Art of Living
Igors Šuvajevs interviewed by Artis Svece
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Artis Svece: – Art of living is the subject you have been dealing with for many years by now. Has your approach changed in the course of time?
Igors Šuvajevs: – First, my mental outlook has expanded, as well the knowledge base. Secondly, my knowledge of the subject has become more profound which allows for research in many relevant subjects. In the very beginning, I based my research on the thinkers available in the Soviet Union. On Merab Mamardashvili, for instance. One thing was clear enough: the point was it was an existential act, not a sheer theory. Of course, I did not call it the art of living then, I used to define it as creation of living, life performance. Later, due to the sudden change of scene, I took the opportunity to visit the Western world and get acquainted with the literature and its terminology, thence the term „art of living” and the many different trends and aspects the phenomenon has been treated in.
A. S.: – But the very concept comes from Foucault?
I. Š.: – No, it appears in the ancient philosophy already as “ars vitae” or “techné peri biū”. Still, you surely are justified to claim that in the 20th century the philosophical treatment of the art of living has been re-invented by Michel Foucault.
A. S.: – I am asking because you mentioned Mamardashvili, still I recall the notion being introduced into Latvian philosophy after Foucault had been translated here.
I. Š.: – No, we have something before that, but, as I said, not as „the art of living” – at least I had „creation of living”, „life performance”. Then, of course, the very philosophy is a certain way of life as well. Later came the art of living from the point of view of psychoanalysis and history of philosophy which makes the concept more or less full-scale.
A. S.: – Have you thought about the uniqueness of your approach?
I. Š.: – There is some difference, I guess. This is the question I would like to answer for myself. I think, most of modern philosophers use the concept of art of living to characterize a theory about the art of living. These theories are of great variety, therefore I hold it necessary to look for something different, something else here – let us call it an ontological aspect these theories usually ignore. In other words, I am inclined to explore the subject of philosophy as an art of living, and I consider a universal theory about the art of living unnecessary. It may be fragmentary and does without any strict base as well, for any justification depends not on a certain justifier, but on how the justification is perceived or accepted and how it might be incorporated into the philosophical corpus etc. Next thing to be remarked: if a theory has been made on the way of life, there is always an unpleasing feature present – Eurocentrism. This is the case of Foucault’s theory, too. The rest is either driven out or defined as something else, although there have been some attempts lately to acknowledge the existence of the art of living in China, Arabian area or India as well. Of course, one might claim the West is the most modern and advanced territory, still it means to defame the cultures where at least the art of living has been cultivated in relatively more sensible way than ours in Europe. And one more remark: I would say philosophy as an art of living concerns not only fit people who are quite often identified with white males who are physically and mentally normal. These observations have made me rather skeptical about the theories I mentioned. Then, if philosophy is an art of living indeed, it means there is something in the very philosophy that can transform the philosophizing subject or individual, although it does not mean he or she has to follow certain theories.
A. S.: – Let us return to the ontology you mentioned. Do you allude to the ontology of human situation?
I. Š.: – I am talking about human situation, nothing else. Maybe „ontology” is not the very best term here, for it is understood so differently in different traditions. Since the term „art of living” allows for misunderstanding, I will give you one more explanation. I would say, philosophy is not art itself, rather a technique.
A. S.: – But in ancient philosophy there was an ontological aspect attributed to art of living, wasn’t there?
I. Š.: – Yes, this is exactly I am trying to allude to. I think, it is rooted even deeper, perhaps in Plato’s writings: in Plato’s conception of the unspeakable. It is something that cannot be spoken out. The adept of philosophy either seizes or fails to grasp it. In this respect, Plato’s case is extremely interesting. His teaching can be described as a system of ideas, still the question remains whether one should do this and whether it was like that back in Plato’s time.
A. S.: – As far as I understand, you are trying to treat the art of living as opposed to practicality. Is it true?
I. Š.: – Yes, to practicality along with the modern phenomenon of the ready-made lists consisting of, let us say, 10 suggestions of how to reach happiness.
A. S.: – That is exactly my question. What is the difference between the art of living and such lists of practical recommendations?
I. Š.: – We may start with the question whether happy life is indeed necessary. If the answer is yes, okay, still it would be wise to clarify what do we mean by „happy life” before giving advices about it. The theory is nevertheless important in this philosophy, at least at the level of tracing the concepts back into history. The very concepts of „happiness” or „happy life” have been devalued and evidently have to retire or at least should be put aside for a while. Maybe after some time they would return to life, while for the present they are mostly used to describe some self-centered psychological feelings.
A. S.: – For me, I regret to say, the concept „art of living” first of all, or at least some time ago, seemed to be closely related to aestheticism, and aestheticism, I think, requires the self that is totally controlled. One can find something like this in Stoicism, as well. Do you agree?
I. Š.: – No, I do not like the idea of some total self-control, and I disagree that philosophy as an art of living requires such control, besides I do not think there is such a requirement in Stoic philosophy. Rather this is a skill of treating yourself right, and there is room left for coincidence or contingency – when you just let something happen. There is no constant vigilance – the simplest example is affects. There is the delusion that a Stoic does not feel anything. On the contrary: a Stoic does feel all the affects, nevertheless he is able to keep his cool, to maintain power over him/herself.
A. S.: – Still this means you must make yourself an object of observation or keep a diary – you have to analysis yourself constantly.
I. Š.: – Maybe there is a bit of analysis and self-observation, but this has nothing to do with total or unconditional self-observation. Rather the point is you have to know yourself and your inclinations and the way you act in different situations, that is all. You mentioned diaries. There is a book released recently: „Art of Living as Philosophy or the Art of Writing a Diary”. Such a curiosity.
A. S.: – But this is hardly absurd: that is an old idea – you can spot neither your virtues nor failings without having reflected over the day past or confessed your sins.
I. Š.: – Yes, sure, there are more than one technique, and usually it is claimed that Stoics have deliberately introduced special „morning reflection” or „evening reports” in their philosophy. The same has been inherited by Christianity where such reflection manifests itself as investigation of soul, or confession. In fact, the main body of likewise techniques is preserved from ancient times, only such things tend to slip unnoticed today. For instance, during lectures, university professors speak ex cathedra – „preach from the pulpit”. If we trace the technique back into history, it was established by Cynics, nevertheless today nothing is left from the cynical aroma either to the desk or pulpit. Still this is the way these techniques develop.
A. S.: – In aestheticism described by Kierkegaard (who writes about poetic life) or Huysmans and Wilde (who wrote about the life as an artwork), the idea prevails that a certain final product is required here – something to be enjoyed aesthetically. This final product is perfect in a way, so you must constantly cultivate perfection… I guess, your understanding of the art of living lets this out.
I. Š.: – I am definitely against such perfectionism, although there surely is a strong trend exploring the art of living as aesthetization. Still there is another one where people try to live artistically and experience art as a life project. Both are available. As to aesthetization, we cannot avoid aestheticization of our life. And in this case, the philosophy of the art of living and philosophy as an art of living cultivate this deliberately. There is self-reflection here. In fact, it may be traced back to Montaigne who claims that the greatest task he has is himself and he himself is an artwork for himself and everybody else. We inevitably present ourselves to the others and therefore always try to adjust ourselves to their look, or present a certain aspects of ourselves.
A. S.: – Speaking of aesthetization, my conclusions have been rather pessimistic, namely, that life as artwork is possible only for others, or else you have to bring your life under strict control hardly compatible with aesthetic pleasure. What do you think are the relations between the art of living for others and the art of living for oneself?
I. Š.: – It is quite difficult to draw the dividing line here, for aesthetization cannot be escaped. This is the question of emphasis. The main stress can be laid on aesthetization, beautification or embellishment in different ways, some people stick to that and there is no reason to object to that. Still in the case of philosophy this is hardly the most reasonable approach. Besides, as I mentioned, the art of living hardly needs some universal theory. Nevertheless, if we accept aesthetization as a valid condition, such a theory or at least some considerations seem to be necessary here.
A. S.: – So, the art of living is possible, but is it possible for a life to be an artwork?
I. Š.: – Some thinkers say yes, and I concede in some situations it is possible. The only problem being that we meet with another obstacle here – what is an artwork?
A. S.: – True, but let us put it another way: is it possible to lead a beautiful life rather for yourself than for everybody else? Of course, there is still the question of what do we mean by „a beautiful life” or „ life as an artwork”, but what do I want to know is whether you are doomed to accept that your life can always be beautiful only for others, not for yourself, for you inevitably are conscious of its imperfection.
I. Š.: – This very imperfection makes the life beautiful. Perfect life means death. But I suspect another problem here: when we speak about the art of living, the attributes „beautiful” and „good” are mostly employed. Maybe it is possible to do without them and speak of something else – choice, responsibility or friendship – and then turn back to the beautiful, or good, and redefine both of them. At least in the tradition of ancient philosophy our „virtue” and „goodness” are covered by a single notion of arete: meaning „the very best” which is bound to „to be”. So it might be claimed that not everything existing is rooted in this „to be” dimension. You may live the good and beautiful life for a while, but no human being can stay like this for long, for its burden is unbearable. The beautiful and good life is terrible in a way – if for good.
A. S.: – Don’t you think the theory or practice of art of living would be depleted without the concept of art? Imagine us saying: Well, in fact we are still talking about virtuous life and nothing else! Could we simply trade the art of living for the traditional ethical theories? Or this would be no more than a stylistic nuance?
I. Š.: – Probably a stylistic nuance, yes. While for now the term „art of living” is popular, there is another Foucault’s term hovering in its background – aesthetics and ethics of existence. And connotations here are different. Simply the term „art of living” has a longer history. We might skip the „art” here, for, as I said, the Greek term techne points to technique. Therefore the philosophical art of living is rather bringing oneself and others into certain states of mind, and it is not possible to predict whether a person would get into that state or what would be the state, or how he or she would act then. Speaking of the terms „beautiful” and „good” again, they cannot be clearly defined as evaluative. I usually use the example of the goal scored in a soccer game when public involuntarily react by the cries: yes! Beautiful! There is hardly any reflection or evaluation present, still we are encountered with some perfection of the moment.
A. S.: – Though there still might be some connection. Let us consider the term „aesthetics of existence”.
I. Š.: – Yes, there is a connection. Like Nietzsche said: Let us become artists of life in everyday’s small matters! We talk about the poetics of life here. You cannot ignore small matters in the art of living as well. The philosophical practice allows for different techniques here. If you ask a person how many scents of rose, for instance, he or she can call to mind, there appear to be not so many of them. Still the skill may be perfected by exercise – just smell a rose and remember the scent. This is the case with most of the senses. The aesthetic is inevitable. Although there is another and probably even better way: you may use the Greek term aisthesis meaning „perception”. Either you perceive something or fail.
A. S.: – The aesthetic may manifest itself in different ways – as everything perfectly formed, aesthetic experience or creativity, for instance. At least sometimes we oppose the everyday routine to creativity related to artistic activity. Do you think all of it might be incorporated into the art of living?
I. Š.: – I assume they might and the list would include the ugly and disgusting as well. I think the creativity is usually related to something different from routine. Just do something differently. A simple exercise: you get up in the morning determined to be very creative – so, nothing must be done as usually. The first option – climbing out of bed as novelty, still you have to get up, wash yourself and have your morning coffee. But the morning coffee seems to be forbidden, for it is usual, thence not creative. So, being creative is not an easy task, you see.
A. S.: – What is creation – that is a difficult and, I would say, ontological question. For instance – to what extent I can transform myself? To what extent I do decide what am I doing and what can I do? Where the destiny or biology stop playing with me and something else begins?
I. Š.: – Heavy questions boding months of discussion. For now, let us stick to the conclusion that there are certain assumptions we are dealing with in order to reach some understanding. We have a great variety of theories on creativity and more are still to come, and this makes them all rather suspicious. Let me mention an old and threadbare comparison – you are creative when something blazes up inside you. There must be a sparkle.
A. S.: – A metaphor.
I. Š.: – A metaphor, of course.
A. S.: – But there is a further assumption that you are capable of kindling such a sparkle.
I. Š.: – Right, and here again is difficult to draw a line between ontology and theories. This is another reason for not making theories. Theories are almost always rooted into their own historical time. Some of theories written by advanced and humane thinkers can give you the creeps. Let us take Aristotle’s wonderful ethics of desire lately taken over by neo-Aristotelians. Still his „Politics” shows something completely different: there are non-human human beings and human beings there. So, ethics concerns only human beings and if we want to use Aristotle’s ethics today, it should be remembered there is a vast majority of people this ethics does not concern at all.
A. S.: – Are there any provisions for a person eager to apply the art of living in practice and apply it successfully? Is it available for everyone? For instance, Aristotle claims that happiness is not available for anyone.
I. Š.: – Happiness is available for a free human being.
A. S.: – Well yes, still not for anyone. You must have family and prosperity…
I. Š.: – So he says. Mind the prosperity: some time ago it was discussed and acknowledged question while today people tend to avoid the subject.
A. S.: – Sure, therefore we might stick to the literary versions treating the subject of the aesthetic life: the protagonists there are usually free of the responsibility to earn their living. Still, what about the provisions?
I. Š.: – As to the ontological dimension, there are hardly any provisions. There must be a human being and philosophy, that will do. On the other hand, as to the theory of art of living, we have plenty of such provisions. Let us take a body: there might be an aesthete today claiming that you must wash yourself at least twice a day. Or else something terrible would happen. Nevertheless, such an assumption along with the very action are no more than two or three centuries old. So-called excitable body in the Western world has developed during the last three centuries. Therefore today one can describe a person as exhausted, neurasthenic or nervous, inclined to hysteria etc. I suspect nothing like that was possible ten hundred years ago. Likewise, I suspect there were no nervous people as such. It is all in our conceptions. Therefore let me say again – beware the theories of art of living!
A. S.: – Foucault’s heritage is usually divided in periods where politics and power precedes the art of living. In a way, the first volume of „History of Sexuality” may be opposed to the second and third ones mostly devoted to the art of living. What do you think of relations between the art of living, politics and power?
I. Š.: – As to Foucault, there are at least two stances: either he has turned to the subject towards the end of his own life, or he has been devoted to the art of living from the very beginning having thought of nothing else. I agree to the latter. Speaking of the relations between the art of living, politics and power, this is definitely the most important question in this respect: power, power analysis, policy making – especially on individual level.
A. S.: – But how these relations manifest themselves? Is it appropriate to invoke eroticism of work or the community of performance where people are passive observers rather than creative individuals and aesthetization is a kind of subjugation?
I. Š.: – I hold both politics and power definitely coming into the art of living as its most important elements. As to the phenomena you mentioned… I guess, the biggest trouble in modern philosophy comes from the fact that the terminology of many different conceptions is still unrelated. The art of living is incorporated into many of them, so all of them are basically talking about the same things, still using different words.
A. S.: – Do you think the art of living and politics supplement each other or there is an aspect of resistance present?
I. Š.: – Putting it simply, philosophically the art of living might be described as self-practice and self-comprehension. This requires some power. And if you apply self-comprehension via reflection, you almost inevitable will have to rise against the order established around you. This politics does not mean you have to join a party or the ranks of officials. On the contrary, you challenge everything established while working on yourself. When we are talking here like this, we also apply power and go in for politics. Everyone should engage in that. The big politics is made of petty games where nothing special happens, and nothing special will happen there without those „down there” ready to support these petty games.
A. S.: – I think, there is also an idea of non-violence in Foucault’s writings. Why should one know the power of oneself? Because one does not want to be a „fascist”. Does the art of living mean giving up your power and violence?
I. Š.: – Let us take Foucault: he takes part in demonstrations, travels far to protest, goes to a country where revolution has broken out and describes it unconventionally. So, there is his resistance. Still, one must be aware: whatever you do, you fill a certain power cell and this means you represent the institutionalized power yourself. Any university lecturer is inevitably involved into the power discourse. He or she can be a destructive force here, but it is not possible for he lecturer to give up the role of its representative.
A. S.: – And what about politics then? Can it be an art?
I. Š.: – On the individual level – yes. As to the politics of parties and states – no way. Macropolitics may be aestheticized, more or less decent, so it is possible to speak of something like aesthetic politics.
A. S.: – Is it possible to abuse the art of living? I mean the politics or the lists of ten suggestions how to make your life normal. Does not the art of living imply things that would not be acceptable to Foucault himself? Maybe the problem is that it lacks any evaluation or strictly defined stance?
I. Š.: – Yes, it is possible. This is another reason I do not like theories on the art of living. They provide an ideology and such texts are incorporated both in fascist and communist regimes. This shows the grim result of having nothing else but a theory on what is good and beautiful. Therefore we need the ontological dimension here as a safety catch.