Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.

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Intellectual Diversity

(Aside: I am in the process of culling my blog posts to select those that are the best of the lot. I am planning to publish those in the not-too-distant-future. In the meantime, I will probably have little new to say and will instead post here some of the past blog posts that will eventually find their way into the book — I hope. Thanks for bearing with me.)

One of the catch words in institutions of higher education these days is “diversity.” What is meant by this word is “cultural diversity,” an attempt to assure students that they are receiving a broad education and that they are being introduced to a variety of world views. The idea is that in doing this they will realize that theirs is only one of a great many ways to look at the world. It is a worthy objective, even though, according to recent studies, the diversity appears to focus on feminism and very little else — despite the fact that women, as far as I know, do not constitute a separate “culture.” It is hardly adequate to look in some depth at a single minority viewpoint in at attempt to broaden the student’s awareness of the complex world in which he or she lives, though it is certainly a step in the right direction.

In any event, there is no doubt that there are indeed a great many ways of looking at our common world and any attempt to broaden the narrow strictures of the average student’s world view is deserving of applause. Cultural differences are real and worth noting. I know, for example, when I watch my favorite British mysteries I miss a great deal in the way of nuance, “inside jokes,” colloquialisms, and terms that the Brits use with great familiarity which are nearly foreign to me. Humor seems especially culture-bound. In reading a translation of a book written in a foreign language, again, I realize that I miss a great deal of the subtleties that are picked up by someone reading the same book in the language in which it was written. But one can dwell too long and hard on the differences and miss the all-important similarities.

Kobo Abe (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Kobo Abe
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

For example, while reading a novel by Japanese novelist Kobo Abe — generally regarded as one of Japan’s greatest modern writers — it is inevitable that I will miss a great deal since I do not read Japanese, have never visited the country, and must rely on a translator to give me a peek into what the fuss is all about. But at the same time, what impresses me most after all is said and done is the universality of human experience: Abe is writing about other human beings (albeit fictional characters) who are just like you and me. In fact, I am told on the dust jacket that Abe’s novel, Secret Rendezvous, “reads as if it were a collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks” — all Westerners. It seems to me this is of vital importance in the discussion about cultural diversity: we differ from one another in so many ways but in most important respects we are really all alike. The differences are exaggerated by advocates of cultural diversity at the cost of recognizing the all-important similarity of human experience and the fact that we share a common human nature.

In the end, therefore, I would come down on the side of intellectual diversity over cultural diversity, making sure students are aware of different ways of thinking about their world as opposed to simply cataloging cultural differences.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that the cultural differences are trivial and much less important than the similarities. The fact that we can communicate with one another — even in translation — is of central importance, especially with regard to the education of young minds. Intellectual diversity, in this regard, is of major importance in education, making sure the student is not simply becoming indoctrinated into one way of seeing things (the professor’s way, generally), but becoming aware that similar problems can be approached in many ways and that the same rules of logic and inference apply across the board. It is ironic that defenders of cultural diversity have attacked Western intellectual tradition as a system of ideas put forward by “dead, white European males,” when, in fact, there is no better arena for conflicting ideas — that is, intellectual diversity. And it is precisely this sort of diversity that engenders thought, not random information about diverse cultural experience. Let’s not stress differences in cultural viewpoint to the extent that we ignore essential human similarities. And while we are at it, let’s assure that the student is being immersed in a variety of conflicting ideas: education is less about information than it is about engaging with some of the best minds that ever set pen to paper — especially those who disagreed with one another about practically everything.

The Moral Vacuum

I call your attention to a comment made in an excellent post on the website titled “Zenocrat” and written by Ewa Kuryluk. She notes, in speaking of Franz Kafka, that:

Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine.

While somewhat disquieting, this is brilliant sentence that captures the heart and soul of capitalism and the moral problems it raises. The notion that this efficient economic system operates “in a moral vacuum” is precisely why it has come under such close scrutiny by thinkers like Karl Marx and Robert Heilbroner.

Marx talked about “Constant Value” and “Variable Value” which are based on the cost of the means of production, salaries of all employees, including management and owners, deterioration of the physical plant, and the like. But over and above these, insists Marx, there is something he called “Surplus Value,” which is created ex nihilo, as it were, in that it does not correlate in any way to the human labor that went into the production of the commodity, and which (in the form of great wealth) somehow manages to end up in the pockets of the owners of the means of production. In today’s world this is reflected by the salaries of the CEOs of giant corporations in this country who make between 300 and 700 times what their average employee makes. This is usually “justified” on the grounds that the CEO must be paid a “competitive” salary (with benefits) for fear of losing them to another company. Or there is talk about the “risks” he or she takes in running such a giant corporation. But these are pathetically weak excuses in light of the huge disparity they attempt to cover up.

Not many years ago the N.F.L. Players Association struck professional football on the grounds that the players’ salaries should be based on the “take” from the total number of games they played in a season, billions of dollars. Granted, the players were already making huge sums of money — though paltry by today’s standards — but they felt it was only fair that the pie should be cut in such a way that the players got their fair share rather than the amount each individual could bargain for on his own. Interestingly, this is a thoroughly Marxian notion (though the players would be reluctant to admit that). The total pie in professional football, even at that time, was huge, and on Marxian principles the players should have been allotted their fair proportion, even granting that the owners’ shares might remain large.

Robert Heilbroner worried about many of the same things, particularly the moral vacuum of which Kuryluk speaks. In The Nature and Logic of Capitalism he notes that:

“[Capitalism] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last, and most important, because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all elicit activity from  any need to justify itself on other grounds. . . . The expansion of capital is aided and abetted by the declaration that moral and aesthetic criteria — the only dikes that might hold back the flood tide of capital’s expansion — are without relevance within the realm of economic activity.”

And it is precisely this lack of moral restraint, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as moral high ground — the notion that “all’s fair in love, war, and business — that provides the grounds for the concern about the “totalitarian death machine” of which Zuryluk speaks. There need to be moral dikes to stem the tide of greed and avarice endemic to capitalism. We have hints of this today in this country in light of a Federal Administration headed by a quasi-successful businessman who yearns to be a despot.

There is no question that Western men and women have benefitted in many ways from capitalism. Adam Smith thought this justified the lack of moral restraints that Heilbroner mentions and Kafka and Marx worried about. Of course, Smith was convinced that human beings had a natural sympathy for one another that would mitigate somewhat the raw forces of competitive capitalism and the subsequent bracketing of moral precepts. In any event, this may be wishful thinking, since it is not clear that we are better off because we now have two SUVs, a powerboat plus a skidoo, and a home on the lake (which require that both husband and wife work full-time) than we would be if we all lived in smaller homes where one spouse lived at home, perhaps with the grandparents living in as well, and where the family could spend time together and the children could get the discipline and structure that they surely miss.

In a word, it’s not at all clear that the benefits of capitalism outweigh the costs, whether the “moral vacuum” of which Kuryluk speaks will not eventually suffocate us.

Diversity

One of the catch words in institutions of higher education these days is “diversity.” What is meant by this word is “cultural diversity,” an attempt to assure students that they are receiving a broad education and that they are being introduced to a variety of world views. The idea is that in doing this they will realize that theirs is only one of a great many ways to look at the world. It is a worthy objective, even though, according to recent studies, the diversity appears to focus on feminism and very little else — despite the fact that women, as far as I know, do not constitute a separate “culture.” It is hardly adequate to look in some depth at a single minority viewpoint in at attempt to broaden the student’s awareness of the complex world in which he or she lives, though it is certainly a step in the right direction.

In any event, there is no doubt that there are indeed a great many ways of looking at our common world and any attempt to broaden the narrow strictures of the average student’s world view is deserving of applause. Cultural differences are real and worth noting. I know, for example, when I watch my favorite British mysteries I miss a great deal in the way of nuance, “inside jokes,” colloquialisms, and terms that the Brits use with great familiarity which are nearly foreign to me. Humor seems especially culture-bound. In reading a translation of a book written in a foreign language, again, I realize that I miss a great deal of the subtleties that are picked up by someone reading the same book in the language in which it was written. But one can dwell too long and hard on the differences and miss the all-important similarities.

Kobo Abe (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Kobo Abe
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

For example, while reading a novel by Japanese novelist Kobo Abe — generally regarded as one of Japan’s greatest modern writers — it is inevitable that I will miss a great deal since I do not read Japanese, have never visited the country, and must rely on a translator to give me a peek into what the fuss is all about. But at the same time, what impresses me most after all is said and done is the universality of human experience: Abe is writing about other human beings (albeit fictional characters) who are just like you and me. In fact, I am told on the dust jacket that Abe’s novel, Secret Rendezvous, “reads as if it were a collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks” — all Westerners. It seems to me this is of vital importance in the discussion about cultural diversity: we differ from one another in so many ways but in most important respects we are really all alike. The differences are exaggerated by advocates of cultural diversity at the cost of recognizing the all-important similarity of human experience and the fact that we share a common human nature.

In the end, therefore, I would come down on the side of intellectual diversity over cultural diversity, making sure students are aware of different ways of thinking about their world as opposed to simply cataloging cultural differences.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that the cultural differences are trivial and much less important than the similarities. The fact that we can communicate with one another — even in translation — is of central importance, especially with regard to the education of young minds. Intellectual diversity, in this regard, is of major importance in education, making sure the student is not simply becoming indoctrinated into one way of seeing things (the professor’s way, generally), but becoming aware that similar problems can be approached in many ways and that the same rules of logic and inference apply across the board. It is ironic that defenders of cultural diversity have attacked Western intellectual tradition as a system of ideas put forward by “dead, white European males,” when, in fact, there is no better arena for conflicting ideas — that is, intellectual diversity. And it is precisely this sort of diversity that engenders thought, not random information about varieties of cultural experience. Let’s not stress differences in cultural viewpoint to the extent that we ignore essential human similarities. And while we are at it, let’s assure that the student is being immersed in a variety of conflicting ideas: education is less about information than it is about engaging with some of the best minds that ever set pen to paper — especially those who disagreed with one another about practically everything.