Sunday, February 26, 2012

Haruki Murakami, the seductive power of knowledge, and the King

I'm still reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. One of the main characters in the novel is Tengo, a talented math teacher who is also an aspiring novelist on the side. As a teacher, he has an uncanny ability to engage his students and get them to feel passionate about something that is usually seen as a dry and boring subject (mathematics). Here's an excerpt from the novel that describes his teaching prowess:

"As a teacher, Tengo pounded into his students' heads how voraciously mathematics demanded logic. Here things that could not be proven had no meaning, but once you had succeeded in proving something, the world's riddles settled into the palm of your hand like a tender oyster. Tengo's lectures took on uncommon warmth, and the students found themselves swept up in his eloquence. He taught them how to practically and effectively solve mathematical problems while simultaneously presenting a spectacular display of the romance concealed in the questions it posed. Tengo saw admiration in the eyes of several of his female students, and he realized that he was seducing these seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds through mathematics. His eloquence was a kind of intellectual foreplay. Mathematical functions stroked their backs; theorems sent warm breath into their ears."   

My own lectures as a teacher certainly do not have this kind of seductive eloquence (at least not that I am aware of :-)), but I think I may have gone through a similar sort of experience this past weekend at the philosophy conference I attended in Memphis. I originally wasn't very interested in attending this conference; this being almost mid-term, there is a ton of papers to be graded and a whole bunch of other tasks to see to at work, and the thought of flying out of town for an entire weekend--even if for supposedly professional purposes--seems an unnecessary distraction from these pressing tasks.

But I somehow decided to go anyway, and I'm glad I did. The conference was a lively event, with scholars from universities and colleges all over the country (including, very humbly, yours truly) presenting their works in progress, and getting very constructive feedback and criticism from their peers in the profession; at any rate, I did not see any of the petty and catty attacks that academics are unfortunately famous for; if this is any indication of how philosophy conferences are increasingly being conducted in this country, this can only bode well for the profession.

Being a participant in this event, I personally feel very reinvigorated. I got some interesting feedback and useful suggestions on how to further develop my paper. In addition, I also attended a few other presentations. One presentation on comparative philosophy particularly stood out to me: It was a comparison between Hegel and Advaita Vedanta. The presenter compared and contrasted the views of Hegel, Shankara and Ramanuja on reality and non-reality. Since I know very little Vedanta, and practically no Hegel, most of the presentation simply went over my head. But I am really inspired by the presentation to go read more Vedanta, and maybe do my own exegesis and philosophical analysis sometime in the future.

Perhaps my experience at this conference is similar to that of the female students in Tengo's classes in one way: Like these students, I feel once again the seductive eloquence of philosophy as an intellectual and existential practice. In any case, I have always believed that on a most fundamental level, intellectual concerns cannot be separated from existential concerns. Aristotle said that, "All men by nature desire to know." Since it is in our nature to want to know things--both things about our environment, and things about our inner lives--human existence cannot be truly fulfilling if we do not try at least some of the time to give expression to this desire. And philosophy at its best is an expression of this most natural of desires. Indeed, how can one be human and not be seduced at least some of the time by this desire?


I did manage to squeeze in a brief trip to Graceland yesterday afternoon, after all. Went on a tour of the Graceland Mansion. I don't know that much about the life and times of the King; even so, while walking through the various rooms in the mansion, I really sensed that this is a man who lived life very, very fully. So much so, that virtually everything in his life is larger than life. And his presence definitely still fills every room in the house, after all these years.

[Image taken from here]

Elvis's fans, of course, can readily attest to his seductive power as an entertainer. But I also wonder if he might not be a teacher too, in his own unique way: Perhaps he is demonstrating to us through his life and actions how one can live and love in a larger-than-life manner?          


  1. Glad you enjoyed Memphis--professionally and personally! Elvis was definitely larger than life--that's probably what killed him. I felt the same when I visited--I kept thinking that his grave was way to small to hold him.

  2. Yes, it's almost as if he used up his alloted amount of life force/mojo/whatever too quickly.