"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Life On A ‘Need To Know’ Basis–Trimming The Hedges

The older I get, the more I operate on a ‘need to know’ basis.  It isn’t that my mental hard drive is filling up, but that I feel the need to trim my intellectual hedges more than usual. I no longer have the eclecticism of my youth and an interest in everything. I read the paper in half the time I used to; skip over articles on particle physics, string theory, and travel to Phuket; and focus only on what is relevant to figuring it all out, as the old Yiddish expressions goes, before I am ‘too soon old, too late schmart”.

I recently had an exchange with a professor in the Yale University Psychology Department who had written a op-ed piece in the New York Times on ‘meaning’. He had argued:

The tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions (Paul Bloom with Konika Banerjee)

I disagreed, saying that ‘the drive to reason in psychological terms’ was too mechanistic to describe the fundamental drive to understand life in more philosophical terms – how is it, as Levin in Anna Karenina reflects, that man is created with vision, intellect, intelligence, creativity, and insight; and after only a few decades is consigned to an eternity in the cold, hard, clay of the steppes?

In other words I had little patience with attempts to decipher meaning out of temporal human interactions.  What difference did it make to me, I replied, whether or not Subject X understood why Subject Y did what he did; or why a collective of Y’s acted together; or why a consortium of X’s expressed repressed needs for legitimacy in Manifesto A.

I wanted to gain insight into the more fundamental issues of being; and only Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and even the Theatre of the Absurd could begin to address them.

My ‘need to know’ scanner has been programmed to select only those bits of information which relate to the subject at hand.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Prince Andrei’s epiphanies at Austerlitz and on his deathbed in Moscow, Pierre Bezukhov’s epiphanies in his shed in a French POW camp, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and his conviction that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless life is amoral, superhuman action; Hedda Gabler’s noble suicide, and Satan’s defiance of God in Paradise Lost are all I need to know.

Tolstoy himself grappled with meaning, faith, and death, in A Confession.  For decades he tried to reconcile reason with belief and never could do so.  He finally gave up.  Weary and dispirited he pushed ‘Default’.  If millions today and billions before him had believed, than that was good enough for him.

Science is in the process of creating an alternative reality.  Soon there will be no difference between what is ‘real’ and what has been artificially created. Today’s gross, dirty reality will become tomorrow’s dream world.  Who among us would refuse the chance to consort with Marie Antoinette in the gardens of Versailles? Or to make love to Christine de la Tour, First Lady to the Queen in the royal bedchambers of the King? Or to be served by the geishas of the Emperor?  No one.

Yet even these possibilities, fascinating though they are, are not on my ‘need to know’ list.  However integrated I am into the virtual circuits of cyber-reality, my death is assured and no different from before.  The most ardent proponents of virtual reality have not answered the question: “What happens when we pull the plug?”, when the seamless interface between humanity and virtuality is finally severed.

In other words, it all comes down to facing one’s final, inevitable, and ineluctably personal extinction.

Ivan Ilyich said at Death’s approach, “What? That’s all? What joy, what joy! “ He understood that his years of anxiety and self-reproach were worth nothing.  It is not death we fear, but the fear of death.  Ivan wasn’t so concerned about the meaning of life and death, but the moment of finality.

Image result for death of ivan ilyich images

I don’t really expect Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, or any other great thinker to resolve these metaphysical issues.  Nor do I expect any foxhole epiphany.  Count Andrei, dying on the battlefield of Austerlitz simply understood that all men are equal in the face of death. Francois Villon many years before wrote about being thrown into the graveyard ‘pêle-mêle’.  Nothing new there. In his second epiphany, Andrei realized that love is the answer – love for Napoleon, love for Natasha, love for everyone – but even the most devout must wonder at this treacly conclusion.  Pierre also dallies with universal love, but he cannot shake from his memory the vixen Ellen.

I often see myself as a caricature of those ‘of a certain age’ – inflexible, routine, dismissive if not critical of innovation and change – but know that while such circumspection is valid, it is a distortion. There  is no way that anyone seeing the light flickering at the end of the tunnel can suddenly become exuberant, hopeful, and optimistic about the future.  It is time to reflect – not on the past, but on the future. Ironically not a future with boundless promise, but one with limited possibilities. 

I am happy that the H Street Corridor in Washington reflects the best of metrosexual America.  I love the locavore, instinctive creativity of thirty-something cuisine. I love the cranes and jackhammers of 14th Street.  I mourn the death of Oscar de la Renta. The new transgender, cross-dressing, gender-bending, queer America is fine by me.


However, no matter how much glitz, fashion, and pizazz any generation can generate, we all must become Ivan Ilyich.  At some point I must pause the virtuality, the expediency, the deception, and the exuberance.   The questions “Who am I, where did I come from, and where am I going?” can no longer be avoided,.

‘Need to know’ has many advantages. I once had a friend who said, “North of sixty, anything is permitted”, understanding that the older one gets, the fewer consequences  there are for speaking one’s mind.  North of seventy is another thing altogether, for few of those who see the light flickering at the end of the tunnel give a fig about propriety or social opprobrium, let alone the reactions to what they might have or may have said..  In fact, personal expression or avowal means nothing at all; and if anyone ‘of a certain age’ has any concern whatsoever about others’ opinions, they are doomed to an ignoramus’s death.

I am not indifferent to the news – Ebola, ISIS, North Korea, the Kardashians, the dollar – but skim over the details. Anyone with any sense could have predicted current events.  Human nature, as aggressive, self-serving, self-protective, and acquisitive as it always has been, offers no surprises.

I am still – and expect that I will increasingly be – on a need to know basis.  I am on a second read of War and Peace, a third reading of Paradise Lost, and have Dr. Faustus on my night table. I know….I KNOW…that no third-party reflections on mortality, immortality, and all in-between can possibly help me.  After all, my hero Tolstoy did say, “We all die alone.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Being Human–Compassion or Individualism?

Friedrich Nietzsche was famous for his view that the only validation of life was the expression of will; and that rising above the herd and beyond good and evil was the supreme form of human enterprise.

Nietzsche has been kept at arm’s length by many who suggest that he is an apologist for the arrogation and misuse of power.  There would be no Hitler without Nietzsche say his harshest critics, and The Triumph of the Will is nothing if not a celebration of the Aryan Superman.  Whether or not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Kim Il Sung kept Thus Spake Zarathustra on the night stand is beside the point. The celebration of will need not be destructive.  On the contrary, if his philosophy glorified anything, it was the unique, powerful, and boundless energy, spirit, and resources of each individual human being. 

This idea of the celebration of individual will has been around for a long time.  Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were unashamed proponents of the idea.  Shakespeare’s greatest characters were Nietzschean villains – Iago, Richard III, Goneril and Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, and many others.  Tamburlaine the Great was Marlowe’s paean to the unleashed power of the individual.  Ibsen and Strindberg especially were influenced by Nietzsche, but also Eugene O’Neill.

Even Tolstoy who dismissed the Great Man theory of history and argued throughout War and Peace that Napoleon was responsible neither for his successes or failures, conditioned as they were by the millions of random events of history, large and small, which affect any momentary decision.  As importantly, Napoleon’s orders had only a marginal effect on the thousands of soldiers nominally under his command who fought less according to his grand strategy than according to their own histories, fears, and desires.

Nevertheless, Tolstoy admitted that it is part of human nature to want to overreach, to defy accepted norms, and to – if only for a moment – throw off the chains of convention and propriety. In this passage Pierre Bezukhov reflects on his own inability to act heroically and courageously.  He wants to assassinate Napoleon but he is beset by doubts. Nevertheless he decides to act first because of “a feeling of the necessity of sacrifice and suffering in view of the common calamity”; but his second reason was as important if not more so:

The other was that vague and quite Russian feeling of contempt for everything conventional, artificial, and human- for everything the majority of men regard as the greatest good in the world. Pierre had first experienced this strange and fascinating feeling at the Sloboda Palace, when he had suddenly felt that wealth, power, and life- all that men so painstakingly acquire and guard- if it has any worth has so only by reason the joy with which it can all be renounced.

It was the feeling that induces a volunteer recruit to spend his last penny on drink, and a drunken man to smash mirrors or glasses for no apparent reason and knowing that it will cost him all the money he possesses: the feeling which causes a man to perform actions which from an ordinary point of view are insane, to test, as it were, his personal power and strength, affirming the existence of a higher, nonhuman criterion of life.

It is not only Napoleon or leaders with great power who feel the need to overreach and to express their potency, but the common man as well.  For most of our lives we trample the prairie with the rest of the herd, moving this way and that as an animal collective following its instincts and with not even a glimmer of choice or individual will.

Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Tolstoy understood both the herd and the individual.  Tolstoy in fact felt that the mass of the army – that aggregation of soldiers conscripted into a war of almost certain death – had a collective will.  It turned and ran after Austerlitz but stood firm at Borodino.  Napoleon’s army ceased to be an army when it became a band of marauders who pillaged Moscow.  A few looters turned into to hundreds, and soon the whole army had lost its discipline, obedience to the Emperor, and any sense of moral propriety.  It became a herd.

Despite Tolstoy’s determinism, he did not dismiss Napoleon as irrelevant. While Tolstoy understood that the Emperor’s actions were conditioned by thousands of random actions of grooms and kings, he still recognized the force of his personality, character and will.   It might have been fortuitous that the banging billiard balls of history produced a Napoleon, but he was an alluring, irresistible character nonetheless. He had overarching ambitions – he wanted to unify all of Europe and Russia into one peaceful union. Like the Romans before him, he wanted to pacify the last of the rebellious tribes – the Russians.  Of course he wanted to be the Emperor of this new world empire, but his ambitions were at least more sane than many powerful leaders to follow.

It is not hard to sympathize with the Russian soldier who wants to act recklessly and with abandon.  Who among us has not chafed at the bit, reined in by the controlling forces of church, state, and society?

Ibsen’s plays – especially Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, and Rosmersholm – were celebrations of the individual will.  All of his major characters felt constrained by the past, family, religion, or social propriety; and understood that the only real validation of their lives was to finally reject accepted norms and finally realize their own power and potential.

Without a doubt Hedda, Rebekka, and Hilde are destructive because the achievement of their ambitions is a matter of personal, vital, validation of themselves.  Nothing can stand in their way.  The expression of will is as important as the ends that result.  Iago, Richard, Goneril, Edmund, and Regan are far more destructive and menacing.

None of these playwrights are honoring the destructive results of the expression of will; but simply acknowledge the innate, absolute, and persistent urge for individual supremacy.  “Don’t run with the herd”, they all say.

Tolstoy is very eloquent about death and dying – perhaps more so than any other writer.  His descriptions of Prince Andrei’s epiphany on the battlefield of Austerlitz and especially his long musings before his death at home from injuries suffered at Borodino are insightful and moving.  His short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich is chilling, frightening, and insightful. We all die alone, Tolstoy says.  In the final reckoning, no matter how hard we resist, we must let Death through the door.  Our struggle to understand what that is and what it means and what our life has led is ours and ours alone.

It is understandable, then, that a philosophy of individual will has such currency.  Not only does the expression of will validate the human experience in a meaningless life, but since we die alone and none of the herd come nuzzling and nosing around to share in a collective death, life and death are nothing is not individual events.

What about compassion, challenges Levin’s wife Kitty in Anna Karenina? She cannot understand her husband’s desire to revolutionize Russian agriculture for his own immediate gains.  She is nonplussed when he replies to her that he is doing everything for himself.  If he makes money, the peasants will gain.  Collateral benefit, he says, not compassion.

The lines have always been drawn in this way.  Whether philosophers or politicians, there are those who believe that the expression of individual will is the only way to spiritual evolution, social progress, and economic productivity; and those who believe exactly the opposite.  Individual will, they say, is the cause of human suffering and must be subjugated to the collective will; and that the people are a group are much more able to shepherd Man to a better world.

History is unequivocal on the argument.  Human nature – aggressive, self-interested, and self-serving – has ruled human events since Man came down out of the trees; and even that was a continuation of the behavior of the monkeys before him. As much as society has tried to rein in what is an ineluctable human nature, it has failed.  Yes, we live in a post-laissez-faire capitalism; but are we any less acquisitive, ambitious, and hungry for power, wealth, and influence?

The individual will always be the centerpiece of human society and the engine for its movement.  Human nature provides the fuel; and the herd provides the brakes.  There will always be a dynamic tension between those who celebrate individual will and those who believe in collective action – those who act and those who try to corral them. If ultimately the Fundamentalists are right and that religion and faith are matters between the individual and God; if Tolstoy is right in that we all die alone; and if Shakespeare is right in chronicling the exuberant expressions of individual will in human enterprise; then the herd has no chance.