Our Idealistic Brethren of Superior Enlightenment

“What do you mean, I’m obsessed with violence?  I hate violence!  Don’t you know that I give generously to Americans Against Guns?  I guess you didn’t know that I was at the protest marches in St. Louis to protest the slaughter of innocent young black males by police.  And the saber-rattling in Kim Jong Un’s face that only spurs him on—I call my congressperson once a month, at least, about that.  The movies? Yeah, I have friends in the industry. I’ve done some work around its edges. Wish I could do more. But you don’t understand the business.  First, we do that because Middle America loves gunplay.  Unfortunately, movies are business, like I said.  And anyway, if you watched what was happening closely, you’d know that the protagonists in most of your so-called violent Hollywood movies are forced to violence by the depraved society they live in.  These films are really a critique of violence, only you people can’t see their message because you get off on blood and guts. And anyway, only guns kill people. Movies don’t kill people. If there were no guns, then movies wouldn’t have to represent that reality. And as for my tweeting that I’d like to shove a stick of dynamite up Sarah Huckabee Sanders… well, who wouldn’t? That’s freedom of speech! But she and the orange baboon she shills for are the advocates of violence.”

Okay, brother. I think I’ve got it.

“And as for sexual exploitation—again, it’s what the public wants, in movies. And it also… again, you just don’t understand. Maybe some things are overstated on TV and such—but we’re trying to shake up America’s stuffy bourgeois repressive attitude. To demystify sex, you have to have sex everywhere. You have to get people used to seeing what’s only natural, after all. And if you’re talking about my own life, I have women because they want me to have them. We have some fun together, we do what normal, healthy people naturally do, and then we move on to the next time, either with each other or someone else. That’s not exploitation, it’s freedom. Freedom of association. Exploiting is when you make someone feel like she has to do this and that—has to get married, has to have kids, has to stay at home and be a mom. Why don’t you guys on your side stop exploiting women and let them be free human beings? Okay, so… sometimes there are misunderstandings. Bound to be. Sometimes women need to stick up for themselves more. If middle-class America didn’t bring them up to be submissive, maybe they’d have the confidence to tell a guy when to stop so that he gets the message. Right now, it’s all kind of vague, because your side has programmed women to think they shouldn’t ever speak up.”

I think we’re covering old ground.

“And racism! How can you call me a racist? Me? I love hip-hop, and sometimes I date black girls. And, you know, I want to get them back in the game by seeing that some of the injustices are balanced out. Quotas in colleges and in businesses? Why not? If you don’t make white-racist America do the right thing, it won’t get done. And even reparations—yeah, I’m for that. They have it coming. They were put behind by slavery, and now they need a boost to get back in the game. How can you call that racist? It’s just the opposite of racist. You’re the racist! You say you don’t want to notice their skin color at all? That’s just your hypocritical way of leaving them to be destroyed. They won’t make it on their own, you know.”

Actually, I’m pretty sure that they could.

Do you know this person? Have you had this conversation? It has inspired a theory of mine: that a certain weak-willed, self-indulgent, intellectually lubricious kind of showboat will uneasily glimpse particular failings in himself and then, rather than repent of them, project them all upon another. This Other becomes the repository of all that’s bad. The more our infantilized firebrand of the limber tongue fears that some despicable motive or attitude is bleeding into his conduct, the more he thrusts it upon the Other, and the louder he denounces it. We seem to have here a nascent schizophrenic: a denier of self, with ears plugged and eyes closed as he screams, “La-la-la!”—a hater of “haters” whose hatred is so intense and manifold that he must create a monstrosity to carry it clear out of his mirror.

But I’m no psychologist. I only know what I see.

The God of Change Is a Very Old Idol

At some point when I have more space and time, I want to write more amply about French author Guy de Maupassant’s view of the bourgeoisie. A latter nineteenth-century man of letters who particularly excelled in the genre of the short story, Maupassant projects through his condescending disgust the value system that survives and thrives in twenty-first century academe. Many have labeled this mindset “progressivism”, and not without just cause: its essential component does indeed appear to be a quasi-religious (or, better yet, a cultic) faith in the transformative power of trampling down traditional institutions (without much regard for that which must replace them). The God of Change turns out to be a very, very old idol.

The specific short story which has started me down this path is titled “Adieu”. I could add other of the same author’s works to my witness list; but for now, I don’t have time to do much more than encapsulate the plot, throw in a few translated passages, and offer some disjointed comments at the end.

Two men who have reached the mid-century mark in age are wiling away a Parisian afternoon in a sidewalk café. One of them is lamenting the deterioration of his body. The other, rather better preserved, offers a different complaint. He is dismayed that age can hurl her thunderbolt with such suddenness even upon the healthy—a danger especially observable in his relationships with women. He explains.

In his prime, he had always enjoyed the public beaches because of the advantages they afforded to observing feminine curves. The best vantage (he details) is one that allows the ladies to be studied just as they emerge from the waves on their way back to dry land.

Very little can withstand the trial of the dip. That’s where a final verdict is reached on everything from the calf to the bosom. The exit leaves the thin exposed, especially, although seawater can provide vital assistance to figures that have been allowed to slide.

The first time that I saw this young women in such a setting, I was ravished and seduced. She held up good and firm. There are certain figures whose charm suddenly transfixes us, invading us all of a sudden… and then it seems that we have found the woman that we were meant to love. I had that sensation and that shock just then.

An introduction is not difficult to secure, and one thing quickly leads to another. The lady is married, but her husband travels down from Paris only over weekends. A three-month affair ensues, at the end of which our narrator is called to parts far away. He journeys to America and spends years there, yet he never forgets the woman of his dreams. Always, she is as fresh in his memory as if he had seen her just yesterday.

Twelve years are of such little account in the life of a man! They follow one upon another, the years, gently but swiftly, slow yet hurried, each of them long but so soon finished1 And they add up so abruptly, they leave so few traces behind—they evaporate so completely that, in turning around to contemplate times past, you no longer find anything, and you cannot understand how you happen to have grown old.

Of course, the specific occasion of these gloomy thoughts was a return to France. Our narrator did not seek out his favorite and most cherished conquest: fate, rather, intervened to re-introduce them.

At the moment when the train was departing, a fat matron climbed into my wagon, escorted by four young girls. I hardly spared a glance to this mother hen, overgrown and rotund, with a face like the full moon framed by a ribboned hat.

She was breathing heavily, winded by having to walk so fast. Her children began to babble. I opened my newspaper and started reading.

We had just passed Asnières when my neighbor said all of a sudden, “Excuse me, Monsieur. Aren’t you Mr. Carnier?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She thereupon began to laugh—the hearty laugh of a spirited woman, yet a little sad.

“You don’t recognize me, do you?”

I hesitated. It struck me that I had in fact seen this face somewhere…. but where? When? I answered, “Well… yes and no. I do recognize you, but I don’t recall your name.”

She blushed slightly.

“Mme. Julie Lefèvre.”

Never have I received such a blow. It seemed to me at this instant that all was over with me. I felt that a veil had been snatched from before my eyes, and that I was going to make all kinds of horrible, nauseating discoveries.

It was she! This fat, common woman… this, then, was she? And she had hatched these four daughters since I had last seen her—they astonished me as much as their mother. They had come out of her. They were already big, had already claimed part of the living world’s space. As for her as she had been… that marvel of exquisite, coquettish grace no longer figured in reality. It seemed to me that I had seen her just yesterday… and now I found her like this! Was it possible?

A keen mournfulness seized my heart, as well as a revulsion at nature herself—an irrational indignation at this brutal, outrageous act of destruction.

What have I to say about the egotistical, repellently superior, implicitly hedonistic turn of this fictional character’s mentality (a very close approximation to his author’s, by all accounts)? More than I have space to say it. The “shopping the meat market” approach to beachcombing, the equation of an easy three-month adulterous fling with the romance of a lifetime, the instant reduction of the lover-turned-mother to a dumb beast (with beastly little fledglings surrounding her), the stupefaction at the female physique’s ability to bear children, the combination of all this into an indictment of nature’s horrid brutality… even, for that matter, the intermediate reflection on how quickly twelve years pass, as if tomorrow should always replicate today and the supply of tomorrows should be inexhaustible… how many times have I seen and heard it all among the people who came of age with me in the Seventies! Especially in the Ivory Tower: there to this day, and now deeply embedded in ideology. What childishness! And what an arrogant, spoiled-brat child!

No, Technology Has NOT Made Life Better (If You’re Old Enough to Remember the Better Alternative)

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to make medical records readily transferable from one treatment venue to another. Push a button… and the ER uploads the files from your GP’s office. In practice, learning the software is a nightmare for medical personnel, amending and updating it is a hemorrhage within hospital budgets that cannot be stanched, protocol turns out frequently to require the same old paperwork reproduced now from computer files, and the origin of critical errors is often almost impossible to trace. Time and money saved? Efficiency enhanced? What world are you living in?

One is now vigorously urged to liberate one’s investment accounts from paper. Quarterly reports are posted online: don’t forget your password! And just in case the power grid should go down for any reason, you’d better print out a copy of crucial data, or there might be no record at all of your life savings! I’ve been very happy with my TD Ameritrade account… for the most part. But when the lion’s share of my portfolio was shifted to a companion-operation called Amerivest, I continually had trouble finding my money online. I couldn’t remember that I was supposed to log in with the Amerivest username at the Ameritrade log-in box: there was no separate box for the separate entity. Such a simple conflation of procedures apparently needed no explanation to the site’s designers; but to me, whose typical day does not allow time for checking in, the “skipped step” is a perpetual stumbling block. Now that I’ve actually written a few words about it, I’m sure to remember the way in… but how many other such crucial protocols are easily misplaced or obscured because technicians don’t think like ordinary people? The minutes or hours of panic that result may add up to months or years subtracted from one’s time on earth, since our hearts are still flesh and blood.

Your job requires you to employ a certain software program—but the program’s designers have so overloaded it with firewalls and safeguards over the years that it runs like cold molasses when it runs at all. So your organization decides to shift to a different software provider and orders you to learn completely new protocols. Yet the shift will not occur for several months; so the valuable time you spend listening to software gurus explain vital details (as well as dozens and dozens of functions of utterly no interest to you or relevance to your personal tasks) will prove wholly wasted, since you will have forgotten everything when—six months from now—you need to recall it. In the meantime, you do your job a little less well thanks to all the distraction, and the raises that might have helped you keep pace with inflation are poured, instead, into the handsome salaries needed to attract more high-tech gurus to maintain an ever more complicated network.

Where in all this chaos do we find a poster-child for efficiency and competence?

A government mandate requires that you now integrate a, b, and c into your normal professional routine. A government functionary chides you for not fully overhauling your routine in a timely fashion so as to front-and-center a, b, and c. You ask that a, b, and c be settled into a certain available free space… but no, “studies have shown” that a, b, and c are most effective when everything else is organized around them. So, essentially, your thirty years of experience doing what you do must be jettisoned, and you must follow in the footsteps of every other tyro who serves a remote, faceless bureaucracy of power-brokers blissfully unfamiliar with what you do. The “studies” show that the new program of indoctrination indoctrinates better if the surrounding program in which it’s delivered does little but echo its messages. Well, duh.

Yeah, duh. Also know as “efficiency” these days.

Like it? You like this brave new world? You like what’s it’s doing to your nerves—how it bends to your will and rushes in to assist you in tasks that you have identified as important?

My New Year’s resolution to drop f-bombs from my private vocabulary has been bombed to smithereens… and we’re not yet to February! I never used to let loose with anything worse than “damn” and “hell”: now I swear like a sailor as e-life tells me daily, in a thousand subtle ways, that I don’t exist, that my opinions don’t matter, that my contribution isn’t recognized or wanted, and that the fruits of my labor no longer exist. I still run a clean act in public… but secretly, I’m smoldering all the time. It’s the way we’re over-using and abusing all this damn “smart” technology. I’ll leave it at that.

Databases Give Us Quick Answers But Don’t Teach Us to Ask Good Questions

I haven’t much time for this tonight… but the subject of technological sabotage eating away at my daily contentment has preoccupied me lately with maybe a dozen pretty powerful examples.  I’ll save the list for a better moment.

Just a footnote, then, about a conversation I had today with a librarian–and it was more of a guilt trip that I was being led along for not linking up my students to an online tutorial about the library’s databases.  Great stuff, those databases… kind of.  Sometimes.  If you have just the right keyword phrase, they save days and even weeks of time.  Take you right to the doorstep.

But what if you have no such handy little golden key?  When I was a very young man, I recall running across a reference in the Gaelic poetry of the sixteenth-century Scottish bard Rory Morrison to a peculiar legend–almost a unique one.  A king was about to execute three men when a young woman approached him and implored mercy for her brother.  Ther king was puzzled by her request, since the other two men were her husband and her son.  Why so much concern for the brother, he asked.  “Because I can get another husband,” answered the woman, “and I can bear another son, but I’ll never have another brother.”  The dazzled monarch released all three men.

This tale is rather precisely analogous to one that Herodotus told of the Persian king Cyrus about two millennia earlier.  Otherwise, it makes no appearance anywhere in the lore of Greece and Rome–or of Germany.  (Of course, Herodotus himself was a Greek… but he heard the story from a Persian.)  It’s one bit of evidence in a long and complicated–but convincing–brief that the Celts were once cultural nextdoor neighbors to Easterners who would become Persians and Indians.

Or I might mention a tale I ran across just last week in the medieval Silva Gadelica.  It has Caoilte relating to Saint Patrick an account about the Fianna’s favorite hunting hill, where the two of them are standing at that moment.  Just to prove his point, Caolite gives a wild yell that summons every game animal from the surrounding forests.  It occurred to me that the short tale would make a very nice footnote to my translation of the medieval Welsh romance Owein, at the point where a one-eyed, one-legged giant bangs a stag over the head until the beast’s bellows bring every animal in the woods.  Both figures are shamanic “masters of the hunt”, fulfilling the same role in a mythic paradigm.

Here’s my point.  How would I ever have happened upon either one of these parallels using keyword searches?  What database could yield the results that wide, serendipitous reading once did for great scholars of myth like Alfred Nutt and Stith Thompson?  Or how many scientists will be struck by the possibility of a new cure or a new cosmic force if they give up messing in the garden or didn’t ride in something like Einstein’s trolley?

Electronic databases can take researches instantly down paths that have already been traveled, and then the travelers can perhaps venture a bit farther.  What they can and will never do is teach minds how to think through sketchy, highly speculative associations rather than through shared words.  And in foreclosing a certain kind of scholarship, they will also suffocate a certain kind of human being.  Our machines will make us think more and more like a machine as their designers are claiming to make them more and more like us.  I’m sure the two will meet somewhere soon–but not on a turf that would have been considered fully human a few years ago.

Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture.  You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October.  A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War).  The central plot is supposedly factual.  The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent.  The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.

My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end.  I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends.  (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.)  When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?

To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know.  It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry.  All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization.  People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage.  It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.

Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies.  Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class.  Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains.  You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power.  Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7.  If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.

Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?

Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Cultural Meltdown

Grading final exams is a dismal enough task: the “someone… they” agreement errors, the use of “like” and “however” as conjunctions, the utter cluelessness surrounding “whom”; but when students who can’t get any of this stuff right begin to lobby for pronouns that don’t “offend” by expressing gender, then I know that I may have missed the TITANIC’s last lifeboat.  Why are you offended?  Because you’re neither “he” nor “she”?  Well, we have “it”… but that’s most offensive of all, because you now sound like an impersonal object!  But if you have no gender… oh, excuse me!  You do have a gender, only you’re neither male nor female!  But if you’re a male identifying as female, would you not be “she”, and vice versa?  Or if you are neither and not neuter, then exactly what are you?

Students clamor for this non-existent fourth option because other professors have primed them to talk and think rubbish–and because, of course, they want to appear broad-minded and compassionate.  Yet how is the stilling of tongues in impotence lest they utter a substantial thought compassionate?  Say that our conversation in the present constantly reminds me of times past.  I want a tense that accomodates both the currency of our words and the nostalgia that their echo awakens in me.  I’m so frustrated!  My language will not do this; and you, by speaking to me in one tense or the other, are collaborating in the offense!  Ouch!  You’re hurting me!

Vanitas vanitatum.  What an infantile, futile, facile era we live in…