growing old absurd

today I started to read, for the first time … just a few days short of my 71st birthday … Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd. My immediate reaction was … or you poor naive romantic. But I realized that my comment was directed to my younger self and not to the author.

I don’t, yet, understand the thread of Goodman’s argument but I think I’ll spend the next few weeks trying to follow it. And I suspect that in the process I’ll find a clue to what happened between 1959 and 1980 — when dusk fell on [the United States of] America.

hate, anger, and fear

… And today abideth faith, hope charity …
2 Corinthians 13.13 (KJV)

That may have seemed true to Saul/Paul in the first century of the common era, but a post-Christian sees more clearly. During the past 2000 years—and most particularly today—what has prevailed and prevails still are hate, anger, and fear … and the greatest of these is fear.

In my lifetime I have seen the return—though still I hope not the triumph—of fear itself.

As the Heart Sutra puts it, a person can yet learn to …

… live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears …

It is only human-all-too-human to hold tight to our fears and be loathe to let go of them. (This and other fatuous comments are gratis.) The principal obstacle to charity—agápē (ἀγάπη), caritas, love)—is fear, which leads to anger, which leads to hate.

Oddly enough this thought was precipitated—as salt crystals are in an over-saturated solution—by the banking crisis of March 2023 and the absolute refusal of those who ought and do know better to, as Leopardi said, call things by their proper names.

the ambiguous city

Towards the end of his book All that is solid melts into air, Marshall Berman takes issue with the view that graffiti has ‘defaced’ a public sculpture by Richard Serra, TWU (referring to the Transit Workers’ Union), in New York City. He writes: “… all that the city has added to TWU has brought out its special depths”. It took me a while to work out what ‘the city’ referred to. It seemed ambiguous, but it also reminded me of Charles Williams’ references to ‘the city’ in his study of Dante, The Figure of Beatrice, and his novel All Hallows Eve.

Does ‘the city’ refer to the city-corporation or the city as the collection of all the people who ‘make up’ (another ambiguous term) the city? In Spanish these people might be referred to as toda la ciudad—which in English might be translated simply as ‘everyone in the city’. But who are they? It’s a good question: Who are the people who make up the city? Everyone who resides in the city? Everyone who is present in the city on any given day including transient visitors? Those people who identify themselves with the city and the city with themselves—Donne’s people who see themselves as a part of the city and, therefore, the city as a part of themselves.

Both of the indefinite articles in that last sentence are important. That people are ‘a part of the city’ seems obvious—even in a naïve or literal sense: people, as individuals, are ‘a’ part of the city because many, many other people also inhabit the city. But how can ‘the city’ be ‘a part of the individual’? Why isn’t it sufficient to say simply ‘the city is part of the individual’? Grammatically, that would be sufficient, and the indefinite article is not needed. But the presence of the indefinite article explicitly recognizes that the individual is more than just an extension—a digit, a limb, an instrument—of the city. This is where the soviet-communist view of the relationship between the state and the citizen went disastrously and tragically wrong—as dramatically illustrated by the HBO series Chernobyl. But the disaster there was not the failure of an ideal. It was the failure of the state and those responsible for governing the state to live up to that ideal—which was the tragedy.

People fail their ideals, but the ideals survive that failure. It is the ideal to which ‘the city’ refers—whether in Berman’s or William’s very different but very much related uses of the phrase.

My puzzlement at what seemed to be an ambiguity in Berman’s simple phrase ‘the city’ turns out to reflect pervasive tensions—which are psychological (within the individuals who make up the city) and political (between the individual and the community), and conceptual (the terms in which these questions play out). These tensions—conflicts, contradictions, antinomies—go to the very heart of the way ‘we’ think about the ‘self’ and what it means to be ‘an individual’.

going too far

British GDP Per Capita 1501 to 1999Would it be going too far to attribute the explosive growth of the Global Domestic Product from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries to three extractive processes: the extraction of silver and gold from Central and South America; the extraction of coal from England and Europe; and the extraction of black people from Africa? Or to put this in other terms: money, energy, and labor.

Did the rise of markets, capital, trade, private property, and the rule of law contribute to the growth in the ‘world’ economy after 1500? Yes, certainly. But their contribution rested on the extraction of gold and silver, coal, and people. Would the transformation of markets, capital, trade, private property, and the rule of law have occurred in the absence of what might be called ‘the extractive economy’? It’s an unanswerable question. They are two sides of the same coin.

There were other extractions. The mass of the people living in western Europe were extracted from their traditional livelihoods, homes, and ways of life. They were either concentrated in the industrial slums of the cities or transported to the empty—or rather emptied—lands of the New World. That was another extraction: the extraction of the land of the ‘Americas’ from their long-standing occupants—and its conversion into property. Life, liberty, and property, Locke said, not adding the important caveat for some.

More than people and things were extracted. Ethical or moral values were extracted from the myths of Fall and Redemption, Salvation and Damnation that had supplied the ‘moral compass’ of not-yet-Europeans for more than a millennium. That ethos was converted into a utilitarian ethic reliant on a narrow concept of self-interest—ultimately christened ‘the virtue of selfishness’. The quest for meaning was extracted from the romances of the Middle Ages—Yvain, Parzifal, Le Morte d’Arthur, Tristan, Orlando Furioso—and distilled down into the quest for wealth and power as ends in themselves. Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, and Perceval—questing for love, honor, glory, and salvation—were transformed into entrepreneurs questing after profit. The spell cast by romance of chivalry needed to be broken (¡gracias! Cervantes) but lost in that disenchantment was the sense—the belief, the conviction—that an individual’s actions have a meaning beyond themselves.

So, would it be going too far? Sometimes it’s worth going too far. Sometimes it’s necessary. And sometimes going too far is not going far enough.

the obscure object of hostility

What is all the hostility on the right—the anti-communists, the right-libertarians, the paleo-conservatives, the reactionaries, the ur-individualists, the anti-collectivists, the anti-woke-ists—directed against? It seems to be directed against the idea that there is anyone or anything outside the individual himself (or herself¹) that needs to be considered as more than an opponent, an enemy, a danger. That everything other than the individual himself (or herself) exists solely to benefit … me. It/they only exist in me. It/they are merely a projection from me. It/they are a part of me; I am not a part of them; I exist only apart from them. And should I come to see that I am a part of them, it is the end of me: I cease to exist. This is solipsism. It is the ethical and political theory of idiots (in the Greek sense of ἰδιώτης). Synecdoche standing on its head and running amok.

My problem with this view is that my end is to be—merely?—a part of the whole. “A piece of the continent” Donne said. And neither the piece nor the continent can exist apart from the other.

¹ there have been and are plenty of women in this camp—Maggie Thatcher not least among them.

lived life

A recent book on the ‘neuro-science’ of grief promises its readers “an understanding of the changeable and unpredictable nature of grief” — because, apparently, without PET scans and a ‘modern’ understanding of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology and neuropsychology that ‘changeable and unpredictable’ course of grief would not be ‘knowable’. The questions are legion. Knowable to whom? In what sense? What is understanding? Are these sensible questions? Or as Evan Connell put it: quem colorem habent sapientiae?

For many people, including myself, ‘traditional’ religions are of no help—and ‘science’ offers empty promises. Is there an alternative? Yes, but as Dante put it almost exactly 700 years ago in words that have a different meaning in our world than his: lasciate ogne Speranza, voi che’intrate. Give up hope because your task is to see what is, not what you hope to see, or what you want to have been.

When I grieve the absence of people who are dead—Arne, Grace, Ramon and others whose names I cannot immediately recall—I do and will grieve the loss of the person who was and what we had between us—in all of its horror and tedium and fun—but not the ‘loss’ of something I imagine but which never was.

And the knowledge of the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of how that ‘knowledge’ lingers in my brain changes not a single thing. Fascinating though it may be on other counts.

i can’t remember exactly …

… the day the music died—but it has haunted me for my entire life. For those of us who made the transit from childhood to adulthood in the Seventies that date was not in 1959. Until I met and fell in love with my husband, my hopes for my life also died— without my knowing it—sometime ’round about the Detroit riots in 1967, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the 1968 DNC protests in Chicago while the Democratic National Convention obliviously ceded the election of 1968 to Richard Nixon, and … well, I know it was in the Seventies. And I believe it was during the week I was ‘awarded’—like a good behavior prize—my M.H.S.A. from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

What has haunted me is the belief — no, the knowledge — that I did not do enough during the next half century to realize the progress toward a more perfect union promised by the Fifties and the Sixties. Settling instead for a few anthems commodified by what are now Warner, Universal, and Sony and a retirement funded by arbitraging the promises of the Sixties.

news as a duty

Watching the evening news has become a chore … or what is generally called a duty. Neil Postman, in 1985, described in detail how the news ‘industry’ had been captured by the ‘entertainment’ industry. Watching the evening news on NBC and MSNBC almost 30 years later provides hours of evidence, every night, that Postman was correct. From the sofa of someone who watches: the nightly entertainment has become “flat, stale, and unamusing” (John 14:16). I now watch the news in part to learn what has happened in the world today, but mostly to learn is how ‘the arbiters of culture’ are describing what is going on in the world. They are merely chasing ratings. Not trying to inform or educate. Only trying to start or catch whatever is “trending”. The news is now just a way of wasting time—for we have forgotten Thoreau’s warning that you cannot kill time without injuring eternity.

the end of private life

Watching the endless coverage of the 2020 election. During an interview with the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, the AG’s teenage son wandered into the frame, looking down at his phone. Then, realizing his dad was doing a Zoom/Skype/Whatever interview on the TV, quickly backed out of the room. There is no longer a separation between public life and private life. We’re back to the Year Zero. (For context see:  Ariès, Duby, and Veyne, A History of Private Life, Volume I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium.)