Wednesday, June 24, 2015

We Come to Ourselves

This poem was delivered to me in a dream, on vacation, after whiling the day away on the beach, reading and wondering and adoring.  It's for my wife, who touches me every day with the depth of her commitment and courage.

"We Come to Ourselves"

You are a big, beating heart
shining in the darkness,
looking for answers.
But there are no answers,
only other hearts.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

On Belonging Nowhere

I love New Jersey.  I’m from New Jersey, and you don’t have to be from New Jersey to love it, but it sure helps.  Don’t get me wrong, New Jersey is great, it’s got lots of great stuff: the shore, beautiful parks and countryside, picturesque little towns, wonderful shopping and restaurants, etc.  But parts of it are less lovely: the industrial wasteland along the Pulaski Skyway comes to mind.  There are two reasons to love a place: it moves you or you grew up there, and no one is moved by New Jersey. 

But I don’t love it like I used to.  I live in Toronto now, and I just recently travelled to New York and New Jersey (my hometown was pretty close to New York), and also to Paris and to my wife’s home city in Albania.  But New Jersey felt almost as foreign to me as Paris and Albania.  It’s not mine anymore.  I lived and breathed New Jersey as kid, of course.  When I left for college in Rochester, New York it hurt to be away from my homeland, I felt exiled from the source of my life.  After I finished college I stayed in Rochester for years, but it was never home.  Nothing can replace home, your real home. 

But, now, after all these years, New Jersey is not my real home anymore.  I have a wife and a small daughter and a life and none of those things has anything to do with New Jersey.  My father was from New Jersey and his parents came there from Switzerland, and I’m still from there and my brothers and my mother still actually live there, and they still mean so much to me, but less so the place they live.  And Toronto is just the place I live.  Canada is a wonderful country, but it’s not my country.  Albania was exotic and fascinating and strange.  And Paris was so beautiful, but I felt there like a caveman at Buckingham Palace.  I know something about fine art and good food, but a middle class kid from suburban New Jersey simply does not belong in such an exquisitely beautiful place.

New Jersey will always be part of me.  It will always be the place of my childhood, that sprawling, suburban chaos of highways, parking lots, roads without sidewalks, malls, shopping plazas, apartment buildings, fast food chains, working class neighborhoods, broken-down factories, warehouses.  Someone once said that to really know a place you must explore it on foot, but the real New Jersey can only be experienced through the window of a moving car.  Ride down Route 22 toward Newark and study all the stores and houses and diners.  Breathe in the exhaust and the chemicals and the tired dreams of suburban repose. This is where middle class hope has gone to die, or at least to convalesce.  But keep driving, if you want to stay you must keep driving.

My childhood is long gone, and that feeling of utter, unquestioned belonging is gone now too.  I will never feel that feeling again.  I envy people who live where they grew up.  There are many places I may end up, and I there are many places I would probably love if I lived there, but none of them will ever again really feel like home, like the place where I belong, because now I don’t belong anywhere.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Adult Movies

Looks like a typical action movie, doesn't it?
I like old movies because they’re different than today’s movies.  I like variety, I don’t want to be confined to the parochialism of the present.  Like Emerson with his unfiltered whims I want to be exposed to many different points of view, even those I disagree with or find foolish or repugnant.  Orwell said that all art is political.  Orwell was a socialist but he didn’t mean that it’s all political in some silly, overwrought, Marxisant way, as if every human action expresses either one side or the other in the ongoing class war.  He meant that every work of art expresses a way of thinking about life, a world-view, a sensibility.  The Wizard of Oz – to take an example Orwell would probably never have chosen – sees life as homey, warm and gentle; that’s the point of all the drama, fantasy and absurdity in the Land of Oz: it shows what life is not.  James Bond movies see life as a 13-year-old boy’s fantasy, bursting with cool gadgets, fast cars and easy women.

But so many of today’s movies – at least many popular movies – embrace that adolescent sensibility; they glorify easy pleasure and disdain deeper understanding.  In a modern action movie, beauty is found only in violence and wisdom consists only in the cool and concentrated determination to defeat your enemies.  These movies play up to adolescence, typically a cynical time, a time when the adult world seems constructed of hypocrisy and falsehood, when fun and exciting experience is the only real truth, when morality is a sham and nobility a joke.  If there’s nothing to believe in, nothing to fight for, then why not drive 200 miles an hour?  Fantasy movies – such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars – do directly address issues of good and evil, but only in a pre-adolescent way: the good guys are all good and the bad guys are all bad.  It’s true that the bad guy who’s really a good guy underneath – Darth Vader, Gollum – is a common device in this genre, but typically such characters have turned bad because they’ve been tempted by power, the totalitarian state being the great nightmare of the 20th century.  That is, such movies remain morally simple.

I like to see movies that 13-year-olds don’t fully understand!  The other morning I watched (for something like the 12th time) The Guns of Navarone, a World War II action movie made in 1962, starring Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn.  Peck is the leader of a group of Allied commandos (Quinn being one of the commandos) who are assigned to sabotage huge guns the Nazis have placed on the Aegean island of Navarone, guns that must be removed if British destroyers are to pass by Navarone and rescue 2000 trapped British soldiers.  Overcoming overwhelming obstacles, including a traitor in their midst, the guns are blown up and the soldiers rescued.  Yes, the movie is guilty of its own adolescent fun, like the obligatory early scene where Peck goes through the list of the boys on his team, each one with his own special skills and weaknesses.  Sitting in the British commander’s civilized office, replete with maps, books and a tea-bearing man-servant, the scene feels like the start of an old-fashioned English adventure yarn, as if Peck’s team was planning to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro or traverse the Khyber Pass, rather than going forth to kill or be killed by history’s most destructive and evil war machine.  Good luck, old chaps!

But there’s more to the movie than adventure, though it does have plenty.  There’s genuine moral dilemma: how should brutal should we be in fighting a brutal enemy?  Is it OK to become as brutal as Nazis?  At one point while working their way across the island, Peck decides to leave behind one badly wounded commando comrade – the most idealistic one, nicely played by Anthony Quayle – to be found by the Nazis.  But before leaving him, Peck lies to him about Allied plans in the hopes that the Nazis will torture him and that he will reveal the false information.  He throws his friend into the Nazi hell in order to save 2000 other men.  Is that defensible?  And the Nazis will be deceived but Quayle will be destroyed by guilt, thinking he has betrayed his comrades.  The main character betrays and discards the idealist, the man who would rather die than betray and discard him.  Which one of them is the hero?

Now we look back and see that early scene in the tea-drinking English commander’s office rather differently.  We can no longer see it as planning just good old adventure, as just planning for physical danger and daring; it was planning for moral danger and daring as well.  And it is a somber undertaking.  Peck and his team got cracking without drama, without self-congratulation or self-aggrandizement.  The movie is not about how great or coldly violent they can be (Gregory Peck would never have walked away coolly in slow-motion without looking back toward a huge explosion he had just caused), it’s about how much crud and muck we must walk through to get to our noble goals.  It’s about how dirty we have to get, how hard it is to resist the temptation to needless violence, how hard it is to separate ends and means.  Can we walk the line of being good while not always doing good?  The movie doesn’t ignore hard moral choices, like the pre-adolescent movies do, and it doesn’t ignore noble goals, as the adolescent movies do.  It has the courage to address both.  When Peck plans his raid he knows he’ll have to deal with these issues and that they will confuse and confound him, that there are no easy answers, but that he must proceed anyway.  His job will be hard and it will require all his wisdom and skill and effort.  But the movie understands that this work is what we were made for: fighting the good fight that is never as clearly good as we would wish, but clear enough that we must still fight it.  This is the human responsibility.  The best art accepts the confusion and ambiguity that responsibility entails and does so with sobriety and maturity and humility, even with optimism and hope, but never with adolescent flash and bravado.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Whim: A Manifesto

The name of this blog comes from a line in the essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson’s compelling assertion of individual value and judgment.  He wanted to write “Whim” over the doorway, inviting a wide, various and generous stream of insights and impulses, musings and music.  His door would be open to the world, to the truths of the world and to their contradictions; to any and all germs of thought that might move or inspire him.  But it was, importantly, his door they would come through; he would make himself that open door; he would be true to himself and his own vision, no one else’s.  He would master himself by utterly freeing his mind.

And he would not judge or evaluate or analyze his musings, at least not too deeply.  Modern management theory warns that you must never judge during brainstorming: it hampers creativity.  And you can’t be true to your self if you worry about authority, tradition or social approval.  One can be great only if one is true to one’s unique vision:
Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these.
It is authority and fear of disapproval that sap our moral and social courage, that make us conform and constrict ourselves.  Judgment is a trap:
On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested, “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
But this should make us wary: Does the world really need more living from the Devil? Emerson is so over-eager to discard what he sees as the appalling conformity, hypocrisy and sterility of authority that he thoughtlessly discards the notion of judgment itself.  This is classic overreaction.  It is the thinking that says, “If cold offends us, then the solution must lie exclusively in hot.”  Emerson represents the culmination and philosophical extremity of the modern movement of individual emancipation from all forms of external coercion.  In the old world everyone respected tradition; the new world was born when individuals began to judge tradition against independent standards: universal reason, natural law, humanitarian concern, human nature, individual desire.  But with Emerson we see objective standards giving way to purely subjective ones.  But, as the Critical Theorists, such as Horkheimer and Adorno, have written, basing values purely upon subjective desires leads directly to relativism and nihilism.  That is, if there are no moral claims upon my impulses then I become either part of the machine – a soulless collaborator – or a manipulator of the machine for my own selfish ends – a rentier, a commissar, a dictator.  Why not cash in?

So Emerson’s friend was right that one’s instincts must themselves be independently judged, but he was wrong that tradition or authority must be the judge.  We need not fall back upon false, simple-minded or black-and-white value judgments just because we can’t avoid value judgments themselves. We must be free of pieties and sureties but not of responsibility.  Can anyone claim that none of their impulses come from the Devil (figuratively speaking)?  But, equally, can anyone be happy without heeding their impulses?  To be fully human we must hear our whims without blindly trusting them.  We must know our own shadow and our own light, and we must be able to tell the difference.

So, in the spirit of Emerson’s welcome and even of his rebellion, though not his self-absorption, I desist and allow the stream of whim to flow, in the hope that things worth reading, things interesting and coherent and relevant may in their turn be divulged, that, at last, at the end, idle whim will offer some small measure of comfort, fun, insight and truth.