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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Complexity vs People Magazine–What’s The Point Of Figuring Out What’s What?

Few people have not picked up a copy of People Magazine, E!,  or Entertainment Weekly while waiting at the beauty parlor, dentist's, or doctor’s office.  

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There is no reason at all why anyone should be fascinated by the doings of the Kardashians, Madonna, or Jay-Z, but we are.  Who is pregnant? Who left whom? Who is the hottest? Who has been left out?

Those raised in plummy New England – summers on the Vineyard, winter skiing at Gstaad, Main Line or Park Avenue residences – hesitate before picking up a copy of The Hollywood Reporter,  look to see who is nearby, thumb through The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books until they are alone,  then sit back and read what they have always wanted to but never found the right ‘opportunity’.

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Their coffee tables show off Hockney, Ansel Adams, and Vermeer.  Their bookshelves are filled with Joyce, Faulkner, and Willa Cather.  Bedside tables have the The Sonnets and early editions of Gary Larson.

Low-brow entertainment stays at the hairdresser.

A colleague of mine whose distinction between the worthwhile and the throwaway was especially clear.  He read only Proust, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche at home; and only potboilers on long haul flights.  ‘Airplane reading’, he said, had a different objective.  ‘The mind needs to rest’, and mindless romances, Westerns, and mysteries were the best means to this end. 

How he, a student and aficionado of the most challenging and intellectual works of literature, could possibly read ‘Anna and Her Five Lovers’  was astounding to John.  It is one thing to lighten one’s reading – say, to set Women in Love down for an hour or two and read Carson McCullers or Flannery O’Connor – but another entirely to read ladies’ romances.

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“No shame at all in shutting down for a while”, the colleague said.

Yes, parsing the philosophical prose of Conrad or Dostoyevsky can be tedious.  Lawrence can most definitely be a preachy.   The Red and the Black impenetrable, and Tristram Shandy unreadable; but weren’t they preferable – from an intellectual point of view at least – to beauty parlor fare?

Yet couldn't there be a compromise? There are those for whom life’s last laps are to be run the fastest; and those for whom the whole idea of a race disappeared decades ago.  In other words, some people as they get closer to the finish line race to the end as if their life depended on it; while others pull back on the reins and enjoy the rest of the ride.  Is there no middle ground?

After retirement another colleague, John Phillips, left all thoughts of his profession behind.  He, unlike many of his colleagues, had no interest in volunteer work, offering legal counsel to small non-profits, and educating newly-independent states in the principle of the rule of law.

It wasn’t that he had no sympathy.  He felt that at his age, there were too many things he did not understand.  He had to solve his  own problems; to face death with dignity, if not understanding.  And in the interim – the grey, ill-fitting period between retirement and finality – make sense out of something.

He taught a course on Dostoevsky – how The Grand Inquisitor’s challenge of Christ reprised Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Book of Job.  He studied Biblical exegesis and examined the Gospels of John and Luke.

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If this weren’t enough, he began to study Turkish, one of the most devilishly complex languages on earth.  There is no simple way of saying something without complicating it with adverbial agreement, phonetic shifts, derivative applications of 10 different tenses, nouns and adjectives which stand alone without reference to Indo-European tongues.

He worked seven days a week on all projects and continued into his late 70s.  He moved on from John and Luke to Ecclesiastes and the Torah; progressed from intermediate to advanced Turkish, and tiring of Conrad and the Russians, turned to Laurence Sterne and the Pre-Raphaelites.

“What’s the point?” asked a less demanding, more confident, and much more relaxed colleague. 
John was still not ready to listen and enrolled at one of the Pontifical universities of the Vatican. “Get to the source”, he said. What was the point of exegetical analysis unless one understood the theology of the Early Church?  Augustine, Aquinas, Plotinus, and  Irenaeus – they not only explained Christian theology but by extension life’s eternal questions of spiritual being.

Meanwhile his friends and colleagues, however, moved entirely in the other direction.  They had left intellectual vanities behind and led an indolently happy life.  George P had bought a condominium in Naples, Florida and spent the winter months biking along the Gulf, bird-watching, and entertaining his grandchildren. Bill S had retired to Tucson where he and his wife had lunch at the Museum of the Southwest, had cocktails by the pool until late November, and visited family in San Diego when the weather got cold.

Yet Phillips stayed stayed the course. He felt, if irrationally, that a final inquisitive push to the end might reveal answers to the eternal question, “What’s what?”.

Those of his friends with no such illusions replied that there was no ‘what’, so why bother?
“In other words”, John said, “we have wasted our time”.  If there was no ‘what’, then his decades of inquiry were not only for naught but silly.

“We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella who realized – too late - that his past activities, relationships, and enterprises were all vanity.

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John was convinced that his last intellectual pursuits – despite Tolstoy’s own demurral in A Confession – could ease his passage; and he never let up on the accelerator despite his friends’ encouragement to slow down.

He never found Tolstoy’s resolution.  The Russian simply wore out after decades of purposeful search and concluded that if billions of people had believed in God, then maybe there was something to it.  Phillips was different.  Even if there was no ‘what’ to figure out, the pursuit itself was worth something.

For Nietzsche, the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world was the expression of pure will.  There could be no purpose to activity, but the vitality of willful enterprise was still worth something.

This was John Phillip’s final compromise.  There was no inconsistency in trying to decipher indecipherable codes or trying to calculate imaginary numbers. It was all that mattered.

Although he still never read People Magazine, E!, or Hollywood Reporter and although purpose might have been given up, vitality remained; and as Nietzsche suspected, that was enough.

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