Thursday, July 16, 2015

The New Gordian Knot

The rhetoric of morality has been tying us in knots of late, although perhaps people do not notice the dilemma. Think of the way in which specific issues keep getting framed as advancing the goals of equality, acceptance and liberation from social intolerance, while attitudes that appear to run counter to or present as openly resistant to this paradigm of inclusivity are deemed unacceptable. While the old world made its peace with social hierarchies, class divisions and serious inequities caused by accidents of background, orientation and epidermal pallor, the new world has no room for such snobbery. Harboring such prejudices nowadays usually places one (typically an aging stick-in-the-mud) on the wrong side of history. Thus we demand for ourselves - at least rhetorically - a utopia that our progenitors never thought possible...The goal sounds great and is quite simple in fact: it requires that we not categorize or stereotype other people in a way that harms or marginalizes them. Simple - right? Everyone is "equal" and should be viewed as such. Do people have preferences in terms of friends, companions, loved ones? - most definitely - but no one is technically any better than anyone else nor should be viewed as such - in a social manner or before the law. I hope this is a somewhat accurate depiction of the dominant zeitgeist. And yet this cultural shift calls for not a little bit of soul-searching or closet-cleaning - as it were, to the extent that it requires each and every individual living in the present "heartless, cut-throat, take-no-prisoners, dog-eat-dog" world out there to ask: do I truly consider everyone my equal - both "before the law" and "socially" - i.e. according to all the agreed-upon cultural norms and litmus tests?  If in theory - rhetorically that is - all systems are go - as far as granting one's neighbor the same rights and courtesies, the same basic dignity, the same respect, what explains the strange need for enmity, hostility, antagonism  - that animates so many? Why the need for enemies and adversaries? Paradoxically, it seems, the more we attempt to free ourselves from outmoded prejudices, antiquated thought patterns, and backward modes of behavior where unjust social hierarchies and fatuous notions of "supremacy" and "superiority" are concerned, which is to say, the more our egalitarian sentiments and equal-justice-for-all demands come to permeate the modern discourse of "right and wrong," the more perhaps we find ourselves called upon to actively suppress all hint of aristocratic bias - in the form of uppity, conceited, patronizing, snobbish, supremacist, reactionary, exclusionist or otherwise aggressively tribalistic or class-conscious notions of "I'm so sorry my poor fellows, but, we're above you on the ladder of success because we have such and such and you don't..." - feelings that (as some have noticed) do not simply vanish into thin air after we have declared them verboten. To say it another way, very concisely, and in a manner too obvious for today's media to properly digest: while paying lip service to "fairness" and "equality," people do not simply aspire to be the mere "equal" of anyone else, nor do they view themselves as "identical to" or "interchangeable with" their fellow citizens. Is it going too far to admit that some people even want to stand out from their peers just a little, want to feel themselves (dare I say it?) exceptional, outstanding, superior, top-notch in some respect? Does not the entire system of capitalism run on such agonistic, competitive juices? If  it is really true, as Descartes taught us long ago, that the "ego cogito" views itself as no less "sensible" or well-deserving than any other thinking subject, the converse also applies, namely that every restlessly aspiring ego paradoxically by the same token considers itself  "special" in some respect - blessed by its own inimitable, individual stamp. What some have dubbed the incommensurability issue - the fact that no one else can be identical to "me" in my present position with all of its advantages and challenges - represents the other side of the coin. And, as should go without saying, more than a few folks out there (secretly) enjoy a pretext upon with which they might feel some legitimate advantage over another group or individual. (Even though this  be cause for guilt or at least a certain ambivalence in some liberal quarters....) Consider the pride that people take with regard to their exquisite health or their outstanding beauty for example. Consider how external fashion separates one person from another on a scale of merit. Consider how elite educations are still prized for helping to (presumably) identify top scholars and future achievers (?). Consider how proper hygiene is too often mistaken for virtue. Consider how money and property, salary and bank account, still are used to divide us from them. And while we're on the topic, what about the wretched unfairness associated with gold-thumbed financial prowess and good business sense - the talent for making-money - so unevenly distributed - and yet so celebrated by the victors. Granted, there are many pointless and destructive comparisons that people make with one another; there are many unhealthy and uncivil ways in which they relentlessly attempt to gain a "competitive edge" - but can we eliminate entirely this lust for prominence, power, status, fame, wealth and glory? How will all of these forbidden thoughts go underground? Or is this a case - yet, yet again - of the rhetoric not matching the reality?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Summer Reading - 2015

Very informative - panoramic general history on the Paris conference of 1919 - leading up to the 
Versailles Treaty. 

Naipaul's 1981 tour of the Islamic world written in the author's vividly visual prose...

A day in the life of a dypsomaniacal British emigre on his last leg as well as a brilliant tour of Quauhnahuac, Mexico...

The epic saga of the modern Mexican revolution (1910-1920) told in shimmering prose...

Flaubert's lesser known classic involving a young "flaneur" - (walker-seeker-observer) obsessed with an older woman in Paris of course...

An American journalist goes down to the Yucatan province and discovers that the Mayan population is being enslaved on the large plantations...

Part 5 of Proust's In Search of Lost Time - Will the narrator never give up his preoccupation with the ever-mysterious, ever-unfaithful Albertine?

The final installment of what is supposed to be the definitive Kafka biography...

A teacher is called upon to befriend and raise up the spirits of a man on death-row in Louisiana circa the 1940s...

A first-hand account of the Mexican Revolution by someone who soldiered alongside Pancho Villa...

A rousing general history of the protracted but crucial Congress of Vienna that re-constituted European monarchies and governments in the midst of Napoleon's demise...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Oscar Wilde - Prophet of the Current Age

The following excerpt - taken from his famous "prison correspondence" - is uncannily in sync with the present-day zeitgeist of the secular, self-made "artistic-minded" individual. But is Wilde really convinced that in the future all of us will pursue life as art - hungry for new and messy experiences - ready to disregard prior orthodoxies?  And do you follow him down the same road - truth seeker?
"Morality does not help me.  I am a born antinomian.  I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws.  But while I see that there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that there is something wrong in what one becomes.  It is well to have learned that...Religion does not help me.  The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at.  My gods dwell in temples made with hands; and within the circle of actual experience is my creed made perfect and complete: too complete, it may be, for like many or all of those who have placed their heaven in this earth, I have found in it not merely the beauty of heaven, but the horror of hell also.  When I think about religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.  Every thing to be true must become a religion.  And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.  It has sown its martyrs, it should reap its saints, and praise God daily for having hidden Himself from man.  But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me.  Its symbols must be of my own creating.  Only that is spiritual which makes its own form.  If I may not find its secret within myself, I shall never find it: if I have not got it already, it will never come to me." - from De Profundis 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I listen to the silence of Dr. Nonesuch Nobodaddy and Mother Unword Otherworldly...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Random Questionnaire

* In terms of your general approach to life, do you self-identify as liberal, conservative, progressive or reactionary?

* Are you by temperament nostalgic, averse to change, homesick for something elusive that lies buried in the past?

* Do you find yourself staring at old photographs for long periods of time or collecting artifacts like some Byzantine scholar?

* When old buildings are torn down in favor of generic ones, do you cry silent tears?

* Is history a source of sustenance to you or the great nightmare from which you are trying to awaken?

* Do you find yourself connecting with "kindred spirits" from the past? Do you appreciate how difficult life was for those who came before us?

* Is the future a source of hope or worry to you?

* Do you feel out of place in the present age?

* Do you believe in progress - as defined by the relentless march of technology?

*Are places important to you? Does a feeling of rootlessness ever afflict your mood?

* Do you find yourself worrying about the loss of particularity with regard to cities and towns across America?

* Would you travel for miles across state lines for a decent slice of pie - be it fresh peach or blueberry?

* Are you comfortable with the notion of belonging to the global village?

* Do hipsters annoy you - in part because of their tyrannical enforcement of "cool" this and "cool" that?

* Does "corporate culture" annoy you? What the heck is corporate culture?

* Do you find yourself in the minority on issues of major importance that other people seem to disregard as major issues?

* Does the ubiquity of crime and violence feel like a daily defeat of the social contract?

* Do you long for prison reform?

* When considering the state of education, and, what are sometimes called "life skills," does it bother you to think of how ill-prepared so many young people are to be parents - no one having instructed them in this art-form - and that this ongoing absence of parental support is somehow the missing link in a never-ending discussion?

* Do you find that people are missing the point when it comes to substance abuse - that we fail to get at the root causes of it all (which has something to do with the fact that so many of us are going numb and getting intoxicated as part of a mysterious, passive, aggressive ritual of slowly-timed collective self-implosion - all this as foreign drug cartels rule over large portions of our major cities?

* Do you incline against warfare and all its empty promises?

* Do you cringe when people are silenced, forced to crawl under a rock, forced to go away, impelled to lose their jobs and careers over a single ill-formed, ignorant, impolitic remark?

* Are you unnerved by the withering glance of public opinion upon vulnerable, unsuspecting, semi-obtuse individuals who never got the memo?

* Do you find yourself wishing to resuscitate actual books, newspapers, magazines and other traditional forms of print?

* Do you find it hard to keep up with the celebs and their antics - which is no reason, mind you, to discontinue reading People, Us and In Touch magazine. (The experience becomes even more perplexing when you don't recognize a single famous person and cannot name any accomplishment for which they are known.)

* Has sports become the new religion? Has religion fallen prey to the business model?

* Does it seem like the present-age is defined by hedonism and complacency at the expense of true spirituality?

* Do many of your peers (and perhaps even you or I on occasion) seem guided by hyper-romantic quests for virtual worlds and alternative reality spaces (such as blogs, yes) in which to escape from the dismal sordid industrial or post-industrial landscape that surrounds them/us?

* Do you long for higher standards in the arts and sciences?

* Do you feel insecure when actual experts speak on topics that they have devoted years to understanding - thereby showing the rest of us that we are by comparison ignorant and unschooled in such matters?

* Do you rebel against the same-old mediocre books on the same-old best-seller lists?

* Do you find yourself "tuning out" of the "daily buzz" in favor of some news item that no one else is talking about?

* Do you feel hopelessly under-informed by major news-media outlets and downright apoplectic when it comes to the cult of personality that has taken over among our celebrity pundits?

* Do you regard Good Morning America as the lowest form of government-sanctioned mind control?

* Do you regard the Today Show as the new form of bread and circuses?

* Are you bothered by the neglect of classical music?

* Do you wish for, long for, pine for a serious public discourse defined by increasing levels of gravitas i.e. men and women with long, sober faces talking in measured paragraphs - as opposed to having stand-up comedians and media spin-meisters define the narrative?

* Are you ready to take part in a revolution in which no one gets physically injured, in which there is no violence, but in which everyone is forced to admit that they are half-wrong, half of the time? Is there such a danger in that?

* Do you find it amusing (and somewhat revelatory) that cats, frogs, rabbits, dolphins, owls, elephants and pill-bugs are so readily on your wavelength? Their silent wisdom speaks volumes - eh?