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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Let It Be–Franklin Solis’ Happy Indifference And His Wonderfully Good Life

Franklin Solis felt the birthdays piling up, crowding his ordinarily sanguine view of life and making indifference harder than ever.   Now that there were more decades behind him than before him, the time had come to clear the decks for running, tack sharply into the wind, and make for his final port. 

Franklin had always led what he called ‘a life of elision’.  He was never one to build dams, firewalls, or fences; and was far happier when one year melded into the next or one troublesome episode joined a larger stream.  Generally it worked out well.  Even serious family issues – illness, minor disability, divorce – all seemed to peter out before they caused any real damage.  Tempests in a teapot which when cooled went unnoticed.   Things didn’t always turn out for the best; they simply turned out – not according to God’s plan; not according to any plan at all, just as part of a network of freight trains going nowhere in particular with goods that no one really wanted or even cared about. 

Franklin was never vexed about international conflict, political vanity, or the environment.  A quick look at history demonstrated the perennial, inevitable repetition of events.  To be sure Richard III was a very different king from Henry VIII – one was bloodthirsty, cruel, devious, and evil; the other was intellectually complex, passionate, and politically savvy.  One ruled by subterfuge and murder; the other by supreme confidence and authority.  In the end England retains little of the legacy of either king, has merged, melded, and elided over the centuries.  Neither Henry nor Richard could have imagined how little they mattered.  What was the point, considered Franklin, of forcing the issue, insisting on one reform over another or pushing for reform in general?

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Franklin, however, was no nihilist – a philosophical denier of purpose or meaning, an intellectual wet blanket.  Elisionism was a very different paradigm, a kinder, gentler version of that of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard.  It wasn’t so much that life was without meaning, it was without coherent meaning.  Every individual is convinced that his actions, particularly if planned, purposeful, and determined, have meaning; and in fact they do contribute to the ascription of character and personality.  They give identity, if nothing else to the individual who carried them out.  It was just that they meant nothing in aggregate.  There was no collectivity of actions which meant something or had more meaning than any other.

Every individual action joins a network of others, past and present.  On the day before the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s valet forgot to bring the Emperor’s gum boots; and as a result, his feet wet and cold from the rain and mud, he caught cold.  Because of the congestion, aches, and pains, he could not concentrate.  His otherwise brilliant ability to design strategic objectives and devise the operational plans to effect them, was clogged, rheumy, and inoperable.  For want of gumboots, the battle was lost.

The reason why the valet forgot the Emperor’s boots was because he had received a letter from his wife who had left him for another man and was completely distracted by her surprising infidelity.  Had his wife been more faithful, or at least more gentle in suggesting the news, the valet might not have lost sight of the Emperor’s needs.

in other words actions caused other actions to happen either purposefully or willy-nilly; but the results were always the same – a predictable, never surprising display of human nature according to which streams joined other streams, purposes effected other purposes and results became indistinct or irrelevant.

All this being said, Franklin Solis was not a philosophical man. While not exactly a good-time Charlie and never a ne’er-do-well, he found enjoyment in most things and was troubled by few.  Take his neighborhood, for example, a leafy outer-ring upper middle class residential neighborhood of a major city.  In the time since he had moved there, two generations had come and gone, the elementary school expanded, downsized, and grew again.  Children played in the alleys, then moved on to more purposeful, productive activities.  Appliances improved, cars became more reliable, houses were flipped, renovated, and expanded; but nothing ever really changed.  Things came and went in small incremental changes before anyone took notice and before long the neighborhood was substantively different than those before but existentially the same.

In a sophomore philosophy course at Yale, Franklin’s professor – a famous metaphysician - asked the class to consider this question: If over the years you replace every piece of your car – tires, fenders, bumpers, engine, wipers, windshield, and tappets – is it still the same car? Of course there is no answer – it either is or it isn’t, but the professor had made a point that Franklin never forgot.  Change in the aggregate may have no meaning, but incremental change is at the core of meaning.

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“How can you be so indifferent?”, asked a close friend who was a political activist for whom no issue was irrelevant.  Positive change was possible – i.e. there was no such thing as fatalism, nihilism, or Franklin’s elisionism – and since this was so, one would be morally derelict and irresponsible not to engage in the struggle for reform.

Yet this so-called indifference conferred an enviable equanimity, and Franklin was one of the happiest men around.  Of course the roof had to be replaced and the leak in the basement fixed, but there was never aggregate meaning in keeping up the house.  Whereas his wife saw stability, security, and enterprise as part of what made us good citizens – a judicious use of money, aforethought, care and attentiveness to practical detail were more than temporal investments; they meant something.

His son once asked him what would he have become if he had studied number theory one summer instead of studio art – the two choices available to him between his sophomore and junior years in high school.  “You would have become a mathematician or an artist”, his father answered.

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As the birthdays piled up, and as Franklin felt the urgency to set sail for port – no one in his later years is immune to the pressure of figuring things out once and for all – he did the needful. He began stripping, divesting, and withdrawing.  Since the happy indifference and the easy love affairs, adventures, great meals, and fine-sand beaches of his youth were long gone, and he was now faced with something grim and unpleasant, for the first time in his life he balked.  Putting one’s house in order was a very different enterprise than fixing the plumbing or saying goodbye.  Where was his happy indifference and his confident elisionism when he really needed it?

His balkiness lasted a day or two, maybe a week, and then he was back to normal.  He had simply paid too little attention to the elisions of old age, had not kept up with the emotional times, and had gotten sloppy.  Of course death had no meaning as Ivan Ilyich, the character in Tolstoy’s short story realized moments before.  “Ah, death”, he whispered. “So that’s all it is?”.  It was the fear of death, not death itself that caused the obfuscation and the irritating frustration.  “Don’t think in the aggregate”, he told himself.

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Franklin Solis actually saw quite a few more birthdays before his death at 95, and was a happy man throughout, notwithstanding bad ears, bad eyes, and dodgy memory.  He was lucky, for excoriating illness can test even the best nihilist or elisionist; but luck is part of the individual meaning compound, nothing to do with the aggregate.  How he would have handled it was a moot point.  He died in his sleep, and his eulogies were wonderful.

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