Kant Es­cape

Read­ing phi­los­o­phy helped me give up my life as a bank rob­ber

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Rob­bie Dil­lon

Iwas in my early teens the first time I tried to read Im­manuel Kant’s Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son. Fig­ur­ing it out has been a life­long en­deav­our. I quit school when I was four­teen, a de­ci­sion met with lit­tle protest from the adults in my life. Most of my teach­ers had al­ready writ­ten me off, and my mother was too busy work­ing two jobs to put up much of a fight. My fa­ther had never made any se­cret of his con­tempt for ed­u­ca­tion. He was a by-prod­uct of the res­i­den­tial-school sys­tem, so his bit­ter­ness may have been jus­ti­fied.

Sym­pa­thetic role mod­els were hard to find. My fa­ther had robbed sev­eral banks and served time in prison dur­ing my early child­hood. His brother was later ar­rested for ar­moured-car rob­bery, and a close fam­ily friend was gunned down a few streets away from the hous­ing project where I grew up. My life was handed down to me like a pair of cheap brass knuck­les.

By the late 1980s, Mon­treal had been de­clared by the Los An­ge­les Times “the bank rob­bery cap­i­tal of North Amer­ica.” In the years lead­ing up to that ar­ti­cle, my friends and I had done our best to keep the city in the top spot by hit­ting sev­eral banks. It wasn’t as dra­matic as it sounds. Em­ploy­ees were un­der strict or­ders to co-op­er­ate, and the po­lice would usu­ally al­low you plenty of time to get the job done — no point trap­ping a bunch of teenage so­ciopaths in­side a bank full of po­ten­tial hostages. But the risks were, none­the­less, real. Dozens in my cir­cle would be killed over the next decade—shot by po­lice, mur­dered by each other, poi­soned by drugs.

I find it amaz­ing that I’m alive to tell this story — a cir­cum­stance that I at­tribute to destiny or blind luck. Kant didn’t re­ally be­lieve in for­tune or fate and used them as ex­am­ples of ideas we be­lieve in with­out any le­git­i­mate rea­son. It’s thought that Kant, adeeply moral man with very pre­cise habits, never trav­elled far­ther than 100 kilo­me­tres from Königs­berg, the East Prus­sian town where he was born. Kant spent his later days think­ing and writ­ing, paus­ing at the ex­act same time ev­ery day to take an af­ter­noon walk by which, ac­cord­ing to legend, his neighbours would set their clocks.

The life of a crim­i­nal can be as con­fined by rou­tine as Kant’s was. Sure, there’s the odd car chase, and peo­ple oc­ca­sion­ally try to shoot you, but mostly you’re get­ting high, hang­ing out with other crooks, and fig­ur­ing out where to go for lunch. If there were war­rants out for your ar­rest — as there of­ten were when I was a kid — your choices were lim­ited. Get­ting off the street meant hol­ing up in some mo­tel or camp­ing out in the back of the local porn theatre, watch­ing the same skin flicks over and over.

Con­sid­er­ing the op­tions, the li­brary was clean and had the added ben­e­fit of be­ing the last place on earth the cops would look for you. I spent many after­noons wan­der­ing the stacks, guided by cu­rios­ity. I read widely and un­der­stood al­most noth­ing, but, some­how, I al­ways grasped just enough to keep go­ing. I didn’t know it at the time, but at some level, I was re­belling against the voice in my head, the voice of my fa­ther who told me that I was a good-for-noth­ing punk, that I would spend my life in jail or end up on a slab in the morgue. Of course, I was do­ing ev­ery­thing I could to ful­fill this prophecy, but I was also, I see now, reach­ing for a life­line. Even­tu­ally, I stum­bled upon Kant’s mas­ter­piece. In a nut­shell, his ar­gu­ment is that we can­not know the world as it is, in­de­pen­dent of the struc­ture, ca­pac­i­ties, and lim­its of the hu­man mind. Some­times I like to imag­ine that Kant, like my fa­ther, is just say­ing that we’re all id­iots, stum­bling blindly through a world of un­know­able “things-in-them­selves.” But Kant’s work is re­ally a search for the mean­ing of be­ing hu­man — a search I was on as well.

My ap­proach to de­ci­pher­ing the Cri­tique has been no dif­fer­ent than to crack­ing a safe. There is some­thing that I want (money, in­sight) and a se­ries of ob­sta­cles that pre­vents me from hav­ing it. For the thief, ev­ery job is an op­por­tu­nity to prove your guts, your in­ge­nu­ity, your re­solve. By chal­leng­ing me, the Cri­tique forced me to de­velop in­tel­lec­tual tools I never knew I had.

Kant and I would seem to be sep­a­rated not only by a cou­ple of cen­turies but also by vast dif­fer­ences in our val­ues, lan­guage, and tem­per­a­ments. But one thing that crim­i­nals and some philoso­phers share is a sense of be­ing an out­sider. Both stand at the mar­gins, con­tin­u­ally test­ing the lim­its of their re­spec­tive worlds.

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