The thing I hate most about midterm season isn’t the caffeine-sustained sleep deprivation schedule, nor the missed social events, nor the constant, intolerable noise of competitive complaining. The thing I hate most about midterm season is that I feel ugly. I know it sounds pathologically vain, but the dread I feel waking up in the morning after a lucky five hours is not the dread of facing the full day of work ahead of me—it’s the dread of looking in the mirror.
It’s gotten so bad lately that I’ve taken up the art of alchemy. If only I could find the right elixir, the proper mix of toners and astringents, of moisturizing creams and exfoliating scrubs, then those sad, sagging eyes would tighten and those ruddy cheeks would blanch and start to glow. But, the harder I study that face, disembodied in the glass—my father’s hairline starting to make its inerasable etch—the uglier I seem, and the more I realize I’ll never solve the beauty puzzle.
Eventually, I have to give up on the pity party and face the day.
Luckily, I’m locking myself in Butler all day where no one can see me. Or, where, if they do, they know to forgive me. Unluckily, I have other puzzles to solve.
I decided to take a class on “The Philosophy of Language and Mind” this semester. I thought that it would be a space for lofty considerations on human thought and behavior after studying the mundane statistics of these things for the past few years. In other words, I just wanted a break. After a while, the hard data has a tendency to, well, harden you.
Of course, it turned out to be an immense challenge. And, if I was concerned about balding, I’ve spent many torturous nights ripping out hair in chunks, trying to scratch the surface of impenetrable essays on nothing less than the structure of thought itself. Lately, we’ve been poring over Wittgenstein. If the other readings for the class were difficult, they were at least argued in a logical, orderly fashion. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is, by comparison, labyrinthine. Written in numbered paragraphs, it moves in fits and starts, jumping back and forth between the philosopher and his interlocutor. It is sometimes prosaic, sometimes poetic, sometimes speaking of X’s and Y’s, and sometimes of beetles and boxes. Simply put, it’s a headache.
But I was determined—today was the day I was going to crack the code.
Four hours later, and I was only 10 pages in. Caffeine-blood levels dangerously low, I was becoming that overly-irritable person in 209, ready to strangle you for snickering at a meme with your study buddy or for sneezing more than twice. As for Wittgenstein, my only conclusion was that the more I scrutinized the concepts at hand—language and meaning—the more they became, like my face in the mirror, truly ugly things. What I had previously taken for granted had now become monstrous molecules, breaking down into ever-smaller atoms, which shuffled and rearranged themselves before my eyes.
Sometimes, in these panicked moments, I have to ask myself, why study at all? Aren’t the things we study more beautiful, more holy in the light of common sense? If you’ve studied Evolutionary Psych, you’ll learn, in terrifyingly clinical terms, that men are prone to engage in “extra-pair copulations” because they have small, cheap, and abundant gametes that they can spread indiscriminately with little cost. When you’ve known a cheat, every fiber of your being screams “No, men are simply the worst!” Full stop. Surely, that’s not a beautiful fact of life. But to think in terms of ‘facts of life’—to think of the world in aphorism—is a beautiful thing.
I think we often approach our studies with some innocent sense of wonder, some tantalizing and totalizing notion of the thing to be studied: We see, in the registrar, a course title like “Buddhism and Neuroscience” and dream of nirvana revealed through fMRI. Or, we mean to take “The History of the Modern Middle East” before we graduate because, after all, the violent conflicts that bear on our minds when it comes time to vote have a history, and we should know it—as if we can really know it.
But there comes a point in the semester, usually around now, when the magic is lost. You fall behind in your unrealistic reading load, and the things you do read, if you can even decode the jargon, raise more questions than they answer. Discourse becomes disagreement, and where there is consensus, it is on the ugly banalities of historical facts. Everywhere you expected to find beauty and profundity, there is only uncertainty. Your professors—the High Priests whom you thought had entered the Holy of Holies and gazed upon the Ark of the Covenant—all have their own ways of waffling, of saying “I don’t know.” At this point, we often lose interest. We resign ourselves to “bullshitting” or to a few nights of cramming, and we look forward to forgetting everything we supposedly learned.
Sometimes, though, we don’t. We stay vigilant, spending sleepless nights reading in search of some “aha” moment of enlightenment, when we will once again be awestruck, and this time by clarity instead of mystery. But does that moment exist?
At one point in the Investigations, Wittgenstein is asked (or asks himself): “What is your aim in philosophy?”
His reply? “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
At first, I read this in straightforward fashion: Our minds are like a bottle, and the problems we study are like flies trapped inside. Bang it around enough, and eventually, it will find its way out—we’ll have solved the problem.
Apparently, that’s not quite what he meant. He meant that we are the flies, banging our heads forever against the bottle of philosophy. Many think that Wittgenstein’s primary goal was to show that there are no genuine philosophical problems, at least in the way we typically think of philosophy. But, allured by the hope of enlightenment, we trap ourselves by asking unanswerable questions: “What is truth?” “What is meaning?” What seem to be clear, self-defined concepts at first glance turn out to be ugly and unfamiliar upon on closer examination. So we slam ourselves again and again against the glass wall in an attempt to make sense of them. And the asinine, schizophrenic layout of the Philosophical Investigations is more an exposure of this fruitless process than a genuine attempt at argument.
I don’t know if Wittgenstein was right. After all, I knew what I was getting myself into in the first week of this class, but I didn’t drop it. There’s some urgent need to study, some sugar-water at the bottom of the bottle that makes diving inside so attractive. And, even if I never solve the big questions, there certainly are little victories along the way—a metaphor will click after reading it a second time, or a hypothesis will make a meaningful constellation out of what first appeared to be random points on a graph. If these are only pyrrhic victories, never amounting to true enlightenment, well, at least they keep an ugly, little fly like me thinking.
In any case, I took his point as a good excuse to close the book and show myself the way out of my fly-bottle, Butler, for the night. Walking down to 114th and Broadway, I resisted the temptation to stare at the wretched posture of my reflection as it stalked me in the glass walls of Lerner.
If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
There is a happiness inside the fly bottle, and perhaps it is simply the happiness of finding your way out—whether by solving the puzzle, or by having the courage to know you never will.
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teacher’s assistant and research assistant in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology. He hasn’t done “the twitter” since high school, and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.
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