Philosopher Roger Pol-Droit devises everyday adventures that tickle and illuminate.
Not every idiocy contains a philosophical pearl. But there exist ordinary situations, everyday gestures, actions we carry out continuously, which can each become the starting point for the astonishment that gives rise to philosophy. If we are ready to accept that philosophy is not a matter of pure theory, but that it originates in particular attitudes towards existence’in the unusual adventures philosophers have had in the realms of feelings, perceptions, images, beliefs, powers and ideas’then it should not be impossible to imagine experiments to be lived through that may incite further inquiry.
The idea is to provoke tiny moments of awareness. Invent things to do, to say, to dream, that produce astonishment or the unease generated by certain questions. It’s about fabricating microscopic starter devices, minimal impulses.
Each experiment is to be carried out properly. It is possible to compare them, to modify them and to invent others. But you must really apply yourself if you are to feel the unsettling of reality that they seek to produce. For that has always been the end in view, since philosophy began: a systematic discrepancy, a step to one side, a change of viewpoint – perhaps a very slight one to begin with – which can reveal the landscape under a quite different angle.
If the entertainment proves useful, it’s because it offers such points of departure. Deliberately strange. Even crazy, if need be. But intended always to shake a certainty we had taken for granted: our own identity, say, or the stability of the outside world, or even the meaning of words.
Obviously, these experiments are founded on certain hypotheses and convictions. They suggest in particular the possibility that “I” is always another, the world an illusion, time a lure, language a fragile veil laid across the unnamable, politeness a moratorium for cruelty, pleasure a form of morality and tenderness the sole horizon. No one is obliged to share these views. The only thing that counts is that we should be stung, or tickled, into exploring further.
Empty a word of its meaning
This can take place anywhere, and at any time. Simply make sure, once again, that no one can hear you. Best to avoid the fear of being ridiculed while you’re doing it. Speaking to oneself is nothing. But to be spied upon and teased would spoil the desired result.
So, choose a place where no one will hear you. Take what comes to hand, the most ordinary object’a pen, a watch, a glass – or even a piece of your own clothing: a button, a belt, a pocket, a shoelace. Whatever. Just let it be ordinary. Its name is known, its presence familiar. You have always called this object by the same word. Consistent, natural, normal.
Now take this inoffensive, familiar, safe little object in your hand. Repeat its name, in a low voice, as you look at it. Stare at the watch in your hand and repeat: “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch.” You can keep going. It shouldn’t take long. In a few seconds the familiar word detaches itself, and hardens. You find yourself repeating a series of strange sounds. A series of absurd and meaningless noises that denote nothing, indicate nothing, and remain insensate, formless or harsh.
You probably experimented like this as a child. Nearly all of us have felt the extreme fragility of the link between words and things. As soon as it is twisted, or pulled, or distended, that link becomes problematic. It becomes contorted, or it breaks. The word dries out and crumbles, a scattered shell of sonorous inanity.
And what happens to the object is no less startling. It’s as though its substance becomes thicker, denser, cruder. The object is somehow more present, and differently so, the moment it escapes the fine net of recognizable syllables.
You should repeat this old game of dissociation. Try to observe the moment when meaning dissolves, and how a new, raw reality emerges outside of words. Glimpse the hard scale beneath the prose. Repeat the same word several times, for the same object, and dissipate all meaning. Is it not marvellous? Terrifying? Funny? Just a few seconds are enough to tear that fine film within which we make sense of things, smug with the power of giving things a name.
Drink while urinating
For hundreds of thousands of years the vast majority of humans have lived and died without trying the following experiment. It is, however, both extremely straightforward and extremely interesting.
Like everyone else, you urinate. And at other moments you drink. What you do not know is what it feels like to do both at the same time. This experiment will show you.
So, just have a large glass of water at hand. When you begin to urinate, start drinking. As far as possible, you should try to drink the water straight down, without pausing. You will feel quite bizarre sensations almost immediately. The water you evacuate seems to be synchronized with that entering your mouth. You will then visualize, and above all feel, your body to be organized in a way which until then you had never imagined possible. The water you are drinking seems to exit directly from your bladder. In a few seconds you will feel directly wired, from throat to urethra, from stomach to bladder – a physiology that is impossible but that you intuit, directly and unquestionably, to be real.
It has taken no more than a few moments for you to discover this wonderfully simple body, and you feel there can be no other. No more intestine, no kidneys, no filtration time, no waiting. Water pours through you vertically, a cool liquid washes through you in a peculiar and palpable way. Your system seems to have opened inside out, with the water flowing smoothly from inside to outside. It is like–take your pick–the cosmic flux or an automatic washing machine.
This experiment, which can be repeated indefinitely, that costs nothing and is likely to procure ever new sensations and surprises, had not hitherto been considered a thermal cure.
Look in vain for “I”
It’s one of the terms you employ most frequently. During the day, the word “I” crops up in nearly all your sentences. Since your most tender childhood you have ceased referring to yourself by your own first name. “I” has become the word by which you express your desires, disappointments, projects, hopes, acts of all kinds, physical sensations, illnesses, pleasures, plans, resentment, tenderness, your weakness for vanilla and your aversion to fennel. For a long, long time you have linked this tiny word to your multifarious mental states. It is intimately involved in your feelings and your memories. Apparently, nothing is possible without it. It is there in all your stories and all your judgements. Not a single decision, not the slightest rumination escapes it.
The curious thing is, everyone uses the same word. The most irreducible intimacy, the most singular existence, for each one of us, is linked to a word that we neither chose nor coined, and that everyone else employs in exactly the same way. A pronoun in the language. There’s nothing less personal than this “personal” pronoun. The particular existence it refers to remains, linguistically speaking, completely interchangeable. It could be anyone who says “I’m happy” or “I’m sad.” All of us, in all our difference, refer to ourselves by exactly the same word as everyone else. A most paradoxical situation. But you don’t think about it, and nor does anyone else, of course. You have enough to do without worrying your head about questions of that order.
And yet, try to pin down this “I.” Does it exist? How can you find it? What does it look like? If you apply yourself to asking these questions, and trying to resolve them, you’ll find that this “I” is neither simple to localize nor to authenticate.
This is not a brief experiment, whose limits are easy to circumscribe. It can come to seem, on the contrary, like a long pursuit. You need time, different occasions, a certain application, and stubbornness. So where is this blindingly obvious “I?” You will seek for a long time, in different places and under different aspects. And there is a strong chance that, at the end of it all, you’ll return somewhat at a loss. Which is where things start to get interesting.
Among the avenues of inquiry you might like to pursue, it’s worth remembering the existence of the body. Is not this “I,” which is both individual and yet assimilable to others, in fact identical with the body that houses it, with its habits, its weaknesses, its vulnerabilities and its particularities? But there’s no trace of an “I” in your body. Not one of your cells lives longer than ten years. No part of your body has persisted unchanged. So what will you address as “I?” The form? The ensemble? The general organization? There remains, famously, the phenomenon of thought. All may change, but not your memories, not your sense of remaining unchanged despite corporeal alterations. But even here, you cannot put your finger on an “I.” All you will ever discover are thoughts, sequences of thoughts, memories, associations of ideas, desires’all of them pressed into service by what you call your “I.”
To all these sensations, to all these mental events, the “I” seems to provide a common denominator. But it neither supports nor drives them. It merely imparts to them something like a family resemblance, a shared aspect to what are very diverse notions and feelings’something like a color or an odor. A way of seeming, a style. Nothing more. “I” is not a someone or a something. And yet neither is it just a word. It must be a refrain of the self, a secondary quality, at one remove.
If you manage to carry the experiment thus far, you will need to know what to do about this sensation. What impact will this impossible discovery about your “I” have upon your existence? How will you cope once your “I” has gone missing? That is another story.
Try on clothes
For thousands of years now clothes have done more than just protect us from the cold or the rain, or preserve some supposed modesty. It is hard to imagine that even the most primitive garments served a merely thermal function. No doubt they had a symbolic role. It’s worth noting in passing that not one of the societies revealed to us by anthropologists used clothes for a single, merely practical end. Clothing is always coded, involved in power games, norms and social role-playing.
We have multiplied a thousand-fold appearances and meanings. Clothes indicate the social and physical milieu we come from, the specific powers we exert or the domination we undergo; they signal class, character, age, job, sex life, transgression, submission. They can say, “I’m a youth from the suburbs seeking to escape humiliation by wearing the same brand names as the bourgeois kids my age, but I choose different colors and mix them up in a way that seems to them out of place, without realizing what I’ve done.” Or else, “I’m a rich bourgeois from the smart end of town, my children have grown up, my husband bores me, my lover likewise, but you can try your luck if you know the code and the right way of summoning the maître d – hôtel.”
You can experiment with trying on clothes, not to buy them, but to explore unlikely styles and looks. Instead of searching as you usually do for something that suits you, that matches your taste, your status, and your size, your morphology and your fantasy life, try on some incongruous apparel. Too young or too old for you, too smart or too vulgar, too loud or too sober. Rags that seem in any case inadequate, excessive, out of synch. And which make you smile each time you see yourself thus garbed.
Imagine you are one of those cardboard cut-outs in a children’s game, that are dressed in all sorts of different ways by means of those little paper tongues that fold back behind the shoulders. Dream of yourself as Barbie or Ken. Do your best to come on as a rocker, a diplomat, a salesman, a rapper, a peasant, a butcher, a designer, a duck stalker, an intellectual, a janitor, an athlete, a junior executive. And every time, compose in your head the life that goes with these fabrics: speech patterns, eating habits, house and home, leisure activities, holidays. Then put everything back on a hanger. Thank the salesperson.
Count to a thousand
Initially, nothing much new here. Counting to a thousand will take a certain time (around 15 minutes, or 900 seconds) and ought to be monotonous. It seems predictable and regular. What you expect is a flat, mechanical exercise.
Not so. Serious turbulence is inescapable. There are easy parts, downhills, long straights like the old main roads lined with poplars or plane trees, and then there are hills, escarpments, sudden right turns, especially when you come to the transversal ranges of the 500’s. You expect nothing but figures, and here you are back in your childhood, at primary school, among inkwells, work-smocks, sponges in satchels, the playground. You’re back in the Russian mountains, among the “scenic railways,” and the black marks for bad behavior. You’re counting in black and white.
What ought to be a routine mechanical operation has become an altogether more difficult and complicated affair. Have I missed out a ten? A one, or a hundred? Didn’t I just make a mistake, when I was thinking of something else? Rather than being easy, ordered and continuous, the distance from one to a thousand is rutted and potholed. There’s always a risk of you getting bogged down for good, or falling into a gap. Of hesitating, losing track and starting all over again. Will this go on forever?
No, you’ve reached the end. What have you learned? Just this: that one thousand is a big number. You can run through it, but it takes time’a good quarter of an hour – complete with ups and downs. You can’t consider such a number all at once, or survey it altogether. Now that you’ve finished counting, you can appreciate the magnitudes represented by a thousand years or a thousand souls. And that a thousand times a thousand is utterly outside your range of visualization, while a billion (a thousand times a thousand times a thousand) may be comprehensible to the reason, but it remains a blank to the emotions. It is unknowably many. And now, just for an instant, think of humankind today.
Dream of all the places in the world
You’re tired of being where you are. The place is limited, repetitive; it holds no more interest for you, let alone surprise. You are seriously fed up with this one place, forever identical with and closed in upon itself. And yet escape is close at hand. Just think of the infinite variety of places that exist, near or far, at this moment.
Famous sites: the Piazza San Marco in Venice, the ramparts of Jerusalem, the entrance to Central Park off Fifth Avenue, the Yamoussoukro Cathedral, the Pyramids, the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the Coliseum in Rome, the Champs-Elysées, the Forbidden City, Beverly Hills, Red Square, the Parthenon, Trafalgar Square, the Red Fort in Delhi, the Topkapi… and endless, infinitely extendable list of styles, squares, buildings, cafes, statues, panoramic views of every kind.
There is more. Think also, until dizziness sets in, of the infinite multiplicity of humbler places. Anonymous, unpresuming spaces: backyards, little squares, impasses, narrow streets and alleyways. And even of these humble corners: storerooms, barns, larders, cellars, cupboards, garages. In the humidity of the tropics, the dryness of the deserts, the damp colds of the misty regions. With palm trees or birches, cacti or ancient pines, white sand, red rocks, mud, permafrost, the pure whiteness of the wave against the deep ocean blue.
And then there is the inexhaustible list of what people are doing, what everybody is doing, at this instant, in all the places of the world: making love, crying with pleasure or with pain, eating, dying, sleeping, sweating, toiling, enjoying themselves, amazing themselves, envying each other, traveling, cooking, reading, returning home, singing.
You can bathe in this multiplicity, be carried away by this infinity of alternatives. The place you are in isn’t simply one spot within an infinity of others. It contains all the others. And it’s all entirely within your head. Permanently available. To one and all.
Make the world last twenty minutes
The past clings on. It is present in the smallest actions. It coils itself around our thoughts, even in those that seem unconcerned with it. The future also ceaselessly sustains the smallest of our projects. It accompanies our slightest expectation.
What would happen if we tried to rid ourselves’in a spirit of illusion and of play – of these terrible constraints? Imagine, therefore, as far as it is possible to do so, that the past never happened and that the future does not exist. Let us believe that the world, this world, lasts only twenty minutes. It was created from nothing, just and instant ago, as it is, and us with it. One minute earlier, it did not exist. Everything the world currently contains by way of relics, ancient ruins, libraries, monuments, archives, distant or recent memories’the whole lot – has just materialized, at the same instant. The archives are there all right, as are the witnesses to a past, but the past they speak of never existed – until a moment ago.
This world – infinite, diverse, multiple – has a life expectancy of exactly twenty minutes. Beyond which time it will disappear completely and definitively. Not in some gigantic conflagration or cosmic explosion. Not in some terrific fire or furnace. Just a brusque extinction. Like a soap bubble bursting, or a light going out.
Make yourself at home in this twenty-minute world. Remark the extent to which it is, in a sense, identical to our own: same dimensions, same skies. No object is any different. The same people are doing the same things. And yet: it is not at all the same universe. A world that lacks the depth of a real past and the perspective of a viable future may certainly seem completely identical, but it still differs radically from our own, due to this time limit. Before this ephemeral universe has completely disappeared, try hard to understand – you who were under the illusion that another reality existed and will exist’to what extent your thought process is habitually different from this existence which is even now counting down. The more you experience this contrast and this distance, the more you will feel the importance, for us, of an immemorial past and a distant future.
As the fatal twenty minutes approaches its term, you should feel, furtively, the dumb terror that everything will, effectively, disappear.
Most likely this will not happen. You can then emerge, at the 21st minute, from this objectless terror. Now concentrate on savoring your relief that the world goes on.
Later you might feel, like an aftertaste, a secret disappointment that nothing was obliterated.
Walk in an imaginary forest
Preferably, it should be a real wood. Winter is best, or a season in which walking briskly and for a fairly long time does not make you too hot. Your breathing should be absolutely regular. So there you are, walking at a brisk pace, for a good spell, without attending to anything except the synchrony of your breathing and walking.
The first stage consists in generating, by means of repetition, a completely regular, almost somnambulistic rhythm. It is easy to verify if you’ve reached the right tempo: stop walking suddenly, and continue to breathe at the same rhythm. If the trees keep moving forward, then you’re on the right track. But if the landscape halts when you halt, keep walking – you haven’t yet reached the beginning of this business.
When you’ve got into the correct rhythm, keep going. You are about to enter a different country. You do not have to discourse with fairies or elves, gnomes or trolls. All you need is a bit of goodwill, and a certain perseverance. A pinch of enthusiasm.
Imagine now that the forest is your soul. You are walking like this within yourself. The tangle of tall trees, the white sentinel of the birches, the moss and the damp mulch, none of all this is outside you. Some obscure spell – which is none of your business – has turned everything inside out. You are strolling through the inside of your own thought. You have a niggling feeling that maybe we are never outside ourselves. Don’t ask why that might be so. Just take note that these semi-tones and half-lights are inside you. They belong to you, as intimate parts of yourself, along with the shadow in the undergrowth, the serenity of the clearings, the long-weathered tree trunks, the transparent lightness of the airy spaces.
You start to see the mind has nothing outside itself, or if it has, then we can know nothing of it.
Up to you to draw out the weighty consequences of this sylvan game. It may be enough to retain just one ground rule: the imaginary is never, and should not be, something added on to the real, and which opposes, contradicts or dissolves it. Reality itself must always be rendered imaginary.
Run in a graveyard
Graveyards: peaceful and pacifying enclosures. Spaces suitable for meditation, and any other kind of reverie as well. With flowers, and without people’a double attraction. A few mourners, a few gardeners. The odd tourist walking by, a graveyard enthusiast reading the inscriptions.
The idea of going for a long run in such a place may seem rather shocking. An inappropriate provocation, a silly prank. It may even be a misdemeanour, which will earn you a rebuke and a fine, payable to the municipal court. Or else it is an offense’to the grief of families, and to the memory of the dead, according to some unwritten but universal consensus. The idea may seem unacceptable for other reasons, perhaps more profound and less easily definable ones: it offends against the order of things, the way the living behave toward the dead. The watchful immobility of the living compared with the utter stasis of the dear departed. The former breathe, the latter don’t. It doesn’t do to accentuate the contrast. In the very spot where those who were once alive now repose, without words or motion, shouting and gesticulating has no place. The runner-between-graves lays himself open to summary justice.
Don’t let yourself be scared off. Negotiate the obstacle and overcome the shame. Meaning will come in time, as usual. Deal with the practicalities first of all: wear a tough pair of shoes (the alleys are frequently stony and uneven), and choose a graveyard that is big enough. Most country graveyards, while making pleasant places to walk among family tombs, are useless for long-distance running.
So here you are at last, embarked on this strange experiment. To begin with you’ll feel, naturally enough, some remnants of embarrassment, the feeling that you’re acting in an incongruous and unseemly fashion. You think of all the skeletons lying in their coffins, stacked on top of each other, piled up, shrunken, damp, dark, almost all of them forgotten. And you find that your fleetness of foot is out of place. Moving like that, in such a lively way, among the petrified’this is conduct unbecoming.
It may be helpful to concentrate on this discrepancy, and enjoy it. You, after all, are alive, able to run and rejoice in the power of movement. Not they. Well, too bad. And so much the better for you. A beating heart, hot blood in your veins. They know nothing of all that now, they have left life and time behind. But you, you are moving through the soft air, with your feet arching over the earth.
The experiment is interesting only if you can get beyond this first stage. Try now to dissolve this aloofness that sets you rejoicing apart from them. You start to feel that at the very heart of your progress you are motionless. That there’s no separation, in the end, between movement and stillness. Your strides may well be long and regular, your stamina considerable, immobility seeps into everything. What you come to feel now is the presence of stillness at the heart of movement, of repose at the heart of the race. And of respect within transgression. You are no disturber of the dead. Running between their graves, unmindful of their names as of the proprieties, you love them.
Practice make-believe everywhere
The moments when you feel crushed are also those when you end up believing that life is serious, the world real and words true. Countering this tiresome tendency is, luckily, not too complicated. It can be enough, at least when starting out, to transform each situation systematically, and turn it into a scene from a play. A metamorphosis of this kind affects not only your internal perception of events: it can change your voice, your gestures, your sentences and even what happens.
This morning, for instance, you are not going to the baker’s and then the post office merely to buy, respectively, bread and stamps. Start off by playing the triumphant customer, entering the bakery. Pay attention to how you thrust open the door (movement of the arm, full of energy, but not too brusque). Regulate your voice correctly and sing out “Good morning,” the greeting worthy of a customer who comes to buy a triumphant loaf. Ask, pay and collect your change, triumphant still, say goodbye and thank you, watching your every movement, from the confident step toward the door, to the little complicit smile addressed to the lady just coming in to buy – inevitably – her sliced white bread and a bar of chocolate.
You now have three and a half minutes to put on a different role, this time the anonymous purchaser of stamps, who enters a strange post office, full of timidity and apprehension; he doesn’t know how things are done, having lived too long abroad, or else he’s just out of the hospital, humbled in any case, with a guilty feeling, holding his loaf furtively in his hand like an encumbrance or an embarrassment, not knowing what to do with it, or how to hide it…
And so on. Have a nice day.
From the book Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger Pol-Droit, translated by Paul Romer. Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. © Editions Odile Jacob, 2001. Translation © Stephen Romer, 2002.
Drawings by André Slob.