A Confession of Sorts

A few years ago, the poet, David Howard, called me ‘a closet philosopher’. He meant it kindly but the remark struck home. It made me realise how much philosophy had been a guilty secret for much of my life.

One reason for hiding it is the Kiwi scorn of anything overtly intellectual. Ideas indulged in for their own sake, without practical application, are a waste of time and anyone who cares about them is a wanker. Even poets have a better time here than philosophers. There is a second reason, though; one more personal.

I spent a good chunk of my childhood and all of my adolescence without a father. As the only son, I was cast in the role of ‘man of the family’ expected to take on the responsibility of looking after my widowed mother and my younger sister. No one placed this burden on me. It just came with the territory. It was what any decent bloke would have done back then in the fifties.

How to go about it? Education was the first step. I was a bright child and I did well enough at school for my mother to believe I had a solid future. I was headed for one of the professions – lawyer, doctor, engineer, accountant – it didn’t matter which as long as it was a good middle-class occupation with an upper quartile salary. I didn’t actually like this plan, although I could never have said so. In fact, I resented it deeply. In the end, I did the only thing a fifteen-year-old could do. I ran away – not into the world but into my own head. 

The key to academic success was hard work and hard work was homework. This truth was my escape. Every night during my teens I retreated into my room, spent a derisory amount of time on the things I had to do for school and the rest on what I really cared about: reading and thinking and writing in pursuit of my own intellectual dreams.

The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, divides the development of a child’s thinking into four stages, the last of which is formal operations – the ability to think logically and to do deal with abstract concepts. I remember the full flowering of this ability in my own mental space. It resulted, during the six months following my fifteenth birthday, in a love affair with mathematics. The way in which one set of symbols, with their associated abstract conceptions, folded neatly and inevitably into another set, with different associated concepts, brought with it an intense pleasure and satisfaction, my first full experience of my own creativity. Sublimated sexuality? No doubt. But what’s wrong with that? 

Along with this passion for logic came an equally intense interest in other subjects. I discovered the Teach Yourself  books and was soon dabbling in politics, economics and anthropology. It was Teach Yourself Philosophy that had the greatest impact, though. It led me to Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy and, thence, to Descartes’s Meditations and Berkeley’s Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonus.

Cartesian dualism, with its notion of a mind or soul as a separate ‘substance’ quite distinct from the stuff of the physical world, was meat and drink to an introverted, intellectual adolescent. I can still remember the intensity of feeling with which I grasped these ideas. In the solitude of my room I was quite prepared to take the step that Descartes and Berkeley did not allow themselves, the move into solipsism. It was easy to feel in those transcendental moments that I alone existed and that the rest of the world was an illusion.

In another time and another context, experiences like these would have led to religious conversion. I am puzzled now that it didn’t happen to me. I was brought up in a religious family and I had already had what I can only call a mystical experience. Part of me wanted to attach my philosophical discoveries to the notion of God. Another part of me resisted, even more firmly. My sense of the beauty of thought remained thoroughly secular.

It also remained secret. It seemed just too private to offer to anyone else, even if I could have found a sympathetic listener. There were one or two guys at school who had a like interest in ideas but none with whom I could have shared the intensity of the feelings. Ideas don’t work like that, do they? They’re meant to be cold and unemotional, although you’re allowed to get passionate about an argument. Nobody talks about the sheer beauty of thought and the joy of just thinking – thinking for its own sake without goal or purpose.

The net result of all this was a sense of myself as something quite separate from the roles and obligations that life required of me. In my younger years I ran away from anything I was doing as soon as other people began to take it seriously. I have achieved a better equilibrium since, although I still get very nervous about labels. I wonder if we ever quite escape the children we once were.

Day lilies and water lilies, too.

One Response to “A Confession of Sorts”

  1. Bruitin » Blog Archive » A Misspent Youth Says:

    […] and by the particular circumstances of my life. I was in the science stream at school because I loved mathematics and if you wanted to do maths, you had to take on the rest of the science package – physics […]

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