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

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Wonderful World Of Fantasy–Why The Imagined Is Always More Real Than The Actual

Maud Fellows had been born to Iowa farmers who had always been faithful, patriotic, and community-minded.  They were farmers, members of Rotary and Kiwanis, congregants of the Third United Methodist Church of Christ, lifelong Republicans who broke ranks with their more conservative brethren as millennialists who believed in the imminence of the Second Coming.

Image result for images icon rotary

Their home was a potpourri of their eclectic and often contradictory tastes.  Catholic crucifixes, statues of The Holy Virgin, and icons of Saints Michael, Jerome, and Anthony were arrayed next to horrific scenes of Armageddon and the Apocalypse.

‘The Lives of the Saints’ had far less to do with the Fellows' faith than to Christ’s Last Holocaust – Judgment Day, the final accounting, and the resurrection of the body either to celestial paradise or to the consuming, sulfurous fire of Hell. 



The Fellows were unimpressed with the conventional Christian tales of brotherhood and spiritual devotion.  Their belief was beyond even the Old Testament and its ritual sacrifices, blood feuds and sacrifices, and vengeful retribution.  It was pagan, pre-Christian, and savage.

Of course they never admitted as much, nor erected and venerated images of pre-Christian idolatry. They were conservative at heart, born and conditioned by a very American belief in secularism, progress, and goodness.  Yet they felt there was something missing in the prescriptive ceremonies of their faith. The primitive, essential juices of belief had been squeezed dry.  There was nothing left of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus – bloody, tormented, disgraceful – other than Sunday observance.



The world of Fellows Père and his family was one of extreme religious belief – more reflective of pre-Colombian Mesoamerica than than the logical postulates of Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Religion was nothing if it did not embody the very sensuous and passionate trial of Our Lord. When captured by the Early Church theologians, the passion of Christ became disembodied, intellectual, and lost.

Maud was caught between two worlds.  She was being educated as a thinking, reflective, objective young adult for whom only logical exegesis mattered; but had grown up in a world of fanciful extremism.  How was she to square the logical, deductive monographs of Tertullian and Chrysostom with the emotional passion of personal, emotional belief?

As fate – DNA, parental influence, social mediated milieus – would have it, Maud did not become a street-corner evangelist or Union Square preacher.  She turned out to be a logical thinker and secular apologist; but had a nativist suspicion of objectivism.  There was simply too much of myth, Freudian primitivism, and fantasy to reject out of hand.

Why, she wondered, was the world so fabricated on assumed reality? Why was everything decided on the basis of ‘fact’, actuality, and ‘objective’ observation?  Why was there no room for  subjectivity, even that which wandered far from the tried and true?

Most people were certainly defined by expectation as much as they were by probability.  Most people valued Hollywood as much as Bell Labs or MIT.  Had not fantasy, imagination, and the possible been neutered?

The accession of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was the first political event to have ever piqued the interest of Maud Fellows.  Here was a vaudevillian, circus performer, and carny barker who had finally and ultimately resonated with the American people.  He was outrageous, politically absurd, and an absolute, unreconstructed, un-recondite non-politician who was the perfectly American President.



Maud’s friends and colleagues didn’t know what to make of her enthusiasm for Trump.  To them he was the incarnation of racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism; a hated reprobate who had one the election on a technicality at best and at the hands of Ku Klux Klan Biblical sympathizers at worst.
They could not understand how Trump’s politics meant little; but his Las Vegas, Hollywood, New York mean streets agenda meant everything.  The tide had finally turned in America.  Cultural – not political – populism was finally having its day.  Donald Trump waved a long-overdue farewell to supposedly logical, objective political philosophy and welcomed a new era of subjective, passionate and non-rational electoral politics.

Maud’s enthusiasm was by no means only political.  Her dismissal of the sententious was but one edge to her take on life in general.  Why on earth did people take themselves so seriously, she asked herself, when history, let alone current events displayed nothing but the absurd? Was Henry VIII anything but a comic figure with his eight wives,  desperate hopes for a male heir, and nasty disputes with the Vatican? Were the Crusades, despite their attempt to retake Jerusalem for Christianity, anything but European desires for cultural and political hegemony?



Plus Ça Change is the absolute, unchangeable dictum of history. And if the events of history continue to repeat themselves ad absurdum, then how can anyone take them seriously.
Which is why Maud Fellows had nothing to do with politics or religion; and preferred to watch old movies.  There was something durable if not ineffable  about Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Claude Rains; or South Pacific, A Star is Born, or An American in Paris. 

Image result for images musical american in paris

Is Hollywood simply an American idiom, a cultural icon without substantial depth? Or is it the best and most enduring example of America?

While most Americans recognize and admire Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as innovators who fundamentally changed the nature of American communications and culture; they still look to Hollywood as the arbiter of taste and culture.  We go as Jennifer Lawrence or Jason Bateman go.

Popular culture is often dismissed as the refuge of the uninformed middle class – a place to hide, a comfortable, feel-good redoubt – but it is anything but. It is America.  Donald Trump is the first real American president in decades.  While Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon may have reflected particular political views, Trump is popular America.

Maud Trump was an enthusiastic Trump supporter – not because she supported his views on the wall, taxes, or Western values; but because he was an unashamed vaudevillian.  Only the sanctimonious Left takes his tweets seriously, or his international bombast, or his ridiculing of progressive electoral wounds.  Maud loved his outrageous, fanciful rejection of Leftist and American sanctimony.

Her dismissal of cant, proprietary ownership, and sanctimonious posturing did not end with politics; but extended to the desperate wannabes of American society -those hoping for a new, if not returned messiah.

Maud Fellows was not content to carp from the sidelines – to dismiss presumptuousness and rightful place – but to claim that the vaudevillians, the magicians, and the comedians should inherit the earth.  Given millennia of repetitive, predictable human history and their wars, civil conflict, and depredation; and the advances in art, culture, and civilization at least in part thanks to them, wasn’t it time to acknowledge the clowns?

Only those with a humorous, disaffected, and disengaged point of view are moral, for they have understood history and the vanity of assumed righteousness.

Maud Fellows was the daughter of serendipity.  She had been born to and been brought by natural skeptics and true believers.  As such she had an appreciation for the power and failings of intellectual insight and of the glory of true, uninhibited fanciful belief.


Her political and religious diffidence and indifference won her few friends and supporters in a world of exaggerated political commitment and spiritual faith; but she paid them no mind.

She had had her epiphany early on in life and was unlikely to be swayed by anyone from then on.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Pangloss, Politics, And The Best Of All Possible Worlds–When Does Idealism Lose Its Flavor?

Alas! ‘My dear,'said she, 'unless you have been raped by two Bulgarians, stabbed twice in the belly, have had two castles destroyed, two fathers and mothers murdered before your eyes, and have seen two of your lovers flogged in an auto-da-fe, I do not see how you can surpass me; moreover, I was born a Baroness with seventy-two quarterings and I have been a kitchen wench’ (Candide, Ch.10)
Image result for images candide

Things could always be worse, thought Bethany Beech, a pretty, innocent, and charmingly hopeful optimist.  God was indeed always in his heaven, and all was right with the world. To have come to such a profound moral conclusion so young in life was remarkable although very unusual.  Her idealism was so simple and uncomplicated that she was never criticized for being a dreamer nor ever warned about the dangers of her naïveté.  Her warmth and charity was a happy thing.

Her upbeat, chipper view of the world was surprising, given the cynicism of her mother and the nihilism of her father.  Neither was given to moralizing, but it was not hard for the young girl to figure out where her parents stood.  Her father was a successful businessman with a natural talent for opportunity and risk; an equanimity which allowed him to take profit and loss with the same dispassion; and a profound belief in individual responsibility. One ended up where one did because of ambition and ability or the lack thereof, and nothing was to be gained by compassion.

Her mother had never met a person she could trust or believe.  Duplicity was the order of the day in all but saints, and even then sainthood did not automatically erase the sins of the past.  Saints Paul, Anthony, Jerome, Aquinas and all the rest were men like any other; and despite their inspirational letters and writings, had to have been no different than the herders, clerks, and rabbis of the time.

Image result for images st paul

Goodness was a social construct, she believed, a keen way to keep order and preserve the integrity of the body politic to make individual enterprise more productive.

Where Bethany’s idealism came from was a mystery to her parents.   Even the most dire and depressing events had their good side, their lessons, or even their optimistic promotions.  A washed out field hockey game meant more time for the school picnic, or a special under-the-umbrellas camaraderie with her girlfriends.  Poor grades were a blessing in disguise never failure.  The most disadvantaged child – slow, unattractive, clumsy, and ignorant – certainly had a warm underbelly, a considerate and thoughtful nature, and a God-given gift.

Regardless of the origins of her idealism, she never doubted herself.   Of course there are few chances of disillusionment in childhood, especially a very advantaged one like Bethany’s.  Hardship, penury, and misfortune were far from her privileged existence, so it was not surprising that her buoyant optimism lasted through childhood.  Her parents were healthy, prosperous, and well-situated; she wanted for nothing, and the worst reversals were no more than insignificant and temporary setbacks.

Her idealism began to be tested once she reached her adolescent years when girls turn catty, devious, and mean; and boys become dumber and dumber.  Once admired teachers lose their luster and once their pimples and warts begin to show – a stumbling lack of coordination in one, a stutter in another, and a maddening repetitiousness in a third – they are no longer heroes but clowns.

Bethany, however, was never disappointed or discouraged by these revelations.  They were exposures, no more no less, of human nature to be taken as is without criticism or censure.  There was every reason to continue to see the world as a good place, despite everything.

College was a different story altogether, for there she saw students who were convinced that the world was headed for a better place; that personal and social progress was indeed possible. This she could not understand, for history was anything but a positive trajectory.  Since the beginning of human civilization, men fought for territory, wealth, resources, status, women, and prestige.  Wars, civil strife, inequality, and human misery were common to all eras; but so were advanced civilization.  The same kings, queens, princes, and courtiers that engineered wars of territorial expansion used their newly-acquired wealth to built castles, churches, monuments, public architecture, roads, aqueducts, and palaces.

Image result for images henry viii

There always seemed to be a moral balance.  One thing resulted in another, and there could never be a conclusion as to relative value.  Without Genghis Khan, the Crusades, Mohammed, the Persians, Mauryans, Angles, Danes, and Jutes there never would have been Western and Eastern civilization.
When looked at from an even more distant perspective, the world looked very small indeed and human history insignificant.  How could anyone possibly conclude that the world was becoming a better place.

Both Candide and Pangloss were right.  It was vain and silly to imagine that any moment was the best of all possible moments; but just as fanciful to believe that any moment, time, or era would be any better than those previous.  Once one accepted the inescapable fact of an unchangeable human nature and the consequently predictable repetition of history, every moment was indeed the best simply because it could be no other way.

Bethany agreed with Voltaire and therefore had nothing to do with campus activism.  In fact, given Voltaire there was no more folly than that of progressive idealism – a waste of time, energy, and resources.  The world would surely be a saner, less contentious, and more peaceful place if one gave up one’s hold on righteousness and progress.

Image result for images voltaire

Bethany was more like her father than her mother.  Although he never gave philosophy a second thought, so busy was he making money, his views, if parsed, would be worthy of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer.

Kierkegaard posited an early form of nihilism, which he referred to as leveling, the process of suppressing individuality to a point where the individual's uniqueness becomes non-existent and nothing meaningful in his existence can be affirmed.

Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.

For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. Einstein paraphrased his views as follows: "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants."

Image result for images schopenhauer

Randall Beech simply carried on, doing what he did best, driven by that particular configuration of nature and nurture which created him but unaware of and indifferent to it.

Bethany was very aware of her Panglossian attitude which was very distinct from the nihilist philosophers who proposed them because of her conclusion that things simply were.  They were neither meaningful nor meaningless; neither influenced by pure will nor only acted upon. 
How then could anyone invest anything more than desultory interest in proposals to change the course of a determined, valueless world?

Her special brand of indifference was particularly threatening to campus activists.  Had she said she was a nihilist and staked out a clear philosophical position, she would have been tolerated or at least invited into the big progressive tent.  Nihilism was a dare sight better than reactionary conservatism.
She did not claim a higher moral ground, and said that she was only indifferent.  “I don’t care”, she said, and the culture warriors took it as a battle cry.  Indifference was tantamount to capitulation, and capitulation was tantamount to moral cowardice.

Once she left university and pursued an academic career, she was no longer hounded.  Everyone in associated Harvard PhD program was focused on elemental research whether in philosophy, linguistics, hermeneutics, or physics.  Neither they nor she had any time for speculation about a better world.  There might or might not be one, and their work might or might not contribute to it, but it was of no concern to them. 


One of the by-products of the best of all possible world is unconcern about implications.  Only results matter.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Dance With The One That Brung You–Preparing For Life’s End With What Got You There In The First Place

Parker Jones was the son of persistent individualists who had held their ground in the high mountains of Montana until they had been forced to leave because of foreclosure, illness, and extremely bad weather. But for bad luck, an unexpected and surprising downturn in cattle prices, and an unforgiving loan officer, they could have survived another year and perhaps even prospered from the profitable gas exploration in the valley.

Image result for images montana mountains

Parker inherited his father’s rebellious individualism, his mother’s pluck and ingenuity, and his grandfather’s  brains; but his irrepressible – some said insufferable- ego was his own.  From a very early age he wanted nothing to do with the concerns or affairs of others.  They had been dealt hands from the same deck of cards as he had, granted reasonable intelligence and physical ability, and with ambition, drive, and pursuit could achieve whatever ends they sought.   He had neither compassion for their failures nor praise for their successes.  He and they had been both scrambled in the same genetic potpourri, conditioned by similar environmental factors, and were quite capable of making do with what fortune had decided.

Of course few of his peers had his unusual combination of brains, indifference, and ambition – the sine qua non of American success – and he left them far behind as he moved through Wall Street, corporate America, and finally academia.  In each of his professions his arrogance and supreme ego were given a pass because of his performance.  As a ruthless financier, he made millions for investment banks.  As a corporate executive who could sense weakness, vulnerability, and fear, he earned millions more through canny mergers and acquisitions.  As an academic, freed by tenure to follow his own intellectual instincts, he made waves and a solid income from his books.

Image result for wall street bull images

Such was the productive, active, and up until his 70th birthday, happy life of Parker Jones.  He had avoided bad marriages and worse divorces.  He had skied at Gstaad and summered at St. Tropez.  He had done things of which he and others were proud.  He was known.

Who knows who or what sowed the first seed of doubt; but for the first time in his life Parker Jones felt uncertain, unsure of his footing. He was as healthy and strong as ever, on the road to 100, and as sharp, witty, and perceptive as ever.  Yet there was this new and totally strange feeling of unsettling unease.  Something was wrong, he was sure of that, but he knew not what.

Turning seventy had been far more difficult than he had imagined. Decade turning points had meant little before.  Fifty and sixty came and went without notice – lots of champagne, oysters, friends, and sailing in the Mediterranean – but seventy was clearly different.  Nothing really had changed from the day before to the day after, but numbers don’t lie.  There could be no hiding from the fact that not only was most of his life over, but he had scant few years left, and he felt unprepared. 

Most men passing this milestone have similar moments of reflection – has my life been worth anything? Will I be remembered, and if so for what? What’s next if anything? – but since Parker Jones never gave meaning, worth, or reflection any pause or value, these thoughts were particularly troubling.  Not only was he headed down the end of the tunnel, he was singularly unprepared.

Tolstoy spent most of his adult life pondering existential questions.  He read and studied every important work of philosophy, scientific theory, literature, art criticism, and history in the hope of finding something of moral authority, absolute reason, or emotional satisfaction.  As his character Konstantin Levin wondered in Anna Karenina, how could God have created a being with such intelligence, creativity, insight, humor, and ambition, let him live a few short decades, and then consign him to an eternity of nothingness in the cold, hard earth of the steppes? In the end Tolstoy simply gave up – the questions he was asking were simply imponderable and unanswerable.  If billions of people have believed in God, he reasoned finally, then why shouldn’t he?

Image result for images tolstoy

Parker’s problem was not that he was afraid to confront approaching old age; but that he had no idea how. 

Tolstoy at the end of his life turned his decades of existential search into practical action. The exposition of his newfound faith became as passionate as his earlier search for truth.
The philosopher Peter Kropatkin wrote in 1911:
Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus and from the necessary dictates of reason...
Tolstoy made (especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force…. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state, and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars.
In short, Tolstoy remained true to his character and the intellect which had characterized him since childhood.  Although he had become more open and sensitive to the plight and conditions of those around him, he never changed course, never became a mendicant, a monk, or a charity worker.  His political and religious advocacy evolved from the same hard, disciplined place as his philosophical quest or his writing.  If he were to positively influence society – and this make his final mark on history – it was to be through a committed and courageous advocacy.  His message of Christian teaching plus secular activism were typical of his nature and vision.

Parker Jones, on the other hand, had no such insight.  As he looked back on his life and career – companies bought and sold, millions made, books written, adventures had and their chronicles written – he wondered if such a life of action, purpose, and endeavor was really all there was.  Perhaps he had overlooked his compassionate, giving, and charitable side.  Perhaps his life, as respectable and admired as it might be, had really been not much at all – a collection of selfish opportunities, nothing more.  Nothing really lasting, meaningful, or essential.

So he joined men’s clubs in the hopes that these collegial and confessional groups could help him discover and/or reveal a more sensitive, principled side.  He contributed time and resources to charities to help the poor and disadvantaged.  He did his best to curb his temper, insolence, and impatience.  In short, he tried to remake himself into a much more understanding, forgiving, and compassionate person.

Of course none of these reforms worked. He frustrated his colleagues at men’s groups because of is insistence on talking about his problems, his challenges, and his existential crisis.  The venue might have changed, but Parker Jones had not.  He was still the self-centered, ego-powered individual he had always been.

He became increasingly intolerant in his political views which had shifted far to the Left.  A man’s political philosophy was what defined him most; so the new Parker could no longer espouse libertarian conservatism but only radical progressivism.  In other words, he flew the banner of progressivism to herald his own convictions not to announce real social concern. 

It was not long before Parker’s self-inquiry and –criticism took another turn.  He quickly tired of the men’s clubs whose members were too slow on the uptake; too impatient with the liberal zealots who tried to tame his individualistic enthusiasm; and too fed up with women who insisted on disagreeing with him.

Sadly, the final turn was inward.  Neither his natural, boundless energy and enthusiasm and absolute self-confidence; nor his new compassion and understanding were satisfied.  He was betwixt and between, emotionally hemmed in through his own doing, and very, very unhappy.

The simple moral of the story of Parker Jones is this – dance with the one that brung you. Stay the course until the end.  Parker Jones had not a snowball’s chance in hell of changing his attitude, personality, character, or ways; and so was ill-equipped to deal with the existential questions that troubled him.  Had he accepted who he was and lived with the fact that people don’t change, that the dice have been cast at birth, and that both nature and nurture conspire right from the very first, he might have had a chance of figuring out what’s what and to become schmart before he was old.
Unfortunately he was more locked into his box more inescapably than most.  His was not a happy end.