My father’s mother dabbled in oil painting. The best thing she ever did was probably a Southwestern landscape copied from Mexican-American painter Porfirio Salinas. The foreground is flooded with bluebonnets, as is typical of a Salinas canvas. On an overcast day (enhanced in the copy, since amateurs always have trouble with light), a prickly pear cactus rises front-and-center, a stone wall humbly navigates the distance, and a campesino’s hut crouches lifelessly off to the right. Whatever the copy’s weaknesses, I like it, and it hangs over my mantelpiece. It takes me out of myself. I see a faraway place that people have left largely untouched because they have found no way to turn a profit from it (such as by littering it with windmills)—a place where the cry of a solitary caracara carries for a mile, and where a horizon-prowling mountain and you can exchange stares for an hour without blinking.
The Newly Minted Scholar in the Humanities, though, would see the same scene a different way. He would zero in on a socio-political issue the way a hound sniffs out a rabbit. That hut, so dilapidated and shorn of luxury… what an outrage, that people should still be living almost like cavemen when our world contains such wealth! Where is there any evidence that the peasant has electricity? Where is his running water and plumbing? What does he do for health care?
The Newly Minted Scholar knows how to ask questions that quickly reduce everything to the tight parameters of a few answers. If the answers are satisfactory, we move on. If unsatisfactory, they indict some crime or other that becomes grist for the activist mill… and we move on, once again; for the mill can never have enough grist. There’s nothing more to see here as soon as a new Incident Report has been logged. A distant mountain ridge? Why mess with that? It has no purpose, and hence no meaning.
Now, the Newly Minted Scholar may see one of the china horses that I bought as a child (or that was bought for me, I should say) at the Alamo, and he may suddenly be filled with missionary zeal for nature. Those poor wild horses! The Bureau of Land Management is brutally chasing them with helicopters, penning them up, and selling them off as “adoptees”. The BLM will claim that it absolutely must prune their numbers so as to prevent overgrazing and eventual starvation… but the Newly Minted Scholar sees right through that. Nature establishes her own balances. Leave her alone! (Let’s forget that horses are not native to North America.) All of this rubbish about over-grazing is a problem created by ranchers who want to milk a filthy profit from wide open spaces never intended for ruthless exploitation. Leave it all alone! Get the ranchers out of there! Let the horses run free! (A few thousand windmills… well, they would disrupt nothing: they would be serving the Common Good, and the mustangs would grow to love their wild, windy blades.)
Others in our corrupt, venal society are too sick to hear the voice of moral obligation… but our Newly Minted Scholar is receiving signals loud and clear from a higher dimension.
As for me, I remember the nobility and love of freedom that I once saw in my white horse’s high-held head… and now I also understand that it’s made of cheap china. So I see the mass-produced, exploitative capitalist bauble that the Scholar would be sure to sneer at, yes; but I also, even now, continue to understand how that tawdry little article was able to reach a child’s heart. Like my grandmother’s painting, this is no masterpiece. Yet all of us—especially children, perhaps—are drawn to powerful symbols thanks to a spirit within us constantly seeking overt expression… if, that is, our spirit retains any vital signs. As children, we were insulated from the stigma of cheapness. Even an adult, though, can appreciate the pathos of a favorite toy—something that has the mystical magnetism to draw an unformed mind into a much broader world.
In a way, I regret that we adults so readily notice the seams where the toy fell out of the mold, and that we tend to murmur with a smile, “Just a dust-catcher.” Sometimes the genuine article doesn’t fare much better with us, and we mutter with a frown, “Just another mouth to transform good prairie into a dust bowl.” To that extent, the Newly Minted Scholar is right about many adults, all too often.
But how true is our Scholar’s devotion to freedom, or natural beauty, or any of those loftily soaring ideals which he claims as exclusively his? How receptive is he to taking a holiday from his painfully constructed, finely manicured identity? Where is the magic in his materialism? For in his obsession with answers, he is as insistent on having things justify themselves—having them pay their way—as was the shopkeeper who put a price sticker on my china horse. To him, even a real horse is but a token worth X bonus points in establishing his environmental bona fides, as is indicated by the uncompromising fury with which he opposes measures to enhance the horse’s life roaming the range. Not surprisingly, he himself is often the child of professionals who put price tags on things. If his parents hadn’t left him comfortably well off, how would he have time to stage protest marches against the BLM? And when he attends “cutting-edge” conferences pledged to effecting “meaningful change”, how much more fuel does his jet to Seattle consume than would a lowly bourgeois pick-up truck making the same transit? Isn’t everything he sees quickly funneled down a chute whose vortex is his own ego, the hub of the universe? Does his spirit ever leave its centripetal straitjacket to circulate in the broader world, fleeing “answers” and “meaning” in favor of an elusive but irresistible oneness?
I observe this phenomenon in all “politically correct” positions. Our enlightened superiors see a beggar and quickly bottle him up as Exhibit Q in the ongoing prosecution of mainstream society… yet the beggar is never given a name. He may receive food stamps and a health-care card, but never an invitation simply to converse about how trusted colleagues stole his business or how his infant son perished. The self-appointed custodians of our society’s pity and conscience are pitiless in their programmatic crusades and robotic in their reduction of life’s complexities to checklists. They are indeed well adapted to the process referred to, in their corridors, as “transhumanism”, the next great leap forward: fusion of human beings with Artificial Intelligence.
The spirit will have no haven in this new destination, because the spirit bloweth where it listeth; it dissolves answers rather than forcing them to crystallize and makes a reverent space for the inexpressible rather than deleting unused blanks.
Inasmuch as the Newly Minted Scholar is the footsoldier of an onslaught that would annihilate mystery, he is unwittingly, perilously serving the cause of darkness; and the inspiration of this cause is nothing less than the active power of evil.