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.


Anonymous said...

The allowed tightness of language's reflexivity varies with its weight. Beyond a certain tension, kinks develop; the light kaleidoscopes into illusion.

The Geogre said...

I should not like to stress language's reflexivity. Instead, I would rather look to the nature of contemporary moral philosophy, and I note that the price of cynicism is high.