I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.
He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans. His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way. He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.
“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library? Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”
I eyed him cooly. He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it. He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment.
He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words. He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.
After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location. “So, are you writing these days?”
I looked up at him quizzically. This had always been a sore spot between us. I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t. Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky. I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.
“I am — but mostly fiction. I have written no philosophy. Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again. Who knows?”
He grinned again at that. “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things. And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”
I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud. He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back. “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute. You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”
A flash showed in his eyes. “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”
I donned my backpack instead of answering. After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”
We both laughed at that. “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing? I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place. I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view. I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”
I nodded. I’d been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic. But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.
I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit: “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”
He smiled and leaned in. “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”
I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time. I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”
He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought. It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.
“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”
We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.
I yielded. Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”
“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit. Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t. Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”
I considered myself. “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”
His eyes shined — or at least the one focused on me did. I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.
“Good question. I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”
I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else. I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians. Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all.
He rocked back on his feet. Then he leaned in again. Shit.
“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”
“Um, yeah, I guess, usually. Unless the skill is really easy.”
“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill? You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”
I shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”
He gaped at me. “You’re asking me? Me? Why? You know I don’t know. I am an ignorant man.”
Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye. Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance. Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!
I realized I was being mean-spirited.
He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything. At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.
“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”
“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t. You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”
He let me slide. “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”
“Yeah, at least around these parts.”
“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”
“Let’s say, yes.”
I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.
“Ookay. So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”
“Would that make it the habit habit?”
He chuckled. “And you complained about my is and is-not.”
He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.
I sighed. This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.
“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”
“Isn’t discipline taught? That was what I was taught back in my Marine training. Oohrah.”
I winced. I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor. He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.
“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”
He shrugged. “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is. If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”
My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone. I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.
The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children. Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.
“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness.
He blinked. “Aristotle? Must be a new guy. Should I read him?”
Another shrug, my gesture of the day. “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”
Socrates shakes his head. “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy. I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down. Who knows what he actually thinks?”
“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick? After all, he says he’s your disciple.”
Socrates shook his head more emphatically. “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”
I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.
He seemed to expect a comment. “Well?”
“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.”
He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God. I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.
It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was. “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right. I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”
“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough. You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”
We stood there for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion. “You can’t learn if you think you know.”
“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”
He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.
“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”
“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic. You’re in-between.”
He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly. “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”
“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”
He ducked his head a bit and shrugged and smirked — a mockery turtle. “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”
We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say. I glanced at him.
“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”
He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head. “I have to be about my father’s business.”
“Your father?” I asked, confused.
“Apollo.” It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.
“Hell, Socrates.” I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position. “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”
We parted company. I headed toward Haley Center. He headed toward Samford Hall.
While philosophical reflection is temporally-historically so conditioned, its aim is the universal and eternal. These however are, and are reflectively discernible, only in and through the individual and temporal. Or better: since the universal and individual, eternal and temporal, are not distinct things or opposites, but constitute reflectively characterizable aspects of the concrete situation of being, reflection must break forth out of non-reflective immersion in the present actual situation. In so doing, it does not leave that situation but constitutes that altered mode of absorption within the concrete situation which attempts to elicit in conception the universal and eternal accessible to it. –Richard Gotshalk, “Reflection and Seeing”
This is the last in the series of short essays I have been writing. It is also likely to be the last Chuck-related essay I write for a while. Other tasks demand my attention. I thank those who have read and commented on these essays.
We cannot step into the same river twice. –Heraclitus
We cannot step into the same river once. –Cratylus
Change is hard for us. It is hard to endure. It is hard to understand. Each hardness hardens the other. While we are changing, especially early in the change, we have a hard time knowing exactly what is happening to us. We have a hard time putting up with it. We have a hard time conceptualizing it. While we are changing we are somehow in a passage and a transportation between two worlds which seem to have no real unity–a murky one behind, a brightening one ahead. But we cannot see clearly into either or see clearly during our passage. As we change, we are doing our undoing; we put off the old person so as to put on the new, but the new is not a ready-made.
Season 3 is the season of change in Chuck, the moulting season. I do not deny that changes have been underway since the pilot. I do not deny that changes continue in Seasons 4 and 5. As Chuck says in vs. the Coup d’Etat, “change is inevitable”. Still, S3 is the season of the most fundamental changes, the season in which Chuck and Sarah finally break free of the asset/handler relationship that has imprisoned them and find their way to a new relationship, a relationship in which each of them is renewed, changed. I have addressed some of the central changes in the first couple of essays (here and here). In this final one, I want to address some of the larger issues of S3 and of the series.
Abstractly stated, the problematic dynamic between Chuck and Sarah involves three things.
(1) Sarah is changing and wants to change, and she needs Chuck to help her.
(2) Chuck needs to change but Sarah fears him doing so.
(3) Chuck does not fully believe in the depth of the change in Sarah.
(1) Sarah is changing and wants to change. She has changed enough to recognize that Chuck represents both the tutor of her change and, in some way, its destination. She needs Chuck to teach her how to change and to be there as what she is changing for. But this means that she does not want Chuck to change. If he does, he imperils her education in change and the goal of her change. One of the most unsettling features of S3 is Sarah’s despair over the changes in Chuck. She despairs for him, first and foremost, but she also despairs for herself.
Sarah is in the midst of change, in the middle of her transportation between two worlds, when her tutor seems to abandon her and deprive her of the result of the change she most desires–him. Sarah’s despair causes her to flail about wildly, even if it is hard to notice it given the amount of attention Chuck’s even wilder flailing draws. Sarah ends up with Shaw as a slumping stand-in for Chuck; Shaw becomes her substitute teacher. But he is about as effective as substitute teachers normally are, that is, not very. While under Chuck’s tutelage, Sarah was oriented on her future–even her forays into her past are for the sake of her future. Under Shaw’s tutelage, Sarah orients on her past; she starts trying to identify not the person she is to become but the person she was (Sam). While Sarah wounds Chuck when she shares her name with Shaw, Chuck and Sarah will both eventually realize that it is not her name, not her real name. It was Sarah’s name but is no longer. Shaw educes nostalgia of a sort in Sarah (he is trapped in a different sort of nostalgia himself) but he cannot manage Sarah’s passage into her future, her transportation to a new world.
(2) Chuck needs to change. Sarah fears his changing and takes it to be unnecessary, but it is necessary. Sarah loses faith for a while in Chuck (and in herself as a consequence). She is focused only on the way others–Beckman, Shaw, Casey–picture the result of Chuck’s changing. She really cannot imagine anything else clearly herself. Chuck is no help here, because he only knows he is changing; he cannot see clearly what he is changing into, and, adding to the confusion, he sometimes believes he needs to change into what Beckman et al. want him to become. Chuck is a hero and has behaved heroically frequently enough for his heroism to be a settled feature of his character–Sarah recognizes that it is. Because she recognizes this about Chuck, she sees his changing as unnecessary: he is a hero; he does not need to become one. But Chuck does not see himself as Sarah sees him. He does not recognize what she recognizes.
Recall the exchange in vs. the Final Exam. Chuck, nauseated and unbalanced by the sudden assignment to kill the mole, asks Sarah what he will be if he is not a spy. She answers that he will still be Chuck, and that is good enough. Sarah means what she says–he will still be Chuck, the hero, and his not being a spy is inconsequential. (That last claim fudges: given how things stand between them, personally and professionally, if Chuck is not a spy he will probably not be with Sarah–and that is consequential, and Sarah knows it. But of course, to her credit, she is not really thinking about them at this moment, only about him.) But Chuck hears her as sentencing him to the Buy More, as sentencing him to being (to use a later line) alone in Burbank.
Although being alone in Burbank is preferable to being a killer, Chuck now knows what he wants to do with his life and who he wants to do it with–to be a spy with Sarah. He wants that so desperately that he is willing to entertain killing the mole, although he cannot will to kill him. (This is why we see his trigger finger begin to squeeze and then release the trigger: he cannot do it. He cannot kill simply to realize his dreams. But that he can so much as squeeze the trigger measures his desperation.)
Chuck needs Sarah to help him become what he wants to be, to help him to understand what it is he wants to be. But they are in an impossible situation. He needs her to make real his change; she fears his change and resists it–wants nothing to do with it. She feels guilty, regrets, that he even wants to change. He cannot explain and she cannot help.
(3) Sarah is changing at a depth that mostly eludes Chuck or is hidden from him. Chuck wants Sarah to change. He fears that the change he sees is either merely apparent or temporary or superficial. It does not help that Sarah is not always aware of how deeply she is changing. For example, at the end of S2, Sarah believes she can leave Burbank, leave Chuck, and go with Bryce to Washington. She is conflicted; yet, she believes she can do it. She cannot. During Ellie’s wedding ceremony, Sarah realizes that her belief is false. She can no longer choose to be a spy if choosing it means she will have to abandon Chuck. But Chuck does not know how deep this change reaches in Sarah. –He lingers in unclarity about this, to lessening degrees, until S4. The ghost of this lingering helps make the end of S5 so unsettling–it is as if, at some level, Sarah did not change after all. –And Sarah’s anger and pain and hurt serve to mask the depth of the change in her. Chuck cannot see that she does not want to choose the spy life if that choice costs her him. She does not want him to choose it since she thinks that choice must cost him her.
I could say more about these changes. I say some more about them in my book. But, even though I could say more, I will finish here. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Chuck is the fundamental but believable and emotionally satisfying changes in its main characters. Few shows have managed such changes. Relatively few have really tried.
Change is hard. Portraying it is hard. As characters change, they go out of focus for themselves and, as a result, for the audience. But we can, with patience and with a disciplined imagination, bring into focus why they go out of focus.
S3 is messy. It admits this near the end of vs. the Three Words. To straighten up some of the mess, we have to remember that we can conceptualize change (to the extent that we can) only by contextualizing it between a past (world) and a future (world). We have to see the changes as changes, as in passage or in transportation. No still snapshot alone will make sense or help us to make sense. Now, I cannot straighten up all the mess of S3; I have not tried. But if we keep in mind that fundamental changes are underway, we can explain some of the mess, excuse some of the mess, and, perhaps, ignore the rest. We can face the changes.
 Besides, being a hero–unless you hail from Krypton or chance bites from radioactive spiders–is not exactly a career choice.
 Among the many challenges of S3 is recognizing just how different Sarah’s vision of Chuck is from his of himself, and recognizing the centrality of Chuck’s vision to what happens between them. Sarah sees him as a hero, and as a man who can educate her in what it means authentically to be human. He sees himself as a underacheiver, losing and losing on his way to being a loser. –Is Sarah’s vision more just? Yes. –Is it as efficacious as Chuck’s vision? No.
As Chuck will tell Sarah in vs. the American Hero, he has hated himself for all his existential maundering–his (personal and professional) indecisiveness, caused by his inability to get over his failures: his failure at Stanford, his failure with Jill, his failure to escape the Buy More, his failure to get out of his sister’s apartment. (N.B., if this isn’t the only time Chuck uses the word ‘hate’, it is one of a very few. ‘Hate’ is not one of Chuck’s words; but there it is, falling off his lips, characterizing his relationship with himself. (One’s self is the one self one cannot fail to have a relationship with. The only question is what that relationship is to be. Even failing to have a relationship with oneself turns out to be having a particular relationship to oneself. I am deeded to me.)) Chuck’s self-hatred nourishes the roots of S3’s darkness (as do Sarah’s hurt and regret). Acknowledging it and overcoming it is Chuck’s task. So, despite the fact that Sarah’s vision of Chuck is more just, his vision of himself has more explanatory power, particularly in the arctic night of the first 13 episodes of S3.
While we are so imperfect, we can understand only in part. The same self-love that causes our defects injuriously hides them from ourselves and from others. Self-love cannot bear the view of itself. It finds some hiding place, it places itself in some flattering light to soften its ugliness. Thus there is always some illusion in us while we are so imperfect and have so much love of ourselves.
Susan Sontag once observed that she was only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Me too. What interests me is aiming to attain the unattained but attainable self. What interests me is clambering from glory to glory. –We cannot remain what we are. In the realm of what Kierkegaard would have called ‘the spirit’, we are either moving forward or we are backsliding: there is no standing still.
Chandler Jones’ EP, Old Fashion, details self-transformation. Each song is an action–an active attempt at becoming something else, something better. The final line of “Phantom in Black” underscores this effort:
My final declaration is to be a better man.
Although the word is not one often used in connection with popular music, these are all ultimately songs that edify, that build up. The lyrics are thick with images, awash in color. They often use the conceptual resources of Christianity but without ever becoming ‘Christian rock’ or ‘praise music’. (Shudder.) Instead, the songs employ the concepts to sensitize, deepen and intensify the efforts of self-transformation. Consider the confrontation with a tempter, figured first as Judas, then as the devil, in “Devil, Please”. The singer is tempted to deny the reality of himself and his life, to see it all as illusion. Few blues songs have ever found their way into this metaphysical register, and yet the song remains recognizably a blues song.
I took a walk to Potter’s field And I met a man with blood on his hands who told me nothing’s real
The claim that nothing is real is refused not by epistemological hijinks, by refuting skepticism, by exhuming the foundations of knowledge, but by empathizing with, by forgiving the claimant–even if neither is easy. No one promised that membership in the priesthood of believers would be simple.
My lips are red I kissed the blood off your hands If I anoint you with oil And start to recoil I’m not used to this
Jones’ lyrics are aphoristic–almost any of group of lines is an individually quotable unit–and yet they cohere, held together by his unique sensibility. They are occasionally opaque, but never defensive, presenting puzzles (when they do) because they are voicing what is genuinely puzzling, mysterious. And the lyrics are tactful, pulling back at the right moment, careful of the trap of chattering nonsense that ensnares those who try to explain mysteries instead of presenting them. Mysteries are not darkness in which we cannot see, but blinding light into which we cannot peer: but by their light we see the light we see.
The melodies are well-paired with the lyrics, delicate and memorable. Jones has a warm voice, instinct with life. The guitar work–the guitar is the lone instrument on the album–has an “in the moment” feel that compliments the vocals. Nothing seems studied, overworked.
The hardest thing to say about Jones’ songs is how beautiful they are, and in the particular way that they are. I am tempted to call each a different construction out of nearly transparent colored panes of glass, fragile and lovely. But that shortchanges the pliant responsiveness of each. Maybe the best thing to say is that each reduplicates the earnest striving of a human soul, a striving after beautiful-goodness (what the Greeks termed καλός καγαθός) that–in its own mysterious way–colors the striving itself beautiful-good.
Jones is a young songwriter of real promise. Give him a careful hearing.
Some days, between trying to get it right, trying too hard to make it come out right, and not being able to wait for it to strike me in the right way, interpretation wearies me, even sickens me, and I feel as if all real interpretation is just seeing and saying, and what I occupy myself with daily is instead nothing but saying I see, seeing if I can say, reading without seeing, seeing more than I can say, saying what should just be seen, reading instead of saying, saying instead of being. —Little knots of thinking and willing and wishing.