Towards a New Ontology
by Luke Jackson
part 1 of 2
The ideas were coming fast now. His writing hand was cramped from the pages he had scrawled, trying to capture the ideas before they dissipated. He had at last propounded a solid theoretical framework that built upon the work of Martin Heidegger but that also revealed several flaws he had found in the great philosopher’s work.
To be precise, he had rejected the mind-body duality, as Heidegger had, but had managed to avoid the reductionism inherent in the concept of Being-in-the-world. He had also greatly developed Heidegger’s ontology beyond the ontological-ontic distinction.
His wife had left him earlier that afternoon. It was probably best this way. She hadn’t understood the importance of the work.
“You’re spending all day writing God-knows-what,” she had said to him when he had been taking notes on his new ontology. Just like her, to follow the social ritual of divine referents when she was a nonbeliever. Lately her voice had become a shrill background noise to him, a distraction. He tried not to look at her pale face, lined with worry and discontent, peering out from short black hair.
“This work is extremely important, you have no idea,” he had said, putting his notepad to one side and running his hands through his long hair.
“More important than me,” she had said, and he was forced to acknowledge that it was true. She was but one person; his work was all-encompassing. “A book that no publisher in its right mind would publish,” she said, trying to cut him.
“Perhaps,” he said, scratching his weeks-long growth of beard. “Most people think that philosophy is in its death throes or has died. Postmodernism claims that everything is in the language and the subjectivity of the reader. That’s why this book is so important! I’m framing a completely new philosophical model, improving upon the masters...”
“I hope that, on some level, you realize that you’ve lost it,” she had said, carrying her duffel bag in one hand as she slammed the door on him.
Now he was putting the final touches on his seventeenth chapter of his treatise, Towards a New Ontology:
Thus, we see the end result of the ‘new’ philosophies. First it was necessary to displace the theological systems that weighed so heavily on the human mind, ably performed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Martin Heidegger started the work of developing a new ontological model, but his work was unfortunately tainted by associations with Nazism. Now most see philosophy as fractured and dead, torn between the primitive pragmatisms of the Americans and the abstract subject-oriented models perfected by the French. Modern philosophy has burned itself in effigy.
This need not be the case. Indeed, everyone lives according to a philosophical model, usually obtained from the dominant culture. We all know that the U.S. values individualism and materialism. What I am proposing is a new way, a new ontology.
He kicked back in his chair and reread what he had written, then went out onto his rickety balcony to smoke an American Spirit. The New Orleans night was black with swampy murk, cut sporadically by the headlights from traffic below. He inhaled deeply and watched the smoke curl up around his nose and eyes, feeling his head aflame. A twinge of self-loathing mixed with the nicotine rush — his wife had him well-trained, and he had been hiding butts for months. No more.
He stared at the burning embers of the cigarette, thinking how distinctly American it was to steal the herbs natives smoked in peace ceremonies, intensify and mass-produce them into a powerfully addictive and carcinogenic drug. Strangely, when things were pared down into their absolute essence, they lost all authentic meaning. The indigenous people who had refused to have their photographs taken were right; somehow, they had seen the soulless future of reality television and Las Vegas simulacra.
It was absurd, how his wife had left him. He was propounding a radical alteration in human consciousness. She was consumed with bills, paychecks, the trivial epiphenomena of capitalist existence. How could she fail to realize that her concerns were only mental constructs enforced by the dominant ideology?
“Hello?” he asked, rubbing his cigarette into the ashtray and looking at the neighboring apartments. They were all dark and unlit. “Hello?” he shouted again, louder.
‘No need to shout.’
“Who are you?” he asked.
‘We are visitors attempting a mental uplink. Please hold.’
He became fidgety when he heard the word “visitors.” Either someone was playing a prank on him or he was going insane.
“Right, visitors, that sound like the phone company. Give me a break. I’m going back inside.”
‘Please do not. We will lose the connection.’
“Have a nice day,” he said with a synthetic smile as he slammed his window onto the cold night. He peered through the blinds and saw only emptiness.
Their apartment — his apartment — was still cluttered with pictures and knickknacks they had collected over the years, the walls stacked with his works of philosophy and literature. He had met his wife in an Eastern philosophy seminar, during his brief phase of fascination, when the illogic of it had seemed an inscrutable mystery rather than a collection of non sequiturs.
She had talked so eloquently and passionately about Eastern thought, unconstrained by the Aristotelian logic systems inherited by the West. He had been enraptured by her voice, and had surprised himself when he had asked her out for coffee — even more surprised when she had said yes.
That was all before he had been laughed out of the program by those slaves and sycophants, so content to interpret and reinterpret the masters without producing anything new. He had been powerfully moved and wounded by philosophy, by Schopenhauer’s dark visions of a godless world ruled by will, by Nietzsche’s development on this theme, his exposure of the mental chains that enslaved men, an exposure of mediocrity and mendacity. Finally Heidegger — the last philosopher to truly alter his consciousness and vision of the world.
The other graduate students had only memorized and regurgitated tenets and theories, all completely unmoved and rational, just like the long-discredited Cartesian cogito. They might as well have been memorizing for a OChem exam; they were no more than trained monkeys; what they did to the great philosophers every day was a disgrace and a travesty.
That was all before his wife had abandoned philosophy completely, and entered the paralegal certificate program.
He coughed phlegm into his handkerchief, then began work on Chapter 18.
* * *
Several days later, he was back on his balcony. The traffic gleamed dully in the cold winter sun; bare tree limbs groped through fog, smog, whatever it was. He had been distracted from Chapter 23 by petty financial troubles: the beefy landlord, sweat stains dribbling down the sides of his buttoned shirt, had paid him an uncomfortable and subtly aggressive visit. The bills were stacking up, and he had no idea how to pay any of them.
He took a deep drag on his cigarette, and decided not to respond. If he ignored the voice, it might go away.
‘Please don’t ignore me.’
He took another drag on the cigarette.
“What do you want?” he yelled into the blank sky.
‘That’s much better,’ the voice said. ‘We can’t have a healthy relationship until you open up and accept me.’
“I accept that you exist, whether in my mind or out there,” he grated. “Now what?”
‘Not the most sociable sort? We are intrigued by your work, by your thought processes. You are on to something there. But this reality is dependent on several shared illusions, and it would be best not to dispel them. Things can become dangerous for you.’
“Are you threatening me? Are you afraid of my work?” he yelled into the emptiness.
‘We have no dog in this fight, as you say. We’re just trying to help you out. Your entire reality can unravel.’
“Ridiculous!” he said, taking another deep drag off his cigarette and choking violently. “If you’re not in my head, what are you? Aliens, the government?”
‘Something like that, X-Files aficionado. Just knock it off with the philosophy. Get a job or something.’
“You think I can stop, just like that, when I’m so close to knowing the truth?” he yelled.
“Quiet down!” old Mrs. Ratchett yelled from the neighboring window.
He stood against the cold black railing of his balcony, holding it in an icy grip, daring the voice to tell him that he couldn’t handle the truth. The voice was silent.
* * *
The doctor displayed his CAT scan on the monitor, a multicolored glowing representation of his cerebrum.
“Everything looks fine,” the doctor said amiably.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, nothing anomalous. What was it you were looking for, exactly?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You should be sure, or insurance won’t cover it.”
“I don’t have insurance.”
The doctor gave him a smiling shrug, splayed his fingers apologetically and made for the door.
“No electronics, like maybe a receiver?” he asked. The doctor laughed, but stopped when he saw that he was serious.
“You’re serious?” he asked uncomfortably. “I think I know someone who might help you. She’s great; she works in this complex, too. Here, let me get her number for you.”
The doctor left the room for a few minutes, returning with a clinical psychologist’s business card.
“Come on, psychology is a pseudo-science based on Freud’s philosophical system. I don’t need a refresher course in that,” he said, trying to give the card back to the doctor. These Dr. Phil pop psychologists just regurgitated the mantras of psychology without knowing wherefrom they derived; it was the new religion. He remembered the marriage counselor with irritation, how she had always scolded him for leaping to generalized abstractions, insisting that he focus on the irrelevant minutiae of the everyday. Such a process could be deemed “beneficial” only in a culture consumed with the trivial.
He was no follower of Michel Foucault, but his Madness and Civilization had ably demonstrated how the divide between madness and “reason” was basically a social construct, meant to enforce the dominance of rationalism, not necessarily based on any inherent physiological properties of the patient. Psychology was not science or medicine; shrinks were not doctors.
“Just try it out, can’t hurt,” the doctor said as he left the room.
* * *
He was sitting on the shrink’s plush couch. She stared at him like a curious bird, her eyes small and animated over her large nose. He knew how this was supposed to work: she was supposed to say general non sequiturs expressing curiosity in order to drag him out and make him express himself. She would be quiet and noncommittal, but would eventually try to pressure him into conformist modes of socialization. The gaudy knickknacks scattered around the room, the crucifix prominently displayed, did not impress him with her scientific objectivity.
He had nothing to hide. He told his story, emphasizing the importance of the work and the time spent on it. He told her how he hoped to develop a new ontology that would revolutionize human society and interaction. Of course, she maintained her bland, open-but-distant demeanor throughout his monologue.
‘It appears that you’ve been living this isolated and intellectualized existence, dissociated from peers and family. You’ve kept a buffer between yourself and the world. This buffer may be comforting to you, but it also presents a severe obstacle to living a full, human life. Why do you think it is that you have built this buffer?’ she finally asked.
“Why are you talking in that voice?” he cried, ashamed how scared his voice sounded. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t heard a word about the importance of the work; shrinks always emphasized the petty trials and tribulations of the individual psyche at the expense of grander, broader notions.
Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson