Monday, July 30, 2012

The Well Tempered Clavicle

I had needed, I think, to say the things I said below, to throw the tiles of the mosaic out. The truth is that I have arrived at a position where I can take satisfaction that one life's work has been achieved, although its consummation has left me barren. Though I do not say it could have been otherwise even with effort and desire and luck, I have achieved the goal of ignominious anonymity. I have worked at not trying, worked harder at not getting, and can now, at the milestone of fifty, say that perhaps I made it, after all.

Before you reach for an air sickness bag, this is not about any talent I might have or lack. This is about the desires. I assume that hundreds with more genius and capacity have felt the same and achieved lack of note, and I do not doubt that some have even less capacity and genius than myself and feel the same call of the mild -- the unlined margin where there is no place to record a name.

" meet a traveling Englishman who is, as it were, the incarnation of this talent (for boredom) -- a heavy, immovable animal, whose entire language exhausts its riches in a single word of one syllable, an interjection by which he signifies his deepest admiration and his supreme indifference, admiration and indifference having been neutralized in the unity of boredom. No other nation produces such miracles of nature..." -- Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or ("The Rotation Method")
 There has been an innovation in theology of late. My reader may be familiar with the concept of total depravity. I stepped off the train right there, myself, even though we were between stations. (There was a service hut, but it had a sign over it saying, "Closed.") So, if we creatures are totally depraved by nature, then we need grace from God. Ok. The Catholics say that we need grace to get to a point where our free will operates and we, with God's help, will goodness. The Calvinists say that we can't do that, because we're just too depraved, and so God is at the helm all the way. (With me so far?) There's this bit of Paul where he talks about Christ and the spirit. The way I read it, Paul is trying to explain to the Romans how to understand eternal life when it's obvious that the bodies of Christians are easy to kill. He is speaking of metaphysics and explaining -- to my Classicist training -- essence. He is saying that our flesh, which is in existence and fallen, partakes of a sinful essence, but salvation rewrites that and gives us a new essence, a new "nature," and that is eternal and perfect. On the last judgment, we will be resurrected into bodies that reflect this new nature, too (it's the whole of Romans 7 and the earliest bit of Romans 8; if it reads like philosophy, then...).

Ok, back to the innovators. This line from Paul seems to mean, to many, that the conversion experience, which is mandatory (I could link to recent articles in internal publications, but I don't want to condemn or praise anyone), flushes the system of the believer. The believer gains the grace filled nature. At that point, grace is covering sins. Hence the bumper stickers that say, "Not perfect. Just forgiven." This is forgiveness as an ongoing condition, because it is bound in grace, and the new nature is like a new team jersey. What happens, as a practical matter, is that guilt, and especially contrition disappear. Because God forgives automatically, there is no real need for contrition. That scares me.

I have lived a life fitting invariably as unremarkably into a classic description of an under achiever, but I have extended that juvenile maladptation into a philosophy of life (the link I gave is really "blame the kid"). The under achiever does not try for fear of failing. The bright kid who won't study, because then the test will reflect his best and the best will be known, is an under achiever. They usually have a lack of support at home for their talents and a really serious fear of failure. I learned about this profile as a junior in high school, and it fit me to a T. That didn't stop anything, though.

I overcame the intellectual under achiever profile, but the heart of the matter still murmurs. Unlike some, guilt is a real presence for me. In fact, most of my emotions are variations on its motif. My desire for anonymity is not fear, but guilt. When I did overcome the fear of failing, and when I did finally see what I could do and be, I saw no reason to strive and every fault. If I could magnify myself through words or influence another through argument, then I would be responsible for a shadow cast on the landscape or an action taken. By what right should I presume?

Do not mistake this for humility, as I have tried to do in the past. This is flat out guilt. This is the guilt of ability and action. It is the guilt of harming another person. I already feel thick blankets of the stuff for what I say or fail to say to those who care for me, and finding that I give offense or add injury is too much. It is also the guilt of inability. There is a weighted door on most of us, as we have absurd, unjustified and unjustifiable demands placed on us by banks, merchants, advertisers, and the law. We can add to these nebulous forces particular injustices done to the poor -- the "overdraft protection" that is designed to harm the poor, the "buy here pay here" car lots that aim to repossess from the start, the banks that "write down losses" that are actually houses that people have been ejected from and that the bank will not sell or adjust a payment on. Either way, we fail. We fail our children, our parents, our peers, our employers.

Commercially, there is greater profit in indebted than solvent citizens, and so all businesses are seeking to ensure debt. There is more profit in unhappy people who buy out of body hatred, and so all forces seek to uphold irrational beauty. Nothing stands in the way of fear and guilt, and new accelerants come along every year.

Oh, and how's your life life, retirement planning, and hormone level?

Guilt is the wrapping of my life, the substance of my thought, and so it should be no wonder that my personal philosophy is to join the ranks of the invisible. I would love to be as unperceiving as unperceived, as painless as harmless, but that's too much to ask, and I feel bad for asking for such favors. Why do I have a good novel that I have written that I show no one? Why do I have a good novella that I show no one? I have no need to show them, and I want no responsibility. 

The people who go about without guilt do more than mystify me. They offend me. They seem a denial of reality, but, more to the point, they will charge ahead without consequence. 
[On grace: Imagine a coach in basketball. He says, 'When you take a jump shot, release at the high point of the jump, and get your elbow straight behind the stroke. Make sure the angle of the shot is high, and keep your knees bent.' He knows that the shooting guard won't do all of that every time, but it doesn't change the instruction. In a game, the guard goes to try to win the game, hogs the ball, jumps and throws the ball at the hoop, where it's blocked, leading to a turnover and a loss.
If the player comes to the bench and says, 'I'm sorry coach. I didn't do what you told me. I want to work on it,' then it's fine. If the player says, 'Hey, coach, I know you'll forgive me, so what's the big deal. It seemed like a good idea. The important thing is that I'm wearing the jersey that says "Christians" on it,' then the coach will kick him off the team.]

I can look back and forward, and the horizon's the same. I have achieved my philosophy. I wish I could be proud of that.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Chaos

"Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the deathbed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?" -- W. B. Yeats, "The Cold Heaven"

I remember that we grew very quiet, as a nation, the last time an ostensibly intelligent person turned killer, and we do so again today. As ever, we have to stipulate in advance that crazy people are crazy in mind as well as act, that murder is, by itself, proof of a disordered mind. And so, with our new H. H. Holmes, like our Unibomber, we have an insane person who gestures at a body of beliefs. We cannot blame the beliefs for the acts, nor can we think that the beliefs are more relevant or less because of the acts, but often these Crazy People show us silences that society should not have. They reveal repression.

Jonathan Nolan gave voice to the intellectual argument for anarchy in The Dark Knight, and our recent killer believes in it. Just as the Unabomber believed in the "Human Experience" Harvard class and what it taught about the lived life's degradation under the assault of technology and the sociological exchanges of modernism limiting our meaning, so this killer alledgedly believes in an intellectual core beneath chaos. What impressed critics about the argument that The Joker made in the movie was that it was somewhat coherent, if insane.

The Joker, you'll recall, argued that violence, by its nature, whether on the part of the state or against the state, was alike. Destruction was inherent, and all persons were guilty, and his job, he argued, was to make this guilt manifest at the same time that he encouraged the "joke" of destroying the toy-like rules of social control. Inside the new Batman fiction, it's a worthy idea, since the first film had been all about a group of social engineers who selectively reinforced or undermined cities and nations. 

There is no ready export of such a philosophy. In fact, it is itself an export of an older moral and philosophical realization. On the one hand, there is the psychological realization that all of us are sinful and guilty and that therefore the restraints carry only temporary force. We are animals held back by shock collars, and violence is all that prevents us from violence. The other offshoot of this is the idea that chaos, in the form of anarchy, is a method of freedom. In the movie, The Joker explores both possibilities. He puts two boats up, where the people are supposed to demonstrate their wickedness, but they fail to do so. This is in keeping, incidentally, with how people really are unless under duress. When his "game" fails, he simply shrugs, because he never really cared about making that point anyway, so long as there was chaos.

Suppose you believe in the social contract. In this, each person has the power to club the next but gives up the club in order to not be clubbed. Over time, some people think, more rules will creep in, and they will always favor the people who already have wealth or power. Eventually, all the clubs will be night sticks, and all the rules will apply to poor people. To "reset," there is a way only of getting back to the first state. From true chaos, private agreements and natural relationships of power might be formed.

Libertarians think this is swell, so long as there is money in gold and there are profits. Anarchists think that all the laws need to be smashed so that even a single law can be thought out without the prejudice of wealth or power.

Let's add in another group while we're here in the mob. Some people think that screaming, clawing, clubbing, sweating lawlessness is better than air conditioned apartment living because competition determines success and therefore virtue. They believe this is as true of people as bacteria, so we owe it to our children to ensure that they are only begotten by the "fit." Race you to the steroid stash.

If we do not talk about this, we leave people to think about it on their own, without input. They see The Joker, and they hear his side, and then they go on the Internet and read like-minded materials. They might fall in with "Black Bloc" Anarchists, or they might fall in with neo-Nazi's. In the end, it doesn't matter, because it is the failure to speak of chaos and law that has allowed for solitary voices to prevail. In the Batman movie, The Joker isn't proven right or entirely wrong, but the film is working from its own provocative, and intentionally discussion inducing, position of what a "super hero" is.

The old Reds recognized that they were hypocrites, at their best. Bertolt Brecht's "For Those Who Come After" points out that "We who wanted friendliness never could be friendly ourselves." They knew that they were not the workers they sought to liberate, and sometimes they even knew that they didn't especially like the workers. Their faith in the inevitability of a revolution drove them on because they thought it was right. Those who believe that chaos is either necessary or desirable, on the other hand, seem far less self-aware.

Knowing that the system we live in is corrupt and corrupting is not difficult. Knowing that the answer is violence is. Since these measures inevitably involve enforcing one's own philosophy upon others militarily and coercively, the "freeing" one is doing is often fatal and always unwanted. To believe that the laws need to be torn down is one thing, but to believe that they need to be torn down against the people within them is mad. It is fighting for peace. Similarly, concluding that laws diminish one's finances takes a mind of low wattage. Deciding that, because one's own finances have been diminished, the rest of the world must change to fit takes overweening pride.

Has the world run out of land or space for free communes and syndicates? If not, then Bo Gritz and the great Idaho anarchist experiment are always good ways of convincing the world of one's virtue. Deciding to fly a plane into the IRS building in Dallas is not.

In fact, these seem as if they are not intelligent or intellectual gestures at all. I would go so far as to say that such a person cannot be intellectually sound, because violence and the belief in violence in this case is an intensifier, a desire for redress and revenge. It has nothing to do with chaos as improvement. It has to do with being so upset with taxes or grades or dates that others must suffer. It is childish -- a tantrum with guns.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Joy of the Loveless

"I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end." -- T. S. Eliot, "Hysteria," 1920
Your life, like most lives, is a tale of inappropriate loves that swerved one way or the other in the chaos of time by the impact of mismatched forces. Appropriate love, all the sober gray heads would agree, is of a living object better and bettering than the self; this definition may be behind our stumbles, but, like the naked mole rats we resemble, we feel our way by warmth on our pelts, blindly going "Warmer, warmer... colder, colder," falling this side or that of apathy's zero state.

And you thought Art History wasn't a good major!

 I was at the circus yesterday -- Mal-Wart, I mean -- and my absurd remnant of desire had me looking at women, girls, crones, and mothers, and then each would go from retina to a filter that may not be the same as other men's. I did not go to sexual attraction, but fitness of soul. A carriage, a posture of head, a relaxed face, would say that she was angry or worried or innocent, serious or vain. After that coarse speculation came nothing, really, but a reflected impulse, whereby I thought on time or life. Some women, more girls, did not inhabit their bodies, and others did not master them. Some were younger than their years, but more were older or matched.

I saw several who were in the last of their teens, but their world was older. They had become mothers or already learned to fear a ringing phone, and so their minds were not where their flesh was. Another was about twenty-five, but her eyes never held anything they touched, and her feet never reached the ground when she walked, and I realized, "She thinks seventeen." (There is not a word missing in that sentence.)

There may be more stages, more fixed points than the ones I know about, but it seems to me that there are ages we actually are. The "want to grow old" age is a mind that cannot have a number on it, because it is an age that, by its primary desire, tells itself that it is dependent, controlled, and inexperienced. Then, though, there is seventeen. Some thirteen year olds -- tough kid boys with older brothers who initiate them into beer and drugs early, girls who 'blossom' early and are stunned by the shockwave -- think seventeen, but it's usually the thinking of the triumph over puberty. It is having won against one's own body, feeling its contours as reliable and being relieved, at long last, of daily name calling, back stabbing, and fighting with same sex peers.

Some people are mistakenly under the impression that thinking seventeen is happiness. Ask someone who is seventeen, though. The next year is twenty-three. The graduating college person, the full of information person, the self-confident competent person who announces independence for the first time and competency for the first time and isn't awed by it -- this is the person who has the beer party, who goes to that strange restaurant with her friends, who organizes a potluck on her own. This is the person who writes the famously dense novel filled with every idea he or she ever had. (The genre of the novel of twenty-three could fill two graduate seminars.)

Then there's thinking thirty. Most of us past thirty think thirty. The thrills are gone. It's not neat to get mail in the mailbox. Parties are boring. Dating is dreaded. More money thought than creative thought goes on, and there is worry. One is at full power, but only to find that the world really has only a very, very small spot on the dance floor for each of us to move in.

I have just discovered that there is thinking fifty, too. This is the regretful and the "Oh, no" thinking, as well as the thinking of diminishment. It remains until the last thought -- being the person who is weak, and that, like the first, has no number associated with it. The first mind is one we flee as quickly as we are able, and the last is one we adopt only after we have no other choice.

The women I looked at fell into ages -- ages of mind. I also looked at their kindness, because to me that may be most needed. When I came back to the house, after that trip to the circus, I saw a man my age moving some heavy thing in a ditch. His wife was standing behind him with her arms crossed under her bra, her cropped hair a blond contrast to her red face. He placed the thing somewhere and looked eagerly under his arm behind him, and then bent back down. This is all I saw, but I was going 20 mph, so I saw that much. I also saw that she was a woman of a stunning figure at twenty, a heart of frustration lurking beneath it, and a mind of ways things must be done. (I have no praise for the man, but her stance was a cliche.)

Als das kind kind war
We think and are, at first, in love. Some people mistake this for joy. They are allowed to do so, because it can seem that way later, but it is, instead, trust. When one has no trust left, the thinking "when I grow up" seems idyllic, because it was a time of loving parents and teachers and police and aunts and uncles and the family dog. Even as it meant no self control, no power, it meant love. It was a false love, because it was a temporary one. All those things could be stronger, smarter, and wiser than the child, but not better -- as gummy eyed poets have said, and as Jesus made clear (it does occur to me, now, that, although Jesus in other places says that we must become children again and that the prophecy is fulfilled that the wise are made simple, the simple wise, the particular circumstance of this saying was of sick children and children suffering and having faith). After the completely thoughtless phases of grabbing whatever is wanted are gone, the aspiring young who think about their future are fine.

The next mind we inhabit is the one of self-aware division, where we fall victim to love's mating and lust's warfare, and we know it. I doubt there is a person who has gone through the mind and not been aware of some falseness to the driver. As for falling in love, I could point you at Shakespeare or other Elizabethans who have such precise words for it. ("This senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid; /Regent of love-rhymes,  lord of folded arms,/ The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,/ Liege of all loiterers and malcontents." Marriage, the goal of earthly love, "’T is just like a summer bird-cage in a garden,—the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.") Most of the Restoration wits saw love as a disease and lust as its fever, and they had elaborate metaphors for it -- what else but a disease could make a person behave in such a way, and what else but a fever could animate a person to such a degree?

Passing, or not passing, that, we join, or we join around the mind of twenty-three. I now advise teenagers to marry, and to do it quickly, because the false love of seventeen is negated by the false love of twenty-three. At seventeen's mind, it is union. The other person is better than you and has all the parts you lack, and two-in-one will solve the failure of isolation's deficits. Palm to palm and chest to chest, face to face, we have union -- a wonder enough to keep us forever and yet transient enough, mutable enough, to make us aware that it may be a shadow. She isn't better, and he isn't. She makes you a better person . . . somewhat, and he makes you stronger. . . when he isn't ruining everything. Union is so rarely complete, synchronized, and without tugging on the rope that we have a valid love, a good love, but still a misdirection.
Marry, children! Marry soon, or don't, because when you begin to live in the mind of twenty-three, you will fall in love with someone else. Around the age of nineteen, you will meet the most fascinating, compliant, coy, and agreeably cryptic and great person, ever: You.

From nineteen until thirty, you are the most interesting person you know. Why are you like ___? Why don't people like you more? Why aren't you wealthier? Why do you procrastinate? All these questions and more will come to you in time, and you'll answer them and others -- several times over. This is not a quality of the affluent only, either. The first flush of reflection, which occurs the moment the hormones take their claws off the gas pedal, leads to more.

The thirty mind can hit at twenty. It's just when you no longer think of yourself as a glorious subject, and instead think of yourself as a persecuted subject. The thirty year old mind is responsible, dutiful, over-stretched, under-appreciated, and busy. No one knows the beauty and sophistication of the great Self that the twenty-three year old was, and no one will see how wrong he is. Instead, whatever answers to the Big Mysteries of Me the person came up with, those stick, because now we are busy.

Imagine a man who marries at twenty-three -- a normal enough time. He might go into the wonder of self for a short time. That wonder lust wanderlust takes a person to blame first, then persecution, and then understanding, followed by repetition on a more accurate level. First up for most people is "Mom and Dad made me this way." That's the usual answer, but it doesn't usually last. However, if that man has his first child and is running his business the next year, he goes right from seventeen/nineteen to thirty, frozen at the introspective point until the next grand turn.

The love of the self's intricacies, its labyrinth of history and the pachinko game of the future, can better the self or worsen the self and probably does. However, it is not love of an object. The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates said, but the examined life is not lived at all. The love affair of nineteen to twenty-three is necessary refining, but it's a false love. It precedes another false love: the battering of the body and will against other men and women and against capital to secure against time some light -- a profit, a trust, land, a home, generations, traditions. I don't think I need to argue with anyone very hard that this effort is rarely successful on its own terms and never a proper love. Love of children is great, but it isn't the spur.

Being fifty in mind means a panic, sure. It means knowing that the clock is running down, really. It's not the knowing, though: it's the inescapable, daily pain. Unlike an injury, age picks surprising joints and muscles to fire. So, we look back. We look ahead. We evaluate. The thirty age mind gets disgraced, often when the children are old enough to not need a custodial parent. The seventeen year old mind gets shouted at, often when the marriage mate is doing the same. The nineteen year old seems more attractive than even the seventeen year old: it's time to once again discover the self, to find out where things went wrong, to tap into potential, to talk to people of the opposite sex who are engaged in those quests.

Most of us are sane. We just wish, think, and grunt. We don't go nuts. Furthermore, that foolishness washes off, eventually, but we're left with the self, and then memory as its grist.

As for love affairs, I have no advice. I was rejected by eHarmony. But that love? Well, the soul is big enough to fold and open, and I can't see any love but one as sovereign.