On Racial Divides

Ernest,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am a white person.  That is an indelible facet of my human identity.  I carry my whiteness with me wherever I go, and it invades every corner of my life: not only my appearance, but also the way I talk and act, the sensibilities I have for style, even the subconscious decisions I make about how to move my body and what kind of physical bearing to use as I walk through my life from day to day.  Race is a deeply entrenched element of human culture, and it isn’t going away.  The influence that ethnic heritage and racial identity has on an individual is even a good thing; it affirms the capacity of peoples to affect meaningfully the lives of future generations.  But the disconcertion that comes with racial identity is how something so natural and right could ever become so perverted.

Ernest, as you know, many bright minds have wrestled with this question lately, and in the wake of recent events, plenty of folks more clever than I have expressed a frustrated and profound confoundedness over the issue, which seems to escape the reaches of reason itself.  But it is because I sincerely believe that the philosopher’s duty lies not only in quiet condolence, but also in speaking to the sufferings of the world, that I write to you now on this question, which has most often silenced the voice and immobilized the pen of the discerning.

how something so natural and right could ever become so perverted

I believe, Ernest, that the answer has a lot to do with the way our society makes sense of the reality around it.  The primary tool we use to do this is language.  Language lets us render incoherent information into intelligible meaning, and it does this by means of opposition.  Perhaps when you were only a couple months old you felt a wet and slimy something on your cheek and saw that it belonged to a brown and furry something else.  It wasn’t until you learned the word ‘dog’ that you were truly able to make sense of that experience.  As your vocabulary expanded, your words enabled you to give a meaningful opinion about the creature; it was a ‘good’ dog precisely insofar as it was not a ‘bad’ dog, because ‘good’ is the opposite of ‘bad’.  By means of linguistic opposition, you found meaning in your environment and were able to assign distinct identities to yourself and everything around you.  As it turned out linguistic opposition was a very powerful tool, and there’s no telling what great (or not so great) things might come of this new discovery.

Maybe when you were still very young you searched for new words only when you absolutely needed them—like when you later encountered a ‘cat’.  Eventually, though, you grew out of that childish habit and came to appreciate words also for their own sake, even if they didn’t correspond to anything you had ever yet experienced.  Language is in fact useful not only to communicate existing realities but also to express potential alternatives.  You can use language to tell fictional stories, to express intangible emotions, or to describe objects that do not exist.  As you grew up you came to value this impractical use of language, because you saw how it could enrich your life and make everything more meaningful.  When you fibbed to your mom about the fate of a missing cookie, the immoral deed carried meaning because language could surmise in your mind the perilous state of a society governed by falsehood. When you got married, it was the best day of your life in part because you knew the word ‘love’, which you had bothered to learn even though it didn’t correspond to any tangible reality in your environment.  And when you lost someone very dear to you, it meant so much more because the bereavement was wrapped in the symbolism of a thousand losses that you had found in the literature of novelists and poets, all of whom now shared in your present suffering.  Each of these experiences carried identifiable meaning due to the opposition not of two existing realities but of something actual and something potential or hypothetical.  Today, Ernest, as the intelligent man you have grown to be, you are capable of identifying a ‘good dog’ without relying on any actual experience with a real ‘bad dog’—a hypothetical bad dog would suffice just as well.

But when man falls back on childish habits, his concept of identity becomes perverted.  In this scientific age of ours, knowledge comes only from empirical data, not from the wisdom of fairy tales or even the predictions of hypothetical reasoning.  It is this epistemological stupidity that is responsible for racial divides.  Racial divides exist because we cannot identify ours as a ‘good race’ in its own right without there also existing an empirical ‘bad race’.  If there exists an ‘us’ then there must equally exist a ‘them’, and that them must be observable to us via our five senses.  But while this rudimentary use of language was sufficient to identify a ‘good dog’ or a ‘bad dog’, it is not sufficient for creating human identities.  When we identify ourselves only in opposition to empirical others, we deny that aspect of our humanity which transcends empirical measurement.  The human soul is not in fact fungible.  If one human dies, we can’t simply replace them with another human of equal or greater value.  A materialist understanding of human identity will not do.

Ernest, I confess that this is less a scholarly opinion than a personal apprehension, but it appears to me that man and science today are in a kind of metaphysical arms race with each other.  Science continually tries to codify and categorize the human experience in terms of quantifiable data, while man repeatedly shows himself to be more complicated than any concrete measurement can communicate.  If only we could fit people into square simple boxes that compare neatly through standardized tests.  But our whole undefinable nature is repulsed by the proposal.    These are troubling times, and the human spirit is aching for a change of heart.

Your servant,

TWM

Stop Him!

Stop him, stop that man

Running through the streets,

Even moving under them––

The man with the yellow bow tie!

In the city the policemen are playing hopscotch,

Since they’ve already thrown bumpy cinnamon waffles

Today beneath all the citizens’ illicit sitting spots.

The cats are baking in the kitchen,

And the children are taking in naps,

While onerous nylon pants run gaily by this spot.

Stop him, he laid some hands on my cello!

Douglas, the Asparagus

To be precise I am a blue asparagus…

Technically speaking, a blue and green asparagus.

There may be those among you unaware of this,

But do not despair of it:

It is fair to say that in the arrogant era of today,

Paranoid with partiality, we make little effort

For all our show to accommodate for the unknown needs

Of a growing-grey asparagus—

A growing-grey though blue and green asparagus, that is,

With a passion for horse-shoe playing.

All’s Fare in Love and Grammar

The most romantic grammatical error in the English language is the comma splice.  There is nothing quite so lexically coquettish as the prospect of bringing together two utterly independent clauses, from the most disparate of origins, and joining them face to face in audacious effrontery to all that grammarians hold sacred.  It brings blush to one’s cheeks just to think of how close they are–without a period, without a conjunction, without even so much as a lousy semicolon to keep them apart!  So formidable!  So bad!  An editor would be remise to overlook a scandal like that, and that’s why they have rules to prevent such things.  All parallel clauses must always dance at least an arm’s length away from each other.  These sorts of rules can be burdensome at times.  But no obstacle is insurmountable, love has a way of working things out.

The Reformation of Romance

If today you invite a stranger to discuss art over a nice cup of tea, it would come as a surprise if you went into any subject besides paintings once you had sat down together.  Go back a couple of millennia to hold that same conversation with a conservative Roman, and you’ll find that a diversion into the more practical topics of carpentry, weaving, or any other kind of trade or profession is not only natural but inevitable.  The difference between the two discussions is the tea…or rather the ‘T’.  A Roman would not have discussed A-R-T but A-R-S, and by that Latin term, he would have referred primarily not to sculpture and pottery (much less to oil on canvas) but to crafts, trades, and skills in general.  Indeed, as the root of the word suggests (ar-, to join), ars has always been about any matter in which people fit old things together in order to create new ones, and in ancient times, this would have been thought of first and foremost from a pragmatic point of view.

So what happened to the word?  Why would a stodgy, grizzled Roman like Cato the Elder have concerned himself with the joining of wood to build wagons in place of the joining of colors to please the eye?  Indeed, there can be no doubt that, had Cato been our converser, we would have begun this imagined dialogue with the driest exposition on how to build a miserly carriage and ended it with the averring of some oddly arrived at conclusion that Carthage must be utterly destroyed!  That sort of discussion would be a far cry from its modern analogue, which would inevitably take on a register much removed from the practical concerns of daily life, since modern idiom has come to assume a certain allowance that our ancestors never made for the inutile.  Aristotle would suggest that this evolution is one of progress, that it is only natural for a society, once having achieved a surplus of whatever is necessary for survival, to begin taking an interest in beauty and truth for their own sakes rather than for some ulterior end (Metaphysics 1.980 ff.).

The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman […] brought to every new shore on which he set his foot […] only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.

—Joyce, Ulysses

We can detect such a progression in the development not only of language but also of ‘myth’, as it were.  I refer to myth as a convention of semiology, however remote the concept might seem from the Postmodern world.  If we put yet another question to that contemporary stranger of ours and ask him what are the foundational myths of our society, he might tell us that the commonest myth he knows of is that a toilet flush will change direction depending on what hemisphere it’s in, when in fact this is not true.  Of course, our philological minds would have hoped for a rather different kind of answer—and in ancient Greece or Rome, those hopes would not have been disappointed.  At least to our assuagement is the knowledge that modern literature may play an analogous role to this dated concept of myth and may show equally well the lexical shift.  Indeed, the very fact that myth has been replaced by literature intimates the progression from practical to impractical.  In place of a craft that is necessary to society, the modern world has an unessential art that is taken up at leisure.

So let us briefly skim through this apparatus, this artistic compendium of myth or literature or whatever you’d like to call it.  We begin with the Greeks and Romans,  whose interest in ars and τέχνη centered around the crafty joining of things for needful purposes.  The joining of materials to create goods and the joining of persons to create persons.  Indeed, the latter kind of joining is spoken of openly in Greco-Roman myth, especially in the form of comedy.  We need look no farther than the character of Circe, a seductive temptress, or of Lysistrata, a masochistic wife, or of Dido, a desperate bedmate—no farther than these to realize that human copulation, in ancient Greece and Rome, was a needful craft, and it was assumed by the society that one could no more abstain from that kind of joining than from the necessary building of miserly carriages.  This was the character of pagan myth, and it wasn’t until Christianity came to the forefront of Western culture that our inveterate myths about love began to revise dramatically.

It follows that Medieval literature regards the art of procreation as a kind of sacred taboo.  Explicit references are replaced by innuendoes, and with the expurgation of so many long-winded discussions of the bedroom, space is made for a whole new kind of discussion: a version of romance that concerns the spirit rather than the body.  Hence, poets of the dolce stil novo are at leisure to praise the spiritual virtues of the beloved rather than being bounded by the “inescapable” drives elicited by the body.  There is now an Art of Courtly Love, rather than a craft.  The basic assumptions about romance have transformed entirely.  Pretty soon it will seem aberrational to suggest that Sex is the tyrannical despot of the human will, and of course, the moment that such a suggestion becomes so anomalous as to shock and appall will be the very same moment that it is opined most forcefully.

But setting aside this apprehension at present, we continue with the Renaissance artists of literature.  Here we still find plenty of vulgar innuendoes, in Shakespearean comedy for example, but nothing more explicit.  In Shakespeare and Spenser there is now a more refined interest in virtue, which has developed out of Medieval philosophy.  Medieval thinkers were the sort of folks that would run around organizing and categorizing every little thing they possibly could.  They would have liked nothing better than to fully index the human soul, and the assumption of this assiduously compiled index is what allowed a poet like Spenser to allude to “The Twelve Virtues”, with everybody pretty much knowing what he meant (thank you Thomas Aquinas).

Moreover, so rational an assumption about human nature—the assumption that it is systematic and organized—is an underlying myth in the Age of Reason as well.  Kantian morality and the concept of Natural Rights would have never been possible had we still been living under the anarchical rule of Sex.  Our understanding of Nature had by now been entirely reformed.  Mother Earth, the reckless, dictatorial, juggernaut, whom primitive man would propitiate for a favorable harvest, had been supplanted by an enlightened Nature, a civil, rational  ideal.

This rational outlook on love and life in general continues to dominate society into the Romantic era.  Of course, our mythology becomes more mystical, and there is now a prevalent belief in the irresistible power of passion, but the latter is always held in tension with an optimistic confidence in man’s aptitude to comport himself with diffidence and decorum even when he is under duress.  By now, Sex has fully abdicated her throne in favor of a Philosopher King, who we might call Reason, Truth, or at least Beauty.  The former tyrant is cloaked deeply in an abstruse garment of circumlocution, and in her place this transcendental other is believed to rule more democratically over nature.

Lest anyone should scoff at this crude generalization, let me be clear that I am referring not to a hard and fast rule about literature, but to a basic assumption inherent in language.  This is where the analogy between myth and literature breaks down.  By myth, I mean the assumptions built into language forming the ideological backbone of society.  These assumptions may be predominate in the literature of the culture, but of course, any person or author is equally at liberty to contradict the presuppositions of an audience for rhetorical effect.  If one should bring up Marquis de Sade as a counter example to the general outlook that I have described, then I respond that the foundational writings of sadism held rhetorical force precisely because they contradicted the foundational myths of society at large.  And so too with the foundational writings of Freudianism.  This is the apprehension that I alluded to earlier.  It is one of the frailties of human nature that, if left to her own devices, she will deconstruct immediately, contradicting whatever is most fundamental to her existence.  If there exists a society—as I argue there does—which has progressed from the tyrannical rule of Biology toward the democratic sovereignty of Beauty, then left to itself, that society will do everything in its power to oppose its own existence as such.  What I mean is that unless we had all been more careful, the onset of the Freudian age was inevitable simply because it wasn’t yet actual.

So what’s it to us if society is reverting to an older form of itself?  I might answer this question by turning once more to the authoritative wisdom of Aristotle—provided that my dear, Postmodern readers will find it in their hearts to forgive me for being so ingenuously classical.  I maintain that the reformation of romance I have described is properly considered progress.  Progress brought about by the onset of Christianity.  Progress bringing about the onset of freedom.  I could hardly imagine a sadder fate for the societies of the Western world than to surrender their own dearly established cultural democracy and allow this neologism of “art” to fall once more into obscurity before it has even fully flourished.  I fear it may be by this impending lexical shift, by which we hope to obliterate the last encumbrance of freedom, that we will instead do away with freedom all together.

In short, I believe that the cultures of the Western world stand at an exciting point in their history.  When the stakes are as high as I have described and we have so much to lose, we have equally as much to gain.  Our modern mythology is more conscious than it has been for several millennia of the greatest Adversary of human reason.  In this way, man’s desperate need for divine grace has never been more blatantly obvious, and our potential to recognize and respond contritely to that need may be enough to elevate art, love, and life generally to a quality which it has never before achieved.  Not a quality of earthly happiness and prosperity, but of austerity and supernatural joy.  We stand then both individually and collectively at a parting of ways.  As human fallibility confronts us head on in this uncertain age, this age in which the integrity of reason itself has been called into question, we may either respond with blissful denial and a naive faith in Human Potential, or we may surrender every last surety and confidence that we held in our own ingenuity to be utterly reformed by the hand of God.

The Pursuit of Happy Meals

“And what to drink?”

“A Diet Coke.”

“Will that be all, sir?”

“That’ll do it.”

“Okay, sir, let me repeat the order: two large cheese-burger, a side of freedom fries, a Diet Coke, and a medium ice cream cone.”

“Not freedom fries, just freedom.”

“A side of freedom, sir?”

“Right.”  There was a brief pause as the man without a face presumably entered the order into the register.  In theories of rhetoric, it is widely believed that a detailed description of a particular scene will generally facilitate vivid mental imagery.  This in turn will cause a greater impact on the reader or audience.  So while the man without a face is entering the order, allow me, like a good writer, to take this moment to describe the scene for you—before the story gets ahead of itself and has to wait for itself to catch up.

The sky was like an ocean that a giant, who prefers particularly creamy tea, had filled with the proportionate amount of milk for a brew that size.  That is to say that the sky was, as it usually is, a light shade of blue.  Can you picture that?  Under the blue sky, there was a horrifying, ceramic clown head—certainly no excuse for a face—held up by two purple metal poles, with a bright shiny speaker like a bad root canal in its mouth.  The man without a face was speaking through this speaker.  He had a young, innocent voice, almost childish.  Beside this head and speaker was our gentleman’s red convertible.  The gentleman’s convertible had converted itself so that the top was down, since, as we have noted, the sky was blue.

“Okay, sir, and would you like to oversize© that today?”  The man without a face interrupted our description.

“Do I not sound American to you?”

“Very good, sir.  Do you want the toy that comes with the meal?”

“The toy?  What is it?”

“It’s a car, sir.”

“Oh, gee, um, I would, you see, but I’m a busy man.”  He was hesitant at first, but then he gravely added, “I don’t have time to play with toys.”

“Sir, I really think you should take the toy.”  He spoke sincerely.

“I’m telling you I don’t have time!”  The gentleman was a bit annoyed.

“Sir, do you have any young ones, sir?”

“One.”

“A boy or a girl?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Maybe your little boy or girl would like the car.”

“Hm…I suppose that’s a valid point.  Hold on.  He’s right here, let me ask him.”  The gentleman turned to ask his son whether he would like the toy that comes with the meal.  “He says he wants it.  Throw it in I guess.”

“Throw what in where?”

“The toy!  Throw the toy in with the meal!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t throw things sir.” The gentleman didn’t even respond.  “It’s a matter of policy.  A Cadillac or a Corolla?”

“What makes you think an eight-year-old boy is gonna know the difference between a Cadillac and a Corolla?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but if you’re only eight years old, then by law I am prohibited from serving you in the drive-through.  It’s a matter of policy.”

“My son, you idiot!  Not me, my son!  I’m a forty-year-old proletarian breadwinner, past his prime, and suffocating in my bleached-perfectly-white collar of choler, which grows tighter every day!  I only have half an hour to take little Jimmy out to lunch before I have to drop him back at his enriching grade school and return to my tiny, sweaty little office.  I don’t have time for—”

“—would you like that for here or to go?”

“To go, you idiot!”

“Sir, I really think you should eat it here.”

“You what!”

“It’s just, people usually tend to enjoy it better here.  Especially—”

“Enjoy!  People usually enjoy!”  The gentleman was hysterical.

“—Especially when they order a side of freedom.”

“Did you not hear a word I said?  I don’t have any free time at all.  The most I can afford to do is take the freedom to go.”

“But sir it doesn’t work that way.  It’s a matter of–“

“–Give me one, clear, practical reason why I should stay here.”

“Sir, there is a play land out back.”  He nearly pleaded.

“I’m too old for play lands.”

“No sir, it’s not that kind of play land.  I really think you would enjoy it.”

“The nerve you have!  It wasn’t long ago that your average, decent man would be ashamed even  at the thought of a play land for adults.  Now, thanks to the clever Freudian intellectuals and what have you, they’re proud to shout about the sort of thing freely from loudspeakers in front of children!”

“Sir you misunderstood me.  It’s not a play land just for adults either.  It’s a play land for everyone.  All ages, all kinds.  It’s something that Freud could never have dreamed of—and that man certainly knew how to dream.  But this has nothing to do with dreams.  It’s real.”

“Oh, I’ll bet!  I know exactly what this has to do with!  I’m taking my freedom to go—thank you very much—and when I get home from work, I’m yelping about you for false advertising!”

“Do you have time for that sort of thing?”

“You better believe I do!  I have time for whatever I want.  It’s a free country, isn’t it?”  The question was clearly rhetorical, but the gentleman seemed almost unsure.

“I don’t know.  Do you feel free?  I thought you came here looking for freedom.”

“Here?  Here is the last place I’d look for freedom!  That’s why you’re advertising is false.  You tell the public that you can offer them life, freedom, and the pursuit of happy meals, but then when someone asks you to deliver, all you can talk about is some imaginary play land.”

“I told you it’s not imaginary.”  He pouted.  “They serve apple pie.  Part of the healthy-eating act.  You can probably smell it from there.”

“A fantastical play land, floating in the sky, where they serve healthy-eating apple pie.  I’d sooner die.”

“Sir, it’s no such thing.  If you would come in, I could show you it, and you’d understand.  Or really…I can’t say if you’d understand, but you’d definitely believe what I’m telling you.”

“No thanks.  Nothing could be so spectacular that it’s worth the time it would take me to park the car in this sketchy part of town, climb every last one of those brown-tile steps” (of which there were two) “and creek open that slimy smiley-face-door to come in.  That’s not to mention the danger of leaving my car unattended around here.”

“I assure you, there is no need to worry about your car.  There is a car that comes with the meal if you need one.  But what I want to show you is a lot better than that.”

“You’re full of lies.  If I leave my car here someone will hot-wire it and drive off.  Don’t think the internet wouldn’t here about that!  I’ll write everything.  I’ve also heard you’re culinary methods are unethical.  I’m reporting animal abuse and auto-theft.”

“It’s true that our products use a lot of resources.  But I assure you nothing is wasted.”

“I knew it!  You’re killing perfectly innocent cows, aren’t you?  You ought to be ashamed!”

“No, sir, not cows.”

“What then?”

“Men.  Actually, just one man. One perfectly innocent man.”  He was entirely frank.  “That’s all it took, but many others followed him on their own.  All volunteers of course.”

“Look, don’t mess with me.”  The gentleman’s tone changed drastically.  “I have a gun.”

“Sir, it’s the freedom.” Both parties were dead serious.  “You see, it’s hard to come by.  You can’t just get it to go.  It’s a matter of policy.”  By this point, the gentleman had realized that this was no ordinary drive-through.  He and his son had gotten a little lost on the way over, when they came to this place instead of another.  He had assumed the whole ‘freedom’ thing was just some kind of joke.  A funny name for a menu item, exaggerating just how wonderful the potato squares must be, or something like that.  Now, however, it clearly must have been more literal.  Frighteningly so.  He would have left right then and there, were he not overwhelmed with a morbid kind of curiosity.

“You’re killing men?”

“For freedom sir.  That’s why it doesn’t cost anything.  It comes with the meal.”  This was indeed how it was listed on the menu.  “But as a courtesy, if you do order the freedom, we ask that you be willing to go next.”

“To go next?  What do you mean?”  He was afraid to ask.

“To follow the man.”

“But I want to get away from The Man!  That’s why I’m asking for freedom in the first place.”

“No, I mean, you must be willing to die, just like the innocent man was.  You won’t have to die, not really.  Certainly no one will force you to die if you don’t want to.  You just need to be willing to die if you order the freedom.”  This was the most ridiculous thing that Jimmy or his father had ever heard.  There was something eerie too about the way it was said.  The gentleman could have sworn that the man speaking had suddenly become possessed.  Or perhaps it was the ceramic clown head itself that was possessed.  Perhaps he, his son, and that horrific, haunted head were really the only ones there, and this mysterious acousmata, this dire, disembodied voice was insinuating something much more dreadful than anything he could imagine.

“I’ll take my meal now.  How much do I owe?”

“Nothing sir.  But would you like the freedom?”

“Yes, but to go please.”

“You can’t have freedom to go.”  Was that the man talking or the ceramic clown head?

“What on earth could be in this ‘freedom’ that makes it worth all that?”  He laughed uncomfortably.

“Well, I’ve known many people to get a lot out of it.”  The cashier’s innocent, childish tone resumed.  “One fellow, much like yourself, sir, was in a bad marriage, a bad job, and a bad mountain of debts, and this changed everything.”

“So it’s a loop-hole?”  The gentleman had been meaning to get a divorce, quit his job, and file for bankruptcy, but who has the time?  If this ‘freedom’ could take care of all that without any rigmarole…

“—Sir, I didn’t finish.  In that fellow’s case, the marriage, the job, and the mountain of debts still went on just the same.  This only took the bad out of them.”  The gentleman was confused, but he didn’t know what to ask.

“But why do I need to die?”

“You don’t.  Like I said, someone else already volunteered for that position.”

“That’s right.  I forgot.  I only need to be willing to die.  Well then, what if I—how about this: if you give me this freedom…to go…then I’ll be willing to die for now, but then, since no one will force me, I’ll just—if anyone asks, I’ll say—”

“—Sir, that’s not how it works.  Don’t you get it?  That’s what the Freedom is.  It’s complementary—a down right gift, really.  Someone perfect died for you—he died to fix your whole situation—and if you accept that he was willing to die for you, then you’ll be willing to die for him as well.  It’s only natural.  And that right there is the gift, that’s the freedom.  This fellow with the bad marriage, he didn’t suddenly escape from a civic bond imposed on him by the law.  He was liberated from a self-imposed kind of bondage.  For years, he’d been protecting himself from his wife’s attacks.  She was spending all their money, taking advantage of him, robbing banks, and chewing with her mouth open just to annoy him.  A wicked woman, there’s no doubt.  He had nearly lost his mind to paranoia over the next thing she might do to injure his precious self.  But when he accepted Freedom, his perspective slowly changed.  Little by little, he began to realize that he wouldn’t be worried if she came at him with a knife (much less if she spoke with food in her mouth) since he was willing to die.  That’s the gift.  It’s not a loop-hole.”

“But that doesn’t sound like a gift at all.  It sounds like a malady.  Depression or maybe Gothism.”  The gentleman hardly cared to realize how late this all was making him and Jimmy.  Maybe he wasn’t in such a hurry after all.  People often act like their in a hurry only to make themselves seem important.  However, this sort of pretense always betrays itself as soon as something more interesting comes along.  At the moment, this prospective death seemed more interesting than affectations of business.

“The Goths certainly did have something about them, but it wasn’t depression.  An honest monk in a monastery, what do you think he has to live for?  Just this bizarre, mysterious gift.  A gift that consists in being taken from rather than being given to.  An anti-gift, if you will.”

“But freedom is a commodity, not a liability (excuse me, but I’m a business man).  A market is only really free when it has a surplus.  If people don’t have any disposable income, then competitive marketing doesn’t exist, since everything must be sold for essentially no profit.  What I mean to say is that if you take away my car, my time, and my life, I won’t be a freeman—I’ll be a slave, a sucker, and a specter.”

“Not at all—”

“—Let me take it a step further.  Freud suggests that the ultimate legal tender for the economy of human affairs is…something you alluded to earlier.  What I mean is…to be blunt…the man with the most mates is the freest.  In that light, I’m almost tempted to think it a shame…about the play land and all…”

“Let me tell you something.  (I’m speaking to you now not only as your personal cashier—however honorable a title that in itself might be—but also as your fellow human being.)  I once thought exactly the way you just described.  I tried having a surplus of everything.  The modern world insists, after all, that these sorts of lower appetites must be satisfied, if we are ever to be free from pain.  But for some reason I found that the more I possessed, the more I was in turn possessed.  Each commodity was also a liability, and at that, a debt twice as great as its own worth.  The lower pleasures I satisfied, the impulses I acted on—these began to control me.  I believed that pleasure was the way to happiness, and so I was compelled to pursue pleasure, and I could be happy doing nothing else.  In short, I believed in Freudian psychology, and that belief was precisely what made it a reality for me.”  The man without a face had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.  This job of cashier, as some readers may be aware, is one of the most highly sought after vocations of people in that field.  One can understand why.  The faceless philosopher went on:

“But it was one day while eating a happy meal that it suddenly hit me.  It was a fly swatter slightly misguided by an old man without his glasses.  He apologized right away and explained that he had been aiming for a fly that he had heard buzzing in my general direction.  For my own part, I didn’t hear a thing.  But after that happened, I got to thinking about my life, and I realized that I had been calculating my net worth all wrong.  A surplus was exactly what I needed, but not of money or luxury or sex.  I needed a surplus of something else.  I couldn’t really say what it was, but I knew at that moment that whatever it was must be inversely proportional to the kind of worth I’d been pursuing in the past.  Maybe it was a surplus of hope, or something like that.  A surplus perhaps of reason to act.  When we have no such surplus, we can only act to maximize our own pleasure.  But if we have extra reason to act and to exist, we can do both freely.”

“But Freud suggests reasons to act—”

“—Not reasons so much as causes.  Neo-Freudian and popular psychology assumes that human behavior is caused by external events.  That may be true of any individual who believes it, but I have found reason to act in spite of those events.  I have reason to relinquish every pleasure and still be satisfied.”

“And what reason is that?  A dead man?  Is that your reason?”

“It is now, but when I first accepted freedom, I didn’t really understand—”

“—I’m sorry to say that this sounds like the most morbid bit of hogwash I’ve ever heard.  Which reminds me, I forgot to order a drink for Jimmy.  But as to your philosophy, I must say that I will never follow any ideology related to death.”

“Then you are an ignoramus.  Every ideology is related to death.  But let me tell you, when I first came upon this whole philosophy, it had nothing to do with—”

“—Buddhism doesn’t have to do with death.  It’s about inner peace, rebirth if anything.  Come to think of it, Buddhism is about freedom too.  The freedom found through meditation.”  The happy meal seemed a long ways off.

“That’s still related to death.  Call it rebirth if you like, call it anything really, death is still death.  But when I found Freedom, or rather, when Freedom found me, it had nothing to do with death.  It was the farthest thing from death.  Some sentimental people like to suppose that the opposite of death isn’t life but love.  I can’t say I know whether that’s true, but I do know that love his how I found freedom.  These days I feel like I kind of have a surplus of reasons for living.  I’m free to do things that don’t satisfy me at all, and even then, to be completely satisfied.  I used to be a helpless romantic, but now I’m ashamed to admit I’m a helpless altruist, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be.  I wish I could say I figured this out on my own, but really it was all a big, embarrassing mistake.  You see there was this one girl, well…you don’t really want to hear this, do you?”

“Not really.  I’d actually just like my meal now.  You can leave out the freedom.  It’s honestly more than I bargained for.  I’ll take just the happy meal, just the happiness to go, please.”

“Very good, sir.”  He spoke with a cold civility.  “I hope your son is a licensed driver.  It’s a matter of policy.”

On the Interpretive and Critical Issues of Eggs

Dear Ernest,

These days, man seems to inhabit two worlds.  In one, his choice of literature is restricted only by what he can find on the shelf, but in the other, he finds that the greatest criticism for his favourite authors and philosophers is that they are too difficult to read.  In one, he is limited only by the capacity of his imagination and his intellect, but in the other, he is confined by every pragmatic constraint, from the paucity of time to the stringent demands of utility.  Man on his own is free to contemplate the human condition, to spend however long he chooses considering the nature of the Absolute Truth, but as soon as he leaves the locus amoenus of his study, as soon as he enters into what most of us call ‘the real world’, he realises that all these fancies of his, all these suppositions that he may have dreamed up and wrought to withstand the most brutal kind of intellectual scrutiny—all these are attacked in the real world not for possessing any kind of logical fallacy but merely for being too abstract and metaphysical.  Anyone who spends an hour or so reading and thinking in a private study is likely to feel afterward that the time would have been better spent figuring out what to eat for dinner or how to make more money or what kind of clothes to wear tomorrow—these after all are the sort of decisions that have actual bearing on real life.

Ernest, it is strange that these two worlds are so dissociated from one another.  One would expect them to coincide.  To illustrate this, let us imagine a conversation between two people who each live in a different world respectively.  There is a realistically hefty woman living in the real world, and she is married to a phantasmagorically emaciated man living in the other world.

Woman: We’re out of eggs.

Man: It is my categorical Duty to sustain you.

Woman: What does that mean?

Man: I’ll go get eggs.

Now, our woman might think the emaciated man is a little strange, but at the end of the day, there is no real disagreement between them.  Somehow or other, they can each grok what the other is thinking, since ultimately, they both want eggs.  The only difference is how they get to the eggs.  The woman wants eggs so that she can use them, and the man wants eggs so that he can be the sort of person who gets eggs.

When these two do disagree about something, however, that discrepancy is greatly inflamed by the difference in their worlds.

Woman: We’re out of eggs.

Man: Mankind is not entitled to luxury.

Woman: What does that mean?

Man: Let’s see what kind of people we might become if we went without eggs for a little while.  Perhaps we’d be better for it.

Woman: But I need eggs now!  You lazy, phantasmagorically emaciated man!

Clearly this will not end well.  One or each of them is wrong, but it’s almost certain that they’ll never figure out how or why.  In the real world, the man will never have enough time to explain his esoteric reasoning fully.  If he were able to do so, perhaps the woman could point out the precise matter about which she disagrees with him.  On the other hand, the woman will never be fully able to express her passionate feelings about eggs.  If she could, perhaps the man could demonstrate where his own feelings differ.  All this would be much simpler if they both looked at eggs through the same lens.

Your servant,

TWM

P.S. I challenge you to use the word ‘apotheosis’ in your next letter.

Are Bad People Just Stupid?

“For indeed, the happiest potential issue

Experienced men achieve through plans.”

  Oedipus Rex, 44-45 (trans. liberally by TWM)

Dear Ernest,

In an effort to make this letter as concise and to the point as possible, while passing over any superfluous details, specifics, or particulars and avoiding any unnecessary repetitions or reiterations of the same concepts in different words, I have—for this purpose—decided to forgo the inclusion of any kind of absurdly lengthy and savagely magniloquent introductory sentence or paragraph—which might, even while appealing to my own grotesque and gaudy sensibilities, betray for my audience my embarrassing and deeply rooted verbosity—abstaining from so much, I have chosen instead to cut right to the chase: not all bad people are stupid.

In your last letter: “What are your thoughts on the Platonic [notion] that, if we were to truly know ‘The Good’ then we could do nothing else but that good?”

In so many words, these are precisely my thoughts on the Platonic notion known as ‘Hellenistic Rationalism’—the notion that moral goodness is the same thing as intellectual knowledge.  If I were to make the matter as simple as possible, I’d say that Hellenistic Rationalism is really just a fancy way of claiming that all bad people are stupid.  But even the most casual consideration of the world around us reveals that this isn’t true.  How many brilliant men and women of business have climbed the corporate ladder through deceit and treachery?  How many poets and artists, renowned for their learning and intelligence, have violated sacred vows and died dishonourably of syphilis?  Was not the idolatrous Solomon a divinely educated wise man?  By comparison to the rest of us, all of these people seem to have known ‘The Good’ very distinctly and with that full knowledge have made the deliberate choice to reject it all together.  The central human quality that delineates the boundaries between good and evil must then be something much more fundamental than mere knowledge.

For that matter, it is also more fundamental even than volition.  It is the human essence that can be called either good or evil.  In claiming this, I am saying nothing particularly insightful.  In fact, the tenet is almost circular: ‘that man is essentially good who is good with respect to his essence’.  It means that morality is not determined by what a person knows or what they want to do or what kind of sandwich they prefer to eat at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, but rather, morality is an aspect of who the person is in his or her entirety.  The sophists at the university may be inclined to tell you that education is the key to happiness or goodness or any other desirable quality.  A veteran of war will sooner tell you that a proper training of the will can bring about so much.  I myself would like to say that the trick is to wear a handlebar moustache while composing shamelessly romantic music.  But common sense and linguistic idiom make it clear that being good is a subject concerned exclusively with being.

The problem with mere knowledge of The Good is that it doesn’t necessitate our using of that knowledge.  I know very well that it would be good if I were to clean up my room and my act rather than reading Gradus ad Parnassum or writing an over simplified blogpost on moral philosophy.  But this knowledge of good and evil, as it were, means absolutely nothing to me if I don’t think about it.  In short, I know what’s good for me (most people do), but I’m not thinking about it—I don’t consciously know that I know it.  If you enjoy being arcane, you might call this ‘second order knowing’, and just like the orders of volition, the orders of intellect describe the way that faculty is structured, which means they are a metaphysical aspect of essence.  Usually, when someone does something immoral, it’s not because they didn’t know it was wrong nor because they didn’t want to do The Good, but to put it simply, it’s because they refused to know that they knew the Good that they wanted to want to do.

Your servant,

TWM

P.S. I challenge you to use the word “campanological” in your next post.