Tag Archives: fiction

Phi Fic #18 “The Trouble with Being Born” by E.M. Cioran

It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late. –The Trouble with Being Born (1973)

In this volume of aphorisms, Emil Cioran (1911–1995) strips the human condition down to its nub to defend his proposition that the true disaster in life is not death, but birth. Cioran was considered a brilliant mind, heralded by many as belonging to the same realm as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. He wrote extensive ruminations that were often metaphysical in nature and whose recurrent themes were death, despair, solitude, history, music, decay, and nihilism. Yet the beauty of his writing belies his famed overarching philosophical pessimism.

Join us as Mary insists that Cioran’s writing is a “joyful noise… despite everything that you might pull out of this that is concerned with despair, there is such an incredible enthusiasm… you could never convince me that he didn’t love life,” and Daniel asserts that he doesn’t think “Cioran would be one to passionately argue for free will but [that] he seemed to… believe strongly in the necessity of feeling free.” Laura is convinced his struggle comes from an early episode in which Cioran’s mother told him that if she knew he was going to be as sad as he was, she would have aborted him, and Nathan observes that Cioran “brings you to the edge… he puts you in the realm of an idea and its up to you to play in the space.”

*Note: Cezary couldn’t join us for this recording as he was traveling through the Sahara on a camel that wouldn’t share its wi-fi password.

Watch Cioran’s discussion on suicide.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #17 “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. –Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a novel about a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino’s fragmentary study of urban images is composed of brief prose poems, structured as the traveler’s report on the emperor’s expanding empire. And even deeper than that, it becomes a question of whether Polo is creating his reports from his imagination or merely describing his native city, Venice. A tapestry of discussion weaves throughout Polo’s poems tying in ruminations on stories, linguistics, and human nature.

…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene…. –Invisible Cities

Join us as we discuss this beautiful novel, as Cezary notes of Calvino’s distortions, “that in an exact description there is a destruction of the thing described…[that] in leaving space for the reader to chart out what they’re thinking is [his] goal In a work like this,” and Nathan’s reflection that “there’s a reality here but it’s also something spiritual or emotional… I love this style of writing because of what it makes you feel and understand,” while Mary observes that “in describing the relationship with a city as a love affair, it gives it a sense of urgency and closeness,” and Laura wonders if this novel falls into the postmodern construct of eliminating the artist from the work.

*Note: Mary had to leave early to fight a cold and Daniel was absent this time, reprogramming the internet.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #14 “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

From Ponce de León to Woody Allen (and likely every self-reflective person who has lived), entropy has been at the root of human anxiety. Is there a way to hold off or reverse the inevitable?

A testament to this primary apprehension is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov, a short story we discussed a few years back (after which the resultant sound files had their very own group entropic episode, only recently resurrected).

This is one of Asimov’s most famous short stories and his personal favorite. It follows the evolution of his enduring conception, the computer Multivac, through six phases of space and time, and humanity’s relation to it. In each phase, a human asks the Multivac if it’s possible to reverse the entropy of the universe—how to stop its seemingly inevitable death, save the universe, save humanity. And the Multivac invariably responds:

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

It’s a short piece but packs a punch, with a comic ending that inspires rumination.

Join us as we tangle with this complex philosophical and engrossing scientific question—as Laura insists we’re not just data, that we have a physical life, Daniel ponders the merged consciousness at the end of the story, and Cezary warns, “If you’re looking for an individual consciousness here—not gonna happen. At some point, we’re going to be called IG-73 and then it’s going to morph into a hive mind.” Mary wonders at the exceptional nature of what makes up the human experience, and Nathan highlights that the end of the story provides a kind of hope, that there is a circularity there, the universe is coming back.

Listen to Isaac Asimov read this story on youtube:

Disclaimer: This is an early discussion and the quality is a bit low, but it’s a terrific talk and a great short story. Please join us!

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #13 “The House of the Dead” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Our reading this month is The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian labor camp. Dostoevsky was sent there after being convicted for his connection with the Petrashevsky Circle, where Western philosophy and literature were discussed, which was deemed subversive by Tsar Nicholas I.

Told through the eyes of Aleksander Petrovich Goryanchikov, convicted of murdering his wife, Dostoevsky paints the world of the camp through the prisoners. He pulls us into the horror the inmates suffer within their souls:

No man lives, or can live, without having some object in view, and without making efforts to attain that object. But when there is no such object and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, the remission of our confinement and hard labor. —The House of the Dead

We discuss this fascinating “early prison literature,” and explore (i.e., veer off into) the role of crime and moral breakdown in society. Mary expresses concern about the loss of hope, and Laura about the inescapable human condition. Daniel admires Dostoevsky’s psychological sense, and Nathan notes that the prisoners are “broken in time by the larger swarm of the State.” And poignantly, Cezary finds Dostoevsky’s words hold hints of Nietzsche, with our laws having buckets of blood behind them.

Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications in which we so delight. Reality tends to infinite subdivision of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. —The House of the Dead

This is one of our earlier discussions, so there are a few sound issues. Many thanks to Tyler Hislop and Laura for their editing magic!

You are welcome to contact us at phificpodcast@gmail.com with any recommendations, thoughts, or what have you. Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #12 Stories by James Baldwin

On two short stories by James Baldwin: “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” and “Sonny’s Blues.” Both are included in the collection Going to meet the Man (1965). Unfortunately, Daniel had to be absent this time, but we did get Mark Linsenmayer to join us!

For the first time in my life I felt that no force jeopardized my right, my power, to possess and to protect a woman; for the first time, the first time, felt that the woman was not, in her own eyes or in the eyes of the world, degraded by my presence.

So says the narrator in James Baldwin’s remarkable scrutiny of racism in “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” reminiscing about the moment he realized that he had truly fallen in love. His life in Paris has allowed him a freedom to live beyond the color of his skin, but now he is returning to the turmoil of the United States with his wife and son.

In our discussion of this beautiful short work, Mark pinpoints Baldwin’s examination of the psychological internalization of the degradation of racism, with Mary citing the abuse of the narrator’s sister and her friends by the police. Laura delves into the question of the “other” in society, while Cezary posits that racism today seems to be subsumed in discussions of different cultures. Nathan highlights Baldwin’s argument that our understanding and perspectives on racism are influenced by differing realities—which is Baldwin’s reply in the famous debate with William F. Buckley.

We then discuss ”Sonny’s Blue’s,” Baldwin’s story of family, responsibility, suffering, race, and freedom. The narrator’s younger brother, Sonny, is a brilliant musician who is imprisoned for selling and using heroin. On his release he moves in with the narrator and his family, and the brothers struggle to communicate. Sonny’s music finally offers them a way toward understanding and perhaps even a sort of freedom.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it … But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air … another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

We highly recommend Baldwin’s famous debate with William F. Buckley.
If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.
Thanks to Chrisopher Nolen for our music.
Special thanks to Mark Linsenmayer for being our guest this month! And if you haven’t already done so, check out the PEL’s James Baldwin on Race in America episodes.
Photo by Allan Warren, 1969