THINKING FROM LIFE
We tell the young visual artist: "Draw from life, not from a replica or some stylized image in your head." And it came to me that the philosopher ought to follow that precept as well: the profound insights of the thinker should be the product of clear-eyed observation, drawn from pure experience; the moralistic edicts and platitudes that are passed off as truth these days are like the formulaic visual depictions the "artist" has learned by rote, taken from a book, built into an obsession and rendered with some technical skill.
A failed presidential candidate in the 1964 presidential election said defiantly about his arch-conservatism: Extremism in the defense of virtue is no vice -- an elegantly constructed phrase to support a clever, but misguided, thought. Virtue was the problem, because extremism in defense of virtue is tyranny. Now had it been truth . . . . . well, they warned us. Oedipus was the ultimate extremist in search of truth, and last I recall he was blind, stumbling around Colonnus waiting to die, an empire crumbled around him. Eons later he is still the ultimate cautionary tale, the lesson we learn that all things are to be in moderation, and pride cometh before the fall, and you will not escape your demons, and fate cannot be denied . . . . . . .
Barry Goldwater, that failed presidential candidate, also said, as part of the same speech: Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. That goes down a bit easier -- depends on how justice is defined, but these days we have some pretty good working definitions that allow me to reject moderation as we try to get a few things right.
We've become too normed; we flatten everything out, comparing ourselves to a snapshot positioned somewhere in the center of something we have been told is the standard. In defense of virtue . . . . . ultimately became a rallying cry for fanatics and reactionaries. Now, we have decades of verbal products that resulted from this permission for excess on any side of the equation. If we believe these statements are a depiction of reality or even an extended psychological truth, we are in trouble, as we are now deep in the weeds with the empty ravings and paranoid admonitions of the self-righteous. The unshakeable positions regarding religion, social obligation and their membership in -- pick a tribe, or a team, or clan, any group that gives them an identity -- and their isolationism and ethnocentrism is a grave danger. They do not see the world as a breathing, evolving thing before them; in fact nothing about them is 'evolving': what you hear are self-referential echoes trapped dense gray matter of a rigid consciousness, beliefs reinforced by the tough scar tissue of fear; and the passageways of escape are clogged with the arterial plaque of generations of accumulated pseudo-wisdom, eons of blockage, until now the flow is barely a trickle and they are at risk for cardiac arrest or respiratory failure at any moment, and they will take a lot of us down with them.
What's very difficult is the propensity of even those on a better side of the social spectrum to coalesce into groupthink, to be so eager to agree and form a front that a narrow tyranny, call it the tyranny of the tribe, delivers all sorts of exclusionary and heartless and deceptive practices to the current membership, and in this game of musical chairs it's not hard to figure out who's going to be standing most of the time: anyone thinking independently. The pieces The Sigh of the Norm, Follow the Allegiance, to some extent Bartleby the Scrivener illustrate this.
I am a proponent of extremism, just not the type that tells other people what they should do.
In this collection of works, probably best defined as essays, I do not attempt to address all of the issues above, or answer all of the questions of the ages or even my own, but I can't stop asking them or musing on the poisoned spring from which so much of our vitriol is generated. My good friend the Artistic Director Emeritus (I'll refer to various characters in my world from time-to-time) tells me: 'You can't deny it when there's a turd in the punchbowl. You can walk around it, try to avoid it, but you ain't drinking any punch. And how can you trust those who are?'
I reference the work where some aspects of the question may be addressed.
A Few Questions:
- When does intensity become enlightened rage, or maudlin indulgence?
- What is the correct response to a world that follows Barack Obama with Donald Trump, by choice?
- Are the arts indulgence, harmless self-expression, a curiosity, or essential to our souls?
- When and why did processes become, in pronunciation, process --ies? (hint: about the time Social Studies became Social Science)
- Is disingenuousness the worst of the myriad behavioral variations associated with not telling the truth? For which aspect of the human condition do we have the most varied vocabulary in English? For the Innuit we know it is snow, because it's the most common feature of their existence. For what quality or object or phenomenon do we have the most vocabulary? If the Inuit have their language tilted toward the thing they see the most, what then do we see the most, and have the greatest need to delineate its variations? (The hint of course is in the title -- See the piece: MENDACITY.)
- Can anyone prove recycling works? Where's the data? (See: Big Data)
And finally: What would a true Zen spirit look like in American life?
If you associate the outward calm of Zen with passivity or withdrawal from the world, you have succumbed to the sitcom, clichéd version of Zen, the Master as a cute but useless meditating navel-gazer who provides comic relief for the real people: the angst-ridden Gen X'ers and Millennials with their own clichéd artifacts: the almond milk latte, the stock in their high-tech open-floor-plan company torn apart and taking a beating by #MeToo, of whom the perpetrators are a sad amalgamation of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and ultra-rich Millennial entrepreneurs, able to bull-rush their way to unheard of success and barrier-shattering pyrotechnics (think Uber's Travis Kalanick) in their business lives and who are truly surprised that they couldn't behave that way with women in the real world. Why didn't someone tell them? People act like this, and they treat Zen and alternative lifestyles like remnants of childhood, silly and out of touch. But the true Zen in American urban life today is a warrior, a steady and resolute actor in the passion play. Not passive, but practicing stillness, conserving energy, wasting nothing.
Confuse one with the other at your risk. The day may be coming.
Swirling around the American Zen Master are the frazzled and broken souls, desperately lost without a compass. The Master maintains a simple calm in the eye of the storm, guided by a strong internal calibration that when activated is as fierce and unyielding as it needs to be. The default position of the Zen Master may be kindness, but a cold, even brutal and heartless efficiency in the service of combating injustice -- true injustice, not the righteous platitudes of generic inequity or vaguely outlined oppression -- is just a heartbeat away, and doesn't look very kind when in operation. The shark is the Zen of animals: still, focused, unrelenting. Nothing is wasted; every move considered, deliberate, purposeful. It's not that they don't have an intellect -- it's just perfectly aligned with their instinct. Our work is harder than that, given the massive proportions of our intellect and our ego, but at least we have a few examples in nature.
I am not asking for too much. It seems like it at times but it is only simple freedom, and stillness, and clarity, and a reduction in the noise -- these are all things we agree would be good for us. Yet we so often fall short in the simplest of things, and in our wanderings come across strange remnants of machine -like shape and texture that seem familiar, but which we can't quite place. These spare parts we find laying around, when we put them to use in the wrong machines, when we rig them up in the hope that we can make them work, things tend to get worse, we twist the rod or strip the bolt and finally the whole thing breaks. Now all you have are spare parts, and they look familiar, maybe you can use them in . . . . . but there's nothing left, the soul of the machine is dead, and a spare part is just that, an isolated and eroding remnant, developing rust and mold and sharp edges that cut and poison you. Can't do much on their own, taking up valuable space. Some of these spare parts are memories, grown to obsessions with those who have harmed us.
Let them go for now. Look for things that are whole. Thinking from life, and not from the broken parts of ancient machines that are strewn about in our consciousness, we may find a better reception for our true selves. And watch the clichés along the way, they are deadly, many can truly kill. (See: Clichés That Kill)