31 December 2012

An Honest Conversation

Everyone has their own notions of how to "wrap up," blogwise, the end of an old year. For me it seems as good a time as any to try, at least, and take stock of where we as an American society are going. And why we keep failing to get there. Or so it would seem. Anyhow, whatever other factors may be involved, and however we may solve or fail to solve or resolve our fiscal and other cliff issues, for me one key issue remains at bottom of the cup, as it were, when all else has been drunk or spat out. It is this old business of social trust. That, along with our persistent failure to be fully honest about its real importance, or even non-importance, in our 21st-century lives.

Note how every so often, in this “Bowling Alone” generation, you run across an article mourning the loss of a certain hard-to-pin-down something or other we call community. Which I suppose in practical terms, as often as not, translates into grief and worry over a loss of trust. And in a sense the mourners are right. After all, how long can you enjoy even playing on a bowling team minus a certain rudimentary level of trust on both sides? And after being the repeated target of ridicule for playing badly, or of envy or “sabotage” for playing “too well,” doesn’t even the most ardent team-bowler reach a point where it’s more fun playing alone?  

In sum, whenever you want to have fun with other people, it always helps to have people around whom you feel comfortable and at ease. And few things are easier than feeling at ease around folks you know you can trust. 

But now suppose you had decided you wanted to be a team bowler of real vision. And I do mean real vision. Imagine you were to start seriously thinking beyond the mere fun of the (current) players, to the future good of the team. And suppose you’ve already defined the good of the team as one that habitually runs through any number of existing team members – uses and discards them, to put it plainly – in pursuit of the perfect bowlers. How far, in that case, do you want bonds of firm trust existing among players who very shortly will be jostling for the few secure places on the deck of an ever-faster-moving ship?      

And so I sometimes wonder if trust between individuals (trust among institutions being an entirely separate matter) isn’t rather grossly over-rated these days. Especially as a means, not of having fun, or of amusing ourselves or others, but of getting really important things done. And in particular many of the things deemed most urgently and profitably worth doing nowadays. Just how important, after all, is trust among individuals in certain modern work situations? And especially when the most direct and immediate benefit of their work is that which accrues, not to the human agents themselves, or even to their individual customers, but rather to the institutions they respectively serve? I’ll grant you, a good deal of today’s economic activity still involves the serving of individual human beings. Yet note how much of that benefit to ordinary folks – like you and me – is secondary, indirect, contingent. Ask yourself honestly, how much of that benefit depends on how successfully – or even, it may be, how ruthlessly – we all cling to the primary beneficiaries: those notoriously hard-to-clutch life-rafts* known as companies, or corporations, or God knows how many other employers of every description, private or public, legal or illegitimate?    

*Indeed one wonders if our rafts aren’t becoming expressly designed to yield less and less handhold and foothold. And that just as the waters are becoming choppier, or more shark-infested. In truth, I’m often moved to ask what will be the future value of us mere humans, even as individual customers, apart from the degree and quality of our attachment to – or better yet, identity with? – some “Inc.” I still shudder to recall how, not too long ago, I was trying to gain entrance to a (now apparently) high-security building for a private appointment. I must have been asked at least 3 times by separate individuals (and all in the space of less than half an hour): 
“What COMPANY are you with?” 
And who knows if, in the not-too-distant future, an affirmative answer to that question becomes the one – and only – sure means of facilitating any transaction? Perhaps the time isn’t far off when your company or other institutional affiliation will be the blanket that covers a multitude of counter-terror suspicions and uncertainties. But, once again, in that event it will be the collectivity (i.e, that which we humans create), rather than the individual (that which we have been Divinely created), whose rights, needs and privileges are deemed primary.

But now I want you to picture an even more curious turn of events. Imagine that more and more of this, shall we say, human component in any institution is in fact taking on the character of a skin the latter acquires and sheds, or of feathers it grows and moults. Suppose that, as with any barnyard chicken, the health of the institutional organism depends on the ease and speed with which it can shed once-functional human accoutrements which have since become (or are now deemed to be) useless appendages. In that case, why should the organism care to invest in precisely those relationships, typically involving a deep and mutual trust among its human cells, as will incur the most burdensome obligations down the road? What if, indeed, even the most elementary forms of trust became an impediment to smooth functioning? Imagine I’m your boss. I trust you to do a good job, and so far that trust has been rewarded. You in turn trust me to keep employing you, and so far that trust has been rewarded. But suppose I, or others above me, were most wisely to determine that the very continued health of the institutional organism, of which you and I are both cells, depended on my freedom to fire you at once, and without a hint of anything in the least resembling either forewarning or “good” reason. Picture, if you can, some future “enhanced” barnyard hen evolving the power to shed feathers at will – in preparation for those times, say, when emergency moulting may be necessary. Well, and what of it? Why should any robust future egg-producer, healthily immersed in the struggle for existence, have to worry herself over the fates of those feathers “unnecessarily” discarded? Is any one feather – or any whole coat for that matter – indispensable?      

Now I’ll grant you, even some of the most automated of our productive activities still require, at one remove or another, the use of human creatures as well as human creations. Yet how hard it is, sometimes, to resist the impression that both most and least automated modes of work are coming to involve human beings in a somewhat attritioning way. A manner not wholly unlike the way making paper involves trees. In each case there can be sometimes very little appreciable difference between using and using up. It is true that in becoming a book a tree acquires a certain remarkable - albeit wholly untree-like - dignity. One might even say that the tree has finally become free of the burden (or alternatively, some few might argue, the privilege) of being itself. But whatever final value such dignity may have, it remains one that gives us precious small notion, if any, of what the original dignity of the tree in itself was once like. Much less what that same dignity was once worth. Now most of us would agree, I think, that a tree has very little about it of we’d call spirituality, assuming it has a spirit at all (but cf. Romans 8: 19-22 for a decidedly more hopeful view of the spiritual prospects of trees, plants, rocks, creeping things, etc). We also safely assume that, whatever “spirit” may ultimately be or mean, we humans have a good deal more of it than other living things. So that a tree may be cut to pieces and yet lose comparatively little of what was a most minimal spirit to begin with. Whereas I imagine most of us can think of instances in which a human creature may be to all appearances physically unchanged, and yet spiritually reconstituted in such ways that make her all but unrecognizable. Perhaps even insufferable.  And not just to her closest loved ones – parents, spouse, children, etc – but, I daresay, even to herself. My point is not that, like the tree become paper, the human worker dies or disintegrates in being so used – at least not right away. My point is that, however many genuine and valuable future uses a tree may acquire in becoming paper, it will never again have recourse to those older uses and pleasures it enjoyed when it was being most itself. It will never again experience that peculiar good, let us say, with which God was once pleased to make it, and to fill it. In a similar way, even a quite highly-placed worker – even sometimes, I venture to think, a CEO – may become so thoroughly adapted to a particular set of uses that, like the paper once a tree, she ceases to be much use or good for anything else. Or at least much use that’s much of any good.
Not, mind you, that there’s anything God made that He can’t remake and renew. My question is whether any instrument we create for the sake of our future power – be it institutional, procedural or technological – has the right to test and strain us to the limits of our present humanity. To drag us to the sort of brink, as it were, from which only God can turn us back. To strain us in ways that, I’ll admit, may be of immense benefit – well, perhaps not to our own human longevity, but at least to that of the post-human instrument we are serving (and even, arguably, to its “welfare”*). But ways that may not only close us off from our older, deeper, pre-specialized selves. They may also cause whatever part of us is left to become more and more unliveable and insufferable. And, again, not just to our loved ones, but to our own souls.

*Though, to the best I can determine, only so far as that welfare is defined as inversely proportionate to any sense of permanent human obligation. 

I wrote that last sentence almost on the assumption of practically anybody who hears it being appalled by such a result. But the modern reality is that a good many of us see little or nothing wrong with such use of human beings, at any level of an institution. And that, no matter how seemingly degraded or dispirited it may leave the great bulk of its employees, or how apparently debauched and corrupted it may render its highest levels of management. And you know, even assuming the worst (at least from one standpoint), what difference does it make? What does it matter how far our labor force is reduced to "machines," or our management swollen to monsters? And both made ultimately, if not utterly, miserable? Logically speaking, how far can any of us afford to be invested in the future of any one human soul? I mean, so long as our primary concern be with the immortality of the post-human instrument?  

At all events – and regardless of your opinion of my logic – let no one say an advanced, intimate and pervasive degree of social distrust doesn’t also have its social uses, and economic utilities. And in particular when it comes to people we must work or interact with very closely and collaboratively. Or whose ongoing services we require for one reason or another. Indeed, unless I wholly misread it, our modern dogma is that there are vastly more important things than trust between even the closest collaborators in any enterprise. First and foremost, there is everything that flows from our modern definition of Liberty. Remember, the present wise Age has more or less pre-defined the essence of liberty as freedom from encumbering obligation. And that to pretty much any one and every thing. The freest individual is the most “unfettered” – the one best able to cut even the most traditionally binding ties at will, and with the least shame or fear of social stigma. In a word, we hypermoderns like – or claim to like – nothing better than to be free of each other. It’s not exactly the way we were made; let’s just say it’s the way we’ve more or less created or fashioned ourselves. After which, of course, not satisfied with being merely our own gods, we go on to create institutions, procedures, tasks, etc, in more or less our own image. And then we marvel at how easily and quickly the various profit-making and other organizations we create come to embrace that same “freedom”-loving side of our human nature, and human striving. Once again, we like our independence. So why shouldn’t the various works we’ve fashioned like theirs? Why shouldn’t they want nothing better than to be free of us?    

But if we define freedom above all as independence and detachment, then surely the ultimate detachment must include freedom from those most irksome and crippling of all obligations: those we feel towards people we know we can trust, and on whom we know can depend. Let’s face it: If there’s one individual whom most of us find hard to turn our backs on, it’s the one who comes through - both for us and for the success of our operation - again and again and again. Conversely, if there’s one sort of person to whom most of us feel not just very little obligation, but little or no grounds for being obligated, it’s somebody whom we feel compelled not to trust. How easy it is to cut her off without a backward glance, and all the more so if we have reason to believe, or even plausibly suspect, she may be taking advantage of us. 

My key question is, Are these two classes of people really as opposite, or even as different, as we typically imagine them to be? And even assuming they are – again, if we truly value our utmost freedom, isn’t there some way we can reduce these seemingly opposite categories to one odious class?     

After all (I may argue to myself), how do I know I can trust either of you? And for how long? And under what degree of pressure and extremity?        

So now, instead of polarizing the two categories, let’s try to conceive the reverse situation. Let’s see if I as an employer can’t get the best of both worlds. Suppose, again, that I’m your boss. And that, despite a wealth of both data and personal experience to the contrary, I’ve convinced myself that I’m supremely wise not to trust you. It may even have got to the point where I fervently believe I can’t get any least bit of good work out of you “on your own” – that is, apart from my own constant, hectoring, badgering interference. Otherwise known as micromanagement. But to what purpose? What conceivable advantage might that set of dogmas – regarding not just you but perhaps all my employees? – yield to me in the short term? And to my institution in the long? Among other things, might it not just prove the one soundest moral argument for, on the one hand, paying you less (or even trying to get away with paying you as little as possible)? While, on the other hand, continuing to require of you more, and more, and more? Until such time, that is, as I find I have no further need of you at all (even though, why, just the other week I may have needed you, working to your utmost limits, every blessed minute of an utterly routine, 6-day, 60-hour stretch). In which event the best service you can now render me is to get out of my face, my space, my life, as quickly as possible.       

Because if there’s one thing more burdensome than somebody you can’t trust or rely on, it’s somebody on whom you know you can. 

“Now don’t get me wrong: she’s a very good worker, given the right amount of pressure. But you’ve got to keep ON her – ALL the time.”  

“I see. Keep her always more or less on the edge of want, and she’ll keep coming to work.”  

“Exactly. And keep her always more or less on the edge of instant termination, and she’ll keep doing good work. Until, of course, I decide to terminate her anyways. You know, just as a reminder – to both of us – of who really needs whom.”

30 December 2012

Twaddling as Rome Burns

De la Mare again:

"In [some] ways [the author] became so real to me that at last I would do things as if he had asked me to do them. For this reason, I think, I persevered with his book, swallowing some of the poems as if they were physic, simply because he had written them there. But the more I read, the more I came to enjoy them for their own sakes. Not all of them, of course. But I did see this, that like a carpenter who makes a table, a man who has written a poem has written it like that on purpose. 

"With this thought in my head I tried one day to alter the words of one or two of the simple and easy poems; or to put the words in a different order. And I found by so doing that you not only altered the sound of the poem, but that even the slightest alteration in the sound a little changed the sense. Either you lost something of the tune and runningness; or the words did not clash right; or you blurred the picture the words gave you; or some half-hidden meaning vanished away. I don't mean that every poem is perfect; but only that when I changed them it was almost always very much for the worse. I was very slow in all this;  but still I went on . . . 

"Having discovered, then, that every poem must have been written as it was written, on purpose, I took a little more pains with those I cared for least. In some even then I could not piece out the meaning; in others I could not easily catch the beat and rhythm and tune. But I learned to read them very slowly, so as fully and quietly to fill up the time allowed for each line and to listen to its music, and to see and hear all that the words were saying. "

- Introduction to Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages (London: Constable & Co, 1923), pp. xxix-xxxi 

Now as I've said - and no doubt amply demonstrated - before, I'm no expert judge of poetry. Yet it seems to me the above quotation is about as good a piece of advice as one could get anywhere, concerning good reading. And not just of any poem, but of any other living thing.

Think about it for a moment. Imagine if you had even the rudimentary (not in the least bit polished or cultivated) patience to be able to look, in much the same Way as de la Mare prescribes for the good reading of a poem, at another human being. At, say, that particular human creature with whom you're obliged to share a common cubicle border. Or negotiate a place in line. Or co-occupy a space on the bus. Imagine if you could regard even the most frustrating, or off-putting, or ridiculous-seeming individual into whose company you've been thrown as, why, just another difficult or otherwise unmemorable poem to memorize. (And while you're at it, be sure to thank God nobody ever sees you in those ways). Remember, you have to learn that sorry piece of "literature." Might it not also be in your interest to make some serious effort to enjoy it?

But now let's go back to our unpleasant poem for a moment. Suppose you had, for that poor work's author, not too much respect, but just enough to glean even a small sense of why he may have written it the way he did. Think how much more you'd get out of that else tedious exercise, by making just a little more sympathetic effort to grasp all of the author's meaning, and most of his music. How many even of the sorriest works of "art" might gain, to our critical minds, at least a more intelligible context, if not a more compelling urgency, could we but grasp a certain extra something of what may have compelled the artist to write, or paint, or compose, in the first place? Indeed I wonder if this isn't at least a portion of what the Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote:

HIPPOLYTA [watching an amateur dramatic production]: This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.

THESEUS:  The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them. 

HIPPOLYTA:  It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.

THESEUS:  If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men. 

Finally, who's to say that every such character as our Author writes into being (and how much more the ones He sends our way?) isn't just as rich, and absorbing, and irreplaceable a message as - as, well, not just every seemingly worst poem that's ever been written. But maybe even every one of our profoundest human ideas? Why should Divine concreteness play second fiddle to human abstraction? And how much less so when you consider that, just maybe, the whole point of all our abstract universals is the better to understand, and (gasp!) even to serve, those "excellent men" -  in short, all of us, of every mold and capacity - whom God has made individual and particular?

*                                                  *                                                    *                                                *

Now wait a minute. What on earth am I thinking of? I talk of urgency. But have I no sense of the urgency of the present hour? Have I lost all sense of chivalry? Don't I realize what a monstrous indignity our Most Glorious Ship of the Global Economy has been suffering? Can't I grasp that for far too long she's been stuck in doldrums shamefully unworthy of her 30+-year track record of historically unprecedented growth, innovation and progress (GIP)? ("Can't somebody PLEASE get that man out of the White House?!") 

So tell me, if you can, what sort of remedies might such a crisis call for? And no, I don't mean the next round  of QE's (or cutbacks). What else ultimately, I ask you - if not truly MONSTROUS, family-faith-and-country-be-damned levels of drive, speed, hustle, ambition, innovation, workaholism, and all-around get-out-of-my-wayness?

Ah, but if only stagnation were even half the problem! But to live to see that same poor, bereft, benighted ship rapidly edging towards falls of a size and depth as might mortify the wildest flat-earth fancies of medieval peasants! And what in turn might that crisis demand, if not the Promethean energy, enterprise, efficiency and hell-for-leather fury of SUPERmonsters? TITANS, I tell you, ready to push that supreme monument of humanity not only well away from the impending rapids, but far enough into safe harbor - nay, inland of harbor! - to ensure that, when that Best of All Ships re-embarks, her course will be imperturbably sound. And meanwhile, not trifling over what miserable little fishermen's boats, urchins' hovels and peasants' huts should chance to be crushed in the course of rescue.

The stakes have never been higher. To think of all that world of greatness, seedbed of each and every one of our most permanent and valuable human legacies ("The best is WAY yet to come, buster"), in danger of collapsing round our ears any week - any day? - now. And the best I can offer is those first four paragraphs of twaddle?

Non-interfering Weather

"So how's it outside?"

"Gorgeous. Not a cloud in the sky." 

Convenient, I'll admit. But gorgeous? Is the sky more beautiful for being cloudless? Is your brain more interesting for being thoughtless? Or just less interfering with my particular plans?

11 September 2012

Driving Obsessions

If you can think of another please tell me. But to my mind, there is no more dangerous, arrogant or obnoxious way of conveying the overriding importance and urgency of Oneself than speed.

10 September 2012

In Crisis Motto

"Keep calm and carry on." 

I suppose there's nothing quite like dusting off a quaint old British Second World War morale watchword. And all the more so in time for a London-hosted Olympics. How utterly characteristic, too, of those sturdy, stodgy, unvisionary wartime Brits. Observe - "keep calm" - not a shred of a sense of real glory in them. Or of those things most worth sacrificing in order to win it. Worst of all - and on such a potentially heroic occasion - to remain so punily, pathetically human in their scale and proportion, and perspective, of things. I mean, if monstrous times don't justify becoming a bit of a monster oneself, what does? But then by the same token, don't relatively dull, listless, uncertain times (as our own are often alleged to be) require a that-much-more deliberately disproportionately monstrous energy? And enthusiasm?

So what might be a fittingly dynamic, 21st-century American counterpart - or even rejoinder - to a modestly 20th-century British crisis slogan?

"Get all worked up, and carry it right off a cliff?" 

And why not? What's the point of truly believing in (i.e., taking to its limits) anything - even a business model - if you're not prepared go crazy with it? Neither, I'm told, is there anything quite like a serious economic downturn for separating wheat from chaff, men from boys, women from girls, fit from unfit. Perhaps it's time we laid the groundwork for a whole new series of economic paradigms: man-made disaster as the better man's made-in-heaven opportunity.

To do what, you ask? Why, yet further to improve to himself; to extend the frontiers of human (or is it post-human?) triumph over nature; to distinguish the superior man's hardwon greatness from the mediocrity of that always-too-abundant herd which deserves only failure. And as for the general state of the world, surely there's no better raw material for the properly innovative man or woman than a clean slate? Indeed, might it not be reasonably asked (I can almost hear the ghost of H G Wells with his ebullient "Fresh starts! fresh starts!"):

Can the slate ever be clean enough?

So why not just take the whole rotten system and plunge head-over-precipice? Who knows what undreamed-of supercreatures - uh, make that creators - may yet emerge from the rubble?

(NOTE: For those readers as yet unsure of my drift - yes, this was indeed a swipe at not just Mr Hopeful Audacity, but Bush the Younger. And Greenspan. And Clinton. And Gingrich. And . . . )

27 June 2012

Music Lessons from a Slow Learner

Slim Cessna's Auto Club (live recording) on a Sunday evening.

There's one thing I don't think I'll ever cease to love about "Western" and "cowboy" music. It's something in addition to - though it may well be inseparable from - the yodel-like calls and howls and wails. Indeed, it's the same thing I think I most enjoy in just about every sort of folk music I've ever heard, with the exception of the German, French and northern Italian varieties (excepting, in other words, all that "music of the folk" so-called in which every lapse into a minor key is something on the order of a major sin).

It's the yearning. 

Haven't I made myself clear? Then let me try again. 

It's the ineffable, lingering, haunting sense that, however much the singer may enjoy his present life, and this present earth, by the grace of everything holy there's got to be a better life somehow, somewhere, somewhen. 

31 May 2012

Road (Re-)Construction Blues

The longer I'm an American, the more I'm convinced of the centrality of a certain, perhaps unduly neglected, feature of our modern work ethic. Modern, I mean, as distinct from our American work ethic of 60 years ago. Or 40 years ago. Or even as recently - if I dare nitpick further holes in the reputation of our once-vaunted New Economy - as 20 years ago.

As usual I'm not exactly sure what's going on here. But I get the feeling that, were this particular feature ever to be accurately enshrined in a tenet, precept or injunction, it might go something like this:

"Remember: Speed isn't just an important thing - it's EVERYTHING. And doubly so when it comes to those bonuses that are the rightful reward of jobs completed well in advance of deadline. In short, it really doesn't matter all that much how often a job gets done over, so long as you do it really, really, really, really fast the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Or . . ."

27 May 2012

A Spirited Rejoinder

Pentecost: Outpouring of  the Holy Spirit

And why HOLY Spirit? For three reasons, mainly.

First, because there are certain creatures in this universe who are, and always will be, and never shall be anything other than, spirits. And yet they are not in the least holy. Or rather, more precisely, they have ceased to be holy - mostly because they think they have found something better than Divine holiness. (And of course there's always something better than what one has been Divinely given - until one finds that the "better" is actually an outcome far worse than one could ever have bumped into round the corner of one's most nightmare-haunted despairs.)

Second, because there are other kinds of creatures in this universe, who are not and will never be spirits, and yet - such is the Divine humility - who can be made holy. And indeed must, if they are ever to find wholeness (which process can be made immeasurably easier by one simple procedure:  namely, by firmly shutting one's ears to the entreaties of the first-mentioned sort of creature).

Lastly, because everywhere in the universe there is a ravenous need, across every category of creature however high or low, for One who (a) has all the power that inheres in being spirit and not flesh, (b) stores holiness in unasked-for abundance, and (c) actually shares and even sheds this same holiness to all who ask for it (as opposed to our human custom of hoarding and rationing it). This One also has a very curious kinship with human beings in that, while He is wholly unlike the convoluted mess we've succeeded in making ourselves, He is also like us enough to be the slaking of our every human thirst, and the satisfying of our every human desire.

Upon discovering which, our most common initial response, at this point in the Journey, is to bid the chauffeur a hasty "Drive on!" We humans long ago became much too mature, too ironic, and (ironically enough) too heroically self-determining, ever to be resigned to any merely happy ending to our story. And yet not only is this incorrigibly happy Door still open, but lo, One - upon whom depends the salvation of the entire universe - has already passed through it.

26 April 2012

The Oldest Obsolescence of All

As we all know, these are unprecedentedly fast-moving times.* Hardly a month goes by without some age-old realm of human interest, passion or endeavor - one we might have assumed would be part of of the human landscape for centuries if not millennia to come - being suddenly pronounced redundant (or worst and most mysteriously of all, "irrelevant"), and therewith relegated to the heap of obsolescence and eventual uselessness and utter disgrace.

* Though as I recall we were saying much the same thing about the 1990s, and even more so about the 2000s - until one fine late summer's day everything came to not only an abrupt but a largely unexpected halt (and nowhere, I'm told, was it more unexpected than among those who'd been beating the drum of unprecedentedness the loudest). 

But I think it will be an especially sad day when the experts consign poetry to the dustbin once and for all. I say that because for me poetry continues to have an irreplaceable and impregnable niche all its own: Not only are there still so many things it can do with words - to say nothing of ideas - but it goes on doing them so much better than other forms of knowledge or learning. Or even literature.

I'm not sure I can explain exactly what I mean to everyone's satisfaction. Let alone every Christian's. But I will try.

To me, what makes poetry a unique and even peculiar language is, first of all, what it does not do. Or at any rate not very well, or very convincingly. Poetry talks about a great many things; some might even say an illimitable universe of things. But what makes poetry different from other kinds of language we use is not so much the things it talks about, as what it does with them. Poetry does not primarily speak things into thoughts and ideas; or into opinions and heated emotions; or into use and useableness. The way, for instance, our treatises and editorials and training-manuals do. Nor does it principally speak things into abstraction or categorization or manipulation, as do our philosophy, science and engineering. Instead, what poetry does is to take a vast, indeed all but limitless variety of things, and speak them into a rather strange kind of being. Poetry understands, in a uniquely specific and individualizing and even sympathetic way, what it means for anything - or anyone - to be. With all that that implies for every level, degree and kind of creature. Being not just in some theoretical or metaphysical sense, or in the lowest common denominator sense of an atom or quark, but being as it fully encompasses creatures of every sort, including those at the most developed levels of sentience. And pretty much everything about them, too - and particularly those things that are of most absorbing interest to the creatures themselves. In other words, not just their most rudimentary or workaday goings-on, but their most pressing concerns of all. And not only at their point of origin - though that usually is of definitive importance - but at every point and turn of their lives. And most powerfully of all at their point of death. In short, poetry understands uniquely the language of need. And that even (and sometimes embarrassingly) in those most remarkable and apparently self-sufficient of all God's creatures we know of: Angels and men. Nothing speaks, as the language of poetry speaks, of every creature's need, however "tiny" its capacity, to be loved, to be understood, to be heeded, to be saved. And of course, who can know the utter direness of these needs, or indeed know any of these creatures in themselves, better than their Maker? And after Him, Man - at least in those rare moments when graces, events and circumstances conspire to make him co-operative?

Right now, though, I want you to look again, a bit more closely, at the short catalogue of need I compiled in my third to the last sentence. Review each of these needs in its turn, and see what you make of them. Is it just my personal pique, or are these precisely the same needs in any created thing - the same little rooms, as it were, in each and every one of us - that the proud and prosperous world tends to deem most lowly and humiliating? To say nothing of (most damning of all modern sins) unproductive? To be loved, to be understood, to be heeded, to be saved . . .

"Now you listen here," I can imagine some irreplaceably important person arguing, who's been having all this up to here by now. "It just so happens that I've done and made do WITHOUT these things all my life. And see what I've produced and achieved! Go ahead, search my accomplishments from top to bottom, and see if you find a counterfeit, or even so much as a mere 'credential,' among any of them! Nor did I ever wait for, much less ASK, anybody to understand, or love, or even listen to me. To be honest, whatever I needed I either found a way of getting, or else frankly just went and took. And to my mind, there's no reason on God's earth why every other creature He made can't function in more or less the same way. In fact, if you'll bother to look 'a bit more closely,' you'll notice that most of the SURVIVORS among them do."

(If I may interject, sort of makes me wonder how many breathtaking deeds of extreme productivity - not to mention extreme oppressiveness [and that not just of the shirkers, but even more often of the workers] - have been justified in the pursuit of that modern Holy Grail, survival uber alles.)  

But now imagine what may in fact be the supremest of ironies. Imagine these same lowly, yet in their own way lovely, rooms being also the place of our most direct contact with God, and of our most immediate closeness to God. If so, then for me certain conclusions follow. It follows that poetry, at least so far as it succeeds - as it issues in actual poems, and not mere versified prose - can only be a most curiously humble and intimate thing. Certainly in the place where it starts, if nowhere else. And of course, as in everything, it is the freshness of the wellsprings that best ensures the freedom of the stream. My point is that poetry, wherever we find it  - and not least where we find it dwelling someplace farthest from verse, and most deeply imbedded in prose - is a speech unto itself, precisely because it touches us in those places where no other speech can. Not only closest to where we live, but closest to where, it may be, we are least conscious of living, or most in denial of living. Or most apt to have forgotten we ever lived there at all. As with a certain garden. At all events, regardless of where we stumble on it, or unexpectedly dig it up and dust it off from, poetry always consists of words that have a lilt, music and magic all their own, quite independent and irrespective of the things they talk about. This lilt, music, magic are themselves rooted, I believe, in the poet's power to stir up in us the remembrance of "places" - indelible states of mind and feeling - that we have  perhaps largely forgotten; or fled from; or fallen so far down off of that we no longer know how to get ourselves back up. And this power is nowhere more potent than when the words themselves are, as it were, most fresh, and crisp, and clean with the savor of the breath of God. That is, when they're most concerned with those things about us - or rather, with that Everything about us - that our Maker is most concerned with: not our whims, or our wants, or even our supposedly most sovereignly self-creating wills; but rather with those needs in each of us that are at once most basic and primordial, and most final.

To sum up: Poetry is either the language of ultimate need, or it's nothing at all in its own right - nothing that can't be found in some ranting, pontificating newspaper comment or editorial. Or blog. Of all our various languages, poetry is the one most of us and like us, because like us it can no more escape from need than it can escape from God. And - lest anyone think I'm making an exception of the plentiful atheists and agnostics in the field - I believe that's true of any poet's words, whether she knows it (or Him) or not.

You may come up with all sorts of exceptions to my rule. Or even rules of your own that seem to make of my rule one big exception. My question is, in any given creative moment, how can one be sure that the Poet hasn't also gotten through, in one guise or other? A particular writer may hate, or thinks he hates, God. That doesn't mean his Maker is not stirring up His own ancient tongue in some forgotten cupboard of that author's being. I said poetry is the language of need: it doesn't follow that every poet is happy with or reconciled to this need, even as he exhibits or illustrates it. My point is that when it comes to a God as unpredictably persuasive as the One attested by both our Scripture and  Tradition, nothing is humanly certain, much less humanly impregnable. Vehement denial of or even opposition to God are no guarantees of immunity to His influence. I've known people whose, as they see it, irrefutable experience of Satan is also one of their most unshakeable testimonies to both the reality and the love of his Enemy. And I imagine even the Devil must bear some trace of his Divine origins; else where would his powers of persuasion be? And if one irrevocably banished from the presence of God can still show marks of His influence and nature, how much more one, like any human poet, whose fate still hangs in the balance?

All the more reason, it seems to me, why we shouldn't be too eager to cast the better part of our poetry into the dustheap just yet. Or even to delete it permanently from every corner of our frantically "Preparing for Tomorrow" curricula. It may just yet have something more to teach us about the finer - or in any case the more serious - things of life. And maybe - who knows? - even be of some last use to us in our more patiently discerning attempts at survival.

21 April 2012

The Gift That Keeps On Taking

Whenever you hear people tell you that love is something either done freely, or not at all, listen to them, for they know what they're talking about. It means they've been round the block with it more than a few times.

Whatever else love is or may be, it is not simply (and brutally) a matter of doing more for somebody, and then more and more and more. I can go, as they say, to the ends of the earth for another human being, and then back again, but if I'm doing it chiefly in order to maintain their good opinion of me, or to maintain myself in their good graces, then it's hardly a free act. At least not in the oldest and noblest sense of that word. Which is to say, something done free of charge.

Of course people can play all sorts of games with my conscience: they can try to turn what I could have sworn was a gift into a debt, something I thought I desired to do from the bottom of my heart into something else that was really owed all along. But my love shall dry up at a dismaying rate, if I find myself doing one favor for someone, and then another and another and another, simply in order to assure them I'm not quite as bad as they're always on the verge of thinking I am. And as I know they will think I am, sooner or later. Unless, of course, I keep on doing that thing they expect which I thought was a free act of service, but which "in reality" was merely partial payment for services they rendered "to me."

I'll say it again: Love is either a free thing or it is a miserable thing, which very soon will cease to bear even a shred of resemblance to love. So that, soon enough, I'll have all I can do to keep from hating those who keep escalating their expectations of me. Even as I continue to try to meet those same expectations. Just to maintain my self-respect, of course. Or to ease my conscience.

And needless to say (or it ought to be), the fact that I must be prepared for other people's games with my conscience doesn't mean I'm not playing them myself.

29 February 2012

A Day of Small Things

Many of us, I think, at least once or twice in our lives have been stopped dead in our tracks - almost as if we'd been cut to the heart - by a truly great painting. The kind that makes you forget what you were thinking the moment before, or about to think the moment after - and that simply, quietly, decisively draws you into itself. As if nothing else in the world mattered. As if this, say, 3' x 4' space encompassed by a frame was not only bigger than your whole life, but bigger than anything you could ever have imagined life to be. Almost as if it had made you expect that, even if your life couldn't be, nonetheless it ought to be, something radically different from what it had been up till that moment.

And yet you'd hardly expect even the most arrestingly "living" canvas to step out of the wall and start painting pictures of its own. It is an example of art, maybe even the highest art. But it will never, no matter how it tries, ever succeed in becoming an artist. What you experienced just then was admittedly a grand moment, and yet - from the standpoint of what the artwork itself was capable of doing or not doing - it was also a dead moment.

Which brings me to the matter of a very different kind of art. The kind that is able to step out of the canvas, and which can, by the grace and good pleasure of its artist, itself begin to paint. The kind of art that is spoken, and yet also speaks; that comes to us boldly as a song on the wind, yet can also make a secret music of its own, in the depths of its heart. I mean, of course, the kind of art that is you and me. Because in a sense each one of us is an artist, as well as a work of art. Certainly we are so in the eye of the one vision that matters: the sight of God. You see, unlike certain other kinds of creator, our maker does not deny or efface or suppress any part of Himself when He makes a human soul. Or even a human mind and body. He's got this strange habit of leaving all sorts of not just random or superficial, but telltale, significant, autographed pieces and traces of Himself in us, if you will: and not just in the things that we are but in the things we do, and create. Now I'll grant you this can be a very different exercise from our normal human business of creating. We humans can and have tried - usually by means of a kind of brutalizing, stultifying discipline - to create works of art in which you'd swear there was no trace, either of our common human nature or of our personal, individual selves. Works that seem as if they were not only only made but conceived by a machine. Or a monster. But God has no reason to make any human creature in whom there is no imprint - however much effaced by its own perversity and "independence" - of His most precious, loved and crucified Image. Which is to say, of His own very heart. After all, our God is not just a but the creator: why should He make the very summit of His creation into something the express opposite of Himself?

Nonetheless it may sound strange - even to many Christians - to hear that, because God made each of us in, and through, and by means of His Image, therefore we humans are each one of us a kind of artist. Taken literally, it goes against the grain of much or even most of our everyday experience. But we must never let the surface facts of so-called everyday life get in the way of our apprehending certain deeper truths: truths of who we are, and could be, and yearn to be. Which three things aren't nearly as different from (much less opposed to) each other as the loud, strident beat of Modern Life would try to convince us. It is a fact, of course, that most of us never descend to that ineffably pure yet rich depth - that lichened, ivied soil we call humility - which alone enables us to ascend into the right mode and means of expression: the kind, I mean, which culminates in art. And especially good art. For instance, at this moment I don't think I could write a good poem if my life depended on it.  And that limitation, I more than suspect, is at bottom due not so much to any lack of ambition as to a certain petty pride: a kind of pompous self-consciousness, and fear of failure, or of sounding (even more) foolish, that prevents me from getting deep enough into either myself or my subject to bring a really good poem up to the surface. But the fact that most of us are timid, or shamefaced, or impatient, or much-too-proud-busy-and-important-to-be, poets doesn't mean we are not all of us real poets, creators, by nature. And that means that what's true of visible, active, public poets is also true of the never-published, and even of us might-have-beens and can't-be-bothereds.

Indeed I have little doubt this point would be apparent to almost everybody, if only we cared more often to put first things first. No matter how bad a poet I am at the start (or even at the finish), the only way to start getting better is not by ranging ever higher or farther or later, but by dwelling deeper, and quieter, and closer to the beginnings, as it were, both of myself and of all things. Of course there is no point in my aiming if I don't aim to be perfect. And yet there is no perfection to which I can attain that is not rooted in, and bounded by, another, much older, vaster, humbler Perfection than I could ever conceive, much less create. And there is, as I hope to show, reason to believe that that part of me which is receptively still, deep and quiet is closer to It - at least in the process of creating - than that part of me which is ever-hastening on  to the next level of "my own" perfection.

Not that each of these modes - the closer and the farther, so to speak - is not both possible and necessary. To take a familiar example from the realms of both poetry and painting: Each one of us, however poor or limited his technical level of achievement, has in the works he longs to create both a grand, impersonal, "public" manner, and a manner that is more private, intimate, "domestic." A mode, say, of high drama, or momentous tension, or of pomp and "stately" occasions - and a mode so homely, so unpretentious, that there hangs about it a quietude more "composed" than the stillest still life ever painted by one of the Dutch masters. Or even by de la Mare's especial favorite, Chardin.

Now of the two modes, it may seem obvious which one is the more quickly mastered, and which takes more time; or even which is the more labored or spontaneous. It may even appear easy to conclude which of the two modes is the more consciously self-created, and which one comes, as it were, like pollen on the air, from sources not only unconscious, but untraceable and inexhaustible. We humans are small - at least quantitatively - and from that it seems reasonable to suppose that our most effortlessly characteristic works are likewise small in scale, modest, unambitious. And that anything "bigger" must come from somewhere else. But not necessarily.

Think of many if not most of the greatest writers humankind has known. Are these commonly the ones who've tended to be most impatient and dismissive of lowly, inconspicuous individuals, situations, surroundings? Or who've been most "in their element" when depicting human beings in the grand manner, or human life on the grand scale? Or are these "greatest," rather, precisely those who've been better than the others at delineating, and making delightful  - and even discerning something of the exquisite mystery and artistry implicit in - visibly ordinary people, places and acts? And these no less than the loudly and busily extraordinary? To take a few random examples from just one century: Dickens, Tolstoy, the Brontes, Melville, Mark Twain, Dostoevsky, Hardy - even Henry James, or Joseph Conrad. Are these the sort of authors who had neither time nor patience for simple folk, or simple things? To say nothing of that piece de resistance of all great writers: Shakespeare himself. A consummate master of "simplicity," I daresay - at least of those realms and moments of life in which we are all most "simple," and most alike. And that even in his "grandest" high dramas. Indeed, who better than Shakespeare could decipher the dream-haunted, or nightmare-hounded, child hidden in an Othello or a Hamlet? Or that lost-and-never-to-be-found child locked away in a Macbeth? Perhaps even in an Edmund, or an Iago?

Or take again the example of painting. Think of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. You may easily come up with others you prefer, or even whom you might regard as greater. But even of your most particular favorites, can you think of anything they've done that surpasses, in either vision or technique, the right rendering of the face on a tired, beaten-down, bedraggled old woman? Or of  the wistful, mysterious smile on a little girl standing in a doorway? Note how often, in our human experience, being "great" connotes an eye for the minute as well as the immense, the "less" as well as the "more". Almost to the point where the gift lies not just in seeing but in a kind of going inside the infinitesimally small, or delicate, or fragile, or transient. Almost as if the bigger the writer, the smaller she is able to become. And the deeper she is prepared to go in.

My point is neither to exaggerate nor to diminutize the dignity of Man as the one creature made in God's image. The fact remains that, speaking Scripturally (and of course symbolically), we humans are sheep as well as goats, plants as well as animals. The point of which fact, I believe, is that there remains in our nature something not just "pre-modern," or ancient, but primordial: something in us that longs, not merely to receive from, but  in a small, utterly dependent way even to become, that Soil in which all things thrive both seen and unseen. Nor do I think this is an unreasonable or prideful hope on our part. What most distinguishes us from the lower animals - and herein, I suspect, lies the Image at His most indelible - is that we too can become something of that presence in which every living thing, however "insignificant," finds its peace; something of that silence in which every sound, however faint and tremulous, finds its voice. And even its music. But for that to happen, both our compositions and our arrangements may need to be on a humbler, yet also much more intimate and intricate scale, than those to which our usual impatience and self-importance have accustomed us.

Now I'll grant you this pattern among writers and artists that I've noted - however common - may hardly be consistent enough to be elevated to a principle. And even if it could be, it's far from clear how far that principle might extend, whether in range of time or of space, or even of Being itself. We can't know whether, and how far, solicitude and care for the individual and the particular is of the very essence of Greatness. But there is something we can know, and perhaps already do.

Just consider for a moment, in comparison to all the powerful things that exist in nature - or even compared to not a few things Man himself has made - what a frail and passing thing the individual human being is. Or at least has been, up till now. (And if the modern individual remains a comparative nothing, how much more so was her counterpart of 2000 years ago?) And now consider, not just the peculiar point in time (c. AD 30) of that same individual's redemption, but the lowliness, the vulnerability, the sheer unfiltered, unclouded, unaffected intimacy of the manner in which she's been redeemed. Humanly speaking it would be hard to imagine a familiarity with our condition more penetrating of who we are: - one that goes the whole length and breadth, depth and height of what it means to be human, more than this one strange Life, bounded by a pauper's birth and a criminal's death. Think of, not just the grand highways the Son was prepared to travel, but the lowly cellars, closets and cupboards he was prepared to enter, and not merely to know us, but to enable us to see, and know, and love, ourselves and each other, even with those same eyes with which He is loved by the Father. And then ask yourself which of these two modes of our human art - the farther or the closer - is best revealing, not just of the nature but of the art, of our Poet?

Intimations of Deity?

The Linnet

Upon this leafy bush 
With thorns and roses in it,
Flutters a thing of light,
A twittering linnet. 
And all the throbbing world
Of dew and sun and air
By this small parcel of life
Is made more fair;
As if each bramble-spray 
Of mounded gold-wreathed furze,
Harebell and little thyme,
Were only hers; 
As if this beauty and grace 
Did to one bird belong
And, at a flutter of wing,
Might vanish in song.

- Walter de la Mare

No doubt I've said something much like this before. But there are poets whose command of language is so instinct with magic - so imbued with a mastery and a delicacy that is more than human - that in their company words like "uncanny" and "preternatural" become the tiredest of cliches. 

I've been reading, studying, savoring de la Mare for going on 12 years, and I still don't know how he does it. He can speak of some frail wisp of a bird, not just with enraptured interest, but with such attentiveness to loving, and loved, detail - to shaded breast, and impossibly round head, and tracery of wing - it's as if he were decoding isolated fragments of the very sentence that first spoke it into being. Yet not just as naked words hanging in the air, but rather as if clothed with something of that first fresh smile, and deep breath, and gleam in the Eye. 

(Economic) Culture Sores

Alright, so I was off by two months.  

As best I recall, sometime this past December, I rashly confided to a select handful of friends (as if I have that many to begin with) how I thought the Dow would top 13000 before the year was up. Not, mind you, that I’m expecting it to remain there for any length of time. Or even, necessarily, anywhere near it again anytime soon. But what if it does, and more? Suppose this was the first jolt of a really sustained recovery, complete with jobs, rising home prices and (my imagination is staggering) negligible inflation. What would that mean? Would it prove that Quantitative Easing was working? That it had been the right approach all along? Or would it merely stand as evidence that, however secure any upturn produced by stimulus might seem, we’d be enjoying that much stronger and more lasting a recovery had we embraced policies of austerity a la Britain’s David Cameron?   

One thing is all but certain to me. If recovery does take hold, Democrats will chalk it up to the enduring wisdom of Old Man Keynes, and Republicans will blame it on the enduring profitability of domestic fossil fuels.

That’s the problem with wars of ideas. And especially nasty ones like our current orgies of self-congratulation on both sides. Truth isn't so much the first casualty as he is an unwanted guest sentenced to take all his meals with the children and the servants.   

Which, now that I think of it, is not at all a bad place for Truth to start re-disseminating. 

08 February 2012

What is Man (that WE're not more mindful of Him)?

Let me begin by stating as a matter of record that I love the Psalms. And not just as fine literature - which I dare anyone to deny - but as fierce devotion. And even, in places, as doctrine (another subject, for another time). So may I be the last to disagree with the Psalmist, when he says that Man is a wonder and a marvel - or even a kind of miracle. It's just that for me, what makes Man most miraculous is that in him which resembles a rippling spring - the kind one can imagine being rooted in a "lost," untraceable underground stream - much more than a geyser or other sudden eruption. Much less an earthquake, volcano or fire. So perhaps I should say, what I find most marvelous about the human is that in us which is best able both to hear the still, small voice, and to be its mouthpiece.

Now I know Man has also been the stuff of which gripping - and even terrifying - stories are made, if not always high drama; though that alone tells us nothing about the kind of storyteller best equipped to do him justice. In any case, for me the essential "miracle" of Man is one that, of its nature, seems designed more readily to impress, say, a Will Shakespeare than a Bernard Shaw. In other words, what makes Man marvelous is not his supposed ability to surpass or supersede his Maker (however regularly and often we may  appear to do just that). It is rather two other, very different and distinct features:

1) The amazing number of things Man seems able to do successfully "apart" from, or without even any reference to, or invocation of, God;

2) the fact that he can do those same things incomparably better - to the point where that "better" and "worse" constitute a difference almost of Light and Darkness - when he is in a state of what we hypermoderns would call the most abject dependence upon his Maker.

I say this because, for all his considerable graces and virtues, the creature Man has never struck me as being a terribly original creator (though he can do some thoroughly derivative things remarkably well with the right coaxing). Even in the matter of outright evil, I'm amazed at the number of God's creatures, both high and low - ranging from the most bitterly jealous archangel to the most conceitedly manipulative Angora cat - that seem fully capable of going from bad to worse entirely on their own, with no corrupting input from human agents. Indeed one might argue, the world of what we call Nature is a nasty enough place in its own right, without the vicious little children of Adam adding to or compounding its strife.

What I'd like to suggest is that we need not only compound the strife, or the striving, of Nature. Nor does our role of peacemaker need be confined to our usual method of suppressing its incessant warfare: by crushing it beneath our technologically superior weight and intellect. Human pacification of nature has never been simply a matter of more concrete, gravel and asphalt. Or even of the most savagely over-manicured 18th-century gardens. Even when it comes to some very unruly plants and animals, we humans have been capable of many forms and degrees of government beyond military dictatorship. But it takes, I believe, a certain kind of human nature to elicit the trustfulness of natural things - including our own kind - and not just to extort their tameness.

Or more precisely (as I've belabored many times before, and in many places), it takes a certain place within our nature. And so, by implication, within each one of us. A  place which, possibly on account of its rude country-cottage appearance, we may seldom if ever visit. And which, because of the particularly sore neglect of recent decades, has begun to show signs of serious disrepair and even decay. But I suspect the seeming rudeness and peasant-like simplicity of this - I want to say - rural retreat within us is no accidental feature, but in fact a key component of the original Design. After all, if our aim is gain the trust of wild things, it helps that we ourselves should know both how to trust, and above all, when and Whom. And afterwards, once these points have been established, how to trust totally, in such a way that, however far you go back, there seems never to have been in the truster any sense of Self at all. Because the place in human nature I'm thinking of is one that is, when all's been said and done, very little conscious of its adult wisdom, or even of its acquired resourcefulness. To such a degree, indeed, as might embarrass most self-respecting adults. So little conscious, and so humble, I believe, that one might almost imagine it being reduced to the most incoherently gibbering idiocy, or the most infantile helplessness, but for the infinitely humbler wisdom, patience, and above all exquisite kindness of God.

25 January 2012

The Parenting Trap

In an interview with Rick Santorum, New York Times reporter James Freeman describes the Republican candidate (some of whose opinions, to be frank, on social and cultural issues I find myself warming to quite easily) as arguing that

"the cost of Europe's massive welfare states [makes] it too expensive for young people to have families."

Of course I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the truth or relevance of that statement (assuming it was even an accurate summation of Mr Santorum's views). And so I won't.

But it did get me thinking about some possible factors in present-day American society that make it difficult, expensive, in some cases even debilitatingly exhausting for people of any age to raise families. Among these possible factors, I couldn't resist considering one in particular as pretty close to the top. I mean the tragic inability of so many employers to pay, to one or both spouses, a wage live enough to minimize the need of both parents to juggle two, three, four - perhaps even five? - jobs between the two of them. Which is to say, a wage live enough to enable both parents to meet not just the much-debated emotional needs of their children, but even some of their physical needs as well. Or at least to meet those physical needs adequately enough so that the much-derided Public School System, in many districts, isn't called upon to serve those same kids not one, not two, but three meals a day.

Honestly, who could have imagined the State being so "vital," or parents being so "useless"? Except I'm sure that, in many if not a majority of cases, the parents aren't nearly so much useless as they are highly useful to a certain Somebody Else aforementioned. Somebody who in fact has an almost consuming need for them, whenever and however he may require their services. And like the proverbial professor in college, the way he hands out assignments, you'd think they had no other instructors but him, and no other courses besides his. Much less other life-responsibilities.

22 January 2012

Thoughts on a Pastoral Visit

I wonder:

Do you think it's still possible - even in a rigorously perfectionist, profit- and results-driven Age like our own* - to have too much faith in a given medical or other clinical expertise?

* At least compared to that ignorant Old World of pre-1995. 

I don't just mean the kind of faith that optimistically misjudges the skill of a single practitioner, clinic or hospital. I mean the kind of faith that grossly overestimates the degree of progress - or even  worse, capacity for progress - of an entire industry. What is it about these Particular Times anyway, that makes us think we've got all sorts of perennially complex problems so unprecedentedly figured out? So comprehensively "in the bag"? Such that if, in spite of our most brilliant efforts, your condition - what? still isn't responding properly to treatment, the problem must lie with you and not with the solution?

Again, just what is it, that seems to have elevated Today's particular solutions into a kind of provisionally almightygod-like Program? Until, of course, we come up with a better god? The kind of Program that more and more folks, however dire the nature of their condition or concern, are expected simply to get with OR ELSE? Have we hypermoderns really become so wise, or so technically perfect (in which case, I suppose, who needs even moral competence, much less excellence?), that our demands must needs become only more Draconian, "fear-factored" and intimidating? And not just of workers and volunteers - at least of the really good, conscientious ones I know - but of beneficiaries and clients? Right on up to and including cancer patients?

And why do I sense that, in the case of so many people I know who are "up against it" - and no matter how serious the ailment or other problem they're up against - the response of the person trained to help is something just teetering on the edge of "Dammit! You're not trying hard enough!"?

Anyhow, at the rate we're going, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the labels on our drug-bottles include the following message:

WARNING: Product disclaimers are intended ONLY to limit patient's expectations of drug performance, NOT to lower clinician's expectations of patient responsiveness. 

16 January 2012

A Decade in Perspective (Mine)

Greatness. Apparently some nations are born to it, others achieve it, while others thrust it away from themselves at the first opportunity.

So far as I can determine, the second category is a fair enough description of the United States in 1941. The third is a not inapt description of its weak, vainglorious grandchild 60 years later. Indeed, as I do my poor best to recall the America of 2001, what comes to mind is a country (or was it rather a wholly new, POST-Western civilization?) zealous to embrace every challenge except those involving its own real security. For one thing, and try as I may, I'm simply unable to grasp just how one manages the defense of an entire country chiefly upon the good faith and sound character of its cronies and capitalists. Surely national security, in its widest and most permanent meaning, has always been an affair not just of the well-connected - or even of "experts" and professionalized elites - but of the whole Nation?

Then again, just what sort of security challenges did America face at the turn of the millennium? Certainly our most immediately deadly enemies were elusive, insidious, infectious enough. That societal disease which I think we now most accurately call jihadism was nothing to trifle with; at very least it was determined to speed the collapse of what it presumed to be the hollow, rotten edifice of American and Western life. But note how small in scale these challenges might have appeared, how slice-and-diceable, how utterly manageable - perhaps even containable? - had we but tried to approach them with the right sort of national resoluteness and cohesion. After all, in one very practical sense an attack on everybody is also everybody's fight. And seldom, it seems to me, in  the history of any country had there been one occasion so richly capable of bringing out the best in every kind, level and class of citizen. That is, had we but cared to educate and motivate our people even half as well for citizenship as we'd been doing for entrepreneurship. (Then again we had an entire globe to compete with. And apparently repeated studies had shown how weak and futile, as sentiments go, was American love of country when matched against Chinese pride of civilization. Just kidding.)

It should also be remembered that in 2001, despite the shame of Enron and kindred debacles, we Americans were near the peak of a kind of economic high. One that, admittedly, carried far more weight in the realms of emotion and ideology than on the scale of any really hard, verifiable numbers. At the same time any pinnacle, real or imagined, from which a nation feels itself on top of the world can be an awkward perch to come down from. And I suspect the sad truth is that America c. 2000 was so busy choking on its own self-infatuation (remember how we and China were going to rewrite economic history? - or at least so ran the subtext) that it was in no good place to meet existential challenges of any kind. As distinct, I mean, from the all-important economic ones.

So let's take some inventory. On the face of it we had, in the wake of 9/11, an unparalleled opportunity to be Americans; we chose instead to be ever more vindictive Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and collectivists, sham liberals and pseudo-conservatives, phony socialists and crony capitalists. Most urgently we all, for one reason or another, in one degree or another, chose to be corporatists. In the face of a uniquely savage assault on the very bedrock of human dignity everywhere, one might think we had an unprecedented opportunity to cherish, conserve, develop and maximize the potential of our Deity's most precious creaturely gift: ourselves and each other. Instead we chose to deify the organizational works of our heads and hands. We had a rare chance to remind some of our most productive, enterprising countrymen and -women that they too were Americans and citizens, and not just global producers and distributors; that they actually had families and neighborhoods, and not just colleagues and clients; that they themselves had bodies and souls - even their own! - to manage, and not just capital and overhead. Instead we encouraged how many of our employers, both corporate and non-corporate, both profiting and not-for-profit, to become a Thing so far removed from the root meaning of corporation, it was, if anything, more like an anti-body, an anti-Church, in which not only was eye telling ear, but head was constantly reminding just about every member, faculty, organ and cell: "I do not NEED you." (And no doubt there is something highly exhilarating - at least to our nasty, hardened, shriveled flesh - in having the "freedom" to say that.)

Lastly, considering we faced an enemy on the one hand so utterly new, antithetical and total, and on the other so non-expert, so wholly civilian and amateur and makeshift, you'd think an imaginative response might have found scope for every sort of talent, and a place for just about every hand on deck. Whereas instead what did we do? We told the overwhelming bulk of the ship's crew to go shopping.

And boy did we ever.