in case of emergency

(SCENE. Kugelmass and Nicholas Bourbaki are chatting via Skype. To Kugelmass’s right is a small, unkempt mattress, strewn with gummi bears and Walter Benjamin essay collections. To his left is a painting that looks like Japanese calligraphy, but isn’t.)

BOURBAKI. So, at this point, what appeals to you about religion is finding some kind of broad theory of what makes us human. Common ground.

KUGELMASS. Yeah, pretty much. But I’ve been trying to read theology, and it’s just awful. Take Paul Tillich, for example. He’s writing during the middle of the Sartre era, and imitating Sartre at his worst, in Being and Nothingness. Where he was imitating Heidegger. So the end result is a bad imitation of Sartre doing a bad imitation of Heidegger. It’s useless. At one point he says something like, “negation is only possible after affirmation, for without an original affirmation there would be nothing to negate.” Which would be just as persuasive, and just as true, with all the terms reversed.

BOURBAKI. Yeah, that’s a telltale sign of bad Continental philosophy, that the terms are interchangeable. I remember Tillich. I read him during the years when I was losing faith. I was doubting my Catholicism, and I found Tillich, and I thought alright! Here’s somebody who can justify Christianity without making claims that any thinking person eventually has to reject. But all Tillich was saying, really, was that Christianity was basically a big myth. You should believe in that myth, though, because it’s wise.

KUGELMASS. Which is a trick you could do with any piece of literature. You wouldn’t have to choose the Bible.

BOURBAKI. Or with any other religion. Tillich tries to explain why Christianity is a better fable than the others, but in the end, it’s just that he happened to be raised Christian. He insists that it’s the ideal system, but it’s all personal bias. I finished his book even more disillusioned than I was before.

KUGELMASS. I don’t even understand why Tillich needs to write ontology. Can’t he just make his basic moral arguments? That’s what he really cares about. Why get into the negation of negation just to prove that courage matters?

BOURBAKI. That part of Rortian pragmatism stays with me, especially at moments like this. Not only do I reject Tillich’s ontology, I also reject his moralizing. I don’t think any theory like that necessarily applies to me, or to anyone.

KUGELMASS. Well, OK, fine, but you’re living your life according to moral principles of some sort.

BOURBAKI. Obviously. But it’s all the big-picture, inarguable stuff. For example, I oppose cruelty. In fact, at bottom, that’s probably what underlies my politics more than anything else. A basic dislike of unnecessary suffering.

KUGELMASS. Sure, I see what you mean. A political prisoner is being beaten somewhere, let’s set that guy free.

BOURBAKI. Yeah. That kind of thing.

KUGELMASS. OK. Part of me wants to say, that’s not really applicable to your daily life. Which nonetheless you have to live somehow. You’re not making all the little decisions on the basis of your opposition to torture.


But…I realize that’s a little melodramatic. You’re nice to your friends. You get along well with the future Ms. Bourbaki. You do good legal work. You’re not exactly plummeting into moral chaos.

In fact, you reach a certain point in life where if you have a job, and you have a family, that consumes all of your attention. The morality basically takes care of itself.

BOURBAKI. Yeah. It’s interesting to hear you talk about these theological issues, and to be reminded of my Catholic youth, because at this point I simply don’t think about these things. They never bother me. They play no role in my life at all.

KUGELMASS. Right. It’s like that guy who said, “Nothing puzzles me more than the universe. Also, nothing puzzles me less, since I never think about it.”

BOURBAKI. Totally.

KUGELMASS. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to remain unemployed; being jobless enables me to think about gigantic issues, in my sweatpants, for days on end.

BOURBAKI. The only case in which these things would come up is if, you know, I was forced into a confrontation with death. Like in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” What does it all mean? What do I think of my life? What am I leaving behind? These are questions I can’t answer at the moment. But why should I worry about them? There are plenty of scenarios in which I die without ever having the experience of being condemned to die by illness, or a plane crash, or whatever, and knowing about it soon enough to worry.

KUGELMASS. Well, I remember at some point you saying that you’d want to achieve a Buddhistic feeling of union with all things. A harmonious feeling of your place, in a vast world, connected.

BOURBAKI. That’s probably right. Yeah, that is what I’d do, come to think of it. But I’m not really preparing myself, right now, to do that. I’m not looking into Buddhism, or meditating. So I’d just be making this up on the spot because my plane was about to crash.

KUGELMASS. Did you read Cloud Atlas?

BOURBAKI. No. It seemed like the sort of book I would hate. Or, no, maybe just completely unnecessary. A book I wouldn’t regret not reading.

KUGELMASS. I was so exasperated by it. You know, that’s the point of the book. Everything is connected. A butterfly flaps its wings and 2,000 years later there’s a hurricane. There are various pieces of music, and names, and other junk that keeps resurfacing. It’s like that movie The Red Violin except with 20 things all ricocheting off past, present, and future, as opposed to just a single violin. You can almost hear Mitchell saying to himself, “limiting this book to a single musical instrument wouldn’t be sufficiently epic.”

The problem with an idea like that is that everything’s in the execution. It’s not that Mitchell’s wrong, exactly. Sure, I mean, I agree, everything is connected. But whether that is a profound statement or not is a matter of how you say it. It’s a question of style.

BOURBAKI. Oh, God, so this book is like those movies that come out every once in a while, where everybody is meeting everybody else, like Traffic and Magnolia and, the Los Angeles movie, Crash?

KUGELMASS. Oh, absolutely, except now it’s the book version. Which, in any case, just became an IMAX movie.

BOURBAKI. And really it happens all the time. I’m just constantly discovering that my life has just been saved by my baseball coach from ten years ago, the same guy who walks with a limp because of something my sister’s company did to his drinking water after my gardener’s son had an affair with the environmentalist’s husband, which is why the impact report was never finished. That is — these movies are so right — that is a totally normal, average day for me.

KUGELMASS. You’re joking, but that’s one whole part of the book. That’s the one from our present day. The stories are good, actually. It’s just the connections between them that suck.

BOURBAKI. What an amateurish thing to do with a novel, welding on the conceit like that.

KUGELMASS. I know. Another guy who couldn’t be satisfied writing the stuff he knows intimately, grittily, down to the unexpected details. Like Tillich, thinking a book about courage wouldn’t be enough. Really, a piece of the world is plenty. It ought to be enough.

BOURBAKI. That’s what literature can be. It fits there; it can say something useful about the moral problems of ordinary life. There’s no general theory, legislating life for everyone.

KUGELMASS. Of course. Yeah. of course. The beauty of everyday life. “The profundity of the quotidian.” It’s even a legitimate way to moralize. But I just…don’t…care. I really don’t!

BOURBAKI. It does get wearying — the smaller-is-better approach has become way too dominant. Especially in the world of literary fiction. It’s practically a monopoly.

KUGELMASS. Sure, this beer is beautiful. See these Saltine crackers? What could be more meaningful than these Saltine crackers? Right, nothing! I hear people talking about dear old Bloom in Ulysses, and I just feel physically sick. I still love Joyce but I can’t stand the cult of Bloom. Probably 50% of the time, “the literature of everyday life” is just code for talking about food, and how nice it is to cook, and how pleasant it is to eat. Or else how great it is to drink wine. Which it is, absolutely. It’s so pleasant that I don’t need philosophy and art to rush in and validate me for eating a sandwich and drinking merlot.

BOURBAKI. In my case, that comes up in the following way — well, like I said, as a pragmatist and a busy person living life, I have problems with any system that tries too hard to organize and unify the world. Regardless…you know what’s funny about that?


BOURBAKI. Bad theories are fascinating. I fell in love with philosophy because of them. Even now, encountering reckless “rigorous” thinking can be a pleasure. When I can make the time for philosophy, I’m always happiest catching up with some new, enormous error. That’s what I get invested in — not an epiphany that teaches me how to die, but, instead, the bigger game — somebody’s elegant, vast mistakes.