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The Cathartic Potion of Living Together

Panayiota Vassilopoulou and Jonardon Ganeri report on a convivium in Delhi.

The Convivium series began in 1987 and was conceived by Probal Das Gupta, Michael McGhee, and Prabodh Parikh in the attempt to create genuine inter-cultural and inter-disciplinary dialogue between Indian and European thinkers. There have been meetings in Mahabaleshwar, in West Sussex, at the Sanskriti Kendra in Delhi, in Panchgani and in Lampeter, Wales. The Convivia are resolutely small-scale: the intention has been to generate an intimate atmosphere that facilitates the individual conversations and exchanges, thus marking a significant difference with the conferences, symposia, or colloquia with which we are mostly familiar. The core issue for the series has been the exploration of ideas across the traditional boundaries of culture and custom, resisting a merely comparative approach. We have tried instead to awaken ourselves to the many-sidedness of ideas and their different cultural expressions in a common venture. Convivium VI, ‘Philosophies, Subjectivities and Cultures’ (Delhi and Bir, September 9-14 2004) reflected the cluster of issues that must attend such preoccupations: the relationships between truth, relativism and perspectivism, the nature and limits of cultural difference, and the relationship between philosophy and subjectivity, in the contexts of politics, art, and spirituality.

But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicoloured lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from the terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Vintage Books, 1997)

Living Together

We come now to wrap in narrative the experience of a philosophical gathering that began, indeed, on a September evening in Delhi. That philosophers occupy invisible spaces, and embark on imaginary travels, is no surprise: from Plato’s utopian polis and Plotinus’ journey to a fatherland through the awakening of an ‘inner sight’, to contemporary academics, philosophers have seemed to envisage an ideal community in which the pursuit for truth and reason could be hosted, and their voice heard, in a parliament of sympathetic souls. And, although our journey to India did in fact take place, it is, on reflection, no less imaginary: each one of us holds a different account of what happened, and possibly different things did happen to each one of us. Somewhere between plurality and singularity, objectivity and subjectivity, lies the presence of meaning and of people that far exceed the temporal and spatial determinations to which they are subjected.

Arguably, however, since this presence, collective though it may be, is always experienced subjectively, we need to face the question: is philosophy a matter of solidarity or of solitude? Certainly, this is a very familiar problem, at least to those of us who begun their philosophical education by venturing into Plato’s Republic. The legendary liberated prisoner returns to the Cave, the theatre of shadows which stages in its obscurity the works and days of earthly life. But why would such a person, the philosopher who experiences the transparent meaning of an ideal world, not make himself at home there, ‘alone to the alone,’ instead of turning back to his fellow prisoners? Isn’t it the ideal place, the place where the philosopher is striving to reach and reside? Or is it, regrettably, easier always to depart than to arrive?

To participate in a philosophical convivium instead of a colloquium or a conference, brought this question to the fore again and again. Where and with what were these philosophers about to live? Because professional philosophers are unaccustomed to situations like this, having been exposed repeatedly to the individualistic and antagonistic environment of contemporary universities, we welcomed with some relief the suggestion that reached us through a poem:

To get the new temple started
Somebody donated a golden coin
Somebody donated a penny
And the baby who just sits and rocks
Donated just its rocking, and someone unwilling
Donated all his unwillingness, the moment he finished
Dedicating all his unwillingness, the temple
Was done.1

Each one of us was going to offer their own ‘inner world’ or perspective, which would have to include their experience and background together with their thoughts. In other words, if this was going to be really a convivium, the emotions would have to be addressed, philosophy would have to be practised in ‘the first person’, and well-constructed arguments and polished papers would not suffice to make a contribution. That is not to say, of course, that the ‘temple’ would have suffered this loss; rather, it is the person who would have been deprived of a share in the ‘temple’, in the experience of living together.

The initial relief, however, was instantly succeeded by perplexity. We were building a temple, making our own ideal sacred space; and if we wanted, we could pull it down too. The distance between imaginary and illusory is often blurred, as also, it seems, is the distance between philosophy and parody. Facing the perils of becoming yet another Don Quixote, raising provocative giants where there are but conciliatory windmills, what were we doing?

Philosophy in the Margins

One thing seemed clear enough: the real business of this philosophy was not going to be done in the main presentations, but in the times that surrounded them, the tea-breaks and breakfasts, the evening walks and pujas. To see a star clearly, the astronomer does not use the stare but the side of the eye. Our lives are like that too: we career forward, but the real living happens off-stage, in the wings of stolen kisses and secret dreams. All of life is marginalia, for which the text is but a pretext. We look for our answers not under the lamp, as Wittgenstein declared, but in those dim places where the light gives out. Truth is too harsh a commodity, too gritty a food, to sustain real lives. Let’s not burden ourselves with truths we cannot bear. We need the freedom of the shadow, the playful caress, the hope of remaining unseen. And what’s true of each of us is also true of us living together. A life together, in however fleeting and precious a moment, is lived in that imaginary place outside of coarse dialectic, in a space cleared by the clash of minds. Philosophy, here, is a marginal game. It answers not the question but the reason behind the questioning, looking not into the light but into the half-lit corners behind the lamp.

In the beautiful film The Cup, the wise Abbot asks the student: “Can we cover the earth in leather so it is soft wherever we go?” “No” is the obvious response, but we still – or just – want to trace our path, to get our bearings. What can we do? The solution to this riddle, as we are doodling or clinking our plastic cups, seems teasingly reasonable: “Wear leather sandals.” We cannot change the world, but it is in our power to change what the world is for us. In the process, we will have to change too. We can learn to tread more softly on the hard soil of fact. Or even to learn that our existence, and the world’s, is more fluid than solid, more twinkling than firm.

This philosophy does not love wisdom but befriends it: it is philosophia. Philosophy needs from wisdom what friends need from one another – a companion-in-arms, a co-conspirator, a mate. From the bright light of the guide, philosophy needs only shade. There, the lines of argument are smoothed, as in the twilight, and animate bodies – unlike soulless objects – bend when they collide, to make room for one another. In his book In Praise of Shadows, Tanizaki remarks: “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house;” this is where we found not a grotto but a home.


What makes living together, doing philosophy in the shadows, cathartic? Of what does the secret smile purge the soul? The paradoxical answer has to be – it purges the soul of guilt. The philosopher’s guilt is born of knowing that she dares not stare into the morning sun. Too bright, too blinding, is the sun. The philosopher’s star is the afternoon moon, a delicate star needing to be seen, whose grip on existence is as tenuous as the mist’s. As Calvino wrote in his Mr Palomar, “Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon, and this is the moment when it would most require our attention, since its existence is still in doubt.” We know that we should allow ourselves to be led by the bright star of truth, but, all too human, we prefer to hold hands in the moonlight. And here we find more than solace, more than companionship, more even than love: we find life, life together under the moon, for “life transcends all structures and there are no rules of conduct for the soul.” (Pablo Neruda, Memoirs) And it is in this dim light that our eyes need to be wide open.

The Buddha said to Kasyapa: “My teachings are a medicine, to be expelled themselves along with the illness they erase.” Cleansed, our minds retain no trace of the instrument of their cleansing. No mind primed with ordered truths, marshalled ready for debate, can call itself pure. The cathartic power of dialectic lies then in this – that with each spiral round, less of itself remains. “Viewing the world freed from Buddhist teachings, a commonplace man will become a living Buddha,” said the Hitsuzendo Master Shido Munan, a principle he then applied both to Zen brush and Samurai sword: forget technique once learned, forget gravity, and dance with the lightness of a marionette.2 The wise sage knew this who said that dialectic is not for the sake of argumentation, but serves its purpose when it ‘burns up’ the false grip of dogmatic views. Living with friends, talking, laughing, drains the soul’s canker. What remains is a sharp, sonorous stillness, a mind at rest but wholly alert, a mind on the surface of which perfect ripples can play – but only because its depths are peaceful.

A poet, however, warns us even now:

The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
if deep enough can drown.3

Might we not drown in our electric stillness? Yes, of course: the temple we have built, we can also pull down. We can drown in our own ideals. That’s the risk philosophy makes us run – nobody ever said that philosophy isn’t dangerous. Is it also disappointing (even, embarrassing)? Does it fail, of necessity, to deliver its promises? Must our temples be half-built shells, half-ruins? We found ourselves asking, “Is philosophy then possible only among friends?” But friends quarrel, and strangers are people too.

We discovered a valuable clue during our brief encounter with the dark yet sparkly eyes of Ramubhai Gandhi, in the shadow they cast upon the notion of ‘subjectivities’. Subjectivity should always be in the singular, Ramubhai insisted, and this because the plurality of the self is always gathered in a unity, while the unity of the self is founded on the many aspects that comprise it. What would the plural add to it, which subjectivity does not already have? Such addition may simply be too much, and thus take something away from its meaning – that it is one. We do not bring two entities together only by fusing them, but also by refining the bond of their symbiosis, in the same way that we do not double an entity only by adding one more to it, but also by dividing it into two. It is the bond that matters, and not the ‘I’; it is the friendship that we should rescue and not the friends.

Friends from a distance will not do: we are all faces springing from a common head, and friends will have to show their face before friendship would even elusively begin to appear. An image that travels through the Upanishads, the Enneads, and the verses of John Donne:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts doe in faces rest,
Where can we find two better hemispheares
Without sharpe North, without declining West?
(John Donne, ‘The Good Morrow’)

Can philosophy reach beyond the provinces of shared subjectivity, can it ford the rivers of difference? Catharsis is not the elimination of passions or of the differences that bring so many souls together. And we do not reach the purified state in the absence of desires, diversity, or otherness. It is the taming or else the fine-tuning of the passions that we should seek, their transformation not into something dispensable, but into something precious. Even stillness has a structure. We do not wish to ‘lie in mud’, but when the mud sets at the bottom and the water comes up to the surface, it is that mud, now turned into fertile soil, which motivates and supports the person who stands up on it. Balancing on shaky grounds, without phobos and eleos, the tragic fear and pity, means also to see each other in trust and joy. Instead of responding to difference with uniformity, we may let ever so many resplendent flowers bloom: catharsis is a remedy of the homoeopathic kind. Thus, the resounding answer came in an unexpected form – our hosts and we danced in a circle, led by a scarf whose waves blew open the circle as if it drew a tangent to the rhythm of the dance. The reach of philosophy is vindicated by play.

In the Heartbeat of Philosophy

We have already begun to let go. We are letting go of our hard-won philosophical skills, the dialectical tricks in whose maternal arms we have felt so long protected. We are learning to think without safety nets and numbers, to swim in waters deep. We are letting go too of our warm September evenings, as well as of the envy for those who once before lived identical evenings and thought they were happy. And along with envy, we’re letting go of greed, the needy desire for a bright star that will lead us to the Good, or for there to be a one without a two. Soon we will have to let go even of you, dear reader, returning you back to the place we found you at the outset of our imaginary travels. Soon, but not quite yet. For although the circle has to be closed and the journey ended, no traveller comes home unchanged. Nothing now is the same, or everything is. But the hardest thing of all is to let go of the cathartic potion itself, even though we know we must now part.

We are back to the West, back to our classes and our research assessment exercises. What have we retained? It may be true that “between the lips and the voice something goes dying”4but rather than nostalgia or mourning, it is a new rhythm that we now have, a new pulse that sets the pace.

Arrivals seem certainly more difficult than departures, and harbours, airports, train-stations, may in fact be more appealing and comfortable dwellings for philosophers than any imaginary temple, or, for that matter, any real house. “What is happening now with Tibet?”, we asked Samdong Rinpoche, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile. “Tibet?” he turned to us, “Tibet does not exist.” The Tibet that was, is dramatically changed by the eight or so million Chinese who have found a new home there. The Tibet that was, is, however, still in the hearts of those who know it if only through a story. Tibetans may still pack their suitcases hoping to return, and their life – like that, say, of the Platonic philosopher – may be animated by this longing. But the life is here, and so is the longing.

The philosophical life is not to be lived as life in exile. One should learn to let go: we are not exiles but guests in a world that does not belong to us. We may choose to bring ourselves to the realisation that we belong to the world, and trace a place to belong therein: a circle – to recall one of the most puzzling and celebrated metaphors – “with the centre everywhere and the circumference nowhere.” In that circle, taking a distance helps to see things afresh, but there is in the end no ‘here’ separate from ‘there’. As if we are playing with a photographic lens, and shift the focus at will from foreground to background. We learn to tread softly, to call no one perspective our own.

This piece of ‘biographical’ writing is flirting seriously with metaphor, perching at times on the edge of intelligibility for the unsympathetic ear. The unity of the narrative, like the unity of our lives, is not to be found in the succession of events, or the certainty of facts or philosophical proofs. It is there in the hidden harmony of our voices. To be in tune with others, a tune of which we are also part, is one way among others of recognising one of the many images of our self.

“When you return to the West,” Kublai
asks Marco,
“will you repeat to your people the same
tales you tell me?”
“I speak and speak,” Marco says,
“but the listener retains the words he
is expecting... It is not the voice that
commands the story: it is the ear.”
(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)

© Dr Panayiota Vassilopoulou & Dr Jonardon Ganeri 2005

Panayiota Vassilopoulou and Jonardon Ganeri both lecture in philosophy at the University of Liverpool.

• This text is thanksgiving to Prabodh Parikh and Michael McGhee, coordinators of Convivium VI in which thinkers from India, Western Europe, and Northern America gathered in India between September 9th to 14th 2004.

1 Alokeranjan Dasgupta, ‘Talking of Raising a New Temple,’ in his Best Poems (Kolkata Proma, 2001). Translation by Probal Dasgupta, whom we thank for supplying both poem and exegesis to the convivium.

2 Heinrich von Kleist, ‘On the Marionette Theatre.’ http://www.southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm

3 R.S. Thomas, ‘Reflections,’ in Collected Later Poems 1988–2000 (Bloodaxe, 2004), p.235.

4 Pablo Neruda, ‘I Have Gone Marking,’ in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Jonathan Cape, 2004), p.39

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