This transcript of a talk by Wilfred McClay on Michael Oakeshott’s place in the history of modern conservatism, and this essay by Fred Sanders on the importance of the medium and the message in Calvin and Hobbes (and what that means for evangelicals, but I skipped over that part), are two things that I found well worth reading this week, though I don’t really have anything to add to them. Perhaps you might also find them worth your time.
calvin and hobbes
Despite this burgeoning population, deer remain elusive creatures, and seeing one is always a bit magical, like an encounter with a creature from another age. Menaces to the environment though they may be, they are beautiful to the eye and seem to walk in a kind of enchanted air, in a world very much their own, to which we can have no access.
Ah, I used to be romantic like that. My adolescent sympathies lay with the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. Years of nighttime driving in my old job turned me more into Louis C.K., though:
The vigorous exhortation to “play” now haunts every corner of our culture. Typically issued as an imperative along with words like breathe and meditate and dance and celebrate, the word play, in its catchall generic form, has a curious way of repelling the senses, conjuring as it does all manner of mandatory frivolity, most of it horribly twee and doggedly futile. Yet Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural theorist who tirelessly examined “the play element in culture,” asserted that the one defining feature of play is that it’s voluntary. “Play to order is no longer play,” he declared flatly. “It could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”
…A second-order definition of play, Huizinga notes, is its close correspondence to the serious adult activities of work. “Play must serve something which is not play,” he observes—which is why so many children’s pastimes openly mimic adult pursuits, from the near-universal rituals of doll nurture to games that reenact the aims and provisional alliances of war-making.
But in a consumer culture committed to prolonging adolescence at all costs, the boundaries demarcating child and adult experience have blurred to the point that it’s no longer obvious just who is imitating whom. The American state of play is terminally confused. Much of it feels grimly compulsory, and carries with it a whiff of preemptive failure to achieve the target level of revelry.
The results of the study: introspection is not reliable. When we soul-search, we contrive the findings.
The belief that reflection leads to truth or accuracy is called the introspection illusion. This is more than sophistry. Because we are so confident of our beliefs, we experience three reactions when someone fails to share our views. Response 1: Assumption of ignorance. The other party clearly lacks the necessary information. If he knew what you knew, he would be of the same opinion. Reaction 2: Assumption of idiocy. The other person has the necessary information, but his mind is underdeveloped. He cannot draw the obvious conclusions. In other words, he’s a moron. Response 3: Assumption of malice. Your counterpart has the necessary information — he even understands the debate — but he is deliberately confrontational. He has evil intentions. This is how many religious leaders and followers treat disbelievers: if they don’t agree, they must be servants of the devil!
In conclusion: nothing is more convincing than your own beliefs. We believe that introspection unearths genuine self-knowledge. Unfortunately, introspection is, in large part, fabrication posing two dangers: first, the introspection illusion creates inaccurate predictions of future mental states. Trust your internal observations too much and for too long, and you might be in for a very rude awakening. Second, we believe that our introspections are more reliable than those of others, which creates an illusion of superiority. Remedy: be all the more critical with yourself. Regard your internal observations with the same scepticism as claims from some random person. Become your own toughest critic.
Tallis says that humans are special and not just animals. A lot of weight is put in that four letter word “just”. What can he mean? Are humans special and thus apart from animals? The evolutionary view of human capacities is that they have precursors in ancestral traits, and these precursors can be found in other animals. Dogs, corvids, cetaceans, primates, and a host of other animals display moral, cognitive and conscious behaviour. Humans are special indeed in their capacities. But, and this is what what Tallis overlooks, so are all other animals. The word “special” is merely the adjectival form of “species”. To be a species is to be special. Sure, humans are special in their own way. So is a cat, a mole or a mouse. If the target of your explanation was a mouse, then you would explain it having its abilities and social behaviours in terms of evolved dispositions inherited from ancestors. You may as well say a mouse is special in ways other animals (including humans) are not. Otherwise we couldn’t even tell it was a member of a species, by definition. Unless there are properties that mark it out from other species, it would be folded into other species.
So too with humans. If we were not different in our traits from other primate species like chimps, then we would be chimps. But we have our own special traits, and so we and chimps are distinct species. So the argument is a kind of fallacy (affirming the consequent). Humans can be special and yet be animals, just like every other animal species.
My friend cut to the chase. “You’re not famous enough to be reclusive,” he said. “Actually, you’re not famous at all. Maybe you’ll get some traction after you’re dead?”
Apart from the obvious — i.e., there’s always death and the possibility of posthumous resurrection — my wise friend might also be right that a person might need a certain amount of celebrity in order to be known for having disappeared. And to my discredit, deep down, I admit this is pretty attractive. I want to retreat from the world and think and write in solitude. At the same time I wouldn’t mind a few readers knowing I’m out here being all mysterious.
Orner? Wait, didn’t he kick for the Vikings? No, no I’m talking about the writer, you know the dude that vanished…
A genuine recluse, of course, wouldn’t give a damn.
Yeah, genuine reclusiveness never looks back over its shoulder. John Lennon said life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans; well, reclusiveness is what happens when you’re too absorbed in your life’s work to look up and take notice of the reaction it’s getting from others.
Then again, Mr. Magoo might be a recluse by this definition.
The point is this! — all you can do is give yourself completely to your writing, and whatever happens, happens. Liu Xiaobo’s wife had the right of it: are you truly incompatible enough to be invisible, or are you simply being coy and playing hard-to-get in the hope of greater reward? The online world especially, lending itself so readily to pantomime performance in lieu of substance, is full of people who want to loudly and visibly separate themselves from the group while being recognized and praised by the group for their independence. I would think such conflicted coquettishness would only detract from a serious writing practice.
With an increasing number of options in almost every aspect of life, we presume that our results in each of those areas should be getting better and better, because with each new possibility it becomes more likely that one of them suits us perfectly. Our expectations for perfection and total satisfaction are too high.
As freedom of choice grows, the perfect career, the perfect partner, the perfect schedule or the perfect salad dressing seem more likely to happen. Perhaps they are, but psychologically we’re less likely to be pleased with whatever we do choose, because our satisfaction with what we have shrinks as the number of things we don’t have — or could have — grows.
…The options at mealtime are a microcosm of the lifestyle options available to the ordinary, free Western citizen. We have never been freer to live how we want to live, which is wonderful and empowering but simultaneously taxing and intimidating. I want to take advantage of the freedoms provided by the incredible time we live in without getting paralyzed by too many options and endless unmade decisions.
Speaking of food, it was in his kitchen that Mark Sandman devised the minimalist aesthetic he later made famous in Morphine’s music:
These were simple, common-sense ideas. And Mark liked simple. He once told me that if people really wanted to know about his musical aesthetic, they’d be better off asking him about his cooking techniques. “I’ve applied a lot of that to my music. For example, for years I made myself a red sauce for pasta with oregano, some thyme, some basil, black pepper, salt, some of this, some of that. I thought that’s how you were supposed to make it. Then one day I didn’t put anything in. I just forgot. And it was the best sauce I ever made. That moment right there taught me a lot.”
I agree philosophically, but that’s probably because I’m congenitally disposed toward simplicity anyway. My mental switchboard gets overloaded too quickly for me to indulge in endless customization.
You can think of Wizpert as an IT help desk for life. The company recruits knowledgeable bloggers, which it calls “Wizperts,” across topics like exercise, health/wellness, and parenting. Advice seekers can connect to Wizperts via their blogs or the service’s website, and most importantly, they can begin a conservation within seconds…Wizpert is a win-win for experts and advice-seekers alike. Bloggers will be able to monetize by offering advice in their free time (Wizpert takes a 25 percent cut), and consumers will be able to instantly get the help they need from approved experts.
Well, I’m not sure about knowledgeable, because they actually sent me an invitation to join. I declined, of course — it wrenches my conscience enough as it is to inflict my thoughts on you all for free; I can’t imagine charging anyone money for the privilege. My girlfriend said this could be the big break I need toward my dream of becoming a cult leader, but I guess I have to face up to the fact that I just don’t have enough ambition for that after all.
For Joel Schroeder, the director of the documentary ”Dear Mr. Watterson” (which will be screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April), the decision not to contact Watterson was fairly clear from the days of pre-production. After reading Martell’s book in 2009, the choice became even more obvious — respect Watterson’s privacy. Don’t even try to reach out.
“Our choice not to pursue Watterson for an interview was the right fit for our film,” said Schroeder. “When we went to Chagrin Falls, for example, we did not pursue interviews with his parents, we did not drive past his parent’s house. It was a hands-off approach. And the reason was to try to be clear and communicate that [Dear Mr. Watterson] is not about the sensational idea of trying to track him down. It is really about the impact he had through his comic strip.”
That might be worth watching. I’ve always said that reading Calvin and Hobbes was one of the formative experiences of my life, but I’ve been equally impressed since then by the strength of Watterson’s reclusive conviction. Not that I’m producing anything of remotely comparable quality here, of course, but I can certainly relate to his need to ground his work in a humdrum, prosaic lifestyle:
“As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 2012 compilation of all his work weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”
It is still worth distinguishing between the slacker, of any description, and the idler. Slacking lacks a commitment to an alternative scale of value. By contrast, the genius of the genuine idler, whether as described by Diogenes or Jerome K. Jerome, is that he or she is not interested in work at all, but instead devoted to something else. What that something else involves is actually less important than the structural defection from the values of working. In other words, idling might involve lots of activity, even what appears to be effort; but the essential difference is that the idler does whatever he or she does in a spirit of infinite and cheerful uselessness that is found in all forms of play.
Idling at once poses a challenge to the reductive, utilitarian norms that otherwise govern too much of human activity and provides an answer—or at least the beginning of one—to the question of life’s true purpose. It is not too much to suggest that being idle, in the sense of enjoying one’s open-ended time without thought of any specific purpose or end, is the highest form of human existence. This is, to use Aristotelian language, the part of ourselves that is closest to the divine, and thus offers a glimpse of immortality. To be sure, from this Olympian vantage we may spy new purposes and projects to pursue in our more workaday lives; but the value of these projects, and the higher value from which these are judged, can be felt only when we slip the bonds of use.
And thus the same old urge to strive after status and accomplishment reasserts itself. You see, I’m not merely lazy or unproductive, I’m an authentic genius who has realized the true purpose of life, scaled the Olympian heights in order to take in the breathtaking sight of human existence from its proper perspective. This is the sort of thing that drove Lao-tzu to the city gates, muttering to himself with his eyes on the mountains ahead.
I don’t fundamentally disagree with anything he says here, of course. But when he takes such care to distinguish slacking from idling as if the former is merely the right action done for the wrong reason, it makes me just a bit leery. That way lies respectability and productivity. If you want to dissent from society’s view on the value of labor, you have to accept the scorn and disregard that come with it.
Veblen, after his fashion a sharp critic of capitalism but always more cynical than the socialist dreamers, demonstrated how minute divisions of leisure time could be used to demonstrate social superiority, no matter what the form or principle of social organization; but he was no more able than Marx to see how ingenious capitalist market forces could be in adapting to changing political environments. For instance, neither of them sensed what we now know all too well, namely that democratizing access to leisure would not change the essential problems of distributive justice. Being freed from drudgery only so that one may shop or be entertained by movies and sports, especially if this merely perpetuates the larger cycles of production and consumption, is hardly liberation. In fact, “leisure time” becomes here a version of the company store, where your hard-won scrip is forcibly swapped for the very things you are working to make.