Philosophical Journalism

Philosophical journalists would be an interesting breed. I don’t mean bent, bearded men toting reporters’ notebooks and tape recorders stumbling across Capital Hill–although that would be interesting. Nor do I mean reporters jabbing politicians with barbs about how the latest bill violates Kant’s categorical imperative. Instead, I imagine people curious to see what other people think, people who like asking questions about our basic assumptions.

Today, I watched a documentary called the “Nature of Existence.” The filmmaker, named Roger Nygard, chronicles answers to those “big questions”–like the meaning of life–by interviewing people from around the world, including hard-core Indian ascetics, fiery evangelists, physicists, artists, and waitresses. Some dash off the questions with a humorous observation, others admit their own ignorance, and some weave stories substantiated by absolute conviction.

His methods are those of a journalist, but his focus is on first principles, the realm of the philosopher.

Scanning titles in the non-fiction and creative nonfiction shelves at bookstores, I realize modern readers still have a lot of questions. We like to pretend we are practical these days, zeroed in on the nuts and bolts of economics and applied science. But I feel we only use new disciplines to fill an age-old void: purpose and meaning.

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Water droplets

Sometimes I sit and watch water drops form and fall in the sink. One at a time. A small bead gathers on the faucet’s tip, its surface swarming with the water. Then it begins to fall, stretching into a strained neck that clips itself apart and separates into a falling droplet.

For those brief milliseconds, a world forms on the tense surface of the drop. It’s not attached to anything. An individual drop. At first I thought of the literal world of microbes and particulates swarming and whirring through the bead, like H.G. Wells describes at the opening of the War of the Worlds, “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

The rotifers and paramecium stretch and move along the drop, but then their world shatters like falling glass and rolls down the drain.

I soon imagined a world like ours: skyscrapers, cathedrals, complicated ideas. The infusoria building houses, getting an education, pondering their future, framing an ethical code, “finding themselves,” getting married, divorcing, fighting, killing, preaching, and dying amid the ritual and fanfare of civility. Then their world fragments and drains away.  
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I just finished writing a short story that I started last Thanksgiving. I’ve been picking at it the last few days over my spring break, trying to clinch it. I wrote a novel over my winter break and worked on some essays for scholarships, preventing it then, and thus far, my semester has been too packed to do anything but proofread.

So, finishing it leaves a perfect time to talk about “magic.”

Over winter break, I developed a schedule: wake up early, finish my routine, make a pot of tea, light a candle, open a window and write from 8 to 12 and break for lunch. Nonstop. If I had to use the bathroom, I made it quick. My parents didn’t really get it. They thought I was being asocial or avoiding them out of anger, or that my time up there  was lonesome.

I loved it. I enjoy people, but that four-hour time alone facing the page was something far better. That’s the magic of writing: that healing, redemptive, almost mystic struggle to draw words into the world. To me, nothing else comes close.

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