Category Archives: order

The truth and grace, 3: The Unknown

Consolation. Macha Chmakoff.

This is the third of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Amalfitano

In the novel 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s character Amalfitano thinks about a drug store he used to go to in Barcelona.  For convenience’s sake he would go in the middle of the night, and he always found the pharmacist reading in his chair.  The pharmacist’s selections troubled Amalfitano.

“He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartelby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.  What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano.  Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.” 

To Amalfitano, this was a kind of cultural laziness at best, at worst a cultural sclerosis leading one day (and perhaps soon) to the death of culture (as he knew it).  Nothing will ever be learned about the world if we choose only the easy things, turning our heads away from those moments when, as Bolaño/Amalfitano continues, “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Trying to understand the world requires some effort and the willingness to get dirty doing so.  To read the perfect works of the masters—indeed to rely on anything we might call “perfect”—is a graceless pleasure, for grace lurks in the shadows and cracks of the world, there for the taker, but only taken by the one who can see it.

The unknown is an essential, core element of grace.  Maybe it is where grace comes from, or perhaps it is the conveyor of grace, the medium through which grace passes into the light of day to touch someone’s life.  To recognize grace is to surrender control (or pride, hubris, arrogance—call it what you will), and in the surrender a new kind of freedom is born.  It is the freedom to make something of what we are given.

Taleb

Nassim Nicolas Taleb is a statistician, philosopher, and financial trader who has made it his life’s work to understand random events. It all began when civil war erupted in Lebanon in the 1970s and Taleb, whose family included two deputy prime ministers and a supreme court justice, became swept into the conflict.  The adults said the war would last only a few days, but it stretched to 17 years, and with each turn of events the adults came up with new reasons for it.

“Later, upon replaying the wartime events in my memory as I formulated my ideas on the perception of random events, I developed the governing impression that our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of almost anything, capable of mounting explanations for all manner of phenomena, and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability.”

The random is cousin to the unknown, and Taleb’s business is harnessing knowledge about randomness in order to help people make decisions that protect their investments.  His methodology separates randomness into two kinds:  the known-unknowns (more or less predictable, manageable patterns of financial fluctuation), and the unknown-unknowns (big, system-altering shocks like the stock market crash of 1987, the attacks of 9-11, or the economic collapse of 2008).  These unknown-unknowns Taleb calls “Black Swans.”  These are things quite out of the ordinary that do, in fact, occur from time to time.  Over his professional life, Taleb has made a modest fortune by dealing with risk and randomness in this way, both for himself and others.

Still, looking back at a quarter century of his work, he is troubled by his findings.

“Is the world unfair?  I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness.  The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature.  The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside.  Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more random than they were the previous day.  It is becoming unbearable.  I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting.”

Taleb, it seems, has caught Roquentin’s malaise.  Yet like Roquentin, Taleb finds ways to cope, and at the end of the book, he provides a list of 10 principles that might minimize the effects of Black Swans and help us deal with them when they do happen. The last principle is the clincher and the most important:  “Make an omelet with the broken eggs.”  That is to say, whatever we might do to hedge again the worst events (encompassed in the first 9 principles), we should be ready to pick up the pieces after disaster strikes, be it a Hurricane Katrina or a stock market crash, and rebuild with what is left, in whatever condition we find it.

It’s a good list, but it was incomplete in some deeper way that could challenge the Black Swans on their own, definitive, inevitable terms that take no prisoners and offer no excuses.  To do this required a trip back to his home town of Amioun, Lebanon.  There, Taleb went to the cemetery and visited the graves of his father and other loved ones.  With him, he carried the works of Seneca in the original Latin, bearing in mind an adage originally attributed to Cicero that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

“I wanted to prepare myself for where I will go next.  This is my plan B.  I kept looking at the position of my own grave.  A Black Swan cannot so easily destroy a man who has an idea of his final destination.” 

Grace

The Black Swans that Taleb writes about are mostly negative, harmful events.  For St. Paul, grace was a Black Swan of a different sort, life-altering, inexplicable, yet beautiful and redeeming.  For Ruby Turpin, recognizing grace in her life was the Black Swan that snuck up on her when Mary Grace threw a book at her and called her out for what she was.

For those who can recognize grace—whether in their own lives or in the operaton of the universe as a whole—grace becomes an expected part of life while remaining a Black Swan nonetheless, for they have no way of explaining their ability to recognize grace or why it was even visited upon them in the first place.  There may not be a “reason for everything,” a reason that might console us, take away the unfairness of life, or explain why one person deserves something while others don’t.  Truth be told, we really don’t need reasons for everything.

Be humble.  Accept grace and build a good life because of it.  Never count on it to last, but take it while it is given.  Seek no reasons for grace, but live with it and share it with others freely, openly, with no reason for sharing it but that it is good.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Consolation, and it depicts a person in the arms of another.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

Direct quotations:  Roberto Bolaño, 2666, trans. Natasha Wimmer (Picador, 2008 [orig. Spanish version 2004]), p. 227.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (Random House:  2007), p. 10 (replaying wartime events), p. 215 (Is the world unfair?), and p. 375 (cemetery).

There is much more I could write on grace, and I may at some point soon.  The twists and turns of grace in the history of the Reformation are instructive as a lesson in counter-intuitive consequences.  Some of the reformers who sought to return to a simple Pauline church of grace and community wound up creating new order of oppression—Calvin comes to mind most prominently here.  It’s a return to a fundamental question of the meaning of human will.  For the Calvinists (and some extent all Protestants, from Luther forward), faith and salvation by grace alone—sola fidewas a doctrine that freed ordinary people from the scrutiny of the Church.  In the Catholic doctrine, salvation through good works simply placed too much power in the hands of the church to rule on the affairs of ordinary people and political powers alike.  Sola fide took the Church out of the picture, but almost as quickly the Protestants began to create political and other alliances that arrogated to their churches great powers that were used to enforce a new orthodoxy just as brutal (if not moreso) than the Catholic orthodoxy it replaced.  This is, however, a discussion for another day.

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Filed under hubris, ideas, life, order, truth

The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity

E/F – The glass of history

halfglass-kaoru-1

“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind …  History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”

This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself.  It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw.  But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.

Notes and Credits:  Burke and history and quotations

This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.

Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments.  As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian.  With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.

In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism.  Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown.  (Note:  George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)

A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here.  As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing.  As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state:  “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.”  If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.

In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:

I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .

Notes and Credits:  The teacup

The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea.  It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting.  The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.”  She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin.  She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.

halfglass-kaoru-4

Teacup, with cap

The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers.  Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.

In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere.  Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here.  She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”

halfglass-kaoru-3

... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island

Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.  A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973.  After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.

In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island.  Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram.  The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others).  The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors.  In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.

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Filed under beauty, freedom, ideas, order, politics, revolution, truth, war

The truth and Brasília, 2: Torsos of Steel

brasilia-trespoderes

The Dream

From 1956 to 1960, Brazilian architects, engineers and peasant laborers called candangos built a new capital, Brasília.  This was the realization of a dream first voiced in 1827, just 5 years after the country became independent, when an advisor to Emporer Pedro I suggested that he move the capital from the colonial city of Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to a new city in the interior.

Brasília, as it eventually came to be called, was a Brazilian version of Luso-Manifest Destiny.  The new city was built on the legacy of the Bandeirantes, slave hunters and prospectors whose journeys into the South American interior in the 16th and 17th centuries extended Portuguese holdings – Brasil – at the expense of the Spanish crown.

President Juscelino Kubitschek asked Oscar Niemeyer to head up the team that would create the new capital.   A native of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was already an internationally renowned architect, his design for the United Nations Head Quarters in New York an immediate icon of post-war modernism.  His designs for Brasília’s government buildings, plazas, monuments, and National Cathedral created something of a modernist theme park in Brasília, and in 1987 the city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

For Brasília, Niemeyer collaborated with another celebrated Brazilian designer, Lucio Costa, whose plans for the city took the national dream into the air itself – from above, Brasília’s layout looks like a giant bow, loaded and aimed at the heart of the continent.  Costa’s Brasília conformed to the modernist Athens Charter of 1933 almost to the letter, creating a city of functionalism and (for many) modern alienation.  Landscaping was done by Roberto Burle Marx, another of the generation of Brazilian modernists whose work defined an era in South American history.

In the Plaza of the Three Powers, Bruno Giorgi’s sculpture, Os Candangos, memorialized the northeastern Brazilians who built the capital.  In the national discourse of the time, these impoverished peasants were living symbols of Brazil’s colonial and agrarian past.  By coming to Brasília and building the city, they were transformed into new pioneers who would settle the vast empty spaces of the country’s interior, from the dry plains of Brasília through the vast green desert of the Amazon.  Unlike the North American slaves who built the White House and the U.S. Captiol buildings, the candangos were memorialized as part and parcel of Brasília’s futurist vision.

The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty . . . . it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world . . . The architect has to always be political.

—Oscar Niemeyer, 2009

Hard Winter

Meanwhile, in London, Sylvia Plath was pregnant again.  Her husband, Ted Hughes, was having an affair with another woman, and they were destined to separate soon after the birth of their son, Nicholas.  In the 13 months after Nick’s birth, Plath wrote most of the poems in her second collection, Ariel, and published her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  Then on February 11, 1963, Plath left her children sleeping in their room, sealed the door with wet towels, and committed suicide with oven gas in the kitchen.

Among the poems she wrote in this period was Brasilia, which was not published in Ariel.  Like Zweig, Plath was thinking about the past and the future and the trouble with seeing it through.

Will they occur,
These people with torso of steel
Winged elbows and eyeholes

Awaiting masses
Of cloud to give them expression,
These super-people! –
And my baby a nail
Driven, driven in.
He shrieks in his grease

Bones nosing for distance.
And I, nearly extinct,
His three teeth cutting

Themselves on my thumb –
And the star,
The old story.

In the lane I meet sheep and wagons,
Red earth, motherly blood.
O You who eat

People like light rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, unredeemed

By the dove’s annihilation,
The glory
The power, the glory.

It was one of the coldest winters on record in England, and Sylvia Plath’s life was falling apart even as she was bringing new life on.  How long she had intended to take leave of this life is not something we can know.  She had attempted suicide before, and she was troubled by deep emotional struggles that went back to childhood.  Her relationship with Hughes held some high points in her life, but now he had left her for another woman.  What is clear, however, is that once she made her decision, she executed it with consummate intentionality.  She meticulously protected her children as she took her own life.

Like Zweig, she left two works for posthumous publication, one pointing backwards, one pointing forward.  The Bell Jar was on its way to publication; in this, her semi-autobiographical novel, she exposed a world she knew in the past, a world she tried to leave once before.  As she died, the manuscript for Ariel and Other Poems, her masterwork, lay on the desk, each poem typed and left in the precise order she wanted for the book.  The first word of the first poem, “Morning Song,” was “love.”  The last word of the last poem, “Wintering,” was “spring.”

Like Zweig, Plath thought she left a book pointing to a better future, but that wasn’t to be.  The Ariel that was published under Ted Hughes’s editorial guidance was not the same book.  The poems were reordered, others added, and a few, like Brasilia, removed.  This Ariel was darker, seeming to foreshadow Plath’s end, but whatever the critics of Hughes’s intentions, this Ariel made Plath who she is today.

Cold War

On March 31, 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew the democratically elected government.  As the military took control, they created the model for the “bureaucratic authoritarian state” in the developing world.  Niemeyer and Costa’s modernist visions were perverted into symbols of Latin America’s dark period, the capital’s bland functionality and order representing the kind of control that the military celebrated in its culture, the kind of functionality they wished to instill in the rest of the country.

Behind the gleaming white façades of Brasília’s futuristic vision, the Brazilian military contributed to the “dirty wars” against the left in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.  These regimes took the lives of tens of thousands of people who dreamed of a different kind of democracy than the region had known.  Beyond those killed, many more were tortured, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.  Niemeyer, a Communist and therefore enemy of the state, went into exile in Europe.

When the opposition movements eventually took power in the late 1980s and 1990s, the world was a very different place.  Brasília was a bigger city, showing some age, surrounded by “satellite cities” and large favelas – the squatter settlements that the military tried to eradicate in Rio de Janeiro with less than efficient results.  Costa’s rationally designed city had its flaws, its ups and downs, and its critics.  For some, it seemed as if Brazil, and Brasília, had turned Zweig’s book into a joke:  Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be.

The future that Brasília promised, that Plath saw in her mind and in her children, didn’t work out according to the original plans.  Yet life goes on.  I will continue these themes in the next posting on the The truth and Brasília, 3:  Faroeste Caboclo.

plath-tat

Notes and Credits

The critics of Brasília’s ambitious design and lofty principles are many.  I am not one of them.  I am writing to explore what Brasília means, not its shortcomings, and my approach should indicate that I believe the city’s meaning far outshines any of its shortcomings.

Lauro Cavalcanti provides a beautiful guide to Brazil’s modernist architecture that places Brasília in perspective.  In Brasília, the government sought to “turn the state into a spectacle,” and Brasília is indeed the enactment of a dream.  If you can’t go to Brasília but can find your way to New York, go to Lincoln Center, and you can witness Neimeyer and Brasília’s influence on one of the great cultural centers of the world.

Photo of the Praça dos Três Poderes, with the statue of Os Candangos, is from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899.  She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere.  Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.

The candangos are publicly memorialized in Brazil, in marked contrast to the North American squelching of the slave labor employed to build our own White House.  Without suggesting that Brazil is any less racist than the U.S., or that either country has a better social model for dealing with its racial legacy, I point this out as a matter of historical interest.  The reader may regard these facts as he or she wishes.

Niemeyer and Costa’s designs were political statements.  They expressed political beliefs in modernity, order, and democracy in the layout of the city.  Niemeyer himself was a Communist, whose architeture reflected his beliefs in a world of collective and individual democracy, the triumph of working people over the old regime and the capitalist governing class.

Oscar Niemeyer is 101 years old, and he is still working.  The quotation in this posting is taken from an interview he did with Santiago Fernandez-Stelley for Vice magazine online, at some point in 2009.  The interview can be seen on video at VBS.TV.  The video of the interview is simply inspirational.

The photo of the Sylvia Plath tattoo is from a photobucket listing from PaperCuttt.  I found it first on this site for literary tattoos.  You can also find material from the same person at another livejournal channel.  She notes that she altered the original slightly (“As I listened to the old bray of my heart….I am. I am. I am.”) but that it contains the same spirit.

I have long been greatly motivated by the poetry and writing of Sylvia Plath.  As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, her Collected Poems was one of two English language books I brought to Brazil in 1992 for my year of doctoral reserach in Belém.  Over my life I have read many books on her and her life.  These resources include:  the poems themselves. Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame; Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; Linda Wagner, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath; and Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift.  I’ve tried to read as much as possible, and to work through the thicket of political controversy around her work and life.  I also read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and have some to a deeper appreciation of how Sylvia Plath affected all those around her.  The tragedy of her son’s suicide last year brought me a several days of stark reflection on emotions, depression, and the struggle of human consiousness and life against itself.

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Filed under art, beauty, existentialism, failure, ideas, order

The truth and change, 3b: From Gilgamesh to Pharma

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

This is the concluding post in the series, The truth and change. As part 3b, it offers a final alternative future.  In 3a, I looked at how technology is bringing out the futures within our minds and imaginations.  The virtual world is deeply connected to the organic world, and the “crossover” realm may well be the real space in which we do live.

The present posting, 3b, picks up where 3a left off – wondering about the potential for change in the essential emotional experience of being human.  This leads to a Huxleyesque future of chemical alterations and experiential morphing.

From Gilgamesh to Pharma

Gilgamesh, the God-King of Uruk, is the oldest surviving literary protagonist in human history.  He was a real man, who built the walls of his famous town, after which the modern nation of Iraq is named.  His story was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has inspired writers, readers and listeners alike for over 4,700 years.

Preserved on cuniform tablets, the Epic tells how Gilgamesh grieved the loss of his friend Enkidu.  In his sorrow and listlessness Gilgamesh became consumed with death and set out on a quest for immortality.  Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil at this point is no different than any of us will have over the death of a loved one.

Some years later, but still long ago – 2,300 years ago to be more precise – the Hebrew prophet Qoheleth wrote that there would be nothing new under the sun, and about 2,267  years later The Beatles got a number 1 hit with the same message.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …

If there’s nothing we can do that can’t be done, then what is there?  Do the changes that have occurred in the world really matter when it comes to the fundamental experience of what it means to be human?  The issue is not about change in the world, or change in the nature of social organization, or the changes we can effect on the world.  It’s about who we are inside:

What about being human has ever changed in some undeniably essential way?

This question doesn’t deny the reality of change.  Societies are different.  Mores and belief systems change over time.  That some technological changes have made life better for some people is absolutely true.  Some illnesses and conditions no longer make life miserable for people.  Basic everyday machines like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators have liberated countless numbers of people from demeaning and exhausting chores, even while they take up new chores for new reasons.

The undeniably essential experiences I am thinking of, however, belong to other moments in our lives.  They are moments of being.  They are fundamental.  They are emotional.  They are constitutional.  They are moments critical of passage:  birth, love, marriage, death, loss, success, envy, anger.  In these kinds of moments, has what it means to be human really changed all that much?

The answer is yes, maybe, sort of.  These are emotional moments, and emotions are not purely given, because we can tinker with them.  A change in scenery is sometimes enough to change one’s emotional state.  Want to feel better?  Find the sun.  Get some air.  Climb a hill.  Have a drink.  It is in the last instance that we people began to find real power over our emotions.

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

We’ve been tinkering with chemical alterations to emotions for millions of years, well before Gilgamesh.  This may not even be unique to the human species; chimps use chemicals, too. People, however, have a way of taking things to extremes, as any history of the species will demonstrate.  There’s a cost to chemical happiness in terms of addictions.  Some chemicals even change who we are and give rise to social ills, such that most societies ban certain forms of chemicals.

What gets banned and what doesn’t – or as Jennifer Michael Hecht poses the issue, what makes a good drug bad – is really an outcome of cultural power politics (though other issues are also involved).  From the late 1800s, upper middle class, liberal, Americans of Northern European descent acted out their concern for the disruptive behaviors of less-welcome immigrants (Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews) and African Americans by banding together to ban alcohol, which they did successfully from 1920 to 1933.  For the last 40 years, “drugs”gained a connotation of “mind altering experience” that became associated in our society with illegality, rebellion, and tragedy, but that’s nothing new either.

What is different today is the industrialization and institutionalization of mass drug consumption designed to create an emotional social fabric that breeds order, productivity, and “happiness” (not “high,” but “happy” and “productive”).  These are the legal drugs that big, powerful companies want us to take under the guise of “freedom,” the kinds of drugs that appeal to people who believe there’s something fundamentally different between the urge to eat Xanax as opposed to psilocybin mushrooms.

In this scenario, prescription drugs are the real gadgets making the future happen, and “health care reform” is the Trojan Horse that Big Pharma will ride into the future (and into our minds and bodies), a “PhRMA payoff” in the words of journalist Matt Taibbi.  The great gorging that the drug companies will continue to enjoy will fuel research and development into drugs that can normalize every possible quirk, peak, and valley of human experience.

This has been at least a century in the making:  from snake oil, to heroin (created by Bayer in 1898 as a cough remedy), to Hadacol, to the array of drugs advertised directly to you on television but which you need to make a doctor’s appointment to demand.  Whether there’s a government option for insurance in the reform won’t change this:  belief in pill-popping is one thing that everyone agrees on.

The pills we have for depression, anxiety, weak erections, high cholesterol, urine flow, restless leg, bacterial infections, low sex drive, menstruation, motherhood, and every other imaginable “malady” (a word chosen advisedly here) are what the future is about – and it’s not about change.

The future according to Pharma is about muting our experiences so that change doesn’t matter.

The original, brilliant video for “Ashes to Ashes” can be seen here (it can’t be embedded).

Epilogue

I wrote this to explore an alternative future, not to predict it.  The creative spaces opened up by the Internet and virtual lives (The truth and change, 3a) are far more interesting and preferable to me.

When it comes to the issues in this posting, there are a lot of grassroots ways to challenge the way that health reform is going on.  Changes in diet and lifestyle practices can prevent a great many problems that are currently medicated out of us.  Organizations like the Economic Policy Institute provide informative coverage of the issues with data that make sense.

A stern willingness to explore the nature of illness and suffering is another way to challenge the future:  we all get sick and must live with it.  We’ll all die.  Why not die with dignity and leave on one’s own terms?  There will be sadness as surely as there will be joy, and the latter is only made deeper and richer by contrast to our experience of the former.

Notes and Credits

The songs of David Bowie have guided my thinking along the way through these four posts on “The truth and change.”  At every turn I found another one to make me think even more deeply about these topics, forcing my mind to link further and further afield into the other areas I was reading about now or had some knowledge of in a past life.

The photo of Walgreen’s at the head of the post was taken by Monique S. Guidry.  It’s at 3004 North St, Nacogdoches, TX 75965-2858.  The photo of the Prospect Gardens Pharmacy, at 89 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, was taken by the author.  That pharmacy is a nice little store in the gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood, subject of recent contretemps among the Park Slope literary and blogging community. The New York Times ran an interesting story about Amy Sohn’s novel, Prospect Park West and yet another possible TV series to shoot here (what happened to Darren Starr’s?). Local blogger Louise Crawford ran two versions of a review, one on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” and the other in the Brooklyn Paper, where she also writes the “Smartmom” column.  Fucked in Park Slope absolutely loved the book.

In The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007), Jennifer Michael Hecht looks at the relationship between drugs and happiness, beginning with a chapter entitled “What Makes a Good Drug Bad.”  Along the way (pp. 78-79), she tells the story of Bayer’s invention and marketing of Heroin against the backdrop of an inquiry into what we really want out of drugs in our society.  The book is an unrelenting look at things that are supposed to make us “happy” and how misplaced our ideas about “happiness” today might be.  She explores her subject across time and cultures to make a pretty good case that happiness isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.

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Filed under body, death, freedom, order, politics, truth

The truth and fingerprints

Inside all things, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a unique code.  It might be a genetic code.  It might be the traces of carbon-14 in tiny plant spores embedded in the rocks at the bottom of an ancient lake.  The layered patterns of sediment that tell you this could only be the Grand Canyon, for no other place on Earth has this precise pattern.  Or the tips of your own fingers.  Like zebra stripes and leopard spots, our fingerprints are indistinguishable from a distance but unique up close.  There’s something elegant and utterly beautiful in all this.

Fingerprints, of whatever kind, help us find out things that are true.  Fingerprints help us identify who committed a crime.  Fingerprints can become keys that open doors to secure places, protecting those spaces from harm or wrong-doing.  DNA fingerprints help us know who really fathered a child, or where our ancestors lived.  Fingerprints help us know things we couldn’t otherwise know.  Fingerprints are hard to erase without deformation.  Fingerprints keep us honest.

But that’s not all.  As long as we have fingerprints, we know we’re alive.  Whether DNA, carbon-14, or the tips of our fingers, fingerprints are very high-level expressions of order, and rocket scientists will tell you that order is intimately connected to life.

Here’s what they mean by order:  fingerprints carry information that can only be in one place.  This is the epitome of order.  Fingerprints tell you what to count on, so that nothing is unexpected and everything is predictable.  It’s the way mom wanted your room to be:  everything in its own place.  The opposite of order is randomness.  In a random world, there are no patterns, nothing you can recognize, and nothing you can count on.  Everything is new, everywhere you turn.  Memory ceases to be useful in a random world, and we’re all Leonard Shelby.

Stepping down from fingerprints, there are many other forms of order, which can occur in multiple places – making them a little more random than fingerprints, but somewhat orderly, nonetheless.  For example:  the behavior of electrons along copper wires or in magnets.  Wallpaper.  Or the herd-like behavior of people, who at the social level are every bit as predictable as they are “unique” at the individual level.

This is where individuality and order begin to clash, because they’re not supposed to be related to each other.  Fingerprints = individuality.  Fingerprints = order.  Therefore, individuality = order.  How can that be?  Individuality is the opposite of order, right?  Back to Leonard Shelby:  in complete randomness, everything and everyone is different but totally lifeless.  Recognition is meaningless, knowledge is impossible, and therefore individuality is impossible.  What we call “individuality” must be a symptom of order, for without order nothing could exist.  Individuality, as an experience, must be somewhere between the expression of complete uniqueness (a fingerprint seen up close) and a kind of order that says “this is a pattern” (fingerprints seen from a distance).  People are like wallpaper.

The trouble is that order is everywhere on the decline, and this has life-threatening possibilities.  Orderly things are signs that the universe hasn’t exhausted the energy that makes non-randomness (e.g. life or fingerprints) possible.  Orderly things are not always “alive” by our definition, but they make life possible if we can tap their energy.  Atoms, for example, are orderly things that contain a lot of energy.  Try splitting one (but don’t do it at home).  Order = energy.  And energy = life.  Without energy there would be no life.  Living things are, by definition, orderly and full of energy, but they get their energy by consuming it from somewhere.  The laws of rocket science tell us that this is a losing game:  energy can only ever be spent and never really recovered or recreated.  This is what the rocket scientists call entropy.

So here’s the paradox:  life stands in contrast to entropy.  Life takes and spends energy, and spending energy only increases the entropy of the world.  Life is the struggle against entropy, but no matter how you cut it, the truth about life is that living can only contribute to entropy.  To live is the act of dimming the possibility of life in the future.  It’s an awful, yet beautiful, burden to live with.

The beauty of uniqueness – of the self, of being alive, captured in the fingerprint as the epitome of order and therefore the fullest expression of living being – is itself an act of destruction.  Preserved, it is not life.  Moving and living, it only contributes to our mutual undoing, but it is all we really have.  As Keats reminded us:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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Filed under beauty, entropy, John Keats, Leonard Shelby, order