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

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Bart Blevins’ Frantic Search For Meaning–He Was Simply Looking In All The Wrong Places

“What is the meaning of life?”, Bart Blevins asked his old college roommate, surprised that after all these years his friend had neither found the answer nor realized that the question was meaningless.  Yes, they had shared philosophical intimacies over coffee in the Trumbull dining room, hashed over the arguments of every important philosopher from Socrates to Heidegger, theologians from Athanasius and Origen to Barth and Sartre, and Yale’s own Paul Weiss; but still, wandering down blind alleys was a waste of time. No one really cares about the meaning of life.  Only how to get through it – not even to get through it as innocently as possible (Do No Harm), but simply to keep on an even keel, away from reefs and shoals, and in and out of harbor without shipping too much water.

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Bart thought his roommate overly cynical; surprisingly so since he had led a charmed life – success at work and with women, money in the bank, a trim figure and all his hair, and a dutiful wife.  Life might indeed be meaningless, but there was no reason to be dismissive.  Henry Towne had become an intellectual poseur – cynicism was part of the fey persona he affected.  The otherworldly gentleman of means, summering at St. Martin’s, wintering at Gstaad, without either a mundane or existential care in the world. 

“Couldn’t be”, thought Bart.  There had to something more substantial under that philosophical greasepaint.  Something worthy, hopeful.

Bart Blevins not only sought meaning for himself but wished that everyone realized the importance of plumbing the depths of existence.  “Too soon old, too late schmart”, said Abe Marx, a friend fond of Yiddish-isms, “but in your case, it’s hopeless”.  Bart didn’t have what it takes to sort out this from that let alone being from nothingness.  He was better off not thinking so much, playing golf on Sundays, and paying more attention to what his roommate meant rather than what he said.  Yes, Henry Towne was a hopeless poseur, but who could say that anything, let alone life itself, had meaning?  The man wasn’t as stupid as he seemed.

Despite all this, Bart continued his search.  Tolstoy read history, religion philosophy, science, art, and literature to try to figure out what’s what before it was too late. By the time he was fifty, however, he gave up, capitulated, and gave in.  Not so much because he had found the answers he was looking for or realized they were not to be found.  He simply wore himself out.  Konstantin Levin, one of his heroes in Anna Karenina, was his alter ego, a man after the truth.  How ironic, thought Levin as a young man, that God created man as an intelligent, perceptive, humorous, insightful, and passionate being only to let him live for a few scant decades and then consign him for all eternity to the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  As an older man, he had softened, and like Tolstoy, had given in, not just rested from an unproductive search, but found the most treacly, warm-and-fuzzy retreat – goodness.

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I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
Epiphany comes in all sizes, and another of Tolstoy’s heroes, Count Andrei in War and Peace, has two, the last before his death not unlike Levin’s; and is as comforting.
As he fell asleep he had still been thinking of the subject that now always occupied his mind - about life and death, and chiefly about death. He felt himself nearer to it.
“Love? What is love?” he thought.
“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed to him comforting.
Bart wanted none of this.  He would never back into or back out of the truth.  He was much more like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich than either Levin or Andrei.
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours.
Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Perhaps he had missed the boat and been an Epicurean.  Life has no meaning except for its enjoyment – no light at the end of the tunnel.  In fact no dark tunnel at all, no epiphany, no aha! experience; only light and pleasure.  Wine, women, and song.  Life was never nasty, brutish, and short as Hobbes had suggested.  Just the opposite.  Short though it might be, life was la dolce vita, lived without principle morality, or purpose. “I didn’t ask to be born”, said Bart.

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Poor Bart.  As hard as he tried he could never be entirely rid of the niggling, bothersome thoughts about what it was all worth.  It kept him up at night, and it was the first thing he thought of when he got up in the morning.  “Too bad I was born a Presbyterian”, he said, brought up to believe that parsimony, temperance, righteousness, and godliness were all that mattered.  That Papists were kidding themselves with all their idolatry and holy water.  The whole cult of consecration was an abomination.  Imagine, all those obscene statues of a nude Christ on the cross, some gay priest’s idea of suffering, emblematic of the whole physicality of the Catholic Church.

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Perhaps, Bart thought, not without some reason; but it would be good to give oneself over to body and not entirely to soul.  That might be the compromise he sought – belief in the suffering, physical Jesus as an acceptance of life as it is, but also belief in his glorious resurrection.  No wonder the Catholic Church flourished for so long! What a great story and so fulfilling!

But he could no more set foot in a Catholic church than he could any longer in a Presbyterian one.  Catholicism might be sensuous and physically appealing, but it shut the door on pleasurable excess and taking life easy.

There of course was sex.  Many a man far more desperate than he had fallen for a younger woman, suddenly regaining his youth, his optimism, and his satisfaction that this indeed was the best of all possible worlds.  But when his affair with Lisa had gone bad, and she had left him for a younger man, he felt worse than when he had begun.  The comedown, the abject fall from the Christmas gift fantasy of sex with a thirty-something, made him realize how old he actually was, how no love is the answer, and that December-May relationships always end up on the curb unless big money is involved.

As he got older Bart kept waiting for the epiphany of Ivan Ilyich.  “It is finished”, he hoped that his mind would tell him at 5:30 in the morning as he pulled off his pajamas. No such luck.  Nothing had worked and was unlikely to work whether embracing meaningless, continuing a fruitless search for meaning; satiation, sexual adventure, or affecting a fey persona.  A ‘given’, his roommate had said a while ago.  Bart’s fruitless search was as much a part of him as were his eye teeth or his hammer toe.  There would be no respite, so get over it, Henry Towne had said.

“Just like him”, Bart thought, dismissive and unconcerned to the end.  But then again, Bart had a beautiful wife, a seductive mistress, and homes in Palm Beach, Rimini, and St. Moritz.  Why shouldn’t he?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

What Ever Happened To Arthur Hicks? The Short, Happy Life Of A Social Activist

Arthur Hicks never met a social cause he didn’t embrace.  Whether global warming, the glass ceiling, income inequality, the gender spectrum, civil rights or peace, he was on the front lines.  He was indeed a Social Justice Warrior – a lieutenant in the war against the reversal of progressive values, an officer in the struggle to restore the rightful balance of liberal democracy, a soldier in the movement to right the political ship of state.  America had indeed been loosed from its moorings and no longer resembled the fair, just, equitable society envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

The era of the Robber Barons had never disappeared.  The captains of industry today, secure and arrogant in their monied fortresses in Cupertino and Silicon Valley, were just as ruthless and rapacious as John Paul Getty, John D Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.  While they made a big show of distributing their wealth and aiding the poor, this largesse was only window dressing – a deflective, self-interested gesture to win public opinion.  Worst of all the American public had bought this canon of greed lock, stock, and barrel.  They were less and less attentive to the needs of their less fortunate brothers and sisters, indifferent to the coming environmental holocaust, and dismissive of the new realities of transgenderism, the consecration of same-sex marriage, and the dismantling of the market economy.   It was the job of Arthur Hicks and his equally committed colleagues to reverse the trend, to educate the masses, and to take down the shibboleths of wealth, white privilege, and crass commercialism.

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A mighty task indeed, but Arthur and his friends had no doubt that they were up to it.  They were insistent, enrolled for the long haul, and as devoted to their cause as fundamentalist Christians are to the Second Coming.  In fact the social justice movement was in many ways a religion.  It had a canon, liturgy, commandments, saints, sacraments, texts, and a hierarchy of priests, bishops, and archbishops.  There was confession, retribution, penance, and restoration.  Arthur and his friends embraced this comparison.  Their fight was no less than that of the Crusades, a fight to rid the Holy Land of the infidel.  Their ambition was celestial – the pursuit of absolute good would be rewarded by a higher power, if not God then some Universal Something.  At the very least they would be remembered in the history books of The New Utopia which they would create.

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Arthur was a very busy man, for in addition to his government job (a GS-14 responsible for the reshuffling of labor regulations) and his family, he attended all important conferences, seminars, and colloquies on social, economic, and environmental justice. Washington was the only place to be, for it was not only the seat of formal power but the locus of all anti-establishment activism.  The Washington Progressive was a newsletter published by Friends of Democracy, a non-profit organization created to coordinate and guide those who had come to Washington to lobby, agitate for, and demand social change; and every weekend Arthur Hicks used it to set his agenda for the week.

Prominent as he had become in the movement, he was asked to lecture, moderate, or at least offer comments on feminism, climate change, sexual transformation, and the economic ladder.  Little preparation was needed for these events, for he was so well-versed in the chapter and verse of every issue and so eloquent and emphatic in his delivery that it all came naturally.  There was no danger of repeating himself or boring his audience with old claims because repetition was the point.  Everyone knew exactly what he was going to say and how he was going to say it.  They waited for his dramatic pauses, cheered when he took on Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs, and Kennecott Copper, and took their seat only when he smiled, reached out his arms, and walked back to the podium.  They would have been disappointed had he changed focus, rhythm, or tone.  It would be as if the Offertory preceded the Kyrie; or if the Agnus Dei preceded the Canon.  There was power in repetition and universal, passionate sentiment.

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Social activism defined Arthur Hicks more than anything.  It was the cause that gave his life purpose, his character definition, and his personality spirit and energy.  Before he had become a follower, his life had been one dreary, predictable episode after the other.  School, marriage, children, mid-level career, and a diffident religious faith – nothing of any uniqueness or special importance.  If he had gone on this way, he would have died unhappy, unnoticed, and soon forgotten.  The movement gave him visibility and longevity.  It would last far longer than he, but he would never be forgotten as a soldier-saint.  He woke every morning a happy, satisfied man.

Until one day, he woke out of sorts on the wrong side of the bed.  Perhaps it was his dream – a sexual adventure with a much younger woman – or the Japanese woman who caught his eye during his lecture on economic perversity who reminded him of an Edo woman on a swing in a garden of cherry blossoms; or the jackbooted contingent from Bernal Heights who had disturbed his notions of sexual equality (why did they have to dress so dykey?); or the jeers and catcalls from the balcony every time Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland was mentioned.

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Something was not right.  He felt irritated and disgruntled and slogged his way down K Street to yet another conference on blackness, the black man, and the pity of the inner city.  Even worse, niggling, unsettling thoughts began to creep into his mind. ‘Lock ‘em up’….’Who needs these buggers anyway?’….’Let the fucking place burn’ – nasty, destructive, hateful thoughts.  What gender spectrum? Who cares about the spotted owl? Round Up got rid of my weeds.   Man up, shape up, get right and off drugs and welfare.  Let the F-35s napalm the whole lot.

But worst of all was this crisis of personal doubt.  How could anyone with so many years of righteousness; such dedication and purpose; such moral certitude be beset by such questions?  Perhaps he was really a closet conservative who simply found the movement congenial and fraternal – God knows how lonely he was as an adolescent and a young man.  Or the adulation, the rush of standing on the podium before an enthusiastic, adoring crowd?

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Was he really only a charlatan, a poseur, an actor without grounding, a comedian on any given stage?

Was it weariness?  Being always up for goodness can be tiring, like holding a smile.  It certainly would be more fun to be in the devil’s swarm – doing whatever, wherever without worrying about right and wrong, never having to hold up anything.  Life was short, after all, and now well into his late middle age he was feeling it more than ever.  If there was no God (probable) and if we all die alone (certain), then what was the point of his political blather and St Vitus dance?  Had he wasted his precious life on nonsense? Was not the lesson of history that it repeats itself predictably and there can be no such thing as progress?

Arthur Hicks was not the first social justice warrior to suddenly go missing.  Thousands simply gave it up as a phase, like dope before children, or sky-diving.  Many thousands more were seduced by Mediterranean dolce vita or que será será and never looked back at what, from the perspective of Cannes or St. Tropez, looked terribly tedious and boring.  Others simply went around the bend and realized that the conservative agenda was not as retrograde as they once thought. 

There are enough young recruits to keep the movement going, for it is youthful enthusiasm, idealism, and emotional sympathy which is at the heart of progressivism.  As long as at least some young people turn down investment banking and marketing for social causes, there is no danger of its disappearance.  All well and good.  If there were no MoveOn, MSNBC, Pacifica Radio, The Nation, Al Sharpton, and the Daily Kos life would be boring.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Life As Tedious Melodrama–And How Soap Operas Help Us To Get By

As The World Turns which ran from 1956-2010 was one of the most popular soap operas of all time.  It like many others (Guiding Light, Another World and The Edge of Night among them) was formulaic and entirely predictable.  Of course no one knew exactly how Harold would deceive Martha nor with whom, but everyone knew he would.  Laura would always be shrewish and unmanning, but would she get another man? How long would Adele put up with her husband, trapped as she was in a marriage to which she never consented but agreed to out of family loyalty and respect for her father, one of the wealthiest men in Boston?

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Women hurried home from the hairdresser’s, cooked dinner early, sent the children outside to play, took the phone off the hook, pulled the blinds, turned on the television, and waited for the opening bars of the theme song they knew so well and had waited a long week to hear.

Soap operas are not uniquely American – Brazil, Mexico, and most recently Turkey produce them regularly – but they feel American.  They are the perfect combination of Hollywood beauty and melodrama and real life.  Husbands always cheat on their wives, but are never as handsome and alluring as those on the soaps.  A woman might just might put up with her derelict husband if he looked like Lance Sebring, the surgeon on Our Lives, Your Lives.  She might even forgive her sister for beguiling her dying father if it meant keeping a house like Fair Oaks, the family mansion in A Brighter Day.  A world of troubles if led by beautiful people is always far better than the routine, boring lives that most of us lead; and that has always been the key to the success of soaps.  They reflect the same deceit, arrogance, greed, and selfishness as real life, but they bundle all of them in an irresistibly fanciful package.

The key to successful soap operas is viewer complicity – i.e. the viewer knows the tricks, deceptions and lies the serpentine heroine has played, but the naïve, unaware, and generously loving hero does not.  At every encounter between them, we wait for her venality, greed, and deception to be exposed; but it never is.  Lies are mounted upon lies, tears upon tears, and the hero – in a willful suspension of disbelief ignores all clues, suggestions, and innuendos.

There is nothing mysterious or surprising about soap operas – they are predictable, formulaic, and expected.  No one is surprised at family  suspicions, jealousies, and backhanded reprisals.  Of course daughters-in-law are compromised, spurned lovers after revenge and retribution, mothers-in-law determined and territorial.  It is the genius of the screenwriters which always surprises.  They know exactly when to suspend the plot and the dialogue; exactly at which moment to shift the story from heroine to ignored suitor; from murderous husband to calculating cousin. They juggle ten different characters in as many dramas with as many unsuspecting results for heroes, heroines, and associate players alike to fill fifty soap operas; yet they balance, calculate, measure and finally produce show after show of suspense and curiosity.

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We all hope that the serpentine comer will be outed and will have her comeuppance; that the sweet ingenue and the innocent, trusting suitor will marry.  That the psychopathic governor will be sent the the gallows; that the absurdly, defiantly mercenary villain will be discredited and isolated; and that all villains sent to their proper gallows. There are many episodes to a series.   We will have to wait to see if justice, honesty, and righteousness triumph or whether the villains, their dirty tricks, and their amoral ambitions succeed.

The genius of the British series Downton Abbey is that it allows good, democratic-minded Americans, salt-of-the-earth and intellectuals alike to enjoy themselves.  They can admire, desire, and romanticize about the lives of the rich and famous, and revel in their fall.  We Americans idolize our movie stars.  Although their glitzy, glamorous lives are far beyond our reach, they are not that far. Thousands of women have looked in the mirror and seen a face as classically beautiful as Angelina Jolie or as pouting and sexy like Scarlett Johansson. With a little luck and a few connections, one might be in Hollywood too.

Aristocratic England is all the more appealing because it is remote and impossibly unattainable. We would fumble and drop our forks at Downton Abbey or trip over the Persian carpet at Montpelier.  English Lords and their estates, fox hunting, understatement, and chauffeurs are way beyond us.  We can imagine having a beer with Matthew McConaughey, but not the Third Earl of Hereford.

Downton Abbey is America’s “Gone With the Wind.”  Viewers enjoy the wealthy’s excesses because they know they will not last.  Either by their own aristocratic arrogance or the inevitable intrusion of history they will have their comeuppance. Better still, when it comes to class, privilege and wealth, “Downton Abbey” lets us have our cake and eat it, too. The show gives us a voyeuristic peek at the pleasures of being an Edwardian aristocrat, but it also allows us to feel smarter and better than the blue bloods of that period.

Soap operas have earned a bad name among the literati. They are, say the critics,  no more than cheap melodramatic entertainment for the idle – housewives, out-of-work layabouts, and frustrated y0ung women who cannot navigate the waters of their own lives and prefer to see love, passion, desire, jealousy, and family conflict played out on the small screen. Yet these television series are much more, and slices of life at that.  What could be more true to life than family ambitions and jealousies, unrealistic hopes and dreams, and the nasty, greedy, and unconscionable ways  that we hope to attain them?

Is the purpose of art to enlighten? To educate? To move?  A case can be made that the best Turkish television serials do all three.  Winter Sun is educational and instructive for its careful representing of a changing Muslim society.  It is enlightening because of its personal insights into the most common human sentiments – jealousy, envy, revenge, and ambition.  The subject may not be new, but the way the series’ producers and staff have configured it to display a range of moral, emotional, social, and family reactions to provocative events is certainly compelling.  The series is most certainly moving.  There is no way not to feel intense dislike for the vixen, sympathy for the wronged wife, hatred for the evil-minded, greedy, and manipulative father, happiness at the goodness of the hero.

It is probably time to let go of labels and academia and be moved and entertained.

The point is that it does not take an Aeschylus, an Albee, or a Hellman to highlight family drama.  While these artists’ language, tournure de phrase, contest, and plot may be more elegant, less predictable, and more subtle, Turkish soap operas are at least their equal in empathy.  No viewer can finish the many episodes of the Turkish soap opera  Love is in the Air without some sense of universality, a common melodramatic bond, and a similar future.

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Like it or not, we all live lives of boring predictability.  Not only are our lives circumscribed by boulot, Metro, dodo but our problems are depressingly all the same – deceitful husbands, ungrateful children, greedy, thankless relatives, abusive bosses, disease, disability, and incontinence.  There is no remove from the cycle; and the views are always the same whether at the apogee or perigee.  Not surprisingly we like to see the our lives repeated on television if  dressed up in beauty, glitz, and glamour. 

Winter’s Bone is a long and depressing movie about an Ozark family struggling through poverty, cold, and inbred mountain family jealousies. This was no Eugene O’Neill country – the brutal terrain of Mourning Becomes Electra where the Mannon family destroys itself in a melodramatic grand guignol and explores the dynamics of greed, jealousy, spite, and power – but a slog through the mud and cold.  Each character was backward, ignorant, and dumb; and their attempt to find some kind of reconciliation and meaning was implausible and impossible.  The family goes through the same predictable crises as anyone else; but why watch this hopeless drudgery when we can see the same misfortunes played out with servants, boudoirs, and silver candelabra?

There is all too much realism in the world and all we really want to do is escape it.  For all the political activism, commitment to causes and progress, and persistent worry, nothing is much fun.  Nor is a two-job, night-shift food stamp family; but at least there are the soaps to get us through.