Reading to Live, An Introduction

“This book begins with me reading a passage from Spinoza in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1996.” Clear and certain though it seems, that statement is more complex, mysterious and full of potential than you might think. Keeping that complexity, mystery and potential in mind while we read has everything to do with what I mean by “reading to live.” Let’s examine that simple statement of this book’s point of beginning.

The book you are reading begins here. It’s harder to say where the book I have written begins. In an obvious way, it also begins here, in the same place you’ve begun reading. But in a different sense, a sense that refers to the complex process by which books come to be, it began in another place and time—Ann Arbor, 1996, reading Spinoza. But even that place and time is somewhat arbitrary, selected from any number of possible points of origin I could have chosen. Among other things, the beginning I have chosen involves me reading words written over three hundred years before I read them. So should the beginning be set at the place and time that I read those words, or the place and time that they were written? And of course that author, whose words I was reading at that time, presumably wrote those words down not only as the beginning of writing something but as the end of a long process of reading and thinking.

So, from the beginning, with the beginning, reading and writing get entangled and entangle and confuse time and space, as well as the identities, the selves, of the readers and writers.

Here are some words. I didn’t write them, though I am copying them down now as I read them in a book:

After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.

The author of these words, Baruch (or as he is known by the Latin version of his name “Benedict de”) Spinoza, was a young man when he wrote them. We don’t know exactly how young because we don’t know exactly when he wrote them. The most reliable experts consider that he wrote them between late 1656 and late 1659. That would make Spinoza, born in November, 1632, anywhere between 24 and 27 when he set these words down as part of his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the first work in philosophy that he ever wrote and one that he would never finish.

If that dating is accurate, then Spinoza wrote these words in the wake of what I think anyone would consider a rough year and certainly one that would change dramatically the course of his life. For in July of 1656, Spinoza was subject to a cherem (the highest eccliastical censure for the Jewish community, entailing total exclusion) from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Spinoza’s family had come to Amsterdam before his birth, fleeing persecution in Portugal. Settled in the tolerant community of Amsterdam, Spinoza’s father had made a good name for himself with an import-export business. By 1656, both his parents having passed away, Spinoza, though a gifted student, was running the family business.

Scholars still don’t know what exactly led to Spinoza’s ostracism. The text of the ban refers to “evil opinions and acts,” “abominable heresies,” and “monstruous deeds,” and also to repeated attempts to get Spinoza to “mend his wicked ways.” But the upshot was the most radical cherem ever issued by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, concluding that “no one should communicate with him, neither in writing, nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor come within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.” Spinoza is said to have replied, upon hearing of the cherem, “Very well; this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord, had I not been afraid of a scandal.”

Though he remained in Amsterdam for a few years more, eventually he moved to Rjinsburg, then Voorburg, and finally, in 1670, to The Hague. He lived humbly and alone off a modest allowance granted by friends and political allies and from the income he generated as one of the most highly reputed grinder of optical lenses in Europe. Throughout this period he continued to compose philosophical and political works – though the only work of his published in his lifetime, the Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), was published anonymously. The clandestine circulation of his writings drew occasional visitors and correspondents who wished to learn more about, or to challenge, Spinoza’s views. He died without fanfare in 1677, surrounded by a small group of close friends and supporters, probably from the cumulative effects of inhaling glass particles in the course of grinding lenses.

So this is my hero, the hero of Reading to Live. I imagine Spinoza, in his late 20s, sometime in the few years following his shunning, facing a life that looked very different from the one he might have imagined for himself, reading, thinking, reflecting and eventually setting down those words I quoted above. As his biographer, Steven Nadler paraphrases the passage, Spinoza realized that “one must suspend the pursuit of ordinary ‘goods,’ such as honor, wealth, and sensual pleasure” which “reveal themselves, upon reflection, to be fleeting and unstable” and pursue instead “the true good”: “the love of something eternal and immutable” that is “never a source of sadness or danger or suffering, but only of joy.” By all accounts, over the next two decades, Spinoza never wavered from this pursuit, despite poverty and persecution. What he left his friends, and us centuries later, were these words and the other books published after his death and, of course, the example of his own well-lived life.

I first read these words sometime late in 1996, in the midst of a serious personal and professional crisis. But in order to convey the force of their impact on me and the role they played in shaping the experiments and ideas that I’m trying to share in this book, I need first to back up several years, to tell you something about how I wound up there and then, in late 1996, lost in so many ways, reading the first words of Spinoza’s earliest philosophical writing.

I will begin with an autobiographical story, because the central premise of this book is that reading to live can help us in practical ways to live better lives. Demonstrating this requires more than an intellectual argument, however impassioned. It requires sharing with you a concrete account of how reading to live emerged from and responded to real situations in a particular life, in this case my own.

I hope that this allows you to see a real-life example of how reading to live can work prior to trying it out for yourself. But I’m beginning this way also to affirm the fact that reading to live erodes the compartmentalization or fragmentation of our lives and our selves. When we read to live we practice and cultivate our wholeness. Sharing this experience of wholeness (or health: the word derives from older words for wholeness) in my case demands that I write not only as an intellectual, not only as an academic, but as a struggling human being who has happened, for a period of time in his life, to read and think for a living.

As such, I have struggled both professionally and personally with a number of issues that arise in the texts I look at below (as in many other texts). But perhaps the most salient and recurrent among these issues revolve around the experience of vulnerability and intimacy. Vulnerability and intimacy are, in themselves, simply human experiences, not “issues.” However, they have become issues in my life because I simultaneously desire and fear these experiences. I wasn’t always aware of this tension between desire and fear, but since I have become aware of it, I have found it valuable to explore it and try to understand it. I’ve noted that the tension crops up under certain conditions, such as when I find myself unable to orient myself intellectually in a situation, when I find myself removed from the power of my own feelings, desires, or nature, or when I find myself feeling isolated, disconnected from others and the world around me. But these painful experiences of vulnerability and intimacy are not just themes in the books that I will read; nor are they merely issues in my life. Vulnerability and intimacy are, in my opinion, the very stuff of the reading experience.

Reading for me is an experience of not knowing, of struggling to experience and avow my feelings and my desires in relation to a text, of seeking connection and communion. In short, reading is for me practice for a life of vulnerability and intimacy. As I tell my story and share my readings, I want to show how these particular issues of mine have arisen in order to show also how reading and a particular way of approaching reading – what I call “reading to live” – have helped me with those issues.

Reading to live has offered me no permanent or definitive solution. It has just helped in a periodic, almost rhythmic way. That is to say, I live and I lose and I find my way at times for a time, and reading to live has played an integral part in that. But the fact that reading to live has not solved these issues but only raised my awareness of them, and enabled me to accept and cope with them with a bit more grace is no indictment of reading to live. Any practice – therapy, religious worship, exercise, music, or painting or gardening – would be, I believe, subject to the same limitation. The best I believe that any practice of wholeness can give us is a periodic, visceral reminder of our challenges, as well as of our capacities to meet them. (continued)

 

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