What is The New Philosophy?
At 12.46 p.m. on 7th May, 2021, my son was born. Briefly, I sobbed, and I mean sobbed. My body was convulsed, shoulders shaking, torso racked with the tears bursting through me.
It wasn't sadness, of course, but neither was it what I'd normally call happiness. It was some different emotion, some different thing, existing on a different plane. It was awe and mystery, a recognition of something that for a moment split my soul asunder and showed it the terror and the wonder of existence.
Now, if you'd asked me then, as I held my little boy in my arms, Who is he? What is he going to be? I would not only have had nothing to say in response, I would also have pitied you.
There is no way of explaining in advance what a truly alive thing is or what it is going to be. To be alive is to be unpredictable.
The New Philosophy is alive - so how can I tell you what it is or what it will be?
I believe in greatness. It's very rare, but it does exist. In the spring of 2018, just after my to-be wife and I had kissed for the first time, I travelled to Amsterdam to see the work of one of the greatest living men I had encountered. It was less a holiday and more a pilgrimage.
There, barely 10 feet away on a raised stage, I saw and listened to Peter Brook. I even asked him a question but I don't now remember what it was. What I remember are his eyes and his presence.
I understand Brook as an artist, a mystic, a philosopher and, above all, a seeker.
What has he been searching for? It’s hard to sum up, but I’ll take a stab at it.
I think he’s been searching for the true gesture, for the theatrical moment that’s alive, for a theatre and a way of life that springs up from some elemental, vital source, that is not deadened by convention but is fresh, is a true experience of and response to the present moment.
In the 1960s, when Brook stood at the beginning of his search, when he stood where I stand today, he was invited by Peter Hall to help direct the Royal Shakespeare Company. He accepted, but on condition that he could have ‘an independent unit of research’, a kind of laboratory where he could … hmm, yes. It’s tricky now. Where he could what? Let Brook try to explain.
Certain questions had to be asked. First of all, why play theatre at all? The usual answer - because there are great texts and an audience wants to hear them - seemed insufficient. The real inquiry had to begin very far back indeed …
The exercises that we devised, whether for the voice or the body, were designed to lead us into areas about which we knew nothing, of which we had no firsthand experience. And with them came an absolute renunciation of the director’s privilege to decide what he is seeking …
Friends would ask us what we were aiming at, but since we were groping in the dark, we had to discover our aims as we went along.
An absolute renunciation of the director’s privilege to decide what he is seeking … Since we were groping in the dark, we had to discover our aims as we went along. What brave, wonderful, freeing ideas! It turns out that you can set out without a map.
And that's what The New Philosophy is: it's a man setting out with a map, groping in the dark, giving himself the freedom to discover his aims as he goes along.
I can't therefore say very much about what The New Philosophy is or will become. But I can say a little bit more.
Consider religious rituals - I don't say God, I say religious rituals. These rituals were invented by human beings. Why? Because the humans who invented them needed to express something, needed to respond to something.
A religious ritual, we could say, is the form human beings chose to express and respond to the wonder of God.
In the beginning, when the form had only just been invented, the ritual was alive. It meant something - it meant everything. When Homer describes his heroes roasting oxen on the fire and offering it to Apollo, neither Homer nor his heroes were playing or pretending: this was actual contact with the divine.
In the beginning, the rituals were still close to the need, they were still actual expressions of the need. But over time, rituals deteriorate, forms mortify. They get further and further away from the human need they express. Eventually, all we have is the form itself, and it is dead and empty, a Potemkin village that actually stifles rather than enables.
This happens all the time, in the most ordinary of things. Think of the nicknames that lovers give each other. In the beginning, these nicknames are alive, they're expressions of love and joy and wonder, they're expressions of how special the beloved is, how special the love is. And in time, the nicknames become habits, become in a sense dead words, words that no longer vibrate with the wonder and the need that originally generated them.
There is absolutely nothing special about this. It is in the nature of all forms to deteriorate and die.
The problem comes when we mistake the form for the real thing. This too always happens. Always. This is why the founders of religions forbid the worship of graven idols.
But we cannot help ourselves, it seems. We end up worshipping the form instead of worshipping God, and the form becomes an obstacle to the expression of the need that generated it.
The living Church turns into a corrupt machine for selling indulgences, and Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
I believe that philosophy was invented to express and respond to four needs:
- The need to address suffering; ideally, to heal it, or to console oneself for it; but even if not that, at least to acknowledge it seriously and try to understand it.
- The need for transcendence; the need to come into contact with some other order of being, something qualitatively beyond the daily grind; call it Truth or the Divine or Reality or Beauty or Reason or Justice or whatever you want to.
- The need to express wonder and joy at being alive on this earth.
- The need to understand the world.
And that's pretty much the basis of The New Philosophy. It aims, I aim, to respond directly to those needs. No more dead forms, no more empty rituals. No more fat priests selling indulgences.
Back to the things themselves, cries Husserl!
That's what this is. We're going back to the things themselves. We're going back to the shadowy currents twisting and flowing inside us, to the cries of wonder and of pain, to the torment of being alive, to the exaltation of being alive. We're going back to everything that's inside us, to thought and feeling, to darkness and light, to beauty and the grotesque.
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