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There’s No There There

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So, for the past couple of days I’ve been reading through G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  I suppose that partially explains the God post of the day before yesterday, although what it really brings to mind to me is the fact that I like well written prose, period.  I don’t really care what it says.  The music of the prose, if it’s good enough, is enough. 

But the chord the book has really been striking for me is something else.  To explain, I need to go back for a moment to Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, because there always was something about that book that I thought was vastly important and virtually never commented on.

Bloom does, of course, do the usual thing and complain endlessly that there’s no real college education any more and no respect for the classics, but he does something else.  About a third of the way through the book–I could probably find the quote, but I’m not at home at the moment–he complains that even when you do get college students to read the classics, they can’t understand them.  They’ve grown up in a world where sex is available pretty much everywhere.  They come from homes where the parents are likely to be divorced and sometimes more than once.  They therefore have no concept of marriage as an actual commitment.  Life has been fairly easy, even for those who come to college having experienced hardship.  There’s no sense of the tragic inevitability of hardship, or of anything.  Even death is mildly felt to be optional–and if it isn’t optional, then somebody must be oppressing you.

One of the things we do wrong–on this blog and elsewhere–when we discuss literature and the teaching of literature, is to assume that teaching somebody to read well and teaching somebody to read literature well are the same things.

The truth is that someone may read very well indeed, understand not just the newspaper but complicated books about macroeconomics and the relationship between the history of Christianity and the rise of modern warfare, without being able to read literature at all.  The two skills are related only at their very lowest levels.   We tend to think of them as related only because most of the people who are able to do one are also able to do the other.  That isn’t because the skills are the same, but because anybody able to do either of these things is likely to be intelligent, and therefore good at other things intelligence is good for.

What all this is leading up to is this:  if I had to borrow Robert’s Pessimism About Everything for a day, it would not be on the grounds he usually advances for the country and the civilization being doomed, but on the grounds that any civilization is doomed when its people are no longer capable of understanding literature.

I am NOT–note the bold, italicized and capitalized word–saying that civilization is doomed if we don’t put people into classrooms and force them to read a Required Reading List.

I’m saying that a civilization made up of people to whom both Lady McBeth and Medea are incomprehensible, for whom Hector is worse than incomprehensible, is a civilization that is not dying, but already dead.

Right here, I’d quote the lines of a Joni Mitchell song, except that I’m told she only lets you do that if you pay her a great deal of money.  So I’ll just say you should find the lyrics to “The Boho Dance” and read them.

Here’s what I find in common between my students, other people’s students, the people I see on television, the people I meet in the grocery store, and all the rest:

There is no sense, among the vast majority of them, that there is any kind of point to life at all, except to be comfortable, have fun, and collect stuff.

This is as true of most of the people I know who say they are religious as it is of the people who say they are not.  The Humanist and Free Inquiry may print article after article about the wonderful things that will happen to all of us if we just adopt an Epicurian philosophy of life, but the members of the local United Methodist Women have never heard of Epicurus, and they’re in the same ballpark.  In the end, they will do anything, and put up with anything, to stay comfortable in the moment. 

Marriage is not important in itself.  It is only important if it makes you happy.  If it doesn’t make you happy, you ditch it and find somebody else.  What’s more, marriage is about happiness–as is just about everything else in life.  If you’re not happy, what’s the point of what you’re doing?

Most people make an minor exception for deferred gratification–med school and internships may be miserable, but at the end of it you’ll be happier than you would have been if you hadn’t put yourself through it.  If it turns out that you put yourself through it and wind up unhappy as a doctor, you’ve wasted your time and there’s no way to get it back.

The side effect of all this is the insane stress we put, on every level of society and every action possible to every individual, on “safety.”  We must be safe, because all suffering, all failure, all defeat is worse than bad.  It’s pointless and can never be in any way compensated for, by anything.

Probably the silliest idea we’ve ever come up with is that of “safe sex,” which is kind of like saying “non-exploding nitroglycerin.” 

Sex is not safe, and protecting ourselves from syphilis, AIDS and pregnancy won’t make it so.  What’s more, we don’t want it to be.  Am I really the only person on the planet who has noticed that the push for “safe sex” has coincided with an exponential growth of interest in the practices of BDSM? 

Jason and Medea, Antony and Cleopatra, didn’t need BDSM because they weren’t deluded into thinking that sex could ever be made safe, by anything.  They knew that sex is scary and destructive as well as exhilirating.  They did not expect their indulgences to be without consequences, mental and emotional and spiritual as well as physical. 

My students, and most of their teachers, and all the “experts” on all the crime shows on television are different.  They expect sex to be “safe,” and rational to boot.   They think there is something called a “healthy relationship,” and then they’re shocked out of their gourds when a wife kills a husband or a boyfriend beats the hell out of a girlfriend, or the rage of jealously is not cured by couples therapy or a twelve step program.

It’s not just Medea and Antony and Cleopatra who knew better.  My grandmother knew better.  She could “take up” the classics in her forties, having never been to school beyond the fourth grade, and “get” Shakespeare and Sophocles in a way that seems impossible for most modern audiences.  She could “get” them because she lived in the same world they did.   She knew not only that sex was not safe, but that some things are worth the pain.

If there is a common theme in the people I see around me–religious and nonreligious, American and European, young and old–it is the inner conviction that nothing is ever worth the pain.  The point of life is to feel good and have nice things.  Anything we do that would make those difficult to attain, or negate them altogether, is indefensible. 

Along with this comes the conviction that what we want should be available without drawbacks–if we want sex, sex should give us pleasure and no pain, and if it gives us pain then something is “wrong.”  Either we have a disease–a “disorder”–or somebody is doing something to us that they have no right to do. 

Step back and look at the larger picture, and you get somewhat the same thing.  At least on the level of the kind of people I knew in, say, Westport, the problem with being a soldier, a police officer or a fire fighter is not that those kinds of jobs are “low rent,” but that those kinds of jobs are likely to get you hurt–and what’s the point in that?  I’d guess that at least half the “elitist” disdain for those kinds of jobs is not really disdain so much as it is self-protection.  Look too closely at yourself when you’re feeling like that, and you might begin to think you’re a coward.  Or worse.

How are these people to understand “no greater love hath any man than to give his life for his friends”?  Friends?  Really?  Hell, most of  them wouldn’t forbear to hit on their friends’ girlfriends, or their spouses.  They’ll take a sensitive job with a Presidential administration, pocket the six figure salary for three or four years, then resign and take a book deal for seven figures so that they can trash their old bosses in the most public way possible. 

So many of us write about the meaning and meaninglessness of life as if it were a great and terrible question–and it should be a great and terrible question.

But what I see around me are people for whom life “means” never thinking beyond next week, never caring for anything but  personal comfort, never even recognizing the nature of reality, because reality is not safe and never will be.  Reality is not happy.

I think a civilization can survive decadance if it knows that what it is doing is decadent.  I think it can survive social upheavals and the welfare state.  Read Augustine’s Civitas Dei: the Rome that fell around his ears was soft and corrupt and chaotic, but it knew that some things are worth dying for, some things are worth the pain, and nothing about living a human life ever is or will be or can be “safe.”

I think civilization can survive Nero.

I don’t know if it can survive this.

Written by janeh

December 2nd, 2010 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'There’s No There There'

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  1. Amen.

    You put it so much better than I could, and I don’t have any answers either.

    Cheryl

    2 Dec 10 at 10:30 am

  2. Ouch. This is putting the “entitlement” discussions we keep having at work into a broader context. Rings true, I must say. Die for something? They can’t even conceive of reading the articles to get a good grade!

    Cathy

    CAFiorello

    2 Dec 10 at 11:40 am

  3. Well, reading ENTIRE ARTICLES. Isn’t that forbidden under the Geneva convetions?

    janeh

    2 Dec 10 at 11:44 am

  4. I just came across this:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/family-and-relationships/you-expected-kids-to-make-you-happy-get-real/article1633481/

    It seems like some people think having and raising children is a bad idea because it doesn’t make the parents happy!

    And if I had a dollar for everyone who says that everything from marriage to work (at school or on the job) has to make them happy or fulfilled or something because if not, it’s not worth doing, I’d be a rich woman.

    Cheryl

    2 Dec 10 at 12:51 pm

  5. I think it was Ayn Rand who once made the point that if you have never lived fully (whole heartedly), then you are going to be scared of dying. (This was probably in one of her articles or even in a lecture she gave in Philly in the 1960’s.) Maybe this is part of the reason why the idea of dying for a cause strikes so many people as being pointless? x

    dottc

    2 Dec 10 at 1:36 pm

  6. Hmph. AUGUSTINE knew those things, but I don’t think his society did–which was why it was coming down around his ears. Read Livy: Roman armies defeated right and left, but fresh ones raised, with the aristocracy pouring out its treasure and the lives or its sons as freely as the yeoman farmers. By Augustus’ time, men were mutilating themselves to avoid conscription, and it would get worse by Augustine’s day. Does anyone else remember Stilicho?–a rough contemporary of Augustine, and, effectively, the last Magister Militum of the Western Empire. At one point he had to buy off the Goths, as the great landed families wouldn’t let the army recruit their serfs. But they also wouldn’t pay the money. Stilicho pointed out that there were individual Senators who could have paid the sum required in cash. Nothing doing–though they did have Stilicho killed.
    A few years later, barbarians would overrun Rome in the West to paltry opposition. These people may have read Homer, but they no more understood him than Jane’s classmates. Nothing was worth pain and sacrifice, and because they would not sacrifice, pain, death and poverty would come to them.

    Hence my pessimism. It’s a short-term thing. Homer will come back–and Shakespeare–but things will get worse before they get better, and what comes back will not be our civilization, any more than we are Rome or classical Greece.

    I’ve read enough history to recognize the playing out of things. The attitudes Jane describes go with such times, and so does the bureaucracy–unable to make or implement a decision, and corrupt to the marrow. We have things going for us, but while an attractive culture and a prosperous economy may help you win a “clash of cultures” in the long term, it won’t matter if you’re defeated in the short term. Even then–well, if being “our sort of people” was enough, Carthage ought to have won the Punic Wars and Athens vs Sparta ought not even to have been a contest.

    So to soldiers, police and firemen. Frederick the Great was right: a rational army would run away. To die for a cause, you have to believe there is something more important than life–honor, if nothing else. Which is why on the other side of that gulf Jane describes are combat vets who understand Achilles perfectly well, and pass on copies of Kipling from soldier father to soldier son, while the universities push James Joyce and Phillip Roth. The schools insist Picasso was a great artist, and the soldiers copy Frazetta. Tolkien insisted that peace and prosperity came at a price, and that some poeple had to give up things–even life–for others to have them. The literary establishment tore him limb from limb. And I’m getting off point. Maybe the culture would have run down to this point this fast regardless, but I continue to feel the guardians of the high culture betrayed their trust, which certainly hasn’t helped. In any event, an army which has not lost its cultural bearings can’t in the long term save a society which has.

    It can but time. The Austrian Army gave their Empire 70 years. Ours might do as well. But how long has the clock been running?

    Too long and too bleak a reply. But I don’t think any of it is untrue.

    robert_piepenbrink

    2 Dec 10 at 7:06 pm

  7. I tend to share Robert’s pessimism. I have been reading a book called “With the Old Breed” by E.B. Sledge. He was a front line marine in 1944 and 1945 and gives a very graphic description of combat and life in the front lines. The difference in attitude between then and now is remarkable.

    jd

    2 Dec 10 at 9:19 pm

  8. Absolutely everything Jane says is true…except for the seemingly overwhelming scope of the pessimism. You need to meet more different kinds of people. I think that in any society with a “comfortable” class, perhaps not wealthy but certainly well supplied with food, shelter and entertainments, there’s a natural human urge to coast. Not to strive, not to have ambition, just to get along from day to day, seeking the status symbols of your particular cohort.

    Even in the days of great adventurers, great explorers, great empires, great wars, most people simply stayed home and tried to be as comfortable as possible.

    But there are always outliers. People not satisfied with what is easily available. There’s a certain truth to the theory that we’re not oversupplied with lazy asses…we’re undersupplied with frontiers, or other challenges.

    There are plenty of people passionate about causes, about the greater good (whatever they may conceive that to be), and about being less than ordinary. In fact, in absolute numbers, I’d say they are more numerous than ever. *Somebody* is out there exploring scientific frontiers, cold fusion, high-temp superconductors, nanotubes, trying to invent humanity’s way out of trouble. *Somebody* is trying preserve endangered species, or learn where Great White Sharks go to mate, or clean up oil spills, or replace oil altogether.

    My family has plenty of people presently serving or having served in the military. I assure you honor is not negligible in *our* raising of our children. While most of the people you meet, particularly in urban environments, are in fact consumerist, heedless, mannerless *pigs*, there are many who are still hearing that distant drummer. Who seek hardship and challenge as their nature, who study how to live properly, with all that implies.

    They’re just hidden behind all the assholes. Look harder.

    Lymaree

    2 Dec 10 at 11:06 pm

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