I read Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture about fifteen years ago, and I still have a soft spot for it. It appealed to the bookish misanthrope in me. His idea of New Monastic Individuals, it would be fair to say, has some parallels with my own conception of the good life, one of avoiding status and power for the sake of individual conscience. But for someone who talks about the need to lighten up, his humor these days strikes me as too bitterly dejected to be appealing, and I naturally find it hard to take seriously anyone who takes Nicholas Carr seriously.
Finally, and most famously, is the stoic perfection of emotion. Here, the stoic exercises are designed to help us remember what distinguishes what matters from what doesn’t, and to react appropriately. And so we have Epictetus:
In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the little things. If you are fond of a jug, say “I am fond of a jug!” For when it is broken, you will not be upset. If you kiss your child or wife, say you are kissing a mortal human being. For when it dies, you will not be upset. Encheiridion 3
It’s here that we see what’s alien, almost inhuman about the paradoxical tradition in ethics. It seems that in order to make ourselves invulnerable, we must shed all the things that make us human. The well-being of a son or daughter, the flourishing of a marriage, the pleasure of friendship. That naturally makes us happy. And so, too, do children’s hardship, the failure of a marriage, and loss of friends make us unhappy. To become invulnerable to these losses, it seems we must forgo the benefits, too.
The stoic, in maintaining his own inner light, in tending his personal virtue, seems to lose a profound virtue, too. Let us call this the damage problem. Stoicism is ruinous of the goods we naturally take as comprising the good life. It’s a kind of scorched earth policy with life, in order to achieve invulnerability.
Put this way, it comes off like a form of philosophical reductionism, a way of breaking meaningful objects and experiences down into their constituent atoms until their value is essentially defined out of existence. I prefer the honest heartbreak of Issa and mono no aware.
Andrew Sullivan links to this for our consideration:
In authoring scripture, Origen argues, God has deliberately planted all sorts of interpretive obstacles: problems, difficulties, mistakes, morally objectionable stories, and so forth. These manifold obstacles lead us to press beneath the surface of the text and to search more deeply for its spiritual meaning. Such spiritual exegesis isn’t just a scholarly technique. It requires ascetic purification, the spiritual transformation of the reader. So the problems in scripture…are planted there by God to lead us into the depths of spiritual life, just as a wise teacher might plant mistakes in a class discussion in order to lead the class, gently and unobtrusively, towards the truth.
He doesn’t say whether he cites it approvingly, but knowing him, it’s probably a safe bet. So Origen anticipated the dinosaur-fossils-as-test-of-faith rationale that long ago, huh? That’s impressive. But I mostly enjoyed the use of the term “exegesis” in this context. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I think you mean a different word.
But how do we define a community? That question has been all too rarely asked in the debate about cultural diversity and community empowerment. In fact, much cultural policy as it has developed over the past two decades has come to embody a highly peculiar view of both diversity and community. There has been an unstated assumption that while Britain is a diverse society, that diversity ends at edges of minority communities. The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Behzti to Sikhs, or indeed that Jerry Springer: The Opera is offensive to Christians, suggests that there is a Muslim community, or a Sikh community or a Christian community all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community. All are viewed as uniform, conflict-free and defined primarily by ethnicity, culture and faith. As a Birmingham Council report acknowledged about the council’s own multicultural policies, ‘The perceived notion of homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs of views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.’ The city’s policies, in other words, did not simply respond to the needs of communities, but also to a large degree created those communities by imposing identities on people and by ignoring internal conflicts and differences. They empowered not individuals within minority communities, but so-called ‘community leaders’ who owed their position and influence largely to the relationship they possessed with the state.
…Thanks, however, to the perverse notion of diversity that has become entrenched, Shabbir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Bezhti protestors as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti. The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or Sikh and helps reinforce that stereotype. And it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.
Many cultural anthropologists believe that they have deep normative disagreements with Jared Diamond. In reality I think the chasm isn’t quite that large. But the repeated blows ups with Diamond gets to the reality that cultural anthropology has gone down an intellectual black hole, beyond the event horizon of comprehension, never to recover. It has embraced deconstruction, critique, complexity (or more accurately anti-reductionism) and relativism to such a great extent that whereas in many disciplines social dynamics and political power struggles are an unfortunate consequence of academic life, in cultural anthropology the fixation with power dynamics and structures has resulted in its own self-cannibalization, and overwhelming preoccupation with such issues. Everyone is vulnerable to the cannon blast of critique, and the only value left sacred are particular ends (social justice, defined by cultural anthropologists) and axioms (white males are oppressive patriarchs, though white male cultural anthropologists may have engaged in enough self interrogation to take upon themselves the mantle of fighting for the rights of the powerless [i.e., not white males]) which all can agree upon.
I’m put in mind of white male progressives using racial epithets to attack uppity black conservatives in the name of tolerance, or “mansplaining” the correct understanding of feminism to women who adorably insist on worrying their pretty little heads about big ideas. Their activism is, like Malik said, rooted in and reinforcing of stereotypes. Honestly, if you don’t allow the circular reasoning to make you dizzy, it’s hard to avoid concluding that a significant percentage of social justice warriors are in it for their own therapeutic reasons more than anything else.
None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we’d like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore. Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don’t stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on—be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.
Okay, the silver-tongued devil talked me into it. Here it is, as currently constituted, the alpha and omega, the first and last, the beginning and end of my “recently-read, currently-reading, still-yet-to-read” stack. The stars must have aligned just so for so many books from my wish list to become available all at once from my local library.
M.H. Forsyth investigates the origin of the British slang insult “div” and finds one suggestion from Urban Dictionary:
Derived from “individual needs child”, a cruel schoolyard insult. Not at all politically correct. Someone who’s “not quite normal”, an idiot, spaz, etc. …Then there was a writer in The Guardian in 1987 who said “I first started using the term ‘divvy’ some 20 years ago… When I was growing up in Liverpool in the 1960’s it was commonly assumed to be derived from the word ‘individual’”, which would seem to support the Urban Dictionary’s third attempt.
Which, I admit, made me laugh, recalling an earlier conversation we had here. And on that note, I will say to Noel that I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, and while much of it so far is indeed probably only of great interest to linguists, I found the section on linguistic determinism, starting on page 124 of my copy, to be pretty interesting (and relevant to the perennial issue of politically-motivated language policing).
The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.
No flowers to please—no bees to hum—
The coming spring’s already come.
I never want the Christmas rose
To come before its time;
The seasons, each as God bestows,
Are simple and sublime.
I love to see the snowstorm hing;
‘Tis but the winter garb of spring.
I never want the grass to bloom:
The snowstorm’s best in white.
I love to see the tempest come
And love its piercing light.
The dazzled eyes that love to cling
O’er snow-white meadows sees the spring.
I love the snow, the crumpling snow
That hangs on everything,
It covers everything below
Like white dove’s brooding wing,
A landscape to the aching sight,
A vast expanse of dazzling light.
It is the foliage of the woods
That winters bring—the dress,
White Easter of the year in bud,
That makes the winter Spring.
The frost and snow his posies bring,
Nature’s white spurts of the spring.
— John Clare
JC: When people write about situational depression, they tend to mean if you’re in a bad job or a bad relationship or unemployed, and yet you go further to, what is this system that we’re all living in that is causing an epidemic of depression and anxiety. And speaking of the despair of capitalism, I was last month forced to undergo an audit by two different agencies to prove my worth to the German government, so they could decide whether or not to renew my visa. And as a writer, having to prove my worth through a dollar (sorry — Euro) figure was utterly sick-making. What is the artist or writer to do to stave off depression in an age when a) you are expected to bring your whole self to the medium you work in, becoming a publicity-generating, socially accessible machine, and b) there is so much emphasis in our capitalist society on income? Both seem antithetical to the role of the artist.
AC: Well, you’ve just put your finger on one of the key arguments of my book, and it sounds like your own case history would be a good way to exemplify that argument! Indeed, there are so many aspects of ordinary life under capitalism, including both work life and personal life, that are depression inducing. This is not just true for artists, but for everyone trying to eke out not just a living wage but to do so via work that is creative and life-affirming. Capitalism sucks the life blood out of people in a range of class positions — high-flying professionals who are stressed out and over-worked, working class people who do society’s shit work, and, yes, the artists who are trying to figure out how to either live on less or turn their creative work into a revenue stream.
I realize that it’s unrealistic to think that sanghas will start Marxist study groups to actually try to understand capitalism, understand the misery and suffering that systemically result from capital, or to use his ideas on issues of identity, attachment, subjectivity, consciousness, materialism, alienation, and happiness to inspire alternative modes of living in the world. For those who are interested, the Dalai Lama’s half-Marxism seems like a good place to start, and if somebody finds his stance confusing or misguided, that seems like a good reason to take another look at Marx. But the charm of capital remains so great that I doubt Buddhists will be any less seduced by it than other groups.
…Buddhism and America should enter the movement of the real and be engaged with the struggle to end suffering, and man’s inhumanity to man. The movement of the real is emotionally tough, because its first move is to reveal error. But it also appears in the emerging sangha, an invisisble movement of unification that appears in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. In the decline of capital, the saving power of the collective might appear in new and unexpected forms. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real.
Reading both of these pieces actually reminded me of something I read by Stephen Kinzer a few years ago:
The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history – 10 times longer than the history of the United States – many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.
“Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country,” a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me. “It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months.”
A middle-aged man in Isfahan who sympathized with the post-election protests said he was glad they have ended. “They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail,” he reasoned. “What is the point of that?”
…In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. “In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy,” a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. “You cannot rush things. What is important is to live.”
I’m aware that most Westerners who fancy themselves to be politically sophisticated and aware would condemn such attitudes as quietist. But when I read excerpts like the ones above, I can’t help but laugh a little at the presumption, the firm conviction that, well, of course there must be an alternative economic system in which man’s inhumanity to man will be eradicated, or, less ambitiously, one where writers and other struggling artists will at least be guaranteed a comfortable existence in which to pursue their vision without being defined by their income! And if there isn’t one already, surely we can will one into existence! Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but I just wonder how much of that idealism is the product of our brief historical memory.
I love Dogen’s teachings. I am dedicated to zazen practice. I do my best to follow the Buddhist Precepts. I even like some of the ceremonies Zen Buddhists do and do them myself. I haven’t burnt my robes yet. Even when I said I was not a “member of clergy” it was because Zen Buddhist monks are not members of clergy — even those who think they are.
But Zen Buddhism as an organized religion holds no appeal to me. The organizations who claim to uphold the Zen Buddhist Way can be just as corrupt, hypocritical and ineffectual as any other religious institution out there.
There is a concern among some non-believers that atheism is developing into a religion in its own right, with its own code of ethics and self-appointed high priests.
Jones insists he is not trying to found a new religion, but some members of his congregation disagree.
“It will become an organised religion. It’s inevitable. A belief system will set in. There will be a structure, an ethical outlook on life,” says architect Robbie Harris.
He believes Evans and Jones have “a great responsibility” if the Sunday Assembly “continues to be as successful as it is now”.
George Carlin said that art, music and philosophy are merely poignant examples of what we might have been had not the priests and traders gotten hold of us. I would say that the priests and traders are the inevitable conclusion of art, music and philosophy, not the polar opposite. Spontaneous creativity will always become ritualized, dogmatized, branded and marketed by the power-hungry, at which point that spirit of spontaneous creativity will withdraw in order to emerge somewhere else. Circle of life, yo.