In the early ’60s when Jules Feiffer drew black-turtlenecked Village people dancing odes to the seasons and Mad Magazine mocked beatniks, my South African high-school and college friends and I called anyone who claimed to have read anything about existentialism a pseud. At that time a friend of mine used to mention Merleau-Ponty, and that damned my friend in perpetuity.
Now, decades later, someone persuaded me to read Merleau-Ponty on The Phenomenology of Perception, and, having excitedly read a little, I think I’ve maybe been a closet phenomenologist for the last 30 years, only I didn’t know it. I may of course change my mind when I get to the end of the Preface.
Part of the reason I like it is that, the older I get, the more I believe that everything we talk about in science (or anything else, it’s just that “science” sounds more objective) is secondary to a usually unquestioned and almost unquestionable personal existence. Therefore the discoveries we make can never fully explain our existence itself. We are trapped (and liberated) by our consciousness. This Saul Bellow remark I’m over-fond of summarizes my point of view :
The philosopher Morris R. Cohen was once asked by a student, “Professor, how do I know that I exist?”
“So?” Cohen replied. “And who is esking?”
Thanks to Professor Cohen I feel that I stand on firmer ground, and can do what I have done all my life: i.e., to fall back instinctively on my first consciousness, which has always seemed to me to be most real and easily accessible. For people who have no access to any such core consciousness, no mysteries exist. Linguistic analysts aim to clear away all mysteries–alleged mysteries, they would say. Facts, however, must be respected, and the fact is that for reasons I can’t explain, my own first consciousness has had a long unbroken history. I wouldn’t know how to defend my faithful attachment to it. All I can say is that it is a fact and I wonder why anyone should feel it necessary to put its reality in doubt. But our meddling mental world puts all such realities in doubt. This world of truly modern, educated, advanced consciousness suspects the core consciousness that I take to be a fact of being inauthentic and probably delusive.
Or, as M. Ponty says,
For we have the experience of ourselves, of that consciousness which we are, and it is on the basis of this experience that all linguistic connotations are assessed, and it is precisely through it that language comes to have any meaning at all for us.
The “existence” we’re trying to explain is a word that rests on existence.
And, as M. Ponty says,
We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: The world is what we perceive … For insofar as we talk about illusion, it is because we have identified illusion, and have done so solely in the light of some perception which at the same time gave assurance of its own truth.
For reasons I’m not certain of, reading Merleau-Ponty led me to think of Dr Harry Berelowitz, our general practitioner during my life in South Africa. His wife always referred to him as “Berelly.”
In those days doctors made house calls. When I was sick he arrived, any time of the day or night, in his little Austin, carrying a worn black leather bag containing his stethoscope, his miner’s lamp connected by wire to a pack in his pocket powered by some large weak batteries, some wooden things to stick down your throat, and a reusable syringe that my mother boiled on the stove before he used it.
He had strong diagnostic fingers, as doctors had to have in those days before they could easily look inside you; he stuck them hard into your belly or tapped on your chest and listened to the sounds or felt the resistance and made deductions. I grew to like him immensely; unlike most of our parents, he was someone you could talk to about all sorts of personal things. Once, to my surprise and embarrassment, he told me a bit about his sensual life as a younger man abroad, by way of giving me long-term advice. Whenever I went back to South Africa, until he died in 1973, I used to visit him once to catch up. He also wrote me a couple of letters.
Despite being a GP, he worked as an anesthetist too, and did the job on me when I had my appendix out as a ten-year-old. He volunteered to work in Israel as a medic during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and helped train anesthetists there. The internet is a miracle for reviving the past, and, having thought about him for many years, I just now thought to google him and discovered that you can actually read about him here. He came to South Africa at the age of 18 in 1907, from Lithuania. When I knew him he had a fairly Anglicized accent, which must be attributable to his having eventually gone to Edinburgh to study medicine.
Berelly had a round bald head with a very small residual fringe at the back, and when my son was born several years after Berelly’s death, I looked at his round bald head and was immediately reminded of Berelly himself. I liked to fancy that Berelly had been reincarnated in my son.
When Berelly was terminally ill, I was back in South Africa and went to visit him in bed one last time. He was never an outwardly sentimental man, as far as I could tell, and he remarked conversationally that someone had told him that when you died you met all your old acquaintances, and said he hoped so. He wasn’t insistent, merely suggesting possibilities.
He was a very nice wise man who seemed to be fond of me, and I was fond of him.