October 4, 2007

1. My Journey

Harvard recently asked me to write about myself for the “class book.” Here’s what I wrote:

When I arrived at Harvard in the fall of ’79, my chief interest was philosophy. But the analytic philosophy that was taught at Harvard didn’t interest me at all, so I bounced around various departments, finally ending up in Government. It was a case of “any port in a storm” — I wasn’t interested in what Harvard had to offer, I just wanted to get out, so I could read the books that I wanted to read.

During my Harvard years, I became increasingly interested in the German philosopher Nietzsche. I felt that I was called to follow in his footsteps (as he had followed in Schopenhauer’s footsteps, as Schopenhauer had followed in Kant’s, etc.). My goal was to become a philosopher in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Nietzsche never talked about careers, so I never thought about careers. I wanted to read everything, learn everything, then write books that would never die.

I knew what I wanted to do, I had a goal. But how could I possibly achieve it? How could I find a publisher? How could I find readers? How could I support myself? How could I live right now? I felt that I could communicate perfectly with writers from earlier centuries, but I couldn’t communicate at all with my contemporaries. And if no one understood me or helped me, how could I possibly become a successful writer?

While I was at Harvard, I developed a theory of history that I thought was original and important — as original and important as any of Nietzsche’s theories. But how could I interest anyone in my “big idea”? I felt that I had something to offer, but how could I reach the people who could appreciate what I had to offer?

After Harvard, I found a job as a Latin teacher in an Atlanta private school. I quickly alienated everyone around me, and was fired after a few months (I stayed until the end of the year, however). As it turned out, this was the only full-time job I ever had.

After Atlanta, I spent several months in Europe. At a London youth hostel, I heard someone talk about self-publishing. I knew that this was for me, this was a way to circumvent publishers and get my book in the hands of readers. In the boondocks of Western Ireland, I finally began writing my book, a book of aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche. The dam broke, words poured out. I was eager to return to the U.S., copy my manuscript, and try to distribute it.

I had little success with agents and publishers. But when I showed my book to Harvard professors, they were willing to read at least part of it, and give me their thoughts. One of them, Ed Banfield, went even further, befriended me, hired me to do library work, etc.

Meanwhile, I worked as a receptionist, a security guard, a lawn-cutter, etc. I was never able to earn much money, so I tried to make ends meet by not spending money. Eventually, I found a precarious niche as a database programmer (Microsoft Access, etc.).

I bounced around from apartment to apartment — Somerville, Nantucket, my hometown (Westport, Connecticut) — and finally ended up in Northampton. There I met my future wife, a Chinese woman who was a grad student at Smith College. Though Nietzsche had warned his disciples against marriage and children, I followed a different path. After Yafei and I had lived together for ten years, we adopted a girl from China.

I found that parenting comes naturally to me; it requires patience, which I possessed. And I possessed something else that may be important for a parent: a feeling of being at home in the universe, a feeling that, despite everything, it’s good to be alive. I wasn’t suited for business. Business requires toughness and charm, steel and sugar. I possessed neither.

In the late 80s, after I had known Yafei for about a year, she read some Schopenhauer, and found it intriguing. I told her that I could write philosophy, too.1 She was skeptical, but began reading my aphorisms. She liked some, faulted others. She made suggestions that helped me to improve my book, and eventually she thought I had something good, something that deserved to be read. She began thinking about how to publicize it.

One morning, Eureka! she had an idea: she would show it to a Beijing scholar, Dong LeShan, whom she knew personally, and who had a reputation as a prickly iconoclast. She felt sure he’d like it.

He did. This was the reaction I had always dreamed of. He said he had read it at one breath, etc. He also said he’d show it to a Chinese magazine, Du-shu (Reading).

My wife sent the manuscript to another Beijing scholar, Li ShenZhi, and his reaction was just as positive. He published a full-length review of my book in one of China’s leading magazines, though my book wasn’t published yet. Excerpts of my book appeared in several different Chinese magazines. Fame seemed to be knocking at my door, and I was only 30.

But while Chinese magazines were receptive, Chinese publishers dragged their feet. About seven years passed, and then lo! two Chinese publishers simultaneously said they were publishing it. They both cursed us for giving it to other publishers.

In the end, I may have acquired a tiny reputation in China, but I didn’t establish an ongoing relationship with any publishers there, and I wasn’t able to parlay my Chinese success into American success. Fame’s knocking gradually fell silent.

In the late 90s, I finally carried out my London plan, and self-published my book in the U.S. I had some success with certain bookstores, but demand for the book petered out, and I still couldn’t connect with any American publishers or literary agents.

I did, however, enjoy one major publishing success in the late 90s. One of my wife’s old China friends had become a successful fiction writer. With her help, I was able to connect with a Taiwan publisher, who decided to publish my book. Initial responses were positive, so the publisher printed lots of books. Sales met expectations, and the publisher printed more books, then asked us for a second manuscript.

The second manuscript didn’t do as well as the first, so the publisher gradually lost interest. Although we had sold about 8,000 books, I wasn’t able to leverage this success into success elsewhere. My book had been a bestseller (or near-bestseller) in Taiwan, and I was sure it could be a bestseller in many other countries, but I couldn’t seem to break through.

As the years passed, I was able to improve my book significantly, but as the book became bigger and better, I had less success reaching publishers. The book had universal appeal, but it didn’t have a particular appeal to a particular audience. It was either going to be a big success, or a complete failure.

In the mid-90s, I began using the Internet. Like self-publishing, the Internet interested me greatly, because it allowed me to circumvent publishers, and connect with readers directly. I got my own domain (LJHammond.com), and put all my writings there.

In the late 90s, I started a newsletter on philosophy and literature, and distributed it via e-mail. The newsletter proved to be a good vehicle for me, and after eight years, I still continue it.

A word about my spiritual history. When I was a disciple of Nietzsche and Freud, I was an uncompromising atheist. By the time I was 30, however, I realized that I was on the wrong track, that there was a gap somewhere, that I was a partial person, not a whole person. A TV documentary introduced me to The Eastern Way — yoga, meditation, etc. I became a dedicated practitioner.

A few years later, I began reading about Zen, and I began to enjoy Eastern painting, poetry, etc. Zen helped me to appreciate nature, and also helped me to appreciate Western writers (like Thoreau and Pater) whose work had a Zen spirit. Now The Eastern Way is an important part of my life, and also an important part of my writing. I had once thought that religion was madness, but now I had a kind of religion myself. When I received the last ClassBook, I was fascinated to find that many of you had discovered The Eastern Way, too.

A few years after discovering The Eastern Way, I discovered The Jung Way. I had long been a reader of Jung, as I had been a reader of Freud. Now Jung became increasingly important to my worldview, to my spiritual outlook, to my concept of personal growth. I believed that a new philosophy/religion was developing that drew on both Eastern sources and Jungian sources. I no longer scorned religion, I advocated it. I no longer called myself an atheist, though I didn’t subscribe to a traditional, monotheistic religion.

A word about my intellectual history. Around 1992, I discovered The Oxford Theory, which says that William Shakespeare was the pen name of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. I found this theory fascinating, I became an enthusiastic convert. Fifteen years later, there’s still nothing I’m more eager to read about than the real Shakespeare. Though I’ve written several essays on the subject, I don’t plan to write a book about it, I still see myself as a generalist, a philosopher.

Another subject that interests me greatly is the occult. Like the Oxford Theory, the occult is treated by academia with a mixture of contempt and fury. I had long been receptive to the occult, but my study of Jung strengthened this interest. I discovered quantum physics with the help of a book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and quantum physics seemed to jibe with my thoughts on the occult. I discovered Renaissance philosophy (Bruno, etc.) with the help of a writer named Frances Yates, and this seemed to jibe with my thoughts on Jung and the occult. I discovered Shakespeare’s philosophy with the help of a writer named G. Wilson Knight, and this seemed to be consistent with Bruno and Jung.

Everything seemed to come together — East and West, the sciences and the humanities, the spiritual and the intellectual. I felt that I could articulate a Philosophy of Today that would have broad appeal. I felt that this was the philosophy that Nietzsche had foreseen, that Nietzsche had called The Great Noontide.

Click here for my comments in the 2013 class book.

2. Miscellaneous

A. The challenge of old age is not only death, but also mental or physical decline, which can come with surprising suddenness and intensity. One can scarcely hope to meet all the challenges of old age, and emerge unscathed.

B. The challenge of middle age is that one ends up doing all the things that others can’t do — that others are too young to do, or too old to do.

C. I discovered that Deidre Bair wrote a major Jung biography. But since Jung is controversial, there’s much debate about Jung biographies. I wrote e-mail to Sonu Shamdasani, who seems to be a Jung expert, and a Jung fan; I asked him to recommend a biography of Jung. Instead of recommending the Bair biography, he recommended Barbara Hannah’s book, Jung: His Life and Work: A Biographical Memoir.

3. Notes on Proust

In an earlier issue, I praised the Proust essay by F. Hemmings, which is in the Scribner Writers Series. According to Hemmings, when Proust was 32, his father died, and when he was 34, his mother died. “It is arguable that this double bereavement, once the shock was over, released some hidden spring in the writer’s inmost self.” Perhaps Proust sensed that his growth required his mother’s death, hence he willed her death, perhaps unconsciously, just as he willed the death of his beloved chauffeur, Agostinelli. After his mother and Agostinelli died, Proust felt that he was guilty of a double murder. As Wilde said, we kill the thing we love. Our grief and our guilt fuel our creativity.

“Although we are always hearing his voice, the Narrator emerges as a curiously shadowy character.” Perhaps he’s interesting precisely because he’s shadowy, just as we argued in an earlier issue that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest creation precisely because he isn’t a clearly-defined “character.” What people call “character” is merely a mask or crust; what matters most are the semi-conscious, shadowy drives that people try to conceal beneath their “character”. A great imaginative writer is more concerned with shadowy drives than with characters, more concerned with universal drives than with individual characters. Hence Proust’s Narrator is “strangely insubstantial. Even when he is undergoing some violent emotion like love or jealousy, he is shown ultimately as merely obeying certain universal laws of human psychology, in the same way as Swann obeys them when he experiences much the same feelings for Odette as the Narrator comes to feel for Albertine.”

Hemmings says that, unlike most novelists, Proust views love as separate from physical desire. The Narrator’s love for Gilberte is “violent and painful... although the two hardly exchange a kiss.” The narrator is fascinated by girls working in the fields, but it’s their souls, not their bodies, that fascinate him. As for Swann, his passion for Odette can’t be explained in terms of physical beauty.

In Proust, love is a jealous desire for complete possession of another’s soul: “suddenly we experience the anxious need for her very being,” Proust wrote, “an absurd need which the laws of the universe prevent us ever from satisfying and from which we can wean ourselves only with difficulty — the irrational, agonizing need to possess her.” The lover wants the beloved to be devoted to him, the lover can’t stand the thought of losing the beloved: “physical fidelity,” Hemmings says, “is less important to the lover than his belief that he counts for everything in his partner’s affections. It is the fear of loss that lies at the root of all jealousy.” And it’s this fear of loss, not a physical passion, that inspires the Narrator’s jealous love for his Mother: “The dread of loss,” writes Hemmings, “of being deprived of the comfort and reassurance of a kiss of reconciliation, can perfectly well precede the awakening of sexual instinct.” And it’s this dread of loss that prompts the lover to make the beloved a prisoner, a captive.

Proust anticipated that he would die young, and spoke of “the premature evening of my life, a life that seemed destined to be as brief as a winter’s day.”

As Hume dissolved the ego into passing thoughts, as Thich Nhat Hanh argued that the self is empty insofar as it has no separate being, so Proust dissolves the self into a series of selves. In the case of the Narrator, the self that loved Gilberte died, and was replaced by a new self, which forgot Gilberte:

According to Proust’s way of thinking, we are composed not of one identical, unified, enduring self, but of a multiplicity of selves that flourish at different times in our lives and then wither away. One of them the Narrator has, by self-discipline and in the mistaken belief that he will bring Gilberte to look on him more kindly, caused to perish; but he has simply cleared a space, as it were, for a new self to germinate, spring up, and take the place of the one he has tugged up by the roots. And this new self, having no memory of the agonies he suffered when he was in love with Gilberte, will be ready to fall in love with Albertine or any of the other charming nymphs he later meets on the beach at Balbec.

The madeleine dipped in tea revives the past, brings back the Narrator’s childhood. This experience fascinates Proust, revealing a parallel universe where time doesn’t exist, as Freud said that time doesn’t exist in the unconscious.

The joy he feels [writes Hemmings] arises not from the mere repetition in the present of an insignificant experience from the past but from the essence that is common to them both, so that what one experiences is neither in the past nor in the present but is outside time altogether, perhaps in a universe where time has no meaning, a paradise where everything is bathed in the radiance of eternity.

One might say the theme of unconscious memory is related to the theme of immortality. The resurrection of a long-lost memory is like the resurrection scenes in Shakespeare’s last plays — it transcends this world, it transcends the world of death and time. Is this also true of the Narrator’s aesthetic experiences, his experiences of beautiful art and music — do these experiences also transcend the world of death and time?

4. Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean

G. Wilson Knight was primarily a Shakespeare critic, but he also wrote books on Byron, Pope, The Romantics, and Ibsen. His book on Ibsen contains a chapter called “The Third Empire,” which discusses Emperor and Galilean. (Knight doesn’t consider whether Ibsen influenced the Nazis, and their concept of a Third Reich.) Here are some notes from this chapter:

  1. Knight says that, in politics, Ibsen was a pessimist: “From ‘special reforms’ he expected ‘nothing’ since ‘the whole race is on the wrong track.’”
  2. Ibsen on Emperor and Galilean: “This book will be my chief work. That positive theory of life which the critics have demanded of me so long, they will get in it.” If Ibsen was a political pessimist, he doesn’t seem to be a spiritual pessimist, he seems to think that spiritual growth is possible, wholeness is possible, a new religious attitude is possible.
  3. Ibsen portrays Julian as dissatisfied with both paganism and Christianity. Knight writes, “Surely the time is ‘ripe’ for some new revelation, since ‘the old beauty is no longer beautiful and the new truth is no longer true.’ The accent is that of the nineteenth century.”
  4. Julian is impressed by the occult wisdom of Maximus. “Ibsen’s interest is... spiritualistic. Spiritualism, which was influencing many of the finest minds of Ibsen’s day, replaces his earlier adventures in magic.” I wasn’t aware that Ibsen dabbled in magic, though I knew he was interested in the occult.
  5. Julian finds life everywhere, even in the “boundless dome” of heaven. The universe is alive. “He is in contact with what Spiritualism calls the ‘etheric’ dimension.... A whole play, Little Eyolf, is to be composed around it. Again and again, as in Brand, there is the cry for cosmic union.”
  6. Julian rejects the Greek academies and the Christian Church, and chooses “a third way, the way of Eleusis,” the way of mystery and magic.
  7. “Christianity appears to [Julian], as it did to Nietzsche, a religion of gloom, masochism, and death-worship.”
  8. Ibsen seems to break with Christianity in his attitude toward the body. Julian’s goal is “facing his own instincts, or ‘blood.’ He is to be a man in whom the opposites of freedom and compulsion are transcended into self-realization.... The Third Empire is to embody the self-realization that Brand aimed at and Peer’s Sphinx symbolized.”
  9. The seer Maximus looks forward to the reign of the “twin-natured” one, the one “who wills himself,” who doesn’t deny his unconscious, who “knows, and dares to be himself.”
  10. “Self-realization was to Ibsen ‘the highest attainment possible to a human being.’ The man who attained it would be Brand and Peer Gynt, including Peer’s troll-affinities, in one.” Julian falls short of this blend, “which perhaps Byron alone in recorded history has come near to realizing.”
  11. Knight says that Ibsen fused “the spirit-world and the Dionysian.”
  12. Ibsen called Jews “the nobility of the human race.”
As one looks at this list, one is struck by the similarity between Ibsen’s philosophy and the Philosophy of Today.

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. After seeing some paintings by Raphael, Correggio said, “I, too, am a painter.” back