My suggestion for marijuana legalization activists: it doesn’t matter how many products can be more efficiently made from hemp, it doesn’t matter whether pot makes cancer patients feel better, it doesn’t matter how much worse alcohol is for you. If you can show that legalization will prove more lucrative for the state than our current policy of locking up nonviolent drug offenders, you will be publicly toking up in no time flat.
Since I was just talking about this recently, here are two disparate examples of why I personally see no reason to identify as a Buddhist, even though I have certainly learned much from various Buddhist authors and thinkers (especially from the secular Western variety). Debating different ideas and perspectives is fine, of course; I’m simply not interested in squabbling over precisely what one has to accept or believe in order to qualify for the official label. It strikes me as a completely off-track and self-indulgent argument to have.
Like Treme itself, the show is an oasis of freedom in a sea of slavery. When Davis glimpses Elvis Costello in the audience and tries to get Kermit Ruffins to go kowtow to Elvis to get fame and fortune and a spot on an Elvis world tour, Kermit demurs. Davis demands, “All you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?” Kermit murmurs, “That’ll work.”
Davis: “Goddamn, Kermit, go talk — you deserve — don’t you wanna get famous? You deserve to be famous! America needs it some Kermit. You’re — you’re just standin’ there, tellin’ me that all you wanna do is get high, play — play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?”Kermit: “That’ll work.”Davis: “God, man, I mean — that’s just so sad.”
I’m seriously heartbroken today. Peter Steele of Type O Negative died last night.
Music and books really are what I live for most of all. But music has always been the omnipresent aspect of my life, and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never lost my passion for it as I’ve gotten older. Which is to say, music isn’t merely frivolous entertainment for me. It makes life worth living. Beethoven’s heroism be damned; if I ever went deaf, I’d commit suicide.
So even though I never met Peter in person, this hits me just as hard as it would to hear that a member of my own family died suddenly. In many ways, it’s no surprise. Or, rather, given his morbid, self-deprecating (to the point of self-abusive) sense of humor and unvarnished honesty about his struggles with clinical depression and drug addiction, and his incessant references to death in his songs, the only surprising part of it is that he didn’t usher himself out. But living in anticipation of it doesn’t make it hurt any less, as I’m sure we all know.
I don’t even know what I could possibly say in mere words to convey just how important his music was to me. “Musical genius” gets thrown around far too casually these days, but if anyone deserves that appellation, he does. At a time when the airwaves were filled with stripped-down alterna-punk bands doing their best to make music as simple and straightforward (read: fucking boring) as possible, Type O Negative were studio wizards, making gloriously romantic, melancholy, lush, dynamic, heavily layered sonic masterpieces that stood up to countless listenings. October Rust and Life Is Killing Me, especially, will always be two of my favorite albums of all time, bar none. Thank you for everything, Peter. I’ll miss you so much.
And the next thing we know, (Nietzsche’s) hugging a horse and proclaiming himself Jesus and Alexander. You can call it spirituality if you like, I call it syphilitic madness. A fruitful madness, though, with plenty in it worth talking about. But this guy should be nobody’s role model, pasted on no disaffected teenager’s bedroom wall.
… Solomon is spontaneously humane and compassionate, precisely where his hero is hard-hearted and insensitive and disgusted by “weakness.” Nietzsche was not a great-souled man in the Aristotelian mold, nor is it clear how the “greatness” of wanting nothing different than it is can be distinguished from stoicism or resignation.
Well, there’s no accounting for taste and all that. And indeed, there’s plenty to be criticized in Nietzsche’s output, from his misogynistic outbursts to his, uh, suspiciously Christian-like belief in the need for life to be redeemed from meaninglessness. But leaving aside for a moment the issue of whether he personally was the arrogant, insensitive bastard that he appears to be in writing, or whether he even does appear that way when you read closely, I find it strange to think that anyone should allow his capacity for bruising an unsuspecting reader’s feelings to dissuade them from absorbing all the good things there are to be found in his work. Some of the greatest spurs to productive thought I’ve had have come by way of a writer or blogger that pissed me off with their tone or ideas. I mean, really; there’s no shortage of people who will soothingly murmur the same old platitudes about love and compassion and mercy. I didn’t need Nietzsche for that. But for the relentless challenges to unthinking piety, conventional wisdom, and egotistical delusions, for the unusual psychological insights that make the wisdom of the world’s holy books seem like a collection of fortune cookie sayings, I’ve never found anyone better. As Lesley Chamberlain said in her excellent biography, Nietzsche in Turin, “Nietzsche I feel was often acting out the wisdom of Christ, facing the whole world angrily, as if he had found the moneychangers in the temple.” Yes. (And bonus points for ironically juxtaposing Fritz with Jesus.) And yet, at the same time, as Chamberlain also writes:
Mrs. Fynn earned his respect for her kindness and Catholic faith. He once burst into tears at the idea of how much his anti-Christian thoughts would hurt her and evidently that memory touched her greatly. Teasing him for his feigned indifference to the fame stealing upon him in 1888, she suggested that although he had forbidden her to read his books she could not believe anything ignoble could flow from his pen.
Crying?! There’s no crying in iconoclasm! But seriously, I find the contrast between his personal gentleness and philosophical recklessness to be inspiring, even touching. He was an awkward, needy, hypersensitive, bloviating, overcompensating, insecure man, but his sense of intellectual integrity and honesty prevented him from even trying to make life easy on himself.
And the sheer artfulness of his beautiful prose, ye gods! How I wish I could write with a fraction of that poetic grace. Here he is demolishing the common, simplistic misconstruals of his statements against pity:
Our personal and profoundest suffering is incomprehensible and inaccessible to almost everyone; here we remain hidden from our neighbor, even if we eat from one pot. But whenever people notice that we suffer, they interpret our suffering superficially. It is the very essence of the emotion of pity that it strips away from the suffering of others whatever is distinctly personal. Our “benefactors” are, more than our enemies, people who make our worth and will smaller. When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress”, the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, the “religion of pity” (or “the heart”) commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly.
If you, who adhere to this religion, have the same attitude towards yourself that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together, or, in your case, remain small together.
How is it at all possible to keep to one’s own way? Constantly, some clamor or other calls us aside; rarely does our eye behold anything that does not require us to drop our own preoccupation instantly to help. I know, there are a hundred decent and praiseworthy ways of losing my own way, and they are truly highly “moral”! Indeed, those who now preach the morality of pity even take the view that precisely this and only this is moral – to lose one’s own way in order to come to the assistance of a neighbor. I know just as certainly that I only need to expose myself to the sight of some genuine distress and I am lost. And if a suffering friend said to me, “Look, I am about to die; please promise to die with me,” I should promise it; and the sight of a small mountain tribe fighting for its liberty would persuade me to offer it my hand and my life — if for good reasons I may for once choose two bad examples. All such arousing of pity and calling for help is secretly seductive, for our “own way” is too hard and demanding and too remote from the love and gratitude of others, and we do not really mind escaping from it – and from our very own conscience – to flee into the conscience of others and into the lovely temple of the religion of pity… And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you. You will also wish to help – but only those whose distress you understand entirely because they share with you one suffering and one hope – your friends – and only in the manner in which you help yourself. I want to make them bolder, more persevering, simpler, gayer. I want to teach them what is understood by so few today, least of all by these preachers of pity: to share not suffering but joy.
Here, a different, nuanced perspective on love of one’s fellow man:
The more we think about all that has been and will be, the paler grows that which is. If we live with the dead and die with them in their death, what are our ‘neighbors’ to us then? We grow more solitary, and we do so because the whole flood of humanity is surging around us. The fire within us, which is for all that is human, grows brighter and brighter – and that is why we gaze upon that which immediately surrounds us as though it had grown more shadowy and we had grown more indifferent to it. But the coldness of our glance gives offense!
One of the most touching and generous things he ever wrote:
Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own! Now and then, however, I enjoy an even higher festival: when one is for once permitted to give away one’s spiritual house and possessions, like a father confessor who sits in his corner anxious for one in need to come and tell of the distress of his mind, so that he may again fill his hands and his heart and make light his troubled soul! He is not merely not looking for fame; he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! To possess no advantage, neither better food nor purer air nor a more joyful spirit – but to give away, to give back, to communicate, to grow poorer! To be able to be humble, so as to be accessible to many and humiliating to none! To have much injustice done him, and to have crept through the worm-holes of errors of every kind, so as to be able to reach many hidden souls on their secret paths! Forever in a kind of love and forever in a kind of selfishness and self-enjoyment! To be in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed and renouncing! To lie continually in the sunshine and gentleness of grace, and yet to know that the oaths that rise up to the sublime are close by! That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!
And a motto that I would be hard-pressed to improve upon:
To explore the whole sphere of the modern soul, to have sat in its every nook – my ambition, my torture, and my happiness.
Hard-hearted? Insensitive? To be sure, he was large and he contained multitudes, but still, I think not.
The hardest explanation for theists to grasp, though, is the understanding that none of us have ever had this unlikely clot of vapor called a soul. If the soul is an imaginary fantasy, then Mozart’s music, Michaelangelo’s sculptures, Picasso’s paintings, the Wright brothers’ plane, every work of art and technology produced by people whose names have been lost to us, every child, every dream, has been created by us, mere mortal flesh unled by a magic puppeteer in the sky, unaided by angels or spirits. I find that wonderful.
PZ is clearly trying to jump on my bandwagon here, but that’s okay. It needs to be said, loudly and often.
I would add that it’s not just about the obvious examples of the artists, philosophers, musicians, and other cultural giants; this awareness should make everyone’s life, however nondescript, feel all the more vital. No one else is ever going to be where you are right now, doing the exact thing you’re doing, with the same thoughts in their head, looking at the same scenery outside their window. No one else will ever experience the same things you have from the same perspective or have the same reflections on them. No one else is ever going to have the same conversations with the same people that you do today. Chances gone are chances gone forever. That doesn’t mean you have to engage in a life of frenetic activity, though, trying to accumulate as many accomplishments as possible before the final whistle — just be mindful. Appreciate what you have when you have it, rather than living in the past or the future.
It calls to mind a passage I love from Sam Hamill’s poem A Rose for Solitude. Hamill is a Zen Buddhist, so when he uses a word like emptiness, he means in the sense of potential rather than nothingness, of contingent relationships rather than inherent essence:
We might never have met. The things you love might never have happened. None of it will ever happen again. Without meaning to veer into maudlin sappiness, every day can be meaningful if you care to see it that way.
- The Tiger Woods soap opera.
- Tasteless, overpriced bacon from Whole Foods.
- The state of California’s economy.
In the space of a few short minutes, these topics were all strung together in the course of a stemwinder delivered by my brother. The common thread? Liberals were somehow partially or totally to blame for all of them.
I wish I could remember how, exactly, he backed up his claims, but these kinds of incoherent, shouty tirades have such a disjointed, surreal quality to them, much like dreams. They seem to make sense when you’re in the middle of them but when you reach for words to describe them later, it’s like trying to grasp smoke in your hand; sort of like oh hell it’s too disheartening to even think about it for too long in fact I don’t even feel like finishing this sente
Ahh, John Cole’s just bitter over the amazing irony of how we in the aristocracy of the Confederacy look down on our neighbors to the west (who split with us to join the Union) as the inbred yokels. In a two-mile stretch between my house and town, I must pass five or six houses proudly flying the battle flag.
Maybe I’m still a kook, because now, years later, my convictions about the ready availability of knowledge remain pretty much unchanged. Devoid of a degree as I am, I have never stopped reading, inquiring, and exploring the world of ideas and facts. All this is not to deny, of course, that formal education is good in its way (and naturally some specialties — law and medicine most notably — absolutely require old-fashioned collegiate training). But I still believe deeply in the worth and merit of impractical learning — that is, learning not yoked with any particular worldly ambition — and I wish that this kind of “aimless” learning could find better cultural legitimacy.
Hear, hear. Many thanks to Shanna for passing along this essay to me. I have been disappointing family, friends and teachers for a few decades with my insouciance toward “applying myself”, which is to say, my refusal to try to make as much money as I can with whatever talents I have. I seem to have had a congenital aversion to that mentality, passive while I was younger, but one that has hardened into a gleeful enjoyment of thumbing my nose at conventional attitudes regarding education and money. And while I have yet to feel embarrassed about being a “loser” when it comes to worldly success, I have felt that way numerous times upon realizing that I’m wasting my enthusiasm for learning and thinking while trying to share it with someone who couldn’t care less. I share Susan Jacoby’s lament about how hard it is to find people with the intelligence and passion to discuss rarefied topics with such a breezy familiarity:
As the art of live conversation continues its decline, it is saddening to discover that some of the best examples of old-fashioned, discursive, passionate intellectual conversation can be found today only in books. For a glimpse of the way intellectuals used to talk, not only to one another but to anyone else who happened to be within range, one might consult a splendid, concise 1988 portrait of the maverick journalist I.F. Stone, compiled from taped conversations between Stone and the author, Andrew Patner. Stone, an autodidact who dropped out of college in his junior year, was talking about his research for a book about the trial of Socrates:
“I’ve often said that no one has gotten away with so much egregious nonsense out of sheer charm as Plato. It’s nonsense, absolute nonsense. And the devout Platonists — it’s like a cult, they’re like Moonies. I mean, Plato is a fascinating thinker and a marvelous writer and a man of comedic genius. Olympiodorus says that he wanted to be a writer of comedy, of plays and comedy — he’s supposed to have had a copy of Aristophanes on his bed when he died — but when he met Socrates he gave that up….And you have to read him, too, not just for his system or ideas, but for the way he gets at it, for all the by-products, the joy, and the wrestle, so to speak. No other philosopher turned his philosophies into little dramas. That gives them part of their continual charm….The Phaedo is just — I was reading the Phaedo at American University, and I just burst into tears. The kids must have thought I’d gone wacky. It’s very moving. A great drama.
…And so, you understand the Greek theater and its wellsprings of freedom much better when you look at the Roman theater and comedy. And with the Greek law and the Roman law, the procedure and laws of the Greek Assembly and the Roman Assembly….I don’t care much for Rome. Cicero is a big tub of crap. Typical corporation lawyer and ass-kisser of the rich and powerful. But he studied in Athens, a few centuries after the great days, and his philosophical treatises, while they’re not profound, are very valuable. You consult what he has to say in the De natura deorum, De divinatione, and the Tusculan Disputations….I agree with Caesar though. He called the prose style Asiatic, by which he meant overadorned, and I think his speeches are a little too flowery.”
This is what a passionate intellectual conversation sounds like — the genuine learnedness, the intensity, the sense of communion with people who lived and died thousands of years ago. I wish I had been on the other end of that conversation. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone call Plato a purveyor of egregious nonsense, and Cicero was a big ass-kisser. One need look no further for a perfect example of the connection between the decline of reading and the decline of intellectual conversation.
I would say that they’re both connected to the decline of people being interested in anything that isn’t geared toward some tangible measure of success. Who wants to talk about Plato and Roman theater when there’s money to be made? My orthopedic surgeon, an amateur history buff himself, used to always ask about whatever book I was reading while sitting in the room waiting on him, and we’d spend a little time discussing various topics at each visit. Once he finally asked me, “What are you going to do with all this knowledge?” Nothing, really, I said. There were practical obstacles: I didn’t go to college (beyond taking classes for my own pleasure at community college for a few years), and without a degree and some type of specialized skill, there wasn’t any real hope of using my interests to make money. What, is someone going to pay me to sit at home and read a bunch of obscure books? I told him that there were also countless people out there who already knew much more than I did about any given topic, so as far as I was concerned, this was all just for fun and the ability to provide interesting conversation. He didn’t say anything critical of that, but I could tell he thought it was bizarre.
My father once asked me if I regretted not pursuing my love of philosophy to the extent of trying to become a professor myself. I told him that my former professor lived in a small apartment and drove a Ford Pinto; being that I was already in a similar income bracket, why would I want to acquire tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a useless degree on top of it? Another friend of mine, with a Ph.D. in philosophy, has worked all sorts of temp jobs in recent years, including at a convenience store. And yet another friend, in her late thirties, was telling me recently that she’s going to be paying off her student loans until she’s 67. I might not be able to get a high-paying job with only a high-school diploma, but then again, I don’t necessarily need one if I’m not staggering along under the mountain of debt that all my better-educated friends have.
My former neighbor used to good-naturedly lecture me on how I was wasting my time and talents (musical and literary) living an ordinary life doing ordinary things. She was one of those spiritual-not-religious types who hadn’t examined her assumptions closely enough to realize that she still carried a very Christian belief in people having a “calling” that they were obliged to heed. She preferred to say that I had a “gift” for music or writing, but it amounted to the same thing: I was obliged/destined/meant to fulfill those talents to the greatest extent possible, and if I didn’t, I was lying to myself or failing my potential. I used to tweak her in return by saying that no, a “gift” implied a “giver”, and maybe an obligation in return, and since there was no god, I was free to slack off as much as I wanted. And does anyone really need to be reminded how many people have single-mindedly pursued and achieved a goal only to find themselves miserable when it doesn’t measure up to the fantasies they had about it?
Immaturity. Fear of failure. Selfishness. All have been suggested as reasons for my obstinate refusal to allow my “hobbies” to turn into “business”. No one ever seems to consider that maybe having the luxury and freedom to pursue these things at my leisure is what makes them enjoyable and reinvigorating for me. Maybe I just know when I’m already happy, and isn’t that what all our tail-chasing is supposed to be leading toward in the first place?