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

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Best Of All Possible Worlds

“I live in the best of all possible worlds”, said Melody Tripp without a trace of irony.
It is demonstrable," said Master Pangloss, "that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles; therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings; accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles; therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten; therefore we eat pork all year round. And they who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.

She had come to the same conclusion as Maître Pangloss, although for different reasons. Things most definitely were not created for some end, but were created willy-nilly.  Without purpose human beings simply banged against each other like billiard balls, but acted as though their actions actually made a difference, that their little infinitesimal speck in the universe actually mattered. “Of course not”, Melody said to herself in the mirror. “How foolish”.

If one lived in a purposeless universe, one governed by physical laws and nothing else, than not only was hers the best of all possible worlds, so was every world since apes came down from the trees.
“How can you say that?”, challenged her liberal friends who saw nothing but pain and penury all around them and were desperate to alleviate suffering. “If anything, this is the worst of all possible worlds”, they told her.

“Nonsense”, she always replied.  The only consistent element in history was its repetitious predictability. It was sheer nonsense to conclude that we lived in especially troubled times and even more foolish to think that we could work our way into a better, happier ones. 

Her conservative friends were concerned about her lack of faith.  “A life without Jesus Christ is unthinkable”, they said. “Ridiculous”, she thought; and remembered poor Tolstoy who worried himself silly trying to figure out whether or not there was a God.  He read volumes of philosophy, science, mathematics, and history without ever finding answers.  He read the Bible, Biblical commentary, and the texts of all faiths.  All devotional charades. Many years later, tired and worn out from the search, he concluded that if so many people believe, then that was good enough for him.

Tolstoy A Confession

Melody spared herself the trouble. She saw neither evidence of social evolution nor any suggestion that religion was anything other than a convenient human concoction.

Paul Theroux once wrote that when he was a young man in Africa he knew that it would be the happiest time of his life.  While most of us select from the least unpleasant memories of our past, Theroux had – according to him – an unexplained but preternatural sense of time, place, and destiny. He had no idea why he ended up in an African village that was perfectly consistent with his need for community, congruent with his sexual desires, and responsive to his young idealism and spirit.  He simply knew that it was indeed the best of all possible worlds.

Melody never had this sense of felicitous happening.  Whatever world she inherited was fine with her.  Her parents were no better or worse than anyone else’s. People went to church and the Rotary Club, played golf, had tea parties and formal dinners; lied, cheated, and stole; and were jealous and unfaithful. They were not unlike the townspeople of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners who lived predictable, temperate, and reasonably satisfactory lives. Looking down from their perch in the afterlife, they realized that their lives had been only partially fulfilled.  There was so much more they could have done. Their lives were more opportunities missed than opportunities taken. 

Yet Melody differed from the people in Grover’s Corners in one significant way – she knew that she would have no regrets.  There was no such thing as a ‘missed opportunity’ in her view, only turns taken.  What lay at the top of the stairs would always be unpredictable and neither good nor bad. Only the hand of cards dealt that day. Tomorrow they would be reshuffled and dealt again.

As far as smelling the roses was concerned, Melody had no room for such sentimentality. People were hardwired and conditioned either to keep their heads down or up, to be either aware of the scent of jasmine or the abstractions of Fermat’s Theorem.  She never ‘celebrated diversity’.

“She has EAD – Emotional Affective Disorder”, remarked a mutual friend who as a psychiatrist took a more clinical view of Melody’s insistent good humor. “She never made it past the emotional age of six months”.  Melody dismissed his dark, cynical Jewishness, and told him that Freud had only said the obvious but added angst, complex, and suffering as variables to very simple equations.

There should be no psychiatrists in India, she said, because Hinduism in its unremitting fatalism removed illusion, discouraged frivolous ambition, and offered the promise of eventual release from the predictable cycles of history and Grover’s Corners. Hindus took life as it came.

Image result for hindus at prayer

Yet there was something depressing about such fatalism. Hinduism allowed for no exuberance, no frolicking in the meadow even though it didn’t really exist. In her world, which very much did exist, frivolity was the whole point.

Nietzsche had proposed that in a meaningless universe the only validation of humanity was the expression of individual will; but Melody was quite happy and fulfilled without overreaching ambition.  The universe was by no means meaningless. It gave people fits because it was both predictable and unpredictable.  Some combination of 52 cards would always be dealt in a poker hand; but one never knew which it would be.  Under these circumstances it would be foolish to try to determine or ascribe meaning.

Image result for images nietzsche

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, said a close friend of Melody’s who was no different from Tolstoy in his perennial search for meaning. “How facile.”
Nothing of the sort, she had replied. “I am no philosophical spendthrift”. There was always a rational basis for Melody’s determinism.  She would act no differently on the way to the theatre or up the stairs to the gallows.

There was nothing treacly or insipid about her joy.  She did not idealize childhood innocence or see nobility in suffering. She neither admired great achievement nor felt sorry for those scrambling up the bottom rungs of the ladder. 

“Maybe I’m a Deconstructionist after all”, she said. “All is text.”  Hamlet and the Toyota Camry 2014.5 Car Manual are of equal value.  Their only worth is how they express the cultural, social, and economic phenomena of the time.  Perhaps Lacan and Derrida had a point; but since they squeezed the juice out of literature and had none of Melody’s ‘fatalistic exuberance’, she dismissed them.

Image result for images derrida

Most of Melody’s friends were very unlike her; but all wished they had some of her equanimity. “Condemned to a life of purpose”, she said, for even the most rational had succumbed to meaning.  If they smelled the roses, they were God’s roses.

Everyone seemed to be waiting for Melody’s comeuppance.  A death in the family, cancer, a fatal choice – anything which would betray her impossibly positive outlook. When she died those who outlived her were still waiting.

I recently went to a funeral service for a former lover of mine. One by one friends and colleagues took the podium to talk about her professionalism, her technical competence, and her compassion. None of them apparently had seen what I had and described her in the most banal ways.  It was as though she had never existed.

I feared the worst at Melody’s funeral; and worried that few people would have seen beyond her seeming diffidence and disengagement and simply numbered her achievements. I hoped that at least one person would have seen how exuberance and indifference can indeed exist together.  Melody was a remarkable woman in many ways, but to me that was what distinguished her from all others.

I decided not to attend.  I had no intention of speaking and would have been depressed to hear predictable litanies.  Not surprisingly there was no obituary in the Washington Post. “Typical”, said a Deconstructionist colleague. “No text as the text.”

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