April 29, 2007

Passing On the Sense of Wonder

Over the last few months, I've become aware that a certain detachment of spirit and perspective has come upon me. I don't mean "detachment" in the way people most often view it: a lessening of interest in our world and its multitude of activities, or a diminution of passion. I think my essays over the last several days reveal that such is not at all the case. And the stacks of books around my computer (some of which one of my cats, Cyrano, delights in toppling to the floor when I'm asleep and unavailable to amuse him in other ways), many of which concern subjects I'll be writing about it, others that simply interest me for a variety of reasons or represent gaps in my knowledge that I'm attempting to fill (which gaps are numerous and cause me considerable anxiety), attest to my curiosity about every subject under the sun. That curiosity seems more voracious than ever, and it appears to feed upon itself.

No, the detachment I'm referring to is a kind of pulling back, so as to take in the wider view, wider both in content and in time. In the sense I mean it, this broader perspective causes the details, and the often overwhelming, numerous minutiae of day-to-day events, to become more, not less, clear. In part, I'm sure this shift is the result of my sister's death and my own infirm health, particularly as another birthday rushes to overtake me. I'm about to be 59; while certainly not old these days, it is most definitely not young. Time does seem to pass more quickly as we age; that was one of those claims I used to deride when I was a few decades younger. Statements of the kind, "You'll see how true [observation 5,428] is when you're older, dear," always used to infuriate me. If used to obtain unfair advantage and offered without supporting evidence, younger people ought to be angry about such assertions. But with regard to the content itself of certain claims of this kind, they often damnably prove to be accurate. On my wonderful opera discussion list, there were recently a number of posts about the passing of Kitty Carlisle Hart. Some members recalled Hart's show about her own life and the endless parade of colorful, fascinating people she had known. (Among other things, it appears that more than a few famous men, including George Gershwin and Harpo Marx if I recall correctly, were determined to marry or at least bed her, often devising, ah, somewhat unusual and amusing strategems to achieve their objective.) One poster recalled that Hart remembered her mother saying that one of worst things about getting older is that you're having breakfast every 15 minutes. It's true, although I think five or 10 minutes might be more like it.

But the shift has occurred for another, much deeper reason. I know that some people view my writing as bleak and pessimistic; they think I approach events from a perspective that is despairing and fatalistic. Some believe my primary message is that we're headed into monumental catastrophe, and there is nothing to be done about it. In the most important sense, such a view of my work strikes me as surpassingly strange. It is absolutely not how I think about the world at all. To begin with, the fundamental fact of life itself, coupled with the further extraordinary fact that we are aware of it, is nothing less than miraculous to me. Many times a day, as I'm reading or listening to music, and once in a very, very great while when I'm writing and think I may have stumbled onto a particularly pleasing way of expressing some idea, I'll think: "Isn't this just the most amazing thing, that people can create in this manner!" I consider the supreme artistry of Maria Callas, and I am overwhelmed and inspired by the greatness of which human beings are capable. The breadth of that kind of vision, together with an exquisite sensitivity to the smallest detail and an unbreached dedication to settling for nothing less than the absolute best we can do, fills me with wonder. It makes my own soul sing, and I am determined to work harder than ever in my own small way.

If I had to select just a single word to express my deepest feeling about the world, and about humankind, it would be that one: wonder. I consider it a measure of how unevolved we are that so many people appear to be capable of that feeling only when they contemplate an imaginary, supernatural plane. It is hardly surprising that our world holds so much unnecessary suffering, when so many people are willing and eager to condemn it to second-rate status in favor of one they've made up out of whole cloth.

With regard to the view of some that I think catastrophe will overtake us and we are helpless before it: that is true in one sense, but it most definitely not true in another. In fact, much of my writing over the last several months (and far longer) has been largely concerned with my attempt to make clear the immense dangers that lie in wait, and to motivate people to do something about them. It is very obviously the case that I am convinced that certain courses of action are open to us, and that if a sufficient number of people pursued at least a few of them with the requisite commitment and on the indicated scale, some of the worst dangers on the road ahead might be avoided. I realized it would be an abandonment of my own position to simply declare that people ought to do "something" -- so I was very specific in the final part of my "Dispatch from Germany" series: "Building an Effective Resistance." I proposed a series of actions, and encouraged people to think about the many other possibilities. I've seen some people say that those who are deeply opposed to the Bush administration are already taking those actions -- but if you read or reread that entry, you will see that is just not true. I don't have a large readership myself, but a number of liberal-progressive blogs do. As just one example, if they wanted to, five or 10 of the leading blogs could probably raise enough money themselves to run some newspaper and TV ads of the kind I suggested, perhaps with relative ease and perhaps enough money to run a series of ads. The same is true in different ways of my other suggestions. I desperately hoped that at least a few of the leading bloggers might take my ideas, improve on them and/or add further ideas of their own, and then run with them.

Of course, none of that has happened, although some people have noted that post (and other similar ones). But in terms of my general purpose, my suggestions have fallen with a dull thud. In truth, and although I fervently hoped it might be otherwise, I didn't expect any other result. Still, I hoped, and I continue to hope even now, since we can always choose to alter our course, until incapacity, imprisonment, or death extinguish all possibilities for action. And my writing continues to point to alternative courses of action, as you will see in "Living Under the Guillotine's Blade" or "Theater of Death," for example. As I attempt to make clear the ultimate meaninglessness of the sad and pathetic pageant that passes for our political debates today, I am always saying, in effect: "It doesn't have to be this way. We could act otherwise."

I am enormously struck by the unnecessary and indefensible narrowness of action that most people, including almost all progressive bloggers (and certainly all national Democrats), view as feasible or "realistic." I will be discussing this in detail in a new essay I'm working on, and that I hope to complete by tomorrow; it will deal with a few political heroes on a grand scale, and how such people have vanished from our lives, to be replaced by two-bit charlatans for the most part. For the moment, I will simply observe that almost all people think only within the severely circumscribed limits of what others have already determined to be "acceptable" behavior. In connection with progressive writers especially, the irony is exceptionally heavy: these are people who endlessly rail against "conventional wisdom" and "inside the Beltway thinking," while they themselves vehemently reject the merest suggestion that anyone should break the accepted rules in any significant way, or refuse to play the game as it has always been played. In part, this is why my suggestions in "Dispatch from Germany" were almost universally ignored: I purposely insisted that the bounds of what is "acceptable" be expanded, and that the rules of the game be changed. For most people, this is unthinkable. They say such ideas are not "realistic"; what they mean is that they are not willing to take the necessary risks. But on rare occasions, a hero will come along who takes precisely those risks and completely rejects the conventional rules. Many progressives hail these heroes, and simultaneously prove entirely incapable of applying the indicated lessons to our situation today. All this will hopefully become clearer in the new piece.

But this brings us to the issue of catastrophe, and whether it is inevitable. If the great majority of people remain trapped by what is considered acceptable and refuse to significantly expand the boundaries of what kinds of political action and terms of debate they view as possible, then, yes, disaster is inevitable. But I repeat: it does not have to be this way. When I return to "Dominion Over the World" in the coming week or two, among other subjects I will be discussing the rise of corporatism (or what Gabriel Kolko refers to as "state capitalism") in the United States beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. History provides numerous examples to prove that once a state begins to walk the path of corporatism, its final decline and collapse cannot be avoided, unless its direction is fundamentally altered. Government bureaucracies multiply without end; the state intrudes into more and more areas of what had once been private conduct; corruption expands exponentially; the likelihood of economic catastrophe greatly increases; and a host of other evils (including endless war) will inevitably doom the project. One further related disaster lies in wait: a dictatorship, in any one of its numerous forms, as I recently analyzed in some detail.

As I have observed before, this final collapse can take many forms, and its timetable is unpredictable. It may take decades, or centuries. This is why I will continue to encourage people to take action as I have before: in effect, we find ourselves in a race against time, much as we might prefer our situation to be otherwise. The longer we can avoid the worst of the dangers that lie in wait, the more time we have for people to consider new ideas and alternative courses of action. At a minimum, we must be resolute and undaunted in our commitment to the avoidance of even one more war of aggression, for war brings with it an endless number of associated evils, as the current regime has demonstrated with terrible variety. On this point, the Democrats at present offer no alternative at all, certainly not insofar as their remarks about the "intolerable" danger represented by an Iran with nuclear weapons are concerned, and even though an Iran so armed lies at least five to 10 years in the future. The monopoly in foreign policy of those who are determined to achieve and maintain global hegemony for the United States must be challenged at every point, and in every instance.

History provides scant support for the idea that a battle of this kind can ultimately be won -- but as long as the possibility for success remains, however unlikely and weak that possibility may be, how can we give up this fight? I certainly cannot, and I will not. This is why the possibility of widespread censorship must also be ferociously resisted; it is very likely that, in the wake of another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or even worse, calls for censorship will be widespread. (Such calls have been made regularly, with a remarkable lack of subtlety and intellectual honesty, as I have noted for some time.) As long as we are essentially free to speak, hope remains and must not be abandoned. If censorship should come, a fundamental reassessment of required tactics will have to be made. But we are thankfully not yet at that point.

So this is where I am: I think it highly probable that our circumstances will continue to get significantly worse, although this deterioration may come quickly or comparatively slowly. You may live the rest of your life without seeing the worst of what will happen, or even anything close to the worst -- or you may not. There is no way to know, and the variables are close to infinite. But I say again: it does not have to be this way. Extraordinary events have transpired in history before, and they might again. We need a miracle, but not one delivered to us from a supernatural realm: we require a miracle that we create.

It can happen. Hold on to your sense of wonder; if you do not have a sufficiently strong one, then develop it. For me, it is the most precious resource in the world.

I began this essay talking about a certain sense of detachment, but one suffused with this sense of wonder. I recently came across several expressions of this idea. They all relate to the subjects I've discussed here, but from very different perspectives. Permit me to offer two of them to you.

I recently watched the film of The History Boys. I will have more to say about the film (and the play upon which it is based) in a future essay. This work from Alan Bennett is flawed and problematic in some ways, but it is hugely entertaining, often wonderfully written, and stupendously theatrical in the very best sense. I am very sad that I never saw it onstage. The acting is superlative across the board, including from the young men who play "The History Boys," students who are being prepared for examinations for admittance to the best colleges in Britain, such as Oxford. The central conflict in the play is between Hector, a teacher of about 60 who "merely" provides "inspiration," which the headmaster considers "unquantifiable" and therefore insufficient, and Irwin, a young man in his twenties, who views education as a "performance," where the primary goal is to satisfy the requirements of the system as it exists, solely so that one may be successful.

Hector instructs largely by subverting the accepted conventions of teaching; for example, in one game with his students, they try to stump him by acting out the final scenes of different films, including the wonderful Noel Coward-David Lean Brief Encounter (with a dizzyingly uncanny Celia Johnson recreation from the indecently talented Samuel Barnett), and the Bette Davis-Paul Henreid Now, Voyager (a title which comes from Walt Whitman, you will recall). In a key scene where we see Hector's methods at work, he and the young man played by Barnett discuss Thomas Hardy's "Drummer Hodge." Hector says:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
As brilliantly acted by Richard Griffiths and Barnett, and in the context of who these people are and of their relationship, it's a wonderful moment. (The film is acted by the cast of the original production, which had played at the National Theatre in London for a year prior to the film being made.)

At the very end of the play (where the speech is just a bit longer than in the film), we again hear words spoken by Hector earlier:
Pass the parcel.
That's sometimes all you can do.
Take it, feel it and pass it on.
Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.
Pass it on, boys.
That's the game I wanted you to learn.
Pass it on.
Toward the end of my essay, "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder," I offered an excerpt from Albert Jay Nock's, Our Enemy, the State. In rereading Nock's remarkable book recently, I was deeply touched by the final passage of the book proper (which is followed by a brief Epilogue, an essay written some years earlier). As explained above, my sense of inevitability is not as committed and unmediated by hope as Nock's was; despite this difference, which I consider a significant one, Nock makes several crucial points that capture my own perspective:
But it may quite properly be asked, if we in common with the rest of the Western world are so far gone in Statism as to make this outcome inevitable, what is the use of a book which merely shows that it is inevitable? By its own hypothesis the book is useless. Upon the very evidence it offers, no one's political opinions are likely to be changed by it, no one's practical attitude towards the State will be modified by it; and if they were, according to the book's own premises, what good could it do?


There are two reasons, however, one general and one special, why the publication of such a book is admissible.

The general reason is that when in any department of thought a person has, or thinks he has, a view of the plain intelligible order of things, it is proper that he should record that view publicly, with no thought whatever of the practical consequences, or lack of consequences, likely to ensue upon his so doing. He might indeed by thought bound to do this as a matter of abstract duty; not to crusade or propagandize for his view or seek to impose it upon anyone -- far from that! -- not to concern himself at all with either its acceptance or its disallowance, but merely to record it. This, I say, might be thought his duty to the natural truth of things, but it is at all events his right; it is admissible.

The special reason has to do with the fact that in every civilization, however generally prosaic, however addicted to the short-time point of view on human affairs, there are always certain alien spirits who, while outwardly conforming to the requirements of the civilization around them, still keep a disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things, irrespective of any practical end. They have an intellectual curiosity, sometimes touched with emotion, concerning the august order of nature; they are impressed by the contemplation of it, and like to know as much about it as they can, even in circumstances where its operation is ever so manifestly unfavourable to their best hopes and wishes. For these, a work like this, however in the correct sense impractical, is not quite useless; and those of them it reaches will be aware that for such as themselves, and such only, it was written.
We should note the conclusion of Nock's Epilogue too, where Nock proposes "a violent frontal assault" on the "vocationalists" like Murdstone, who think "the world be merely a place to work in," a world where "nobody seems to be having a very good time," whether poor or rich:
All the physical apparatus of happiness is about us, and yet no one, apparently, is having a cent's worth of fun out of it. Well, here is the classicist's opportunity. He can throw his experienced eye, trained by his incessant commerce with the ages, over this anomaly and show cause for it. He can survey the life of our well-to-do and poor alike, and show that about the only fun to be had out of such a life is the search for fun, and show why the desire remains ungratified. He can show by practical example -- by horrible example -- where, in the preparation for life, certain essential values which have been disregarded by the vocationalist, come in. Thus he has now an advantage which he never had before, in the opportunity to appraise a whole society which represents quite fairly the finished work of his opponents. But we are convinced that he will once more merely fumble this advantage unless he stands immovable upon the bed-rock thesis that life is given to human beings for their enjoyment, that all its other purposes, if it have any, are incidental and ancillary to this one; that the human world by its original intention is not Murdstone's world, not a world of industry and efficiency, but a world of joy.
Just before Hector's final speech in The History Boys, Hector's rival, Irwin, says: "He was a good man but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching any more." One of the students replies: "No. Love apart, it is the only education worth having."

Live in the sense of wonder, and in the world of joy. Take it, feel it and pass it on.

That's sometimes all you can do -- for someone, somewhere, one day. It's everything.