when the fool is unable to sleep
(Late thoughts from A Republic of Books, the novel in progress, more of which may be scavenged elsewhere on this ethereal site.)
Philosophers have turned away from purpose and became obsessed with means, as with math—a mere tool that becomes an end to itself. I have known many a fellow who collected tools, but built very little, making of themselves first kin to those professors of math who fashion whole philosophies from their calculations, as if the value of things and the purposes of the people who care for them might be determined by a hammer. Tool collectors pore over catalogs and lust for more. They could tell me what the best chisel is for any particular purpose but appear to have no project before them worthy of the device.
“Build a bookshelf,” I say.
“Why that?” they ask.
“To fill it with books,” I suggest.
“I have enough shelves for my books now,” they inform me.
“Then buy more books! And read them! You might discover what it is you should be doing with all those tools.”
But their tools are as much a means for them to finding order in the universe as my books are to me. Perhaps more so, in so far as I cannot tell you what every book I own is good for. And the professor of math only wishes a precision to his quest for order that he thinks is unattainable from the pages of a book—and thus he is wrong. Such order is only necessary for machines.
Every social group has their myths. ‘Meme’ is the au courant word some use for this, and any other cultural convention now, as a kind of shorthand in our increasingly foreshortened society. Myths take too much time. They require story. And where myths arise from a need of explanation and understanding, given a universe which is for the most part still unknown, memes are convenient translations of the ‘known.’ Modern hieroglyphs. The approved truths, ‘settled’ science, so to speak, like climate change—don’t ask too many questions because we don’t have the time, and you’re going to die anyway, so just give us the power now and we’ll tell you how to live. It’s just the sort of rule by butcher’s thumb that a Richard Dawkins might invent to dismiss those matters, like God, or happiness, that he is too busy with other memes to think about.
One of these memes you’ll often hear repeated in book reviews, instead of an application of actual thought, is this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is an observation, out of context, made by Leo Tolstoy in opening the great novel, Anna Karenina. Of course, few who use the meme have read or will read that book beyond the first page. The story there is far deeper and heady with larger myths. It asks too many questions. It’s too long, don’t you know. You might miss something on TV. But a reviewer can appear to be of an intellectual bent, and a member of the club, just by using Mr. Tolstoy’s famous reduction.
Having just encountered the quote once again in my reading, I was thinking about its overuse and probable popularity due to the lack of purpose many people seem to feel and with that the absence of happiness that comes with living false aspirations, and I found myself considering the sweet and sour of my own small family. Mr. Tolstoy’s observation just did not stick. And besides, why that observation and not something like, say, ‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, and in your way of thinking.’ Marcus Aurelius said that. He was a very wise fellow, and very powerful as well. He could afford to say anything. Importantly, his statement does not give itself to any absolute principle. Merely a direction to think.
And I was seeking an answer to that point when I noticed on Wikipedia that a popular twit, Jared Diamond, has further derived a vacuous hypothesis from the insightful Mr. Tolstoy, inappropriately called ‘the Anna Karenina principle.’ I suppose this association was meant to give Diamond’s artificial jewel some semblance of value or substance. As a tick on the back of a doggerel theory, this parasite of thought apparently suggests that a successful endeavor is one where all deficiencies are avoided. Right. And this actually passes for wisdom with some in our time? Sounds like Mr. Diamond didn’t read the great novel either. Given that such assumed omniscience in knowing our deficiencies before we have tested ourselves is still well beyond our grasp, the idea that we might know all the deficiencies of a particular enterprise before we set out, or more, that the reason for a success after the fact was an absence of deficiencies, is too obviously fatuous. Thus, Mr. Diamond’s mal mot really boils down to knowing more than we know to begin with, or perhaps simply knowing what you are about before you set out, but always being certain of uncertain outcomes. What exactly is he aspiring to?
And how this relates to happy families is certainly an odd twist of a deficient imagination—an attempt to drag literary allusion into pseudoscience. Even Anna was not fated by such a narrow mind. Her choices were many. A novel’s worth. Her failure was a construct of her own moral ambivalence. There were many ways she might have chosen to better her life, but she ignored them in favor of a single obsession (it was certainly not love). For myself, the more complex and interesting character in the book, if only for his faithful pursuit of happiness, is her cousin, Kostya Levin. He most fully realizes his own ignorance while Anna appears to serve as an exemplar to many in the cult of modern womanhood, those unwilling to accept the responsibility of their own actions while blaming others (usually men), and pleased to accept participation trophies in place of actually learning from their own failures (at least until driven mad by the contradictions). Perhaps this is the appeal of the book for some of those who fancy themselves as intellectuals now. I’m really not smart enough to even guess.
But back to Mr. Tolstoy, the better mind. His struggle at the end of that work, as was his surrogate, Levin’s, is unfinished. He knows at last what he wanted to know, and was willing to learn in order to achieve that much. But he does not pretend to know more than this. I have already taken him as a mentor in this, and what happiness finds me on the way, I will continue to relish.
Thus it has come to pass, and this after too many years—more than a century now, yoked to a common plow of philosophical ambiguities—that we now live in an age of equivocation and prevarication, deceit and deception, speciousness and sophistry. Idealism has been relabeled, branded, and neatly packaged. Truth has been made a committee effort, and to be spoken to ‘power,’ not fellow human beings. Evil no longer lurks. It parades. The perpetrators of this chicanery need not gather in cabals because their objectives are no longer clandestine. There is little need for conspiracy when the ruling class are all agreed. Now, it is the true idealist who must hide—derided as fantasist, romanticist, purist, escapist, and anti-social, hostile, or simply argumentative and combative. You see? I am being circumspect even now. Even after the window is broken, both physically and metaphorically. But I have been called far worse. (Eccentric is the only of these opprobriums that I happily answer to.)
Nevertheless, the great loss here is to the young. That is the time in life when true idealism must bloom, but if crushed then to egalitarian uniformity, or disfigured by abuse and denigration, it seldom recovers. Our topiary youth, shaped by the public schools and Hollywood, and now too by the social media to serve the common good, age poorly. Their parents stuff themselves with diets and stretch themselves with yoga to stave off the void, while the grandparents—the baby boomers—already sag beneath useless baggage and betray themselves by audible complaint and bitterness for dreams unfulfilled. True idealism, a search for the best and the means to the best that begins by nature in the young, too often ends right there in school today, under the weight of social criticism, parental demand, and academic requirement. The exception is ever rarer. Yet, little more than a hundred years ago it was the grail of our American soul. From Frank Merriwell, to Horatio Alger, to Tom Swift. It doesn’t take long for such change to occur. For the better or the worse. A mere lifetime.
We live now in a society of permission; not the grants and escheatage of olden times, or the feudal allotment, or even the penny indulgence, but of countless permissions made by endless laws for limitless occasions of sin.
Before this, I have cited the great change at the time of the Enlightenment. One generation of heretofore obedient Scottish farmers, herdsmen, and merchants (at least relatively so) was transformed into the next by the simple expedient of having been told in their kirks that they must learn to read in order to understand the word of God for themselves and follow that according. The consequent free-thinking, previously squelched by tradition and absolute religious authority, released an energy of thought that changed everything. By the time the authorities realized their mistake, it was too late to stop, and the New World lay just ahead.
At present it has been several generations since the teaching of Karl Marx and John Dewey, Herbert Marcuse and Howard Zinn permeated the schools in my own time. The effect of that has been no less dramatic than that of the teachings of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Thomas Reid and Thomas Brown when our Forefathers lived. And this began well over a hundred years ago when a Princeton University professor by the name of Woodrow Wilson preached that the masses must be lead to what is good, and that the leaders necessary to the task must by raised by the Universities. Suddenly, the Ivy Leagues had found a cause they could rally to even more than football and secret societies. William F. Buckley’s sacrilegious comment only two generations later (a Yale Man after all) that he “would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University,” was just one of his many piquant realizations in this regard. Oligarchy only works so long as the masses are willing to listen. But once, in spreading the seed of dissatisfaction and destruction of the old order in their reach for power, they released the kraken.
Withal, the level of perfection in parents that is wanted by their juvenile offspring has always been beyond achievability, but apparently it is the easy trade of their professors—those who today so facilely disrespect the strivings of the middle class, disdain the need to work for a living, and despise the rich as much as Royalty (and too, anyone who dare disagree with their politics of resentment), all the while striving for their own share of the pie. It has always been odd to me, in particular, that children should more readily believe their teachers—hirelings who have never spent a colic night at their bedside or risked insolvency to see them fed and clothed and schooled—but who clearly have an agenda. From my earliest memories of childhood, I have always had the opposite response: prove it! My teachers always loved me for that! Yet the utopian purity sought by the political mavens today is continually set beyond the grasp of any one of us, and teachers most obviously.
It is not that imperfection should be tolerated, or accepted, or excepted from any better rule. It is a matter of recognition that we are imperfect from the start and bettering ourselves is always the task at hand. That we must be free to achieve those ends, given the benefit of hard-earned knowledge from those who come before us, and not bound by the faults of our parents—or our teachers. And that great things can happen with such efforts, in the same way that democracy was born by tyrants in a slave-hold society and our common law was fashioned from within a monarchy. To erase our beginnings, to hide from our faults, is to deny our chance to make good on our potential.
Let us consider Cleisthenes again. It would appear he was a practical man. He would have had no intention of starting something so unfinished as a new means of government after more than 2500 years of Greek tyrannies. He was not a philosopher, I think. Little is known of him but that his family were likely merchants. We know from Herodotus, reporting only a generation later, that his clan were banished repeatedly by the competing powers of Athens, and yet they found the resource to survive and persevere. Given the opportunity, Cleisthenes was elected tyrant by his peers and chose to use that power to try something different. The old ways had failed. Greece was already in the shadow of larger empires. The city-states that made-up that country were ununited and commonly at odds if not at war among themselves. The traditional rule of clan-families must have been clearly at fault to him. It is my conjecture that his invention of democracy was not an idealism, but rational, pragmatic, and businesslike—an application of the commonly understood principles of fair trade, then and now. That is why, having gained the support of the citizenry, he was allowed to try his experiment. And he did not stop with one change in a broken system of family rule. He went beyond that to something newer still. But perhaps more important than rule by the ‘demos’ was another invention that might have been his as well: ‘isonomia’— equality under the law.
The historian tells us, “The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.”
Consider that! Unknown in history until that moment. Equality under the law! And not as some ideal, but as a working solution to the problem of a well-made social order.
The question has been posed by others a hundred times. A thousand times. Why did all that we know of that golden age of Greece happen just then, and not before, or ever after. This is a question akin to why so many wise men happened to gather in this northern reach of western hemisphere around 1776.
In the case of the Hellenic rise, this might well then be the progeny of a single brain applied to a difficult task. I am inclined to think that. It didn’t happen in Egypt, or China, or India, or Germany, or Russia, all populated by equally endowed human beings. It happened in a rocky little land laid out like a hand and fingers upon a wine dark sea, peopled by independent farmers, merchant traders, fishermen and artisans, but all of them citizen warriors. Hoplites!
Having set these gears in motion, Cleisthenes disappears. After a few short years at Athens, accounted for in brief by Herodotus, he is gone from the histories and only after mentioned by Plato and Aristotle in passing. Because he did not write on his own, not that we know, his story is told by others who were not as impressed by his accomplishment as later ages would be. We do not know what joys or sorrows blessed or plagued this man, Cleisthenes. We do not know if he had sons or daughters or a loving wife. His life is a mystery and perfect fodder for the likes of me to speculate. Given time, I think I’ll write a novel about him as well. We’ll see.
As a consequence of Cleisthenes, a mere generation later, Plato was free to imagine his ideal republic and to fascinate the intellectuals forever after with visions of sugarplum utopias—though that philosopher created nothing himself. Still, the Golden age of Greece lay just ahead. And that glory was built on the industry of those hoplite farmers and craftsmen, and safe guarded at Marathon with the force of their arms. Emboldened by a new found belief in their own power over themselves—and I think too, an appreciation for the taste of their own blood.
What we do know is this, in a political moment not unlike our own, when every interest appears to serve itself, Cleisthenes devised a democracy that enlarged the assembly and the courts, and this despite the fact that it would not immediately help his own family, and perhaps even knowing that it might hurt them in the shorter term. He could not have guessed what would occur over two millennia later as a result of his plan, but he would certainly have predicted immediate cause and effect. There is a story there to be told, I think.
And what elemental movement of proton and electron was careening about when Washington took command at Cambridge? I would like to ask Ben Franklin that! They might have been content with compromise then as well. Hell, we might have all been Canadians!
But I’m at a loss here as to how to judge my own time. What age is this, anyway? In what epoch are we? No longer modern, certainly, if we are turning yet again to ancient communism, oligarchy, and tyranny. Are we amid a period of warming, or cooling? Perhaps mere stasis—stagnation, balanced by fear of all that surrounds us. Fear appears to be our theme. But calling it the ‘Age of Permission’ seems too petty even for us.
The great ages of art, Baroque and Romanticism, are far behind us. Can time be reversed for the sake our aesthetic taste? Have we yet fallen far enough in artistic arrears to look forward again to another golden age? Will we ever again, as a species, witness the great questions of a Caravaggio? Is there a Vermeer capturing the quintessential moment among us even now? To think, Rembrandt would have been able to pay all his bills today if he had the recent auction income from a single sketch. Clearly there are those who appreciate beauty. But does that outrageous auction value only occur in the vacuum of a time otherwise empty of such excellence? Could a Velazquez live again without the need of patronage?
Remember too, that the age of Rembrandt was a time of slaughter and plague as well. Can we drain the puss from the carbuncle now and still find a gem? Is our very own Jan Brueghel hidden here by the banks of the Charles?
Consider, if you will, that deaf and stinking monster of a man who was Beethoven. By reason alone, we cannot imagine that such greatness might have sprung from an age of powdered wigs and Lutheran conformity? How does this happen, that a single mind gave birth to a hundred years of the greatest music mankind has ever made? And don’t talk Bach to me. Will we ever see his like again? Or are we now condemned—for tasting the apple of that too-brief fling with such aural beauty and such a profligacy of melody—to eternal damnation and punishment in an age of arrhythmic noise. True, even yet we have the symphony orchestras ready for a potential renaissance still in place, shirts white and tuxedos pressed (paid for by taxes rendered from a benumbed public that would rather listen to ‘Rock’ or ‘Hip-hop’ than ‘modern’ music) But are those fine musicians, trained in the classic tradition, now just as satisfied to play to emptied halls amidst the repetitive echoes of a Philip Glass, and only content to pay homage to the war horse compositions of a better past in order to fill subscriptions? The Romantic era of music is now over by more than a century. The last composers of that glory passed with the likes of Rachmaninoff. Are there no new composers of merit?
I suppose that movie scores are the best we can do in a digital age. Gads!
We do have artists. A few. An Odd Nerdrum has even written a manifesto for them. Has it been read by more than a few? I don’t know. But the galleries seldom show anything that will not match the fabric of a couch.
Just as architecture too appears to have reached a wrong turn after Frank Lloyd Wright. Height is now the goal, (in the tradition of mine is bigger than yours) and the ‘post-modernism’ there has devolved to the twisted nightmares of Mr. Geary built on a foundation of Soviet brutalism. And what exactly do we call these boxes of tender that disfigure our suburban landscapes? Houses perhaps but not homes. That’s why we trade them away so easily.
Too many questions without proper answers?
Shakespeare died about 400 years ago, you know, whether by Julian or Gregorian measure. For a time, all the world was a stage and well set for the drama we have since known. Since his time, they’ve burst the stage apart and set it in a circle, shunted it back and forth and turned it round and round, yet, like it or not, it is still the greater story there as well that we have lost. With few exceptions, the drama or comedy that once played upon the boards to shadows in guttering lamplight—that theatre we have lost. And all of it unionized! Whether or not I am correct, and de Vere was responsible for that original dramatic pause, I cannot help but wonder why?
Now too, the feature film, the celluloid step-child of the stage, has been made for one hundred years. Yet even the best of those were made in less than half of that span of time. Argue now, if you must, for The Godfather, or some other more recent movie if you like. However (with a few exceptions, as there always are), in another generation the conceits of that film and any dozen you choose will have aged as poorly as the self-proclaimed geniuses who made them. Yet, I am just as confident that the author of Shakespeare, whomever he was, went home at night with fewer expectations of having committed ‘art.’
Is that the key then? The exception is no exception. If there is a better, there must be a best and worse. We can’t be having that! If art is anything we want it to be, then what principle of living do we follow? Is it that the very idea of ‘modern’ art is itself the villain? Or does the rot begin when you raise fine craftsmanship up to call it art, and lose its useful purpose in the bargain? It’s a thought.
Which, at last, brings me back around again to my beginnings. What purpose does my little shop of politically incorrect horrors serve today? I see none that might not be fulfilled elsewise. So it’s time for me to go.