Monday, December 2, 2013

800 Words: What Is This Blog?

By temperament, I am by no means a writer or an intellectual. The longer I keep up this blog, the clearer it seems that there is some element of sitzfleisch which I lack which would allow me to sit down methodically every day and grind out the once-a-day posts which was once my fondest ambition for this page. I’ve surprised myself by the sheer sitzfleisch I’ve summoned, but I had hoped that with practice I’d find still more. I haven’t.

However shy or bookish I often am, I’m a performer by temperament; perhaps a highbrow performer, but a performer nonetheless who craves attention, spotlight, and reaction - approval if possible, but settling a bit too happily for disapproval. Since there are so few readers as there have always been on this page, it’s become exceedingly difficult to work up the ability to work through the four or five hours of laborious boredom which a good post inevitably takes (to say nothing of the few hours of editing I should but never do…).

And this blog is, in so many ways, a performance. As I once discovered as a composer, I don’t think I have original ideas, and yet for a person who makes such a fetish out of skepticism as I try to, I find it alarming that I have thousands of opinions which I clearly burn with all too great a desire to communicate. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I even understand the ideas I espouse on this page - I just do the best I can.

Having the healthy ego of a performer which I do, the performance on this page is a performance version of me. I seem to find my inner monologue so fascinating that the idea of getting inside someone else’s head has, thus far, been almost impossible. Most of my few attempts at fiction on this page have been fairly risible, so in lieu of that, I explore the contents my own head. I’m an inveterate self-revealer, and yet I wonder if by sharing so much of myself, I’ve in fact obscured more than I’ve revealed. A blog, like a photograph, is a vision of a person frozen in an instant - a two dimensional rendering of a subject with three dimensions. The main difference between a photograph and a painting is the amount of time it takes - painting involves endless retouching. Painting and sculpture do not capture something which already is, it gradually becomes the thing it is - and therefore the best of it has an extra dimension of rumination which even the best photography (or blogs) find more difficult to attain - however many the other qualities which photography does better than the artform it in so many ways supplanted.

There are many unfinished multi-part blogposts I’d hoped to go back and complete, but I never have and have rarely tried. Many of them only make sense to me in the moment of their composition, and what I write about on any given day is whatever I’m sufficiently ‘burning with desire’ to say. It’s very hard to be inspired by a subject for days on end. The mind wanders from subject to subject, and few people’s minds stand still for long enough to burrow like hedgehogs, ever more deeply into a single subject. As I’ve said many times before, I can’t help viewing people with such minds with a mixture of boredom and alarm. We are all, to a certain extent, trapped by the obsessions of our own minds. How much more dangerous is it then to willingly give in to our obsessions? But one can’t help realizing that it is such people, blessed or cursed with such a weltanschauung, that get things done in the world. They have their overarching goal for which no pain is great enough to stop them from achieving, and therefore it is almost inevitably these are the people who move the world forward and backward. While their minds stand still, their persons are always moving, and while our minds are always moving, our persons stand still.

Perhaps there is a single prism through which a person can see the world, but how can you be so certain that you’ve used the right prism? Plagued by that most urgent of “Doubting Thomas” questions as I am, I often find myself in extreme difficulty with regard to precisely that problem on this blog. Writing these posts is often a mad scramble to finish, regardless of how excruciating the process, because I know that by tomorrow I’ll be thinking about something else, and unable to summon yesterday’s vision for today’s need.

For years, I coveted acceptance from hyper-achievers. I saw myself, and perhaps I still see myself, as a displaced hyper-success from a world of privilege I never knew and probably never will know. I never necessarily saw myself as the smartest guy in the room (though, of course, I have all too often…, and occasionally people are dumb enough that I can allow myself a bit of justification in that regard :), but I’ve always seen myself as among the most curious, the most driven to understanding, the most filled with longing for knowledge. Even if I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, or even if I’ve often been quite far from being so, it always dismayed me how satisfied so many other people were by incuriosity. I grew up going first to Jewish parochial schools, then to a boarding school for underachieving kids. Neither milieu was ever going to be anything resembling an intellectual Mecca, and I’d look on the honors students with enormous envy. Growing up in Pikesville, Maryland as I did, I knew many of these honors students, and a lot of them were morons just as idiotic as the learning disabled kids I knew, and less interesting too because they simply did what they were told with no questions asked. But were I more like them, I might have had a chance of meeting smarter people, making smarter friends, having smarter teachers, and generally having people at whom I could talk to without feeling like I speak a foreign language.  Perhaps my entitlement complex and ego are just that huge that I blamed others for my inability to feel like a regular kid and adolescent, but I don’t understood why I was made to feel ashamed of not being so.  

But by college and afterward, I started mingling in my own small way among the ‘smarter set,’ and I must say, I was invariably disappointed in the extreme by what I found. Rather than curiosity about ideas, there is passion for a single idea, and an unwillingness to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of any worldview but one’s own. All those ideas which do not fit into a total worldview are viewed with hostile suspicion.

it’s fairly easy to come up with a cogent explanation for this phenomenon. Few low achievers are ever encouraged to satisfy intellectual curiosity, and they therefore don’t bother much with mastering subjects whose study they’ll never be rewarded. A low achieving person would rarely study with a particular goal in mind, only to have new things to consider. Whereas a high achieving person must have goals to accomplish and reasons to meet these goals. There must be an end in sight - something to achieve attain. People of action require not ideas, but ideas to prove.

I began college as a philosophy major, and I promptly failed introductory philosophy because I alienated my first philosophy professor with far too many questions and stopped showing up to class. Ever since I was a college freshman, I’ve proven to myself again and again that I have no real interest in philosophy. For years I’ve picked up its heavy tomes, only to put them down, singularly unimpressed by the knowledge I once was insatiably curious to learn. The whole idea that we beings of extraordinarily limited understanding can come up with a definitive explanation of reality is its own kind of hilarity. The few philosophers whose ideas have ever stirred me - Mill, Berlin, Eric Hoffer, John Locke, etc - are those who warn against precisely the dangers of such explanations. A few weeks ago, I had a very long conversation with a friend of mine who took precisely the opposite trajectory in philosophy. She’s a philosophy doctoral student at one of the world’s premiere universities, and we had a particularly long digression about Kant, whom she adores. In so many words, I told her (much more diplomatically) that it’s ridiculous to admire any philosopher so greatly who wanted to create a theory of everything, because such theories, even the most abstract (perhaps especially), have inevitable real world consequences. To which she replied “If you’re not going to try to come up with a total explanation of the world, what’s the point of philosophy?” What indeed?

Kant is hardly the most erroneous or dangerous of German philosophers. But Kant himself provided his best rebuttal in one of his rare moments of comprehensibility: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was made.” What Kant argues with the categorical imperative and the 'thing-in-itself' is a monstrous tyranny of reason, a replacement for God himself in which we are coerced to follow our own thoughts to their logical conclusion, no matter how dangerous or limited those thoughts are. It uses empiricism as a mere featherweight on which to pin a presupposition that our puny reason can understand the world well enough to act upon it with impunity. She countered this by saying that Kant ameliorated the categorical imperative’s harsh degree by admitting that considerations of human rights must be taken into account; indeed, that the 'categorical imperative' is a directive to act with the dignity of human beings in mind. But what if a person reasons his way out of consideration for human rights? What if people reason, as they often have throughout history, that certain human beings are less than human? It’s difficult to believe that Kant didn’t understand that problem, and it's more likely that he simply didn’t care. One of his other famous phrases was coopted from the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I: “Let justice be done, though the world perish,” It’s difficult to believe that Kant never read Rousseau, and like that of many enlightenment thinkers, his imagined world is a world where reason needn’t make any compromise. It is only one step from Kant’s Categorical Imperative to Schopenhauer’s Will, which we are imprisoned by and cannot contradict. In fact, Schopenhauer once declared that he discovered the 'thing-in-itself', and that thing is the all-conquering will. It's then one step from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche’s Superman, who wills the world into change by the force of his own powerful reason and will to power, whose reason is of course ‘better’ than the reason of others. and one step from Nietzsche to…

But Kant is no different than so many thousands of philosophers, working in a field that works with the most extraordinarily limited means in even its best moments. Most philosophy is antithetical to the the word’s meaning ( love of wisdom), and nothing more than a crude instrument plowing into a fertile, untrammeled earth; an earth which might yield more edible results if we simply left its mysterious processes alone. Perhaps one day it will yield better results, but by and large, philosophy has gotten us into an enormous amount of avoidable trouble.

I have no brain for math and science, and while I hope eventually to remedy it, my understanding of even the most basic theoretical stuff is not unlike a kindergartener trying to read Ulysses. If I’m in any sense a true pointy-headed ‘intellectual’, then my subject is History. I’m the son of a ‘failed’ historian, I come from stock shook by many of history’s greatest upheavals, I have a Rain Man-like mind for dates and quotes. More and more, I find myself cracking open the history books - as best I can, I want to know how our world came to be the way it is. And so I do my darndest to disappear into Hobsbawm, Spengler, Barzun, Taylor, even Niall Ferguson (ah, the sins of one’s youth…), And yet each of them, however informative or well-written, is every bit the ‘totalist’ which one gets from the most dogmatic philosophers. Each gives us a tantalizingly conjured key to all realities that disappears at the slightest critical approbation. I long to find some large, well-written, historical work in which history has no end - only a series of theories expressed on the page, and taken as a given that the next epoch will prove it utterly wrong, with the mystery and folly of the world preserved intact from age to age.

No, I don’t much like facts. Don't get me wrong, I love the most useless of them, and have a great mind for useless trivia. But I don’t much like the idea that the world is a simple place that can be contained by explanations. I like reading about the follies of the explanations, and perhaps there is an explanation out there which can contain the world’s contents, but I’d rather not know about it. It simplifies the world to a horrible degree and takes the mystery, and therefore the fun, out of living. It’s taken me thirty-one years to get it, but for all the insatiable curiosity I’ve tried to will myself into having, the world does not exist to be understood - it exists, to the best of our abilities, to be enjoyed. There is no point in a greater understanding of the world unless you can enjoy that understanding.

My most particular, and intense, enjoyment comes out of expression - not in intellect, not in emotion, but in the messy blend between the two which increases our experience of both. To interest me, it’s not enough to display emotion or cold logic. The emotions must feel revelatory because they’re complex and conflicted, and the thoughts must be suffused with a human dimension. And not only that - a person has to be willing to share them with others, regardless of how difficult; like an intense and rewarding conversation with a close friend or family member you love, in which by the end you know the person better than you ever did before. You’ve captured a part of their mystery, their perception of their own mystery, and their perception of yours, in a completely new way which adds to the mysteries which life holds, and you therefore love them even more.  

Few things can beat the pleasure of conversation. But for me, the arts come close, or at least they do some of the time. I love those romantic/realist painters from the early 19th century like Delacroix, Goya, Courbet, and Turner who manage to create the most innovative techniques (in some ways, painting never moved beyond them), yet marry all those magnificent innovations to emotional expression. Contrast that to the decadent pleasures of impressionism, or the ascetic coolness of modernism, and you’ll immediately see the difference. By the time of the impressionists, a painter like Van Gogh and had to swim against the current and was driven to suicide. By the time of modernism, a painter like Chagall with a personal vision was completely poo-poohed by the obsessive art lovers who should have loved him best. For the same reason, I love early 20th century Post-Romantic composers like Mahler, Janacek, Richard Strauss, Carl Nielsen, Sibelius, Elgar. Poor Britten and Shostakovich were born too late, poor Brahms and Bruckner too early, and though all four achieved great notoriety in their lifetimes, they had to bitterly persist in pursuing their own personal greatness against forces which wanted nothing more than for their greatnesses to be rejected. Or post-production code Hollywood movies from the 70's - Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff, etc maybe even Nashville... - that eschewed dry European 'formalism' for good old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling. Even so, the stories they told were challenging, personal, unpandered, and unspoiled by bottom lines and focus groups - a truly popular art. To be sure, there are greater painters and composers and moviemakers than those mentioned - not a single Mozart or a Rembrandt or Welles among them. But, in some ways, the work of these ‘late’ masters suffered because they all aspired to a higher metaphysical aim than it ever occurred to the greatest masters to express. They aspired to things which their artforms could not do, and therefore failed nearly as often as they succeeded. Some find all this work I’ve mentioned insufferably bloated and too intense. But I love its excess - sometimes these creators fall off high rungs, but they do so because they risk so much, and often reap rewards beyond which even Mozart and Rembrandt can attain. To the best of their abilities, the whole world is contained within their creations, and nothing is alien to them.

If I had to categorize myself and the point is of this blog, it’s to capture my very limited portion of the world, and my attempt to understand it. The best philosophy, however amateurish, is wisdom-writing. And as an extremely limited follower of essayists like Montaigne and Emerson and Orwell, I’m trying to understand the world and make sense of it in an extremely unscientific, warm-hearted way in which no answers are to be found - only new questions.

This is where I have to admit, a person with such a proven record of being the very opposite of wise has no business writing anything related to wisdom. But perhaps its that very need for wisdom, and my follies in obtaining it, that necessitates the writing, and has enabled me to sustain it in some manner for nearly two-and-a-half years. This blog is the canvass on which I, to the best of my limited ability, portray, capture, and express myself.

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