Apologies for my last post: I was interrupted repeatedly; and upon a final hasty proofread of the bits and pieces, I ignored the clear evidence of a train wreck and ascribed the incoherence to a headache that interfered with my reading. Not my best day.
Let me try to compress my intentions into one idea, which I’ve probed before but which seems to me to reward incessant probing. This is it: the good life consists of negotiating an existence with the realities around us, while the bad life consists of arranging and reinforcing artificial retreats from reality. I do not mean anything so facile as that the active life of the entrepreneur or the politician is superior to the contemplative life of the artist or the scholar. If that were true, then heaven help me, because I am nobody’s notion of an extrovert. A contemplative can be deeply immersed in reality, fortunately: the connections of “is” with “may be” are supposed to be what he contemplates, after all. He can move outward constantly from his fond theories of how things work to practical observation. Then he can become a scholar as scholars were meant to be: humble, inquisitive, and endowed with a sense of humor bred in him by frequent self-correction.
We all know, alas, that professional scholars tend to follow a different path. They may be far more extroverted than the genuine enquirer: they usually are. They need their entourage of fawning disciples and their audience of applauding (but envious—and highly select) conferees no less than the addict needs his fix. They are not really curious about the world at all—after an initial apprenticeship, perhaps, that will define the rest of their earthly existence; for having studied at the feet of the legendary Professor Merlin, they themselves inherit the purple robe and spend the next forty years sneering at anything contrary to the arcane solar system they’ve assembled from big wheels and little wheels. They suck energy out of the universe. Everything and everyone must serve their enlightened view of reality—which is ever more artificially propped up and fantastical.
Nothing seems to draw more contempt from these egocentric black holes of nullity than the amateur—yet the broadening circle of insight that describes a life integrated into surrounding realities would be impossible without amateurish sallies beyond the castle walls. Pardon my arrogance in offering my own experience as an example: I will at least stress that what’s being called into evidence here is rank amateurism! I mentioned a few days ago the abundance of quartz on my new property. Now, all quartz is crystal… but not all crystal is quartz. I realized within hours of writing those words that my ignorance was on full display to the world. I need to study rocks more closely. Yet the rocks in question are crystalline, and they may indeed be quartz.
If I did not begin in a somewhat half-baked theory, I should never enjoy the opportunity of making a discovery. Maybe there’s one waiting for me beneath the red dust caked on my gems-in-the-rough.
To descend from the sublime to the profane… some of you also know (much more thoroughly than you’d care to) of my obsessive interest in how to hit a baseball. I won’t defend that interest here, though I believe that a) a healthy mind needs the regular “purgative” of physical activity and that b) there is in fact much science to executing intricate physical actions effectively. I am within days of publishing a manual through Amazon Kindle about how shorter body types may dominate the hitting game by reviving techniques used a century ago. My formula actually works; but, no, I am neither coach nor ballplayer by profession. If I had shut down my years of research early on thanks to the condescending treatment of all the “professionals” I consulted, I would never have figured out certain tactics that they will never know. I was willing to look like a fool on occasion and expose several of my initial mistakes to this elite inner circle. Its initiates, for their part, were entirely unwilling to relax any article of their inherited faith and daily-recited gospel; so they will continue squeezing certain types of player from the game whom they’re incapable of instructing… and the little guy will continue (quite literally, in this case) to get passed over.
Okay, so that second example shows me to great advantage… but I could offer analogous instances from a lifelong study of literature, where there are no low line drives carrying to the wall to demonstrate who has the more potent swing, but where scholarly conferences (as I write in my forthcoming book) are just coaches’ meetings without tobacco and swearing. A classicist, for instance, would rather join a chorus hundreds of years old and accuse Virgil of forgetting what he has just written in the Aeneid than allow that the poet gave the one word responsible for the controversy a mild creative twist. An artist cannot be an artist because his commentators must have the answer to every verse or stroke. This is the energy-draining, “black hole”mentality par excellence. Things are steadily being bundled up into greater groups of things. At last, there is no more space to raise an elbow in the room, because one huge snowballed Thing has penned everyone up against the wall.
I was trying to peck away at this point in arguing last Wednesday about the disappearance of specific real objects from our ken, to be replaced—always—by the stereotypes and tribal feathers that we variously call icons, emojis, avatars, keywords, mottoes, slogans, bumper stickers, and the rest. We’re such a “bundling” culture that we can no longer draw any particular article out of the bag for a closer look; and we can’t see what stands plainly in front of us unless it conforms to one of our paradigms for “things that may be seen”.
In conclusion—for this kind of reflection must finish in a note of moral urgency—any person who cannot make significant contact with particular realities runs grave risks. I contrasted the “bad life” with the “good life” above. It’s not my intent that the inward-turned, insulated mind is necessarily a wicked one… but it faces a path of tragic futility which may indeed end in celebrating the strangulation of the spirit. Think of what misery it must be to have certain words forbidden to you because they may “offend” someone (and the list grows every day, having long ago gobbled up personal pronouns); to have certain facts of history sealed from your eyes because they contradict the new orthodoxy (e.g., the existence of black slaveholders, many of them in Northern states); to have certain texts strictly prohibited to your view because they condone the horrors of the patriarchy (e.g., Homer’s tales of Greek “heroes” amply supplied with captured concubines); and to have even your immediate ancestors or close neighbors airbrushed from your perceptual sphere because some affiliation detectable in their habits has been branded heretical (e.g., a grandfather who was a cop or those nice Redmonds who, however, were irredeemable Catholics).
Think of what a tight, tight box you must live within because you cannot lift a hand and examine the components of reality. You are told that the box is liberating—that it is delivering your true self to your doorstep like a futuristic drone-shuttled package. Yet how may you be said to have discovered anything about yourself when you cannot like people to whom you feel drawn, when you cannot read books that stir your interest, when you cannot examine puzzling aspects of the past more closely… when you dare not even utter a sentence without passing its every word under reiterated scrutiny? How is any of this liberating?
On the contrary… as you sever one tie to reality after another, you find that dozens of tributary cords were linked to those cables—and you must keep cutting and hacking. The very bottle that finally squeezes you, too tightly even for your cheeks to release a squeal, is further shrunk until your eyes are permanently fixed and glazed like a fish’s gazing from its fishbowl. This, my friend, is Hell.
The world remains wide open for those who wish to breathe its clean air. And in that live-giving exchange of gasses that all of us of a certain age learned when science was still taught in grade school—oxygen to carbon dioxide, CO2 to oxygen—nestles a perfect analogue for the life of the spirit: as we release ourselves into reality, we draw our true self more deeply back in. The foundation of “do unto other” morality is indeed implicit in such genuine involvement. For how can you wantonly harm your neighbor or your environment when you recognize that everything around you may signify the next juncture in your chain of ideas or the next leap of your imagination? It all belongs to you, and to mutilate it would be a kind of suicide.