The great thinkers of the past knew nothing of Youtube — which, we might be tempted to say today, enabled them to become great thinkers in the first place. This is, of course, uncharitable: surely the rise of streaming media counts among the most important developments in the history of education. Many college students today may genuinely wonder how previous generations got by without Youtube’s background-music mixes engineered, as the New Yorker‘s Amanda Petrusich wrote not long ago, “to facilitate and sustain a mood, which in turn might enable a task: studying, folding laundry, making spreadsheets, idly browsing the Internet.”
If Youtube had been available to important minds of previous centuries — indeed, previous millennia — what sort of studying music would it have served to them? This is, in some sense, a philosophical question, and a philosophy channel has been providing answes: a host of answers, in fact, each in the form of a themed Youtube mix.
In the legend of the Buddha, prince Siddhartha encounters the poor souls outside his palace walls and sees, for the first time, the human condition: debilitating illness, aging, death. He is shocked. As Simone de Beauvoir paraphrases in The Coming of Age, her groundbreaking study of the depredations of growing old, Siddhartha wonders, “What is the use of pleasures and delights, since I myself am the future dwelling-place of old age?”
Rather than deny his knowledge of suffering, the Buddha followed its logic to the end. “In this,” de Beauvoir writes ironically, “he differed from the rest of mankind… being born to save humanity.” We are mostly out to save ourselves – or our stubborn ideas of who we should be. The more wealth and power we have, the easier it may be to fight the transformations of age…. Until we cannot, since “growing, ripening, aging, dying – the passing of time is predestined.”
When she began to write about her own aging, de Beauvoir was besieged, she says, by “great numbers of people, particularly old people [who] told me, kindly or angrily but always at great length and again and again, that old age simply did not exist!” The hundreds and thousands of dollars spent to fight nature’s effect on our appearance only serves to “prolong,” she writes, our “dying youth.”
Obsessions with cosmetics and cosmetic surgery come from an ageism imposed from without by what scholar Kathleen Woodward calls “the youthful structure of the look” — a harsh gaze that turns the old into “The Other.” The aged are subject to a “stigmatizing social judgment, made worse by our internalization of it.” Ram Dass summarized the condition in 2019 by saying we live in “a very cruel culture” — an “aging society… with a youth mythology.”
The contradictions can be stark. Many of Ram Dass’ generation have become valuable fodder in marketing and politics for their reliability as voters or consumers, a major shift since 1972. But, for all the focus on baby boomers as a hated or a useful demographic, they are largely invisible outside of a certain wealthy class. Old age in the West is no less fraught with economic and social precarity than when de Beauvoir wrote.
De Beauvoir movingly describes conditions that were briefly evident in the media during the worst of the pandemic – the isolation, fear, and marginalization that older people face, especially those without means. “The presence of money cannot always alleviate” the pains of aging, wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in her 1972 review of de Beauvoir’s book in translation. “Its absence is a certain catastrophe.”
The problem, de Beauvoir pointed out, is that old age is almost synonymous with poverty. The elderly are deemed unproductive, unprofitable, a burden on the state and family. She quotes a Cambridge anthropologist, Dr. Leach, who stated at a conference, “in effect, ‘In a changing world, where machines have a very short run of life, men must not be used too long. Everyone over fifty-five should be scrapped.’”
The Coming of Age is the inaugural and inimitable study of the scandalous treatment of aging and the elderly in today’s capitalist societies…. There was no established method or model for the study of aging. Beauvoir had to invent a way to pursue this enormous subject. What did she do? …. She surveyed and synthesized what she had found in multiple domains, including biology, anthropology, philosophy, and the historical and cultural record, drawing it all together to argue with no holds barred that the elderly are not only marginalized in contemporary capitalist societies, they are dehumanized.
The book is just as relevant in its major points, argues professor of philosophy Tove Pettersen, despite some sweeping generalizations that may not hold up now or didn’t then. But the exclusions suffered by aging women in capitalist societies are still especially cruel, as the philosopher argued. Women are still stigmatized for their desires after menopause and ceaselessly judged on their appearance at all times.
De Beauvoir’s study has been compared to the exhaustive work of Michel Foucault, who excavated such human conditions as madness, sexuality, and punishment. And like his studies, it can feel claustrophobic. Is there any way out of being Othered, pushed aside, and ignored by the next generation as we age? “Beauvoir claims that the oppressed are not always just passive victims,” says Pettersen, “and that not all oppression is total.”
We may be conditioned to see aging people as no longer useful or desirable, and to see ourselves that way as we age. But to wholly accept the logic of this judgment is to allow old age to become a “parody” of youth, writes de Beauvoir, as we chase after the past in misguided efforts to reclaim lost social status. We must resist the backward look that a youth-obsessed culture encourages by allowing ourselves to become something else, with a focus turned outward toward a future we won’t see.
As an old Zen master once pointed out, the leaves don’t go back on the tree. The leaves in fall and the tree in winter, however, are things of beauty and promise:
There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning — devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work… In old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves. One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.
“My name, ‘Alan,’ means ‘harmony’ in Celtic and ‘hound’ in Anglo-Saxon. Accordingly, my existence is, and has been, a paradox, or better, a coincidence of opposites.”
Zen Buddhism is full of paradoxes: practical, yet mystical; seriously formal, yet shot through with jokes and plays on words; stressing intricate ceremonial rules and communal practices, yet just as often brought to life by “wild fox” masters who flout all convention. Such a Zen master was Alan Watts, the teacher, writer, philosopher, priest, and calligrapher who embraced contradiction and paradox in all its forms.
Watts was a natural contrarian, becoming a Buddhist at 15 — at least partly in opposition to the fundamentalist Protestantism of his mother — then, in the 1940s, ordaining as an Episcopal priest. Though he left the priesthood in 1950, he would continue to write and teach on both Buddhism and Christianity, seeking to reconcile the traditions and succeeding in ways that offended leaders of neither religion. His book of theology, Behold the Spirit, “was widely hailed in Christian circles,” David Guy writes at Tricycle magazine. “One Episcopal reviewer said it would ‘prove to be one of the half dozen most significant books on religion in the twentieth century.'”
As a Buddhist, Watts has come in for criticism for his use of psychedelics, addiction to alcohol, and unorthodox practices. Yet his wisdom received the stamp of approval from Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Zen teacher often credited with bringing formal Japanese Zen practice to American students. Suzuki called Watts “a great bodhisattva” and died with a staff Watts had given him in hand. Watts didn’t stay long in any institution because he “just didn’t want his practice to be about jumping through other people’s hoops or being put in their boxes,” writes a friend, David Chadwick, in a recent tribute. Nonetheless, he remained a powerful catalyst for others who discovered spiritual practices that spoke to them more authentically than anything they’d known.
Watts, a self-described trickster, “saw the true emptiness of all things,” said Suzuki’s American successor Richard Baker in a eulogy — “the multiplicities and absurdities to the Great Universal Personality and Play.” It was his contrarian streak that made him the ideal interpreter of esoteric Indian, Chinese, and Japanese religious ideas for young Americans in the 1950s and 60s who were questioning the dogmas of their parents but lacked the language with which to do so. Watts was a serious scholar, though he never finished a university degree, and he built bridges between East and West with wit, erudition, irreverence, and awe.
Many of Watts’ first devotees got their introduction to him through his volunteer radio broadcasts on Berkeley’s KPFA. You can hear several of those talks at KPFA’s site, which currently hosts a “Greatest Hits Collection” of Watts’ talks. In addition to his 1957 book The Way of Zen, these wonderfully meandering lectures helped introduce the emerging counterculture to Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, forgotten mystical aspects of Christianity, and the Jungian ideas that often tied them all together.
No matter the tradition Watts found himself discussing on his broadcasts, listeners found him turning back to paradox. Hear him do so in talks on the “Fundamentals of Buddhism” (top), and other talks like the “Spiritual Odyssey of Aldous Huxley,” the “Reconciliation of Opposites” and a talk entitled “Way Beyond the West,” also the name of his lecture series, more of which you can find at KPFA’s “Greatest Hits” collectionhere.
“I guess everybody’s got a dream and we’re all hoping to see it come true,” muses Giovanni Mimmo Mancusou, a philosophical native of Calabria, the lovely, sun-drenched region forming the toe of Italy’s boot, above. “A dream coming true is better than just a dream.”
Filmmakers Jan Vrhovnik and Ana Kerin were scouting for subjects to embody “the very essence of nostalgia” when they chanced upon Mancusou in a corner shop.
A lucky encounter! Not every non-actor – or for that matter, actor – is as comfortable on film as the laidback Mancusou.
(Vrhovnik has said that he invariably serves as his own camera operator when working with non-actors, because of the potential for intimacy and intuitive approach that such proximity affords.)
Mancusou, an advocate for simple pleasures, also appears to be quite fit, which makes us wonder why the film’s description on NOWNESS doubles down on adjectives like “aging”, “older” and most confusingly, “wisened.”
Merriam-Webster defines “wizened” with a z as “dry, shrunken, and wrinkled often as a result of aging or of failing vitality” … and “wisened” not at all.
Perhaps NOWNESS meant wise?
We find ourselves craving a lot more context.
Mancusou has clearly cultivated an ability to savor the hell out of a ripe tomato, his picturesque surroundings, and his ciggies.
“Serenity, joy, ecstasy” is embroidered across the back of his ball cap.
His manner of expressing himself does lend itself to a “poetic thought piece”, as the filmmakers note, but might that not be a symptom of struggling to communicate abstract thoughts in a foreign tongue?
We really would love to know more about this charming guy… his family situation, what he does to make ends meet, his actual age.
Home movies accompany his nostalgic reverie, but did he provide this footage to his new friends?
Did they hunt it down on ebay? It definitely fits the vibe, but is the man with the eyebrows Mancusou at an earlier age?
Our star pulls up to a small petrol station, declares, “All right, here we go,” and the next frame shows him wearing a headlamp and magnifier as he peers into the workings of a pocket watch:
Time out of mechanical. It’s magic.
Is this a hobby? A profession? Does he repair watches in a darkened gas station?
The filmmakers aren’t saying and the blurred background offers no clues either. Curse you, depth of field!
If that’s where Mancusou lives, he’s either 45-49, 65-69, 70-74, or one of two fellows over age 74…and now we’re really curious about his neighbors, too.
No shade to Signor Mancuso, but we’re glad to know we’re not the only viewers left unsatisfied by this portrait’s lack of depth.
One commenter who chafed at the lack of specificity (“this video is a random portrait of basically anyone in the world that is happy with the little he has”) suggested the omissions contribute to an Italian stereotype familiar from pasta sauce commercials:
People in Italy actually work and have ambitions you know? And often are very well-educated and hard-working. The perspective of Italy that you have comes from the American media and Italian post-war neorealism. Indeed, Oscar-winning Italian people complained about the fact that what the media wants is seeing Italians wearing tank tops doing nothing if not mafia or smelling the roses.
Watch more entries in the NOWNESS Portrait of a Place series here.
Even before the election of Donald Trump, as some critics began to see the possibility of a win, talk turned to historical names of anti-fascism: George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, and, especially, Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, her series of articles for The New Yorker about the trial of the Nazi’s chief bureaucrat. Arendt closely observed authoritarian regimes and their aftermath, detailing the way ideology seeps in through banal political careerism.
Since 2016, her warnings have seemed all-too-prescient, especially after a coup attempt last January that has been all-but hand-waved out of political memory by the GOP and its media apparatus, while candidates who deny the legitimacy of election outcomes they don’t like increasingly get their names on ballots. The degree to which Arendt saw the political conditions of her time, and maybe ours, with clarity has less to do with foreknowledge and more with a deep knowledge of the past. Corruption, tyranny, deceit, in all their many forms, have not changed much in their essential character since the records of antiquity were set down.
“Dark times,” she wrote in the 1968 preface to her collection of essays Men in Dark Times, “are not only not new, they are no rarity in history, although,” she adds, “they were perhaps unknown in American history, which otherwise has its fair share, past and present, of crime and disaster.” Had her assessment changed a few years later, in what would be her final interview, above, in 1973 (aired on French TV in 1974)? Had dark times come for the U.S.? The Yom Kippur War had just begun, the seemingly-endless Vietnam War dragged on, and the Watergate scandal had hit its crescendo.
Still, Arendt continued to feel a certain guarded optimism about her adopted country, which, she says, is “not a nation-state” like Germany or France:
This country is united neither by heritage, nor by memory, nor by soil, nor by language, nor by origin from the same. There are no natives here. The natives were the Indians. Everyone else are citizens. And these citizens are united only by one thing and this is true: That is, you become a citizen in the United States by a simple consent to the Constitution. The constitution – that is a scrap of paper according to the French as well as the German common opinion, & you can change it. No, here it is a sacred document. It is the constant remembrance of one sacred act. And that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and religions, and (a) still have a union, and (b) do not assimilate or level down these differences. And all of this is very difficult to understand for a foreigner. It’s what a foreigner never understands.
Whether or not Americans understood themselves that way in 1973, or understand ourselves this way today, Arendt points to an ideal that makes the democratic process in the U.S. unique; when, that is, it is allowed to function as ostensibly designed, by the consent of the governed rather than the tyranny of an oligarchy. Arendt died two years later, as the war in Vietnam finally came to an inglorious end. You can watched her full televised interview — with English translations by the uploader, Philosophy Overdose — above, or find it published in the book, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
What would Arendt have had to say to our time of MAGA, COVID-19 and election denialism, mass political racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia? Perhaps her most succinct statement on how to recognize the dark times comes from that same 1968 preface:
I borrow the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for, until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns. When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better or worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.
At the end of World War II, as Europe lay in ruins, so too did its “intellectual landscape,” notes the Living Philosophy video above. In the midst of this “intellectual crater” a number of great thinkers debated “the blueprint for the future.” Feminist philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir put it bluntly: “We were to provide the postwar era with its ideology.” Two names — De Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre and his friend Albert Camus — came to define that ideology in the philosophy broadly known as Existentialism.
The two first met in Paris in 1943 during the Nazi occupation. They were already “deeply acquainted” with one another’s work and shared a mutual respect and admiration as critics and reviewers of each other and as fellow resistance members. Both “intellectual giants” were targeted by the FBI, and both would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (though Sartre rejected his). Their fame would continue into the postwar years, despite Camus’ retreat from philosophical writing after the publication of The Rebel.
The book provoked Sartre, a doctrinaire Marxist, who had issued what Camus considered feeble defenses for Joseph Stalin’s purges and gulags. A series of scathing reviews and angry ripostes followed. The personal tone of these attacks chilled what little warmth remained between them. When the Algerian war for independence erupted a few years later, the staunchly anti-colonialist Sartre took the side of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), excusing acts of violence against civilians and rival factions as justified by French oppression. Such events “were beyond justification in the mind of Camus.”
While Sartre belittled Camus as “a crook,” the “acuteness of the situation was all the stronger for Camus since Algeria was his homeland. He could not see it in the ideological warped black and white of Sartre’s circle or the conservative French government.” The statement might sum up all of Camus’ thought. As Sartre finally conceded in a posthumous tribute; he “represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters…. he reaffirmed… against the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue,” in all its complex ambiguity and uncertainty.
Maybe our generational enmity has grown too great these days, but once upon a time, primary school teachers would ask students to interview an elder as an eyewitness to history. Most of our elders didn’t participate in History, big H. Few of them were (or stood adjacent to) world leaders. But in some way or another, they experienced events most of us only see in photographs and film: the Vietnam War, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War and its end…. It’s not hard to see how this relatively recent history has shaped the world we live in.
Hearing from people who lived through such world-historical events can give us needed perspective, if they’re still living and willing to talk. It offers a sense that the apocalyptic dread we often feel in the face of our own crises – climate, virus, war, the seeming end of democratic institutions – was also acutely felt, and often with as much good reason, by those who lived a generation or two before us. And yet, they survived — or did so long enough to make children and grandchildren. They saw global catastrophes pass and change and sometimes witnessed turns of fortune that brought empires to their knees.
Indeed, when we step back just a generation or two before the oft-maligned boomers, we find people whose elders lived through the event that has come to stand for the hubristic fall of empires — Napoleon’s defeat and capture at Waterloo on March, 20, 1815. The philosopher, writer, social critic, and public figure Bertrand Russell was such a person. Both of Russell’s parents died when he was very young, and his grandparents raised him. In the restored, colorized and “speech adjusted” 1952 interview just above, you can hear Russell reminisce about his grandfather, the 1st Earl Russell, who was born in 1792.
Russell’s grandfather was a world leader. He served as prime minister between 1846 and 1856 and again from 1865 to 1866. Or as Russell puts it to his American interviewer, “He was prime minister during your Mexican War, during the Revolutions of 1848. I remember him quite well. But as you can see, he belonged to an age that now seems rather removed.” A time when one man could and did, in just a few years time, place nearly all of Europe under his direct control or the control of his subordinates; before modern warfare, guerrilla warfare, cyber and drone war….
Earl Russell not only met Napoleon, but became a late ally. After a 90-minute meeting with Bonaparte during the self-proclaimed Emperor’s exile, “Russell denounced the Bourbon Restoration and Britain’s declaration of war against the recently-returned Napoleon,” notes the video’s poster, “by arguing in the House of Commons that foreign powers had no right to dictate France’s form of government.” The younger Russell, himself born in 1872, also saw history swept away. He lived in “a world where all kinds of things that have now disappeared were thought to be going to last forever,” he says.
One may be reminded of the Communist Manifesto’s “all that is solid melts into air.” Russell gives no indication that his grandfather, a contemporary of that world-historical document’s author, ever interacted with Karl Marx. But Russell himself met an imposing historical figure who looms just as large in world history. Hear him above, in 1961, describe how he met Vladimir Lenin in 1920.
“Existentialism is both a philosophy and a mood,” says Hazel Barnes by way of opening the television series Self-Encounter: A Study in Existentialism. “As a mood, I think we could say that it is the mood of the twentieth century — or, at least, of those people in the twentieth century who are discontent with things as they are. It expresses the feeling that, somehow or other, all of those systems — whether they be social, psychological, or scientific — which have attempted to define and explain and determine man, have somehow missed the living individual person.”
Existentialism was on the rise in 1961, when Barnes spoke those words, and the subsequent six decades have arguably done little to assuage its discontent. By the time of Self-Encounter‘s broadcast in ’61, Barnes was already well-known in philosophical circles for her English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. When she took on that job, with what she later described as “three years of badly taught high school French and one yearlong course in college, and a bare minimum of background in philosophy,” she couldn’t have known that it would set her on the road to becoming the most famous popularizer of existentialism in America.
Five years after the publication of Barnes’ Sartre translation, along came the opportunity to host a ten-part series on National Public Educational Television (a predecessor of PBS) explaining Sartre’s thought as well as that of other writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Richard Wright, between dramatizations of scenes drawn from existentialist literature. Self-Encounter was once “thought to be entirely lost, the original tapes having been reported recorded over,” writes Nick Nielsen. But after the series’ unexpected rediscovery in 2017, all of its episodes gradually made their way to the web. You can watch all ten of them straight through in the nearly five-hour video at the top of the post, or view them one-by-one at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.
“Self Encounter was produced in 1961 and first broadcast in 1962,” Nielsen writes. “I cannot help but note that Route 66 aired from 1960 to 1964, The Outer Limits aired from 1963 to 1965, Rawhide aired from 1959 to 1965, and Perry Mason aired from 1957 to 1966″ — not to mention The TwilightZone, from 1959 to 1964. “It would be difficult to name another television milieu of comparable depth. Our mental image of this period of American history as being one of stifling conformity is belied by these dark perspectives on human nature.” And as for the social, psychological, scientific, and of course technological systems in effect today, the existentialists would surely take a dim view of their potential to liberate us from conformity — or any other aspect of the human condition.
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