Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/22/2011

The old oaken [Great-grandfather’s] chair and the cat

Great Grandfather Sat Here

Great Grandfather Sat Here

Cat lovers know the precise differences in personality among all cats they have ever known.

Henry was the dearest creature I ever lived with—a big ole black and white snuggler named after Henry Kemble Oliver, who came to me when I was writing my dissertation (1). His twin brother Oliver was, I think, bi-polar. But Henry understood that being loving and loveable was the way to happiness and contentment. He’d jump up onto my lap (all fifteen pounds of him) and sit purring, causing no trouble.

None of the cats I share my apartment with now is as loving/loveable as Henry. One is hardly at all. Except she’s snuggled against my bare foot right now—where she frequently is when I’m at my desk. She had a difficult childhood—abandoned on a street, rescued by an employee of my vet, nursed to health at great expense, and sent home to live with me when Oliver died. She has reason to be anti-social.

Every cat has a favorite sleeping place. That may change from time to time, but they always have one favorite spot.

For months, Joanie (named after the vet’s assistant) slept under a strange wooden chair in my living room. Strange because it’s an old-fashioned oak chair, nothing chic, but its back legs are three inches shorter than its front legs. When one sits in it, one leans back in a comfortable but unusual position. (It’s pictured here; if anyone knows the style, I’d appreciate a comment.)

The back legs of Joanie’s chair are shorter than the front because Grandmother’s father, Minot J. Huntley, was station-master for various railroads and had to sit at a desk hours every day. He was so tall that no chair was comfortable. Sawing off the back legs of a chair made sitting in it bearable because it raised his knees enough for him to sit straight. I like to think the chair came from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where Great-grandfather moved his family when he was sent there to work, and where my grandmother learned the possibilities of cooking spicy foods.

This chair became the property of my family on May 31, 1913, in Harrison, Arkansas, when my Grandfather, Archie James Knight, married my Grandmother, Nina Huntley.  (Yesterday—January 21—would have been Grandfather’s 126th birthday (1885).)

. . . hoping that people will call one a great religious practitioner, is also definitely wrong. So is viewing the objects of one’s compassion as truly existent. You should undertake this practice with the understanding that all phenomena are like illusions (2).

I’m not certain what the Dalai Lama means by “the objects of one’s compassion.” I’ll make up a meaning: the things (animate and inanimate) one loves.

The question, then: “Is the phenomenon of Great-grandfather’s chair like an illusion; and, is Joanie like an illusion?” I do love them.

This is not a trivial question. I’m not being flip. It’s a scary but real question to me. I know a great deal about this chair and about the human beings who’ve owned it for over 100 years. It’s been in my immediate family all my life—my grandparents gave it to my parents when they were newlyweds setting up housekeeping in 1937. And I know Joanie.

It’s possible, of course, to make the attempt to answer this question into incomprehensible verbal gibberish. One can hardly be faulted for that because the question itself is, I suppose, incomprehensible.

Because phenomena, as understood phenomenologically, are never anything but what goes to make up Being, while Being is in every case the Being of some entity, we must first bring forward the entities themselves if it is our aim that Being should be laid bare. . . . These entities must likewise show themselves with the kind of access which genuinely belongs to them (3).

No, I don’t sit around reading Heidegger for fun and profit. Only because I was forced to read parts of Being and Time for a graduate seminar do I know it exists. I made no claim of understanding the work then, and I’d be hard pressed to claim so now.

“All phenomena are like illusions,” but/and/or “we must first bring forward the entities themselves if it is our aim that Being should be laid bare.” I don’t know if it’s “but,” “and,” or “or.” I don’t know for sure if, as I’ve said before, there was ever a “there” there.

I see Great-grandfather’s chair. I see Joanie. Is what I see the same as what you see? Is the chair the same entity that Great-grandfather touched, rested his butt in so his knees would be comfortable? Is the shape of the chair I see when I look at it against the light of my living room window the same shape you see? In fact, is the shape I see related at all to the actual physical shape of the chair? And what, exactly is the shape of the chair? Quantum physics, anyone? Parallel universes? And what about that light?

. . . this state of Being is always in some way familiar. Now if it is also to become known. . . addressing oneself to the “world” and discussing it—thus functions as the primary mode of Being-in-the-world. . . [it] is experienced ontically as a “relationship” between one entity (the world) and another (the soul), and because one proximally understands Being by taking entities as entities-within-the-world. . . one tries to conceive the relationship between world and soul as grounded in these two entities themselves and in the meaning of their Being. . .(4)

I struggle to understand writings like this. The idea we are alive is familiar. We look at the world and talk about it, and that’s how we know it—through analyzing and talking about our relationship to it. And we know the world because our being is grounded in our relationship to the world. Or something.

I don’t think so. From the impossibly complex to irreducibly mundane: remember that Linda Ronstadt song?

To know, know, know you
 Is to love, love, love you
 Just to see you smile
 Makes my life worthwhile
 To know, know, know you
 Is to love, love, love you
 And I do, yes I do, yes I do (5).

I’m not sure whether to know you is to love you, or to love you is to know you. Whether I know Great-grandfather’s chair because “it touch[es] some aspect of [my] emotional life” or vice versa. The same for Joanie lying under it.

Reality is never caused. . . by the intellectual aspect of [our] consciousness. . .[R]easoning. . .  is analytic, not exploratory. . . . Thought does not penetrate far into an object in which the self feels no interest—i.e., towards which she does not experience a “cognitive” movement of attraction. . . . None think for long about anything for which they do not care; that is to say, which does not touch some aspect of their emotional life. . . . Feeling is the tentacle we stretch out to the world of things (6).

Dad's Book, His Mother's Machine

Dad's Book, His Mother's Machine

Saying I love something or someone or some cat begs the question of reality, of course. Loving something does not, in fact, make it real. Loving something—especially if it belonged to people I love—however, makes it possible for me to carry on in spite of the terror of the question I cannot shake. “Was there ever a ‘there’ there?”

[Note: I understand the “academic” limitations of my thinking and writing. I’m not a philosopher or scholar. I think more than I should, and I read too much but not enough.]
(1) See my post of January 20.
(2) Dalai Lama. The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings. Ed. Rajiv Mehrotra. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005 (192-193).
(3) Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: HarperCollins, 1962 (61).
(4) Heidegger 85-86.
(5) Spector, Phil. “To Know, Know, Know You.” Vogue Music, 1953. Covered by Linda Ronstadt. Trio. Warner Bros., 1987.
(6) Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. Forward by Ira Progoff. New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1990 (p. 47).


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