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Seeking and Finding

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

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Why is it that so often those most likely to talk about the virtues of detachment struggle the most with their obsessions? To take an example, Herman Hesse, the great writer of “Siddhartha,” suffered breakdowns repeatedly over the course of his life, sometimes resulting in long stays in mental institutions. This was a man whose oeuvre is filled with phrases like, “What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.” A man who was writing works meant to teach others how to be unaffected by loss, and yet he more than most was in need of a teacher.

This, it turns out, is a pretty common theme in the Western literary canon. I don’t think very many would doubt that Dostoevsky, the writer of “The Brothers Karamazov,” has more in common with the capricious Fyodor than the pious and even-tempered Alyosha. Like Fyodor, Dostoevsky was both a drunkard and a gambler. But like Hesse, his works serve partly a pedagogical function; they are an attempt to show the reader how to strive towards an ideal.

So, should I consider writers like Hesse and Dostoevsky swindlers? It would seem, after all, that by passing off knowledge under their names they are implicitly claiming to possess it. Here I propose that I can take two avenues: Either I could dig up Freud’s “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” an article in which he traces the parricide in “The Brothers Karamazov” to epilepsy, and posit that Dostoevsky’s words are shaped by the same forces that shaped Dostoevsky the man (epilepsy). Doing so would relieve me of the above issue, but it would also call into question authorial freedom. Or I could posit that the source of the words is unimportant—wise words are wise words regardless of their origin. This second option has equally unsettling implications, but it seems to bypass the issue of freedom by not addressing it.

What, exactly, are the unsettling implications of the second option? Well, if the ultimate source of the words doesn’t matter, then how am I to discern between people? How am I to tell when I’ve encountered someone who lives his life in accordance with his words? There really doesn’t seem to be a way, except maybe to sit around watching that person for a while.

But maybe I’m missing something about the second option. Maybe concealed within it is the implication that watching someone to see if their behavior matches up with their words is the result of faulty reasoning; I’ve accepted, after all, that words should be evaluated on their own, independent of people. Is it then possible that words and people occupy non-overlapping realms? The idea, of course, seems absurd; when I point to you and say your name it seems obvious that my words have entered the people-realm, right? But when I strip out ostensive definitions (definitions arrived at by pointing) and direct commands, the relationship begins to look a little more fuzzy.

If I was able to accept that words and people are categorically distinct, then what? Then to really think about a person would be different than thinking about their words. They would, in a sense, stand outside language, and so conceiving of them would have to be a nonlinguistic act. This conception is probably as foreign to you as it is to me, but maybe with a little meditation and a lot of reflection it will begin to flicker into view, revealing to us our first image of a person.

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Whitman news since 1896
Seeking and Finding