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Early in my French studies I decided to read without using a dictionary.

I
understood enough to make sense of news and easy fiction, and doing away with the
struggle of looking up every second underlined word made me feel that I was
already amalgamated into French life, sitting in a Paris café, ready to meet any
linguistic challenge.

From a book written in the early 20th century I learned that, somewhere in
Normandy, a delegation of bordello owners went to complain to the mayor about low
morality among the town’s women. They were, in the best tradition of commercial
protectionism, asking for measures (I could not discern exactly what kind) to
shield them against unfair competition. They argued that their livelihood was in
danger. The story raises profound questions about ethical philosophy, the
relativity of moral standards, the role of material interests and entrenched
authority to determine values, pass judgment over individual conduct, and,
ultimately, in terms of daily life, force adaptation to the socio-cultural
environment on pain of losing respectability and social standing.

A few years passed and my French improved. (Hanging around those cafes on
Montparnasse does indeed steepen the learning curve.) Quite accidentally, I picked
up the book and opened it to the same page. I reread the paragraph and found that
the story differed significantly from the way I had understood it in the toddler
phase of mastering the grande nation’s language. Actually, the town’s women sent a
delegation to the mayor demanding the removal of the bordellos. The mayor
subsequently summoned red light entrepreneurs but instead of reading them the riot
act, he asked them for more discretion. He even offered some implicit and shrewd
advice. I was disappointed. My uninformed, false reading was both more amusing and
philosophically more challenging than the true one.

We all know that the road to understanding is paved with corrected
misinterpretations and misconceptions. Trudging on it is part of growing up. But
even later in life, beliefs and even trusted knowledge are subject to corrections
-- quick ones or slowly emerging ones, rectifications that are brutal and shameful
or subtle and gentle; those that come within an expected time limit or arrive
suddenly, unexpectedly.

The reason I remember this trivial slice of life is that, as it became obvious
later, my early reading made up for misunderstood words and their ambiguous, fuzzy
interplay, in such a way as to reflect my own interests and expectations. At that
time I was into international commerce, protectionism, tariffs and other
administrative methods used to guide and restrict trade. And I expected that
French literature would be replete with the spirit of moral paradox, the blatant
exposure of hypocrisy -- the legacy of Montesquieu, Moliere, Voltaire, Maupassant,
and countless other classics of literature and philosophy. I solved the unknown by
relying on my inner world and fell into the famous trap of self-hyped, spurious,
subjective logocentrism. (Not to disparage the book’s author, I still believe the
false version is more amusing and intriguing than the correct one.)

But would the train of thought ever stop here on a slow winter night? What if the
text is the meaning of life, existence itself; and the reader, instead of an
individual, is the human community? In this case, the impossibility of later
verification comes with the territory. (We will never speak the true language of
existence no matter how long we hang around existentialist cafes.) Wouldn’t it
make sense to presume that the way we read our place in the universe corresponds
to our interests and expectations?

Transcendental longing “to be” is foundational to consciousness. From the “toddler
phase” of human self-awareness to our very own new age, all faith systems, cults
and religions have excluded death as a complete end to the individual. The dead do
not really die. They become ghosts, unburied souls, floating spirits in search of
reincarnation, or just lying patiently under their crosses in churchyards, waiting
for the Lord to announce resurrection. Beyond their easily recognized
manifestations (doctrines, rituals, music, architecture) this feature of group
psychology is no less primal to faith systems than countable time is to any
conceivable change.

We sense distinctness between our superficial, transient ego and something
enduring, timeless -- as the philosopher Henri Bergson so charmingly fed to his
audiences eager to swallow every spoonful a century ago. Even those who are
doubtful or like to avoid thinking about these matters altogether cling to a
surreptitiously nourished, amorphous hope that those gifted with faith are right.
No one completely derides or refuses arguments for immortality. In plain sight,
our vanity (fear of sarcasm) may throw messages about timelessness into the
wastebasket, but we eagerly fish them out once we think no one is looking. Some
are convinced that a vital force exists, separate from our mere physical being.
For the rest of us, it is only a vague hope, which -- hiding tantalizingly in the
folds of consciousness -- piggy-backs on the assurance of others. The residual is
insignificant. Very few (if any) can completely and irrevocably reject the
hypothesis of existence beyond life the way we empirically know it.

Super-human intelligence is certainly fantastic enough to be believable and to
keep us on the move. A serene High One, almighty and good at the same time? Isn’t
this wonderfully congruent with our best interests and prevalent levels of
understanding existence? But, if you are non-feint of heart -- the analytical,
Cartesian type -- then the following question becomes unavoidable: Have we been
programmed to believe in one scenario for immortality or another (or to consider
at least one of these scenarios a non-rejectable hypothesis) by some supernatural
power that (who?) communicates to us through miracles? Or, have such beliefs
proved to be an advantage for groups in the evolutionary game of survivorship, and
consequently, have they been naturally selected for social maintenance and
transmission over the ages? Is our desire for God from God or from us? Has our
predisposition to expect (or at least not to reject) immortality been hardwired
from another world or from this one? To put it in a crude, irreligious way, have
we been tricked or are we tricking ourselves?

A scholastically proper answer to this question demands sifting through the duel
between intelligent design arguments (which broke with naïve Biblical literalism)
and demonstrations of their insufficiency. It mandates intimate familiarity with
the intellectual history of the problematic; it requires rereading (once again)
with contemporary, scientifically up-to-date minds Descartes, Spinoza, Locke,
Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach,
Kierkegaard, Husserl, Jaspers, Narbert, Sartre, Heidegger, Dewey, and Ricoeur.
Naturally, we could not do without references to the “school of suspicion” about
our awareness of reality -- Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. And, of course, it is
impossible to leave out the saints of postmodern thought (if fast track
canonization is allowed) -- Foucault and Derrida, and living classic, Kristeva.
Literature on philosophical anthropology, the philosophy of existence and
reflections, and the philosophical study of religion, socio-psychology, and
consciousness research would have to be surveyed, analyzed, and interpreted.

I suspect that after spending a lifetime with the project, support for both points
of view would match in strength and acuity. Yet the two cannot be simultaneously
true. Was William Shakespeare wrong? If the rank growth of philosophical projects
-- the incredible fertility of the “thinking thing” (along the full scales of
quality and significance) is inclined to continue indefinitely and develop two
mutually contradictory answers to each and every question then Hamlet living four
centuries later should correct himself. Instead of saying “There are more things
in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” he should say
the exact opposite: “There are more things dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio,
than in heaven and earth.”

Oh, Philosophia you debauched, skeptical charmer. You say so many different and
self-contradictory things with equal conviction and power of reason. You are not
getting wiser with age. Wanting to have a perspective on our lives will require
that we leave your enchanted castle of hidden traps and mirrored walls. If we are
to develop a firm, meta-comprehension of deeply-sensed congruity about our
existence, a myth that the entire global city can share (myth, since even if we
found the truth we could never ever convincingly prove it) then we would need a
new start: We should assemble a fact sheet of general ideas that correspond to the
requirements of human longevity while remaining acceptable to our evolving sense
of plausibility and never resting critical vigilance.

Let us begin right now. It is intuitively clear to most of us that reality exists
independently from our consciousness, our thought world (or worlds). Just like the
text of the novel existed regardless of how poorly or well I interpreted it. The
text is correct unto itself. But even if it is not (it was fiction after all), a
small town by the name of “Saint Laboux-sur-Mer” exists in Normandy. Just for fun
and to underscore my conviction about the existence of objective reality I did a
web search on Saint Laboux-sur-Mer. You know what Google told me? “There are no
pages found containing …”

Barren is the winter on the county’s edge through the backyard window. Geese have
long escaped to sun-lit skies, south from swirling winds malevolent enough to
shake the pin number out of a lonely, defenseless maple tree distraught by the
automatic teller of Dionysian tales. No bright coffin nails in the firmament to
taunt the mind with the puzzle of bottomless time and suspicious patterns. Why
count on bluish lunar plains and dark mountain ranges in moonless nights? Wanting
to discover the mystery of existence is evil fire that melts you into oblivion and
throws your ashes into the n-dimensional open manifold where the Big Bang was a
Puny Ignition at zero o’clock; where beams of light try in vein to reach
translucent depths in accelerated fall; where symbol-less voids and crackling
metaphysical hearths alternate like squares on a checker board; where mortal blood
spraying and DNA-perpetuating ecstasy are indistinguishable stirrings in bent
continua -- mere collisions in the corridor of contourless flashes and blind
dimness? In the end, the human condition is that only others can redeem us from
feeling our speck-of-dust-like nullity, from coming face-to-face with our arch
reason of dread, doubts about our postmortem felicity -- those hellhounds from
Pluto’s realm of mental anguish.

Open your mouth wide, worldliness of the world! Who cares about the smell of
garlic on your breath; rotting cavities; the puzzled rumination without a shadow
of fundamental cause? Let’s drive to the nearby mall and be one with the Christmas
crowd, give in to the power of familiar ding-dong music that makes you smile at
complete strangers! Maybe we are not just an incipient skin rash on God’s left
hand, chewing gum stuck to his Nike, a fragment of cork in his diamond wine, a
failed experiment that accidentally produced subprime intelligence to be dumped
into a trans-universal land-fill. Nothingness in deep space may, after all,
contain a benevolent word, even if it does not carry sound . . . How about this
new romantic Hollywood comedy with a barrel of popcorn? I don’t think, therefore I
am. Butter? Yes, extra, please.