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Finding Spinoza: The Genetics of Reading

How Larval Subjects found Him

I really enjoy when philosophy is written about like this, as a human experience with context in the world:

That aside, when I was younger, perhaps around the age of 15 or 16, I discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I am not sure why I found myself so obsessed with this book at that time in my life. That year I read the Theologico-Politico Treatise, the Ethics, and the Treatise on the Endmendation of the Intellect. These are certainly strange texts for a 15 year old filled with raging hormones to become obsessed with. Perhaps it was that Spinoza dared to say “One” in his description of the universe. I have always gravitated towards holistic conceptions of the universe, fascinated with the interdependence or interconnection of things among one another. That same year I found myself [trying to] read Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics for similar reasons. Although I had standard teen fascinations with existentialism, devouring Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nausea, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the standard works by Camus, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, my real love was these wild and wooly metaphysicians. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes motivated me to buckle down and actually learn mathematics so that I might read them.

Yet in addition to Spinoza’s beautiful holistic and process oriented metaphysics, I was, no doubt drawn to his work due to the magnificent appendix to Part I of the Ethics, and the biting and corrosive critique of religious belief in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. The time was the early 90s. I lived in a small coal mining town in Ohio (having lived all over the country). At this time the Religious Right was in full ascension- quietly growing in power and pervading the country without anyone really knowing. I was raised in a rather secular family. Although my father was raised my Southern Baptist and my mother was raised devoutly Catholic- the Bryant boys had, like all good Southern Baptists, been forbidden to date Catholics, but let’s be honest, who can resist those uniforms? -and although I was raised in the Episcopal church (they cut the difference), religion was never a real presence, as far as I can recall, in our family. Yes, I went to church on Sundays- I think -but I don’t really remember much if anything about it beyond groaning when I had to get out of bed and sneaking out of the services under the alibi of having to use the restroom so that I could explore the enticing forests around the church in New England and in Ohio; primitive feeling, primordial forests with grounds covered with ferns, muted sounds of animals, the greening of green speaking to some hidden vitality, and towering pines all about. A much better form of worship, I think.

I remember digging in the garage where all the philosophy books from my mother’s college classes were keep, on these large, metal, ratcheted, industrial shelves, where boxes of clothing and unneeded objects filled the standing space, and a small bulb burned high and incompletely to fill the room. These were text books I would rumage through to occupy my bored, slightly intrigued mind. I was maybe 10 years old, and probably had gone through some of the compilation texts, no doubt thumbing randomly after drawing them back to my bedroom, when I came upon Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was certainly in no place to understand it, but I vividly recall when I got the worn, handsized volume alone – I can still see the thread-fray at the maroonish binding – how extraordinary the first paragraphs were. They were like heiroglyphics, wherein you know that each substantive word meant something, that the entire meaning of the paragraph, the page, turned upon each word, snaking. And if you figured out what that word/term meant, the place it took, one understood just what such a paragraph, such a page, could do. That was when I came to love philosophy. When I knew it to be more condensed, more word-sure poetic than even a poem, each phrase catalevering higher.

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