Here And There

I only remember a few things from my trip to the Beyond when last I was there. To begin with I noted that those who were There (and are no  longer Here) were simply doing the things they really wanted to do when they were Here. The Beyond is simply an eternity of doing that which we want to do. It’s a reward that, for many, turns out to be punishment.

So I vividly remember the flurry of activity among those who had been interested in so many things before they went There. Their curiosity and imagination were insatiable and in the Beyond they were always busy finishing projects they had long wanted to complete before they went There, searching hither and yon for answers to the mysteries that surrounded them, curious to know as much as possible and finally getting answers. Philosophers and theologians collected in groups listening to one another seeking the truth about those things that had long puzzled them Here. The scientists were busy conducting experiments that they knew would lead them to a deeper understanding of the puzzles that had confounded them Before. The artists and musicians were busy creating works of inestimable beauty and when finished sharing those works with others of like mind who were able to appreciate what they had done and applaud their efforts. Thespians were acting out the parts they craved while they were Here. All seemed very happy and fulfilled.

Those who were focused on petty things while Here were doomed to remain focused on petty things There. I recall vividly the throngs of people walking barefoot on scorching hot sand from which rising waves of heat could be seen; they hopped from one foot to another, bent over looking for gold coins and gold chains which they either placed around their necks or in the leather pouches at their sides which grew heavier and heavier as they went along, making their movement more and more difficult and the heat from the sand more and more unbearable — with no water for relief. Their attention was on the ground, the scalding hot sand beneath their feet suggesting the heat of the earth they left Before while denying that it was in fact growing hotter each day while the aquifers dried up. Their attention Then, as now, was on the growth of their wealth which they identified with happiness. Above all else, they were alone.

One figure especially stood out. I was astonished to see him because he’s still Here and hasn’t gone There yet. But apparently they have the ability to show us what is certain to be the case in the near future and this was simply one of the more impressive examples. While the others around him were thin and wore tattered clothing this one had very small hands, a permanent frown, was overweight, and wore a crown of gold to accompany the dozens of gold chains that were hot to the touch and dragged his head down until his body was almost doubled up. He was holding an electronic device in his hand and his attention wavered from looking at the ground for more gold and playing with the device in his hand. He couldn’t seem to leave it alone! But this is what he wanted. It is what they all wanted.  Now they were learning a lesson — a lesson which would go on forever.

In the distance, beyond the scalding hot sands I could barely hear the faint sounds of very loud music in a closed arena. There were also bright lights constantly flashing on and off that I could see through the windows — even at a distance. I heard from one of the people I was able to talk with that the arena was full of people who were being entertained though many were holding their heads and complained of excruciating headaches. They would remain there forever.

Those who loved other people while Here were surrounded by those they loved and admired who shared in their joys and even their struggles — because there had to be some struggles, even There, or those who were There would never fully appreciate the many moments of satisfaction that came with being with those they wanted above all else to be with and doing those things they most enjoyed doing. They seemed to be unaware of themselves while so many of the others I saw were oblivious to others and to most of what was around them.

The key here is that those I saw were simply doing what they wanted to do. If their wants were shallow Here, they were shallow There. And they would pursue those shallow goals forever. If their interests were varied while Here they would be so There.

(With apologies to Dante and his Divine Comedy.)

Change

Presumably liberals are, by definition, progressive in that they push for the new and regard change in and of itself a good thing. So I’ve been told. I must conclude, then, that I am not a liberal, since I do not think change is a good thing, necessarily, and am not “progressive” in my thinking. Rather, I am “old-fashioned.” I am more Tory than Whig on many topics, especially education and child-rearing. Not so much on social and political issues, however. My conservatism, if such it is, does not extend to wealth and power, which I regard as something to be divided rather than hoarded. I have always thought people were more important than profits. I worry that ethics get lost in the frenzy to make more profit.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that progress in medicine has prolonged life and, indeed, made my so-far long life possible. I have had a number of surgeries in my lifetime and am currently dealing with several medical complaints. Years ago I would be dead by now.

But aside from that, I can’t think of any changes in my lifetime that suggest progress, which is to say, movement forward, an improvement in the hurly burly of everyday life. Instead I see around me people in a tizzy, lost in their electronic world pushing buttons and ignoring the real world around them which, if they looked up, they would realize can be quite stunning. The artists among us, and there are still a few, keep reminding us; but increasingly their pleas fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

The steam engine found itself squarely in the middle of the garden during the industrial revolution, and the noise it made drowned out the sound of the birds and the gentle stream at our feet. Our ears can no longer pick up the soft sounds of the real world that surrounds us. Then came “progress,” and now we wallow in noise and confusion, dizzy and disoriented. The steam engine has run amok.

But, one of the most insidious factors in the brave new world in which we live is the entertainment industry. I have come to fault that industry, among others, for many of the ills of present-day society. It creates a make-believe world that invites people to escape from reality which, generally speaking, they have a weak hold upon to begin with. And that hold weakens as time goes by. This has allowed so many people to buy into a flawed presidential candidate who promised them the power they feel when they play video games, folks who feel a deep need to build up their tottering self-esteem as they admire a president they can identify with and attend occasional religious ceremonies that assure them they are really good people.

But, ignoring for the moment the deluded state of such people, think about it. Things happen faster these days and so many us fail to see what’s going on around us. We don’t even look around. Moreover, we are convinced bigger and faster are good things when, in fact, slower and smaller are often to be preferred. I am fond of quoting a passage from one of George Eliot’s novels in which she says she sometimes prefers when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

That pretty much sums it up. We simply assume that the new is better and that progress inevitably follows upon change of any sort. This is surely not the case. At times we need to stop and look around and think about the “crumbling, picturesque inefficiency” we have lost sight of in our hurry to get somewhere else.

I am fully aware that “the good old days” were full of pain and suffering. But, then, so are the good new days. And the really sad truth is that we are now much more aware of the sufferings of others, not to mention the planet itself, and we simply look away because we are too self-involved to care. It is not a formula for happiness.

Are Artists Obligated?

Today’s post centers around the question raised in the title and will consist mostly of questions rather than answers. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are the ones that cannot be answered. Perhaps our question cannot be answered, but it is well worth asking.

It arises in the case of such things as the extraordinary propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 at the behest of Adolph Hitler. It turned out to be one of the most remarbable pieces of cinematic magic, incorporating numerous technological feats never before attempted — and tricks such as filming Hitler from below to make him look taller! But it was also incredibly effective, attracting thousands of young men and women to the Nazi fold. It does raise the question whether the film-maker did the right thing. Should she not have made that film?

During the Renaissance painters of considerable reputation used their mistresses as models for the Modanna to the horror of the spiritually certain who regarded such things as blasphemy, worthy of condemnation of the artist and a refusal to  even look at such paintings. So it is with the spiritually certain, and, though few of us would worry about such things as blasphemy these days, we might still ask the question whether the artist has an obligation to show only “morally approved” subjects and avoid even the hint of the morally reprehensible.

Is the artist, in a word, above the moral law? Does she or he have license to create works of art that not only convey immoral messages, but perhaps even promote them? China Achebe, the African novelist and critic, wrote an essay condemning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of the liberal use of the “N” word. He argued that folks should avoid reading the novel because the novelist was a racist and his book promoted racism. I published an essay that takes Conrad to task because the case cannot be made the (a) Conrad himself is a racist and (b) his novel does not “promote” racism. In fact, his use of the “N” word — like Mark Twain’s use in Huckleberry Finn — is entirely appropriate since that is the way folks spoke at that time and place, especially seafaring folks. Novelists, like any artist, I argued, need not be overly concerned about the hang-ups of the slightly paranoid and overly sensitive. At the very least the text can be used as a platform for discussion about the morality of the use of prohibited terms.

We have found our way to the root of the “political correctness” tree that spreads its broad, dark shade over so much of what is forbidden to be said these days. It is argued that not only artists but all sensitive folks need to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend somebody some day some where. This is, of course, absurd. But there it is. We might call it the reductio ad absurdum of the argument that novelists and artists, not to mention the rest of us, must never offend anyone.

I do not wish to deal with the question whether there is a moral right and wrong. I take that as a given. But, granting that there is a right and a wrong, the question whether artists should avoid offending sensibilities is well worth asking. Personally, I think they should have license to say anything they want — short of inciting a riot — because there is no one holding a gun to the head of those who might read or see the work and who might just as easily simply avoid doing so. Censorship in any of its nasty forms seems to me to be out of place.

A similar problem arises in the case of the scientist, of course, who might be asked to curb his or her desire to work on weapons of war. Does science have a license to do whatever is required to “advance” human knowledge regardless of the consequences? As Tom Lehrer sang of Wernher Von Braun who worked on rockets: “If the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”  His only “department” is to make sure the rocket goes up. Is it?? Should scientific medicine continue to find ways to prolong human life on a planet that is already overcrowded and in danger of facing widespread human starvation? These are serious questions and in both cases, that of the scientist and the artist, the issue is whether art and science trumps morality or the other way around.

Are Poets Mad?

Going back in time at least as far as Plato there have been those who insisted that poets, and artists generally, are mad as hatters. Plato thought they were “inspired” and the Platonic dialogues are full of exchanges between Socrates and assorted poets and artists who are unable to explain to Socrates what exactly it is they do and what it is they claim to know. And because they cannot explain what they do in discursive terms — as a geometer would explain why it is that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, for example  — Socrates was convinced that these folks who wrote about things they didn’t understand were in some sense of the term “mad.”

This notion persisted through the ages in the West until the time of the romantic poets, such as Byron, Keats, and Shelly who actually took pride in the fact that they were a bit mad and relished the notion. This was a view shared by many of the “beat” poets in the 50s and 60s and it still has its adherents. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know just what these folks meant by “mad” when they ascribed it to poets and artists. Freud called it a “neurosis” and sought to explain the genius of someone like Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds that his creations are the expression of his neurosis: indeed, all artists are neurotic and their art is neither more nor less than the expression of that “illness.” Later, as he thought more about this “illness” Freud came to the conclusion that we are ALL neurotic — not just the artists. As he said  in his Introductory Lectures:

“The result depends principally upon the amount of energy taken up in this way: therefore you will see that ‘illness’ is essentially a practical conception. But if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree, you can very well see that we are all ill, i.e., neurotic: for the conditions required for symptom-formation are demonstrable also in [so-called] normal persons.”

Neurosis, as Freud developed the notion, was the result of a conflict within the person, frequently an emotional one, but at times both intellectual and emotional. It often had to do with the person’s inability to develop a strong “reality principle,” that is, to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary. Cervantes had played with this notion years before when he was writing Don Quixote, since the knight can be regarded as either a poet or a madman because of his inability to distinguish between reality and his own vivid imagination. Is the barbers basin really Mambrino’s helmet? Are the windmills really giants? Is the herd of sheep really an army to be fought to the death? Are the prisoners on their way to the galley really decent folks who have been wronged by a system that is stacked against them? Quixote is always working his way through these questions. The clue that Quixote is not mad, of course, is that he is often aware of what these things appear to be to others. He knows, for example, that Sancho takes the object for a barber’s basis while he “knows” it to be Mambrino’s helmet. A madman has a weak “reality principle” and would lose the distinction entirely between what is going on his head and what is “really” going in the world we share with him. The neurotic person has difficulty separating reality from the imaginary; when the distinction breaks down completely that person is psychotic.

We have a president at the present time who seems to have a weak reality principle, who seems a bit mad. He certainly is not a poet or artist, but, rather, a deluded man who insists that reality, and facts as well, are of his making and those who disagree are clearly in the wrong.  We may all be headed in this direction as we play with our electronic toys and lose ourselves in a world of make-believe that becomes more “real” than the world we share with others. This, it seems to me, is a very real possibility since in that world we are all-powerful. In this world not so much.

In any event, poets and artists generally are no more neurotic than the rest of us and their power as artists consists of their ability to deal with the conflicts they experience through their talent and skill that allows them to create poems and works of art that reveal to the rest of us what it is they see and we are all missing. As Lionel Trilling puts it: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”

The rest of us must simply learn how to deal with that pain with more or less success, depending on who we are and how successfully we can develop the reality principle that makes it possible for us to remain in the “real” world and not lose touch entirely with the one the rest of the world occupies. That world, for all its pain, is also beautiful and filled with many good people trying their best to do good things.

 

Quixote As Poet

Miguel Cervantes was born in a small town near Madrid, Spain in 1547 and was, among other things, a soldier. He served with great valor and was shot in the chest and arm, leaving his left arm practically useless. He later spent five years as a captive in an Algerian prison where he pondered life and its many meanings. And, oh yes, he wrote Don Quixote which garnered him fame but little financial reward. The book was so popular that a bogus sequel was written by another author and Cervantes wrote the second part of his classic in order to make sure Quixote was dead in the end and another sequel would never appear!

As a result of Cervantes having been shot he seems to have longed for the day when men fought one another face-to-face — like knights-errant. Surely, this was at least part of the inspiration for his great novel. But another part of his inspiration was the coming of not only mechanized warfare, which he detested, but also the coming of machines, which he saw as impediments to the growth of the human spirit. Hence Quixote’s famous battle with the windmills.

Don Quixote was generally regarded as a madman. He saw things differently from other people and he was therefore dismissed as mad. It’s what we do. I prefer to think of him as a poet, since poets also see things differently from the rest of us and many times make us look again and see things we had missed before. Quixote does that again and again — especially alongside his practical, down-to-earth sidekick Sancho Panza who is like the rest of us and prefers to see things as they “really are.” But one of the things Cervantes’ novel demands is that we ask  just what on earth reality is. What is real?

When Quixote sees a barber plodding along on his donkey in the distance with his basin comfortably perched on his head it is clear, to Quixote, that the barber is a knight and he is wearing the helmet of Mambrino, the famous knight whom Quixote immediately decides to engage in battle. The barber sees Quixote coming at him at full gallop (well, as full a gallop as poor old Rocinante will allow) and flees in terror, leaving the basin behind. (Sorry, leaving the helmet behind him: the spoils of war, don’t you see?)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Sancho, of course, insists that the helmet is really a basin and this gives rise to one of the more colorful and provocative discussions between the two men in the entire novel. It goes on for many pages and is a delight to read. Is the item a basin or is it a helmet? After considerable discussion, Quixote finally addresses Sancho as follows:

“Do you know that I think, Sancho? I think that this famous piece of that enchanted helmet must by some strange accident have fallen into the hands of someone who did not know its worth and who, seeing that it was of the purest gold and not realizing what he was doing, must have melted down the other half for what he could get for it, while from the remaining portion he fashioned what appears, as you have said, to be a barber’s basin. Be that as it may: I recognize its value and the transformation that it has undergone makes no difference to me. . .”

And as Quixote later notes,

“. . .there are always a lot of enchanters going about among us, changing things and giving them a deceitful appearance, directing them as suits their fancy, depending upon whether they wish to favor or destroy us. So, this that appears to you as a barber’s basin is for me Mambrino’s helmet. . . .”

Quixote is not mad: he knows things look different to other people. But for poets things are not as they seem. It is for us to let discursive reason and logic take a hike every now and again and engage our imaginations so we can see the world in the many colors and shades of meaning that we tend to gloss over in the hurly-burly of everyday life. The poets and artists in our world take us for a ride if, and only if, we are able to suspend our sense of what is real for a moment and in the process we learn to see things anew and engage the world more fully. The item in Quixote’s possession is both a basin and a helmet. After all, the Don puts it on his head and it saves him later on from a barrage of stones thrown by an angry shepherd whose sheep Quixote “mistakes” for an army.