreciating him that appeared after his death, I learned that Bob had worked for a few years in Concord, N.H., then moved to Portsmouth, a beautiful, historic American seaport. He lived there the rest of his life, working as a custodian, residing in a one-room apartment, living, I infer, in material poverty. He wrote poetry, printed it up, and passed it out to friends. I don't know how he published it; I used a Xerox machine, folding and stapling letter-size pages, leaving it in friends' mailboxes or mailing it to them. Eventually, Bob was named the Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, the second in that distinctive post. I thought occasionally of him, usually when I was writing. I missed him. I would have been happy to know he was living his vision of the poet.
Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (New York, 2003, p. 301.) writes about the commitment of Chabad to outcast and less fortunate Jews:
"Minnesota Chabad Rabbi Moshe Feller loves to tell the story about a great Hasidic rebbe (it's always a great Hasidic rebbe) who came from Israel to pay a courtesy call on the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The grand visitor swept into the Rebbe's room, followed by his entourage (great Hasidic rebbes always travel with an entourage).
"Those fortunate enough to be in the room waited for the learned discourse that was sure to ensue. But Schneerson had another idea, Feller relates. 'The Lubavitcher Rebbe asked him, "What are you doing to curb promiscuity and drugs in Israel?" The visitor protested, saying "That's not a problem among our children." The Rebbe looked at him very sternly and said, "And which children are not our children." ' "
The Rebbe's question is appropriate for any people, who identify through racial or religious or ethnic membership, to ask of themselves. And if for them, why not of ourselves?
An acquaintance, whom I shall call Phoenix, has begun to trust me enough to reveal something of her personal situation. She is twice a widow with two young children. She arrived in Sprawling Suburb two years ago, on the run from gang murderers. She had been living in a far away city with her husband. He tended bar. One early afternoon, while he was at work and talking by cell phone with her, some men came into the bar. From her description of his tone on the phone, I know she thought he recognized them. He told her, quickly, with emphasis, I love you, then ended the call. The police came to get her an hour later. The men who came to the bar shot her husband, then left him dying on the floor. Police told her, it looked like her husband had lived perhaps ten minutes or so, unable to move, bleeding out. When she arrived at the bar, the police would not let her view her husband's body. You're not strong enough to see this, they said to her. They held her back. She watched the ambulance remove her husband's body. One of the paramedics moving the gurney tripped. The gurney tipped. The body spilled out. She caught a glimpse. The corpse was placed in the ambulance. Pronounced DOA at the hospital. The coroner also would not let her see her husband's body. You're not strong enough for this, he told her. She had to sign the papers identifying the body without seeing it. She could not say goodbye to him. Nor could her children.
The police immediately placed Phoenix and her children into witness protection. The murderers had left everything on her husband's body and in his wallet, except for her photo. I inferred that her husband's killing must have been a gang shooting. The detective thought she would be next. Had her husband been a police informer, I wondered; but I did not ask her. She said, as she often did, in nearly any conversation, I don't know anything. I took the statement as drawing a line. I didn't know how much I should probe.
She was in witness protection for only several months, when the police told her that she should leave the city and the region. She wasn't safe there. She appealed to her brothers, one of whom lived in Sprawling Suburb. Her brothers declined to help her. Her older brother's son, who is married to a Mormon woman, however, drove to her in faraway city in his truck and brought her and her two boys to Sprawling Suburb. They had to leave most of their possessions behind. The evacuation was quick. She did not even have time to pack her photograph albums, which were with a friend.
Phoenix's niece obtained employment for her. I met her through her job. As I came to know her, she grew to trust me and revealed more about her life. She lives hand to mouth, she and her children crowded into a one-bedroom apartment. She sleeps on the couch, her boys in the bedroom. When her husband was killed, the owner of the bar refused to make the claim on his employer's insurance that would have provided her with a death benefit. He didn't want his insurance rates raised. Her husband had no insurance. She used all her small savings to bury her husband. Her worldly possessions amounted to some clothing, kitchen ware, household items, and old SUV with 330,000 miles on it.
The older of her two boys is the son of the man with whom she had run away from home at age fifteen. She had the boy when she was sixteen. She left her husband, when he became abusive. Several years after they separated, he died from cancer. He had worked at a chrome plating automobile plant. Her second husband, the man who was murdered, fathered her youngest boy. Now she is in a new city, with few friends or family. She said, she was not legally married to her husbands. They were live-in partners. Her niece, who had sent her husband to bring her to Sprawling Suburb, is not a blood relative, but is the wife of the son of her brother, sort of a niece-in-law.
She wanted advice one day. Her request concerned the daughter of her niece. Her niece has several children, one of whom, now an adult, still lives with her mother. The husband of her niece is not her legal husband, but a live-in partner, to whom her niece is deeply committed. Her niece's children were fathered by a previous husband, who also had not been a legal husband and is now in jail. Her niece's current so-called husband, Phoenix informed me, is sleeping with her niece's nineteen year old daughter, that is, with his sort-of step-daughter. By this daughter, he has had two children. So my acquaintance's niece's daughter is living with her mother with her children by her mother's partner.
Did her niece know? Phoenix said that her niece denies the suggestion that her husband had fathered her two grandchildren and a third with which she was now pregnant. That denial strikes both Phoenix and me as willful self-deception. Phoenix, who is a close friend now of the young woman, said the young woman claims to be one-hundred per cent certain of the paternity. Although their sex began when she was a minor, it was, and continues to be, consensual. This young woman now desires to leave her mother's household to escape the relationship, which she recognizes is inappropriate.
Should Phoenix help her? If she does help her, Phoenix's niece would be distraught, because she does not want to lose her grandchildren from her home. The niece would also probably break off her friendship with Phoenix. Phoenix feels obligated to her niece, because the older woman was the only person to help her escape far away city. Influenced by her niece, Phoenix, with her two boys, has joined the Mormon Church. Phoenix asked, was not the right action to assist her niece's daughter to leave the niece's household. I agreed that was the morally right choice, even though it would abrogate her obligation through gratitude to her niece.
My acquaintance and her young woman friend are now planning how to extricate the young woman and her two children and set up housekeeping in a two-bedroom apartment.
I thought to myself of this situation, at every juncture of my acquaintance's life she choses to make her life more complicated in human relationships, living arrangements, and moral choices. She can't keep it simple. She does not appear to do so from desire for self-dramatization; he isn't a drama queen. She complicates her life with honorable motives, if, on occasion, apparently, with impulsiveness.
Nonetheless, from what I could observe, she has managed to make good moral choices that removed herself, her children, and occasionally other persons from harm. She is raising two boys in ways that shelter them from worst effects of their impecunious situation and the opportunities for harm that abound in the neighborhoods and circles in which they have lived. Both boys are very bright and handsome, one just having completed his first year of high school, the other his first grade. The younger boy has just been selected for the GATE program. I have met the boys, who are courteous and obedient, at least in their mother's presence.
It is easy to conclude when talking to their mother, that her sons got their smarts, or most of them, anyway, from her. Phoenix is alive with brightness, sharply observing the world around her, packing away endless details about scenes and situations. Her eyes flash widely when she talks. She exudes the optimistic resilience of someone whose brains have given her confidence that her intelligence will spy a way through her difficulties. She is a not a victim, but rather a winner, strong enough, in life's reality show, survival of the fittest.