I’d Rather Be a Writer Like These Three
The Thirteenth Labor
An Intellectual Violence
This is why I say that they have retired the concept of hypocrisy. It goes far beyond double standards or duplicity or bad faith. There’s an aggression to it, a boldness, that dares people to bring up the bald and obvious fact that the person making the charge is herself a far worse perpetrator of the thing she is decrying. There’s an intellectual violence in it.
In a world in which the conservatives weren’t such post modern shape shifters, we could come to a consensus on certain issues in this country — like privacy, for instance. We could agree that it’s wrong for government employees to use private information for partisan purposes — or for the media, including bloggers, to stalk and publish private information of anyone who dares speak out for a political cause. But we don’t live in a world like that.
We live in a world where the right wing ruthlessly and without mercy degrades and attacks by any means necessary what they perceive as the enemy, and then uses the great principles of democracy and fair play when the same is done to them. They leave the rest of us standing on the sidelines looking like fools for ever caring about anything but winning.
It’s something I’ve been concerned with for a long time now myself. I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the most important issues of our age with regards to politics. Beyond all the minutiae and policy wonkishness, this theme is always there. What do you do, how do you proceed, when a very large percentage of people simply refuse to acknowledge a common reality? What does it mean when so many adults seem to reject the old truism about being entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts?
I’m certainly not a believer in what I think of as the “Golden Age” myth, where one imagines that things were better in some past Eden, whether the 1950s, pre-European-invasion America, or, if you’re an Earth First! type, the Stone Age. Even as far back as the ancient Greeks – the cradle of Western civilization! – they were complaining about how far they’d fallen since the good old days, and can you believe these damn kids today, and on and on. Ancient Chinese, same thing. It seems clear that what people are attracted to about the past is the fact that, well, it’s the past. We already know what happened. In the same way that a movie or book doesn’t have the same emotional impact the second time around, it’s easy to look back at a closed time period and imagine that the people living at the time had the benefit of your hindsight, that they were immune to the anxieties that accompany living in the moment.
And yet…I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon that Digby describes is, if not exactly new, at least a more brazen, or perhaps even more malignant form of an anti-intellectualism that has always been a part of our culture. The gleeful hatred of anything resembling cosmopolitanism or education beyond the three R’s, the fascist-like obsession with repeatedly creating the world anew in one’s own image through sheer force of will – has it always been there, and we’re just lucky enough because of our system of mass media to be aware of every lunatic with something to tell us?
Being a huge fan of Nietzsche’s writing, and being a pessimist by nature, I’ve always felt like I appreciated the importance of the irrational or deceptive aspects of human psychology more than most do. I don’t believe in any sort of progressive teleology when it comes to human society, and I would think Nazi Germany proved for once and all that there’s no reason why tendencies like this couldn’t at least temporarily take over.
2005 was a very strange year for me. In my personal life, a thirteen-year relationship was disintegrating thanks to my partner’s descent into a form of this same impulsive irrationalism, and when I’d go online to gain a temporary respite from that drama, I’d see the same thing on the macro level – right wing publishing houses like Regnery creating a whole series of books devoted to filtering the world through a lens of a sort of political Lamarckism. (If I had any writing talent, maybe there would be an interesting novel to be drawn from that experience.) In addition to that, though, I saw the other members of my family, who spent the Clinton years getting in touch with their inner Patrick Henry, turn into gung-ho apologists for Bush’s authoritarian, mega-government police state with absolutely nothing to indicate a battle with their conscience, let alone a sense of embarrassment or shame for their hypocrisy. It all deeply affected me in ways I still haven’t entirely come to grips with, hence my possible hypersensitivity to this topic.
No, Huxley, No
I saw Bill Maher discussing his new movie on the Daily Show last week, and this jumped out at me.
“I don’t say there is no God. I’m not an atheist, because I find atheism to be a mirror of the certainty of religion, and I don’t like certainty about the next world, ’cause we can’t know…”
I’m really, really tired of this kind of false equivalency.
Yes, in a very technical sense, we’re all agnostics, because we quite literally don’t know what happens after we die; we don’t know if there is some sort of deity waiting for us. Yet, David Hume proved a long time ago that we never have absolute certainty about anything, and we just have to live with that. In most cases, we do. No one absolutely knows if the sun will be on the eastern horizon tomorrow morning, but we’re all living as if it will, and no one is losing sleep over it. You don’t know for certain that this guy standing in front of you talking about his pet unicorn that only he can see doesn’t really have one, but no intelligent person would actually grant the possibility. We gather evidence to the best of our ability and pick the most likely choice, and quite obviously, not all choices are equally valid. Why, then, when it comes to the existence of God, the soul, or an afterlife, do people like Maher pull up short and act like it would be some sort of crime to do the same thing?
I can only guess that they’re still harboring a vestigial sense of awe, or even some residual fear, of the notoriously psychotic Christian God, who, as we all know, has no patience for anyone questioning him. But even if that’s not the case, this sort of subtle, self-congratulatory back-patting for being so reasonable and fair-minded is really irritating. How convenient that these kinds of people are levitating above it all on a lotus blossom of intellectual purity while all the benighted, dogmatic fanatics fight it out in the muck below. And speaking of elevating oneself, the whole “but doesn’t religion provide comfort?” trope that Stewart brought up earlier in the interview smacks of condescension. I noticed years ago while reading this book that every time religion had been challenged over the centuries, defenders of the status quo had usually said something to the effect of: Okay, sure, those of us gathered here, being sophisticated men of intelligence and education, can handle frank discussions of whether God exists or not, but if the masses were to have their faith taken away, why, the savage beasts would soon be raping, robbing and pillaging in a nihilistic fury, so we have to prosecute you for the good of society, sucks to be you. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in other words.
I bow to no one when it comes to my contempt and scorn for hoi polloi, the great unwashed, the hive mind, but I do at least start from the premise that they deserve to be treated as adults who know their own minds and thoughts, not feeble-minded children who need an encouraging muss of the hair and a condescending smile. Heated arguments are far better than patronizing coexistence, as far as I’m concerned. But to return to the original point: false comfort is no comfort at all. Let people have the dignity of being given all the information available and trusted to deal with it.
I call myself an atheist for practical reasons: as an American in the 21st century, talk about “God” is, in the vast majority of cases, centered around the Christian God, the personal, loving God who cares about you, your family and friends, and your favorite sports teams. Most people are not interested in an abstract intellectual version like what the Deists offered. So, with that in mind, I hope it doesn’t still require belaboring how the Enlightenment-era philosophers did a fine job in pointing out the ways in which it was impossible for any intellectually honest person to reconcile a loving God-the-Father with the endless misery suffered by the majority of people who had ever existed in the blood-soaked history of the human race. Schopenhauer catalogued the even more mind-numbing details of all the suffering of the animal kingdom. We’re all aware of this, yes?
But what about a soul or an afterlife? Sure, that’s believable. It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all to think that your thoughts and feelings somehow can exist in a disembodied state, independent of the sensory organs and brain that inform and process them, floating around in the ether for eternity, or until they inhabit another body like a virus. And never mind all the naysayers from Nagarjuna to Alan Watts who have pointed out that all the elements that make you “you” were around before you existed, from the atoms of your physical body, to the language you use to form and express your thoughts, to the air, food and water you need to sustain your existence, and they will all be there after you’re gone, when your physical body has dissolved into the soil or into a pile of ash, and your thoughts and actions exist only in the memories of those who knew you.
There is nothing to suggest the existence of any of those things besides the burning desire of believers to want them to exist, but, you know, the universe doesn’t need our permission to be the way it is, sorry to break it to you. That’s why I feel confident enough to call myself an atheist – whatever mysteries remain to be discovered about the universe, I’m willing to bet (to bet my eternal life, in fact), that none of them are going to point towards the existence of a bipolar deity waiting to judge us based on what we’ve been doing with our genitalia. I don’t claim to have absolute knowledge; I just say that all the available evidence points in that direction. Claiming that all this puts me on the same level as a snake-handling fundamentalist is semantic bullshit.
Lowbrow, but I rock a little know-how
— Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs of eyes and hands – a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” – Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.
From Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason:
Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth century lyceum movement – when no one thought of culture in terms of “brows” – and extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was at heart a culture of aspiration. Its aim was not so much to vanquish the culture of the gutter, although that was part of the idea, as to offer a portal to something more elevated.
…We did indeed, as (Virginia) Woolf observed disgustedly, have “pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters” on our walls; my mother’s taste ran to Van Gogh, Renoir, and Degas, I can still see the Degas ballerinas who adorned my bedroom walls, and it would not surprise me if that early exposure to middlebrow reproductions had something to do with a passion for art that did not emerge until my mid-twenties.
…The distinctive feature of American middlebrow culture was its embodiment of the old civic credo that anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself. Many uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants, cherished middlebrow values: the millions of sets of encyclopedias sold door to door from the twenties through the fifties were often purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing. Remnants of earnest middlebrow striving survive today among various immigrant groups, but the larger edifice of middlebrow culture, which once encompassed Americans of many social classes as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds, has collapsed. The disintegration and denigration of the middlebrow are closely linked to the political and class polarization that distinguishes the current wave of anti-intellectualism from the popular suspicion of highbrows and eggheads that has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been a part of the American psyche. What has been lost is an alternative to mass popular culture, imbibed unconsciously and effortlessly through the audio and video portals that surround us all. What has been lost is the culture of effort.
…I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude and regret rather than condescension not because the Book-of-the-Month club brought works of genius into my life but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers were one of the many sources that encouraged me to seek a wider world. In our current infotainment culture, in which every consumer’s opinion is supposed to be as good as any critic’s, it is absurd to imagine that a large commercial entity would attempt to use an objective concept of greatness as a selling point for anything. That people should aspire to read and think about great books, or even aspire to being thought of as the sort of person who reads great books, is not a bad thing for a society.
This is one of those rare, but always welcome, times when I find a swirling mass of inchoate thoughts in my own head suddenly expressed clearly and concisely by another writer.
I was busy entertaining dreams of a career in music in my late teens and early twenties, and despite the urgings of my parents, chose to spend my time and energy focusing on that in lieu of a college education (leaving aside a handful of courses at a community college mainly taken just for fun). Yet I had always been bookish and introspective from childhood, and a genuine interest in ideas for their own sake and a curiosity about the wider world was always part of me. Thus, the type of earnest, autodidactic striving Jacoby describes turned out to be my means of entry into a (more or less) intellectual life.
Serendipitously, it was one of those community college courses, Philosophy 101, that really set my mind on fire and gave me a serious passion for knowledge, and, perhaps more importantly, an inkling that there might actually be answers to the big questions that had always seemed too imposing and forbidding to approach before. Reading along with some of the greatest minds in history as they grappled with those questions, thrilling to each insight gained, seeing entirely new ways of looking at the world open up before my eyes – I’ll never forget how exhilarating that all was.
It was right about that same time that my passion for music was in full bloom as well, and, having been pretty introverted and distant from most of my peers, I was a relatively late arrival on the rock music scene. Having spent most of my childhood and adolescence listening to whatever my parents were listening to – oldies, light jazz, soul and pop – my exposure to rock and heavy metal was no less of a revelatory, earthshaking experience than philosophy would be a couple years later. Again, there was the feeling of being awestruck, just rapturously taking in this entire new universe that had somehow existed outside of my awareness.
Of course, much of that music and lots of those books seem silly to me now, almost two decades later. But, like Jacoby, I’ll always feel grateful and affectionate for them because they pointed the way towards more timeless works. Hearing a rock musician favorably refer to a classical composer or classic author meant more to me than hearing it from the expected authority figures – parents, teachers, etc. I suspect she might be more inclined to lump popular music in with “mass popular culture” than with middlebrow culture, but at any rate, that was the path I took.
I do understand what she means when she complains of the lack of an alternative to that popular culture, though. Personally speaking, I know far too many people who are intelligent enough, as far as that goes, but who nonetheless have zero interest in reading for pleasure, in being exposed to new ways of thinking, in just simply challenging themselves. Work at a meaningless job they hate and vegetate in front of the tv afterward. Gossip and drink. As much as it’s helped keep me from being “successful”, I’m glad I was questioning that way of living before I was even able to grow facial hair.
Ultimately, my own experience has led me to think that art is a two-way street; you can’t really say how a given piece is going to affect a reader or listener due to their own background and preconceptions. I think the border between the browlands is much more porous than people think, and as such, I feel less inclined to condemn and judge anything done from the heart, so to speak, as if all these false prophets are going to lead naive beginners astray if they’re not firmly put in their place.
A new survey of the USA’s religious beliefs and practices finds 55% of all adults — including one in five of those who say they have no religion — believe they have been protected from harm by a guardian angel.
I believe it was the philosopher George Carlin who said:
What is all this nonsense about angels? Do you realize three out of four Americans now believe in angels? What are they, fuckin’ stupid? Has everybody lost their goddamn minds? Angels, my ass! You know what I think it is? I think it’s a massive, collective chemical flashback from all the drugs smoked, swallowed, snorted and shot up by all Americans from 1960 to 2000. Forty years of unadulterated street drugs will get you some fuckin’ angels, my friend! Angels, shit. What about goblins? Doesn’t anybody believe in goblins? And zombies, where the fuck are all the zombies? I say if you’re gonna buy that angel bullshit, you might as well go for the goblin/zombie package as well.
I have an idea for a tv show, starring myself. A godless materialist will go around confronting people about their religious/spiritual beliefs, mercilessly skewering the narcissistic delusions and metaphysical absurdities that underlie them, teaching them to courageously confront life as it is while still deriving meaning and purpose from it. I’m thinking about calling it Touched by an A-hole.
This is a few weeks old, but I’m lazy, so I’m just getting around to commenting on it.
“Mrs. Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”
I know it’s a fait accompli, but I’ve always been annoyed at the way both Republicans and Democrats try to pretend that Jesus would be voting their way if he were around today. I’m not a fan of arguments from authority in any event, especially when the authority in question is the equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. Quelle surprise! These people don’t seem to be too impressed with all that turn-the-other-cheek stuff! And oh my stars and garters, popular conceptions of him have changed repeatedly to reflect contemporary hopes and fears!
I know, I know: the Beatitudes! Rich man, camel, eye of a needle! How can you deny that he was the ur-Marx, the original righteous dudemeister who just wanted us all to hold hands and sing? I’ve heard all that, but there’s a few others that don’t seem to get the same attention, for some strange reason:
Mark 16:16 – Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
2 Corinthians 6:14 – Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
Mark 3:29 – But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.
Matthew 12:30 – He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
Matthew 10:33 – But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
Matthew 10:34 – Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Luke 14:26 – If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
Dude, you’re harshing my mellow! And that’s the stuff that made the final cut; some parts that ended up on the cutting room floor make him look even worse. In the non-canonical Apocalypse of Peter, he takes Pete on a guided tour, Dante-style, of heaven and hell, where he shows him the torments awaiting sinners, such as:
Children who disobeyed their parents being torn apart by savage birds of prey
Slaves who disobeyed their masters being forced to gnaw their own tongues
Blasphemers being hung by their tongues
Rich people being tossed onto a “razor-sharp” pillar of fire
Women who braided their hair to look attractive to men being hung by it
Men who were attracted to it being hung by their genitals
I’m always amused by the way people quote passages verbatim when they agree with the supposed message, but when passages like those above seem to be out of harmony with the overarching theme, we have to interpret them symbolically or figuratively until we make them mean what we want them to mean. Funny how that works.
Anyway, leaving aside all the problems with ancient texts that have been misinterpreted both accidentally and willfully over the course of two millennia, and leaving aside the fact that the Gospels were intended as propaganda, not a detached, neutral, objective, factual description of historical events so that people twenty centuries later would know exactly who said what and why, it seems clear that if – and I am saying if – Jesus actually existed, he was an apocalypticist who really, truly, literally expected the world to end any minute.
Mark 9:1 – And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Mark 13:30 – I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Mark 14:62 – “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Suddenly his exhortations to give no thought to the morrow make sense; passages like Luke 14:26 seem to portray the mentality of a typical cult leader. He wasn’t trying to create a blueprint for a peaceful, tolerant society for future generations to enjoy; he didn’t think there would be any future generations. Maybe the people who best represent his message today are the guys walking around with sandwich boards telling you to repent.
No, Rousseau, No
A friend loaned me the movie Into the Wild recently. I found it to be trite, typical romanticist nature worship, with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist – a spoiled college kid who thinks his parents are just, like, so shallow and materialistic, man, so he runs off on a two-year journey to the Alaskan wilderness where he starves to death, but not before arriving at the stunning conclusion that there’s nothing particularly moral or impressive about living a narcissistic life removed from all human contact. Most of us manage to figure that out without leaving our family to agonize for years over our well-being, until they finally get news of the discovery of our corpse, but apparently I was supposed to be impressed by his determination to find authenticity. I was more struck by the way he didn’t bother to tell his younger, adoring sister goodbye, nor contact her during his absence. In fact, several wiser people throughout the film attempt to make themselves available to him, but his head is too full of idealistic clichés (and too far up his own ass) to take notice.
In light of the fact that the above review is so inexplicably positive, I thought I’d dig up one written more than a hundred years before McCandless ever picked up a Jack London novel, but which nonetheless is far more penetrating:
You want to live “according to nature”? Oh you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life”—how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?— In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose and incorporate your morality, your ideal onto nature, even onto nature, you demand that it be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image—as an immense eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism!
The Very Base String of Humility
Today marks the day that I am the exact same age that Mozart was when he died.
So, I have until tonight to write 41 symphonies and a few hundred sonatas, concertos, operas, arias and overtures, or I have to conclude that my life has been a wretched failure.