Can this life be reduced to matter and it’s movements? Do thoughts only exist as a transfer of energy across synapses? Materialism says yes. I can’t help but answer yes. However, an essay, a book, and a novel have recently converged to make me question whether that is the right answer.
I’ll leave it to more disciplined souls to get out of the way of their ideas and write in a metered style. Formality is sucking the fun out of this shit anyway.
Fuck man, are we all just atoms and empty space? Yes of course we are. But fuck it, why do we even believe that? Because, man, of history. What a bitch. Yeah well I don’t know too much about history at all, and specifically any history that’s not from 1920 to 1932 in the United States, so take all this shit with a grain of salt, but mother fuckers have been asking these stupid ass questions for centuries.
I been reading three things in the last couple of days: Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, published in 1891 or 1892 (they had a hard time keeping track of years back then), Among the Disrupted: On the Bankruptcy of the Digital Utopia by Leon Wieseltier, former editor of The New Republic and advocate of “physical reality” as opposed to digital what’s-it, published this month, and Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941 by Michael Parrish, whoever the hell he is…or was, I’m not sure which applies, published in 1992 (sorry Michael Parrish, I really like the book).
So yeah these shits have been intersecting all over the place and making my mind be like ho damn, these shits are intersecting all over the place! So I been thinking about my mind state.
First thing I want to say is that Wieseltier’s essay meanders around and when I really scrutinized it I was thinking to myself that this dude needs to focus. But then I realized that I don’t focus when I write, and if it’s okay for this dude, maybe it’s ok for me, too. Meander on, you crazy diamond.
So I went through the essay sentence by sentence trying to decipher the whole thing and really know the shit, as opposed to just having read it, you know, and having the illusion of knowing what it was that was being said, or the impression of what it was saying. I was able to quickly relate to a lot of the individual sentences, and they sent me on tangents of thought that allowed me to read quickly over other sentences I wasn’t paying any attention to while projecting those tangents onto the page so that it seemed Wieseltier and I were in perfect agreement. Upon a closer reading, I was able to get my own thoughts down on paper as well as take into account what he was really saying. It was not as glamorous as I had made it to be, but it was…still good. I don’t know, fuck, moving on.
One of the main things he’s saying is that our experience of life is being “flattened,” which is a term in broad use these days it seems, much to my chagrin. It seems everyone knows how to fit into this mind state that I’m in, and has already gone there.
What I’m going to do in this essay-ish rant is focus on Wieseltier’s essay, and then relate what the other books have to say about similar topics. Or that’s what I’m thinking right now anyway.
Both Anxious Decades and Tess of the d’Urbervilles have something to say about this. Parrish talks about Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character George Babbitt: “But even Babbitt’s brief flirtation with bohemia, Lewis suggested, imprisoned his personality in yet another set of cliches and stereotypes.” Man that’s a bitch. It’s like Brooklyn hipsters, right, you see people walking around trying to be free spirits but they are all doing the same things. And here I am using the word “flattening” which I don’t know how recently has burst into semi-common lexicon. And then old Thomas Hardy, the cagey bastard, has Tess saying this shit about learning history: “…what’s the use of learning that I am one of a long row only–finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that’s all.” Woo man that’s a bitch. Shit’s been going on for hundreds of years, making everyone sad about it, too.
But that’s not at all the point of what I’m talking about.
Wieseltier is all sad about the flattening of the human experience. The world is rife with quantification, he says, and quantification is taking the human experience and reducing it to ones and zeros. It’s like listening to live music, and then have that shit be recorded on vinyl, and then have that shit be even more condensed so it fits on your phone. That’s what it’s like. But quantification is like the holy grail of the materialist philosopher, right? Maybe, fuck I don’t know any materialist philosophers. But I figure, or have figured, that with enough data, maybe we could understand how to live a perfect, or ‘utopian’ life. I was trying to think yesterday of the word that would describe what I was calling ‘results-oriented’ thinking, and that word is an entire philosophical school of thought called ‘utilitarianism.’ Yeah I know, why didn’t you think of that? So easy. Well whatever, dude, leave me alone. Anyway, utilitarianism is following the practice that turns out the best result for the most amount of people, no matter what that practice is and especially without regard for how something looks.
And utilitarianism is in mad vogue with the minimalists, especially the chic ones who write blog posts on the backs of elephants. And they got utilitarian clothes and utilitarian numbers of possessions or whatever else and I always thought that was the hot shit. Fuck style man I can fit a large pizza in my pocket. We’ll all eat like kings tonight.
Yes well, Wieseltier says that the humanities, this vague term he keeps using, is decidedly anti-utilitarian. Like some people will justify a liberal arts education if it helps you to get a good job somehow, or if you open a theater in an underserved neighborhood and help to create gentrification, than that is good. But he says that misses the point of humanism. Humanism is something to do with the study of Greek and Roman and European art and aesthetics and using that to become a better person. Some tenets of the belief are that humans are central in the universe, that humans are different from animals, that natural sciences fail to explain human history, and that there are universal values not least of which is compassion.
Well it turns out that this shit is heresy to a lot of mother fuckers. And that makes me nervous because everybody wants to be a rebel and maybe, just like George Babbitt, I’ll jump on the humanism train in defiance of what is quickly becoming accepted wisdom (even though it was once controversial and a rebellion itself, but this is the way ideas work) and find that everyone else is there, too, and what’s worse, that I will then feel like I must be wrong, if everyone else thinks that it’s the right thing to do.
A utilitarian will say, “find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.” In fact, someone did say that and his last name was Greif. And to me, that sounds good. I don’t need to fuck with all this thinking trash, it’s only ever brought me misery. What I need to do is act, do, fucking go man and get something done for christ sake. Fuck thinking about how to move all this dirt from the floor to the trash can, I’ma start picking that shit up, by God. That shit will get done mother fucker. Of course that’s not utilitarian, that’s just impulsive stupidity hiding behind utilitarianism, or something else, who knows. But that’s the kind of shit I do. But Wieseltier asserts that maybe before we act we should determine whether or not the action is justifiable, and maybe in order to justify an action, we’re going to need “an accurate picture of ourselves.” And this brings us back to knowledge of self, one of the original axioms of philosophy.
So maybe intentions matter as much as the action, which I am sure is bullshit, but which I would like to be true…maybe.
Another funny thing that I thought about while reading this shit was Socrates fable about the Egyptian god who created writing. Socrates said that writing itself was a flattening of the human experience of true dialogue, he said that written words could not defend themselves to an uneducated maniac who might exploit them to his own twisted ends. Words could not answer questions put to them. He also hated painting, the bastard. But again history goes around in circles. We decry the flattening of experience every chance we get, over thousands of years.
The essay made me question other dear beliefs of mine. For instance, I really like Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of how The Beatles got to be so good. He called it the Hungarian Crucible or something, and put forth his theory of ten-thousand hours. It takes ten thousand hours to be a master of something, and now we all know that to be true. I read the damn book but I knew it was true before I read the book because I’d heard it and it makes perfect sense. Well, Wieseltier doesn’t like that, or at least he implies that he doesn’t, saying something about everyone trying to apply metrics to phenomena that can’t be measured metrically. And so I thought of Gladwell’s books and the books of the Stev(ph)ens Dubner and Levitt, of Freakonomics fame. Wieseltier is outraged that economists are telling us how to be happy and I think these economists are examples of that. I loved the book when I read it and of course believed it to be the perfect word of God. Now I have to rethink that. I don’t know why I read books so credulously when I don’t remember half of what they say. If I would have thought about it when I read it instead of after the fact, I wouldn’t have whatever misconceptions I have about it now. But I guess that’s the curse of not being classically educated and mature at the age of 28. Good God when will I have a sound moral, ethical and logical framework with which to weigh and consider seriously the ideas I pour indiscriminately into my head? I’ll aim for next Tuesday.
The essay also made me question my beliefs about Carl Sagan’s personality. I figured old Carl probably saw the world in terms of ones and zeros, a strict materialist. But he’s so damn happy, maybe he would agree with humanists who believe, according to Wieseltier, “that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex.” I also thought about today’s obsession with science and technology, and Carl Sagan’s book A Candle in the Dark, which bemoaned America’s obsession with magic crystals, astrology, and superstitions of all kind. It is an amazing book. But has it helped to form this new world, where we see everything in terms of science? And then again, is this a new world at all? By the 1930s we had “reduced life to a set of mathematical equations about the behavior of atoms, molecules, neurons and synapses.” Shit. That’s the real great depression. Hm but is it really? Maybe old Carl found a way to be happy about that. Well, if anyone could, it was him.
So, fuck, why did you read this far? Well I can’t tell you why I wrote this far. I wrote almost five thousand words today on this shit, trying to figure it the fuck out and I tell you it’s damnably murky even still. But of all things I been reading it’s Thomas Hardy and his hundred year old text that makes me feel best about the whole thing. I read a lot today. I think reading is good now, maybe it’s a good use of my time. Fuck if I know. Maybe I should try to get my own column in some upstanding news source. Ha! Maybe I should learn how to write a focused essay first. Then again, if old Wieseltiel can do it…