Delight Springs

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Nurturing light

Jennifer and Kelly kicked off our round of final report presentations last night with their own hard-won reflections on what it means to be an enlightened parent of enlightened children. 

But as has been observed, in the spate of recent books on the subject (including, I'm amused to note, guidance from my inverted namesake Oliver James in How Not to F*** Them Up): parents aren't just raising children, we're raising future adults. The stakes are high, for civilization and future humanity. Mistakes will be made. No pressure, right?

Well, maybe that is right. I was reminded of Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, which purportedly "explains why parents have little power to determine the sort of people their children will become." I guess that would be news to the poet Philip Larkin...

I was also reminded of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Our children are not John Locke's hyper-impressionable tabula rasa, they -- we -- are genetically pre-loaded bundles of natural aptitude and predisposition. That's why we're subject to any nurture at all.

It's natural for us to be molded by our peers as much or more than by our parents. Harris says more. In his foreword to Harris's first edition, Pinker says "one gets a sense of real children and parents walking through these pages, not compliant little humanoids that no one actually meets in real life." 

Having tried to imprint my own notions of proper parental nurture on two now-grown humanoids myself, I'm much more inclined to favor the Harris-Pinker line than I was back when The Nurture Assumption first challenged my thinking about what I was up to with Older Daughter back in the mid-to-late '90s. I saw my role then, as an at-home dad, as "the most important job you'll ever have" etc. 

Well, I still think time spent in the company of younger persons--increasingly that's just about everyone- has been the best time of my life. And will be again, when we get back to school and (fingers crossed) off of zoom in August. 

But I'm also increasingly relieved to realize that they and their cohort are perfectly capable of screwing themselves up, and of lifting themselves up, with no particular assistance from me and my generation required or desired. 

Like Richard Ford said, I'm just trying to stand vigilantly by. Like the lamppost. I'll offer whatever illumination I think I've found. They'll take it or leave it. 

But it is finally a bit comforting to realize that everyone, at every age, has the opportunity to cast light. Or to block it. Get your enlightenment where you can.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Glorious dawn

Summer's suddenly fading fast. Our penultimate Enlightenment Now class tonight closes Steven Pinker's book, and we begin hearing final report presentations. And suddenly it will be August. Time's arrow moves in mysterious ways. As my friend Ben's dad memorably remarked, near his end of days: "I don't know what time is."

I do know it's "the stream I go a-fishing in" and "drink at," like old Henry. Well, I don't actually fish. And I prefer to drink filtered water. But I do share his aspiration for astral streams, and his admiration of the pebbly stars in the "cosmic ocean" that bespeak innumerable possible worlds and possible futures. Our local morning star goes cycling on, and we with it. Where do we want to go today?

I hope more of us want to go toward the light, not the one "which puts out our eyes" but the dawning light of reason, science, humanism, and progress. If we're really to be a "woke" age we must wake to the realization that we humans have only really begun to probe the possibilities of applied knowledge and resolute amelioration of our condition.  

There can be "more day to dawn," a glorious dawn, if enough of us want it enough to resist the reactionaries who've renounced the dream of enlightenment. There are a lot of those. There always have been. "Finally, drop the Nietzsche... what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" 

But there have always been dreamers too. 

Pinker leaves us with a dream, promising "no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing" and affirm that "life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance."

And goals are better than resigned despair.



Monday, July 26, 2021

Humane and novel wisdom

It was so good to see Dr. Fauci publicly lauded as Humanist of the Year yesterday, just before Younger Daughter returned from a days-long visit with the extended Show-me State family that must at times have felt to her, progressive chip-off-the block that she is, like weeks. She reports having had to endure (in the name of family) dispiriting Fox-incited Fauci-bashing there, and other benighted beyond-the-fringe fantasyland-style provocations. The Missouri Mule's a stubborn, blinkered animal. She's a braver soul than I, to enter its stall and stick around for such nonsense. She's probably a better Humanist, too. "Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns... [and] strive toward a world of mutual care and concern..." --Humanist Manifesto III

There are so many good new books and essays I should be reading for the first time, to stoke my humanist sensibilities and fuel my own writing. But nothing charges the creative batteries more reliably than re-reading an old favorite like Lay of the Land. Pick just about any random page or two, as when Frank discusses his practice of neighborly "Sponsorship" and lends a sympathetic ear to lonely and distraught peers. "Other people, in fact--if you keep the numbers small--are not always hell." (Wrong again, J-P S.)


 

I have to say I find more humane wisdom here, paragraph-by-paragraph, and certainly more literary style word-by-word, than in just about any work of academic philosophy I've encountered outside of Willy James. I generally find the best fiction a far better vehicle for reflective profundity than the general run of what passes for professional philosophy.

I do love what Eddie Glaude Jr. said in the Times: 

“Henry James defeats me every time I crack open his work. I prefer his brother, William. His sentences dance. Henry’s, not so much.” The novelist wrote like a psychologist, the psychologist/philosopher like a novelist. A really good novelist.

Sentences should dance, words should illuminate. Otherwise, far better to pass over in silence. "Silences are almost always affirming."

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Ford's Frank

LISTEN. Thinking about Frank Bascombe again, having recommended Lay of the Land to a friend who can relate all too well to Frank's health challenges. 

Frank says Humans generally get out the gist of what they need to say right at the beginning, then spend forever qualifying, contradicting, burnishing or taking important things back. You rarely miss anything by cutting most people off after two sentences.”

Maybe not, for most people. But not Ford, most of his sentences are polished gems.

Just found a recent Ford conversation, and his earlier Library of Congress prize award ceremony in 2019 ("I don't need therapy, I have words"), and welcome news of a new novel from him forthcoming. "I'm writing a novel called Be Mine. It's (it simply has to be) that last Frank Bascombe novel of my lifetime."

I recall hearing Ford talk about his writing process, probably with Terry Gross; or possibly live with Ann Patchett in Nashville a few years ago, when he read from Let Me Be Frank With You (the trilogy became a tetralogy) and had interesting things to say about the pursuit of happiness as "a condition that we define for ourselves" during Q-&-A (at about the 49-minute mark). And then he graciously signed my book, probably feigning recollection of our much earlier meeting.



He said he reads every day's product aloud to his wife before proceeding. 

That's a marital partnership to envy. 

I did find this old Paris Review interview, which speaks to the care he takes in the aural dimension of literary prose. 

"I’m always interested in words, and no matter what I’m doing—describing a character or a landscape or writing a line of dialogue—I’m moved, though not utterly commanded by an interest in the sound and rhythm of the words, in addition, I ought to say, to what the words actually denote. Most writers are probably like that, don’t you think? Sometimes I’ll write a sentence that sets up an opportunity for say, a direct object or predicate adjective and I won’t have a clue what the word is except that I know what I don’t want—the conventional word: the night grew dark. I don’t want dark. I might, though, want a word that has four syllables and a long a sound in it. Maybe it’ll mean dark, or maybe it’ll take a new direction. I’ll have some kind of inchoate metrical model in my mind. One of the ways sentences can surprise their maker, please their reader, and uncover something new is that they get to the sense they make by other than ordinary logical means... "

He walks right up to the border of poetry. (Note how frequently he deploys variations on the locution "as the poet says," etc.) But he still makes lucent, transparent sense in a way that poets sometimes (often?) do not.

If I could write one Frank Bascombe novel I'd happily renounce academia. I keep coming back to that passage in The Sportswriter -- "In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five...explaining is where we all get into trouble."

I told Richard that, at a signing event in Nashville (at the wonderful and lamented old Davis-Kidd) for Independence Day a quarter-century ago. 



I didn't stop teaching, now I'm 64. But that's okay, Frank Bascombe already has an exemplary author.

And on the subject of enviable marital partnerships, I've noted Garrison Keillor turning to that theme in many of his recent dispatches. "I have given up trying to make a better world and instead I’m working on my sock drawer and maintaining a small circle of friendships, starting with my wife. It’s a large project."


Reminds me of my favorite E.B. White line, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” That's a humanist.


That GK essay concludes with solid wisdom: "Get offline, walk humbly, be watchful, wait for your other to appear, be grateful, introduce yourself, hang on."


I think he means re-introduce. Anyway, I'm gratefully hanging on. And getting offline and walking humbly every morning. Not with dogs again, yet. (They're always eager to hear what I've written.) But I'm confident the docs will give me the green light on that very soon. Then, I'll be better able properly to re-introduce myself, and take on the large projects.



Solvitur ambulando




Friday, July 23, 2021

Humanists

LISTEN. The American Humanist Association's 80th anniversary conference is underway. 

I registered, so I'm in remote/virtual attendance. They read my question last night about the pioneering 19th century Kansas freethinker ("not an oxymoron," not thenEtta Semple, while I was out on my evening ramble. Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) gave a thorough and instructive response.

Semple said “I never yet have seen the person who could withstand the doubt and unbelief that enter his mind when reading the Bible in a spirit of inquiry.”

The conference continues through the weekend. Dr. Fauci will be giving the keynote, as a most deserving Humanist of the Year in this year of pandemic travail.

"Are you a humanist?" Indeed I am. "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity..." (Manifesto III, continues)

Humanism will be the anchoring theme of my biennial course Atheism and Philosophy next time. They're not the same thing, atheism and humanism, but there's more than enough family resemblance to merit the coupling.

Vera Rubin was a humanist, I'd guess. She deserved top honors too.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Intermediate Man, immediate delight

LISTEN. Yesterday was bookended by delightful surprise at the front end, and whatever you call its opposite at the other. I'll call it gratuitous confusion and acrimony, and I'll say nothing much more about it.  Just this: some humans, particularly those in my profession, can be difficult and obtuse. Be better, please, colleagues. 

The delight, owing to a different sort of academic: an invitation to participate in a panel at the next gathering of the Tennessee Philosophical Association to commemorate "Intermediate Man at 40." 


Intermediate Man
was my mentor John Lachs's refreshing paean to immediacy in experience and in life, published August 1, 1981. It caught my eye at about the same time its author did, in my first year of grad school. In keeping with its theme it insinuated no footnotes or other distractions between author and reader, just a smart, humane, extremely unpedantic scholar reflecting on the live-but-latent possibilities of perception for those who resolve to remove mediating obstacles from their direct intercourse with the world. 

Lachs writes: "Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends..."

I've been wrestling pleasantly and, I think, constructively with that proposed form of transcendence ever since. Distant ends and the remote future matter profoundly for us, I believe, as prime motivation for responsible conduct in the present, and the challenge of becoming good ancestors. If we're going to address climate change and the other existential threats of our time we're going to have to accept our collective responsibility for distant ends. We're going to have to think globally and act locally. We're going to have to care about the future, just as our more enlightened ancestors cared about their future--our present.

But... enjoying present activities presently, extracting the full meaning and richness of the moving spotlight that is the specious present, is the unnegotiable condition of our happiness. 

So, balancing Lachsian transcendence and its attendant shift of attention without sacrificing sensitivity and commitment to the "long now" has been my bellwether aspiration in philosophy. I am endlessly and immediately grateful to John Lachs for giving me that perspective, and that reflective frame.

So I anticipate with immediate delight that upcoming TPA event in November. There will be scholarly talk and interchange -- the usual academic exercise in extended mediation -- and then, more delightfully and most appropriately, for a man who always asks after my wife and daughters, a family lunch. 

It will be transcendent. Or rather, it already is. The future is now.

"There is something devastatingly hollow about the demonstration that thought without action is hollow, when we find the philosopher only thinking it."

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Don't worry now

LISTEN. In Enlightenment tonight we'll turn to the great intrinsic good that ultimately drives the quest for progress: happiness. 

"If we were to ask the question: 'What is human life's chief concern?' one of the answers we should receive,"  William James said, "would be: 'It is happiness.' How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure." 

My biennial Philosophy of Happiness course comes around again when we get back in our actual classrooms in August. (That's definitely happening, right? Despite the best worst efforts of "the bonehead politicians running this state" to sabotage the public health?) Our reading list: 

  • Happiness: A Very Short Introduction
  • More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age
  • Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction
  • How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
  • Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life

  • And we'll conclude with James himself. "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," "What Makes a Life Significant," maybe more. I've thought about doing Russell's Conquest of Happiness again, with all its talk of "zest" as our happiest state of heart and mind. But you know where Russell got that? WJ.
    Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be. Blindness

    A significant life is happy (whether its subject fully appreciates that or not). And meaningful. Lots of happiness philosophers sharply distinguish those states, denigrating the former and correspondingly elevating meaning (or purpose). James did not. He wanted it all, and wonder and mystery too. I contend that James was a naturalist, but a "global" naturalist whose commitment to reality does not exclude the experience of wonder at things we don't understand. He was open perhaps to the point of excessive credulity, much more than I. He attended seances. He defended even the varieties of experience that most naturalists would label superstition and "woo"--but in the name of radical empiricism, not supernaturalism per se.

    A tweeter notes the snide remark of James's old friend Holmes, who "joked that William James would turn down the lights in a room so that the miracles could happen." Funny, and I too "appreciate James' willingness to remain open to the ineffable and unseen." Life is "too short not to sprinkle a bit of wonder into things." But WJ also appreciated the wonder of the everyday and particular. "Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious." You don't have to turn down the lights to find the wonder, or the zest.

    Steven Pinker is much less inclined than James to dim the lights. Humanists generally prefer the enlightenment potential of daylight and a less radical empiricism. They're like Mickey's Epicurean father in Hannah and Her Sisters. 

    Aren't you afraid of dying? Why be afraid? - You won't exist. - So? - That doesn't terrify you? - I'm alive. When I'm dead, I'm dead. Aren't you frightened? - I'll be unconscious. - But never to exist again? - How do you know? - It doesn't look promising. Who knows what'll be? I'll either be unconscious, or I won't. If not, I'll deal with it then. I won't worry now.
    They're not wrong, the Epicureans. But maybe they're not as empathetic as they could be, towards those whose deep unsettlement about oblivion is not so easily set aside. And maybe they're too quick to dismiss the quest for zest in favor of "an adult's appreciation of life, with all its worry..."
    ==
    Speaking of zest in quotidian life: back in Physical Therapy yesterday, after a week away, my trainers tell me I'm still "crushing it." So I rewarded myself with a trip around the corner to Parnassus, my first real browse there since before the pandemic. And then, around that corner to the Donut Den. They had warm Apple Fritters and those wonderful cream-filled, chocolate frosted pastries Dunkin' calls Bismarcks. That these very things exist is simply wonderful.



    So is that new McCartney documentary on Hulu. Creative musical genius sounds so simple, in Sir Paul’s retrospection. It's a wonder and a mystery. A sweet mystery...

    Saturday, July 17, 2021

    Ottawa '21

     Another fine Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference is finally in the books in Ottawa, capped last night with a big Royals win. Good to be out and about in the world again, and with the crowd at the ballgame in that delightful spirit of uselessness Dr. Williams talked about, after the longest year (plus) in memory. Maybe there's just a bit of justice in this world.

     

     
     
     
     

     
     
     
     
     
     













     






    Thursday, July 15, 2021

    Roses and goodness

    Iris Murdoch, I learn on her birthday, said something I can use in my talk at the conference in Ottawa tomorrow. We're about to head that way, checking out of our lovely little airb&b shotgun shack in the Westport neighborhood of Kansas City shortly and crossing the line about an hour into the Jayhawk state. 
    She told The Paris Review: “Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. Attractive bad characters in fiction may corrupt people, who think, so that’s OK. Inspiration from good characters may be rarer and harder, yet Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and the grandmother in Proust’s novel exist.”

    And Irwin Chance exists too, in The Brothers K. That's the 1993 novel by David James Duncan, loosely inspired by Dostoevsky's Karamazovs. And Irwin, also an epitome of unconditional love and benefaction and unremitting sympathy for suffering humanity, is loosely modeled on Alyosha. 

    I think both characters are too good for this world, too committed to justice not to suffer profoundly and unjustly themselves in its pursuit.

    But they're also both good role models, good aspirational targets. Aim for the stars, and keep your feet on the ground (as Casey Kasem used to say). That's another way of saying what Susan Neiman says, channeling Kant: Don't lose sight of what ought to be, while fully acknowledging what is.

    Our dear friend Patricia, a Unity minister, was that kind of role model too. We were honored to participate last night in her memorial commemoration at Unity Village near here, with music and poetry and a scattering of ashes amongst the flowers. Her life of service and nurture and kindness inspire like the rose, reaching for the light but keeping rooted in the soil of this earth. That example has not sailed over our human horizon, though there was talk last night of a "transition" and a departure to another realm. For myself at least, she's still right here. Her goodness blooms like the rose.



    Monday, July 12, 2021

    Outta here

     It's time to pack for an actual trip! 

    (Our old friend and Best Man is pinch-hitting for me in Enlightenment class this week, I'll have to fill in for him on a carpentry job or something sometime. Yes, that's a joke.)

    We're flying tomorrow to Kansas City (MO), where we'll participate in a memorial for another dear friend who died mid-pandemic. 

    Then it's on to Ottawa (KS) for the long-postponed Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference. The chair of my session happens to be an MTSU colleague whose path I don't think I've crossed since the last time we gathered in Kansas, in the spring of 2019. He used to be one of the conference organizers, back when we hosted it. He always scheduled my presentations in Dining Room C, literally across the hall from my office. The current organizer asked me to send along a bio. 

    You could introduce me as a veteran of this conference, 10 times in M'boro and every year so far in Ottawa. (Almost broke my streak, had two back surgeries just a month ago. But Drs. Crosby and Glattes and the good people at Elite Sports Medicine and Orthopedics have me up and going... My wife has accompanied me this time, the first time I've flown in. Usually I drive so I can stop en route to see my sister in Columbia MO.)

    Or as the guy who used to have the shortest commute to the conference venue, from 300 JUB to Dining Room C.

    Or a guy you once accompanied to a game in the Nashville Sounds' inaugural season downtown, in 2015. (How time flies!)

    Or as a distressed Cardinals fan who feels like he's fallen into a wormhole and landed in the 70s.

    Or you could just quote my Twitter profile: Philosophy prof in TN. Early riser. Peripatetic. Dog person. Baseball fan. Author of William James's Springs of Delight': The Return to Life

    See you soon. (Funny how we seem to meet only in Kansas.)

    As always, for this event, I've over-prepared.  I'll get to a few of these slides. I'll probably add a few more.


    Saturday, July 10, 2021

    Nobody expects the Inquisition

    My reflexive free-association, whenever I think of Inquisition (grand or otherwise), is 


    Too soon?

    Monty Python could make fun of the Spanish Inquisition, according to Adam Gopnik, "because Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and decency make us feel safe from it."

    But he said that a decade ago, midway through the civilized administration of our most literate president since TR (POTUS 44 just released his summer reading list). Do we still feel so safe? Nobody I know expected POTUS 45, though if we'd been paying attention to the interrogations and insinuations perpetrated under POTUS 43 we probably should have.

    Gopnik's reassurance came in the context of a review of God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy.
    After reading Murphy’s accounts of so many bodies tortured and so many lives ended, one ought, I suppose, to feel guilty about laughing at the old Python sketch, but it’s hard not to feel a little giddy watching it. How did we become this free to laugh at fanaticism? That for a moment or two the humanists seem to have it—that we don’t really expect the Inquisition to barge into our living rooms—is a fragile triumph of a painful, difficult, ongoing education in Enlightenment values. Bloody miracle, really.
    Miracle. Plus, Mystery and Authority (and fear, surprise, "an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope" etc. etc.), the chief weapons of the sort of intimidation and cruelty that we delude ourselves in thinking so remote as to be the mere stuff of parody. We live in a time when vicious, self-righteous dogmatists lack all humility and circumspection, while the humble and circumspect lack all conviction. 
    If you believe that you know the truth of the cosmos or of history, then the crime of causing pain to one person does seem trivial compared with the risk of permitting the death or damnation of thousands. We had no choice is what the Grand Inquisitor announces in Dostoyevsky. We know the cruellest of fanatics by their exceptionally clear consciences. Gopnik, 1.8.12 
    So to revisit yesterday's post, Hillary was right about history even if a bit off-base as a literary critic and diviner of Dostoevsky's intentions. Almost nobody nowadays expects the Inquisition. But we shouldn't be surprised. Our interrogators, if they come, won't be nearly so amusing as Michael Palin. They'll be the heirs of Sarah.

    Friday, July 9, 2021

    Misunderstanding the Inquisitor

    Weirdest trivial thing I've learned about Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor: Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton both like it, for oppositely-misconceived reasons. From The New Yorker, October 2009:

    In 2001, The New York Times reported that Laura Bush’s favorite piece of literature was the “Grand Inquisitor” scene from Dostoevsky’s novel. She saw it as an affirmation of faith:
    In the dialogue with the Inquisitor, Jesus remains silent, and the chapter has two endings, the first tragic, the second a victory for Christianity.
    For Mrs. Bush, there was no ambiguity. ”It’s about life, and it’s about death, and it’s about Christ,” she has said. ”I find it really reassuring.”
    Then, Hillary Clinton revealed this week her fave is also “The Brothers Karamazov.” She had exactly the opposite take—for her, the chapter was a testament to the virtue of doubt, not certainty:
    Asked to name the book that had made the biggest impact on her, she singled out “The Brothers Karamazov.” The parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s novel, she said, speaks to the dangers of certitude.
    “For a lot of reasons, that was an important part of my thinking,” Mrs. Clinton said. “One of the greatest threats we face is from people who believe they are absolutely, certainly right about everything.”

    I'm pretty sure Dostoevsky was not intending to issue just another standard liberal protest against dogmatic certitude, any more than he meant to reinforce his readers' conventional pieties of faith. 

    What exactly he was saying is still a bit murky to me, but the dubiety of "Miracle, Mystery, and Authority"*  has to be at the heart of it. That, and the credulity of so many humans who don't have it in them to heed Immanuel Kant's plea for enlightenment.**

     Do you wonder what Melania thinks of the Inquisitor? Me neither. 



    *We corrected and improved Thy teaching and based it upon "Miracle, Mystery, and Authority." And men rejoiced at finding themselves led once more like a herd of cattle, and at finding their hearts at last delivered of the terrible burden laid upon them by Thee, which caused them so much suffering.

     

    **Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" -- that is the motto of enlightenment.

    Thursday, July 8, 2021

    Brothers

    David James Duncan's early-'90s novel The Brothers K -- about the brothers Chance, who seem (in the spirit of William James's remark*) always willing to live on a chance -- is a sprawling epic tale centered on the foibles and exploits of a family like none I've ever encountered, and in that way more than any other resembles Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Both families encounter more than their share of heartache and disappointment. Both pose deep probing questions about suffering and unredeemable injustice in our world and the true meaning and value of freedom. Both challenge easy optimism and thoughtless theodicy.

    But Dostoevsky's family features no pitching paterfamilias on the comeback trail, no hyper-pious Seventh Day Adventist Mom or Darwin-loving atheist grand-mum, no immersion in American  '60s counterculture, no laugh-out-loud acerbic wit (at least not to my sensibility), no stirring reflections on the philosophical dimensions of fly-fishing and what that has in common with baseball.

    Also missing from Duncan's tome, despite its philosophical edge and penchant for oracular speechifying, is the sort of ponderous metaphysical ruminating I associate with 19th century Russian lit...and with Love and Death.
    To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.


    There's enough material in Bros K to fill out my next several Ottawa presentations, I think. So I'm going to try and avoid spoilers this year, and just make the central point that Duncan’s larger message counters Russian resignation and fatalism with aspiration, effort, and good old pragmatic meliorism. 

    In light of my recent revisitation with Richard Ford's Independence Day, on the frequent frustrations and ultimate impotence of parenting (which I want to distinguish from the hope implicit in "natality" as Hannah Arendt articulates it), I may also mention the parent-child dynamic in the Chance clan. We can try to shine a light, but can’t make them bask in it. Kids must finally learn their own hard life lessons and discover their own role-modeling father/mother figures. 

    Older Daughter once discovered Albus Dumbledore, who said happiness is always on tap if we just remember to turn on the lights. Lately she's been turning, time-capsule fashion, to her own future self for guidance. I think that's wise.

    It was unwise, in Bros K, for Mom and son Irwin to turn to the Adventist minister. He's the Bland Inquisitor, counterpart to Dostoevsky's Grand, whose betrayal sends Irwin off to Vietnam at the worst possible time despite his Adventist conscientious objection. (Was there ever a good time for an American to be sent to Vietnam under the auspices of American domino-blocking?) And he offers one prominent illustration of my presentation title "No Justice in This World"...

    Take a chance on Bros K, if you need a hopeful beach read. But I'd leave the Karamazovs behind. 

    * “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference… between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience


     Postscript. Just caught up to yesterday's poem, Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, and one line in particular: All chance, direction, which thou canst not see... 

    Pope was a Leibnizian/Panglossian hyper-optimist, as the concluding lines pronounce:
    All discord, harmony, not understood;

    All partial evil, universal good:

    And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,

    One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
    The brothers Chance (and their Papa) learn, the hard way, that Pope (A. or the) was dead wrong. But still they bear their freedom with dignity and perseverance. They're meliorists. 

    Or maybe we should just say they're pluggers, just doing what they can .

    Wednesday, July 7, 2021

    The future's almost now

     It was a pleasure to welcome Dr. Hale, my Enlightenment pinch-hitter next week while I'm away for the COVID-delayed Baseball in Literature and Culture conference, to zoom class last night. He's a Kantian and a master carpenter, and a master teacher too. 


    He zeroed right in on what I think the class agreed is the chief limitation of Steven Pinker's statistical sunniness: it omits the felt human experience of injustice and deprivation, which numbers alone can never convey. Stats about declining homicide rates are no consolation to the mom who's lost a son to random police violence. Indoor plumbing and cell phones are great, and we should indeed be grateful to live in an age of medical science; but as John Dewey said, our time is now. 

    Well, what he actually said was: “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.” Comparisons with another era don't compensate for perceived inequity, unfairness, and maldistribution of resources and opportunities in the present.

    And while I do share Pinker's "conditional optimism" (though I call it pragmatic meliorism) I also have to note the ominous doomsday cloud that's been stalled for a while at just before midnight. "Continued corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision making depend has heightened the nuclear and climate threats." So the conditions of our optimism are steep. We have miles to go before we sleep easy, with respect to justice, climate, and peace. 

    But as I heard myself unexpectedly invoking the upbeat mood of Bill Clinton's theme song, we also must not stop thinking about tomorrow. It'll soon be here.



    Tuesday, July 6, 2021

    Conditionally optimistic

    LISTENTonight in Enlightenment we continue to explore Steven Pinker's "conditional optimism" with respect to inequality, the environment, and the prospects of peace in our time. He borrows the phrase from an economist who distinguishes conditional from complacent optimism. The latter is "the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning," the former that of the child who wants a treehouse and is prepared to help build it. If we want a more equitable society, a habitable abode for life (ours and others'), and a significant reduction of global inter-state violence, we've got ameliorative construction work to do. Call it conditional optimism if you will, I still prefer to think of this attitude as pragmatically melioristic. We must strive for better, but shipwreck is always among life's permanent possibilities. 

    With regard to inequality, Hillary was right: we're not Denmark, Americans will not support so egalitarian a commitment to the redistribution of wealth. Not yet. But we have to remedy those structural inequities of our system that translate into disproportionate political influence. We have to get the dark money out of politics. We have to stop pandering to the private interests who cynically manipulate public institutions (like our very university) with Trojan Horse entities ostensibly devoted to "political economy" and the like but covertly committed to undermining public support for those institutions.

    Minimally, we have to repair a system that does not guarantee the most fundamental criterion of democratic politics: the integrity of the franchise. We must insist on the security of voting rights. We must dismantle the protections that allow money to purchase power. We'll probably not be doing that with the present profile of our highest court. Until we do, it won't do to declare complacently that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Nor should we blithely accept an entropic rationale for poverty. We must carve out a sphere of normalcy that simply does not tolerate the specter of a permanent underclass, and of homelessness on a vast scale.

    With regard to climate change, we know what we have to do: break our fossil fuel addiction, transition to cleaner and (despite Pinker's impatience with the word) more sustainable sources of energy.

    And with regard to peace, we have to build on the progress Pinker rightly notes. We've not had a third world war, nor are the casualties of specific present-day conflicts so appallingly high as in WWI & II. But our nation and a few others are still much too quick to the trigger, too inured to the notion that armed aggression is a satisfactory solution to intransigent problems in international affairs. It's past time to sublimate our worst instincts and summon our best. It's time to dream the dream of a pacific earth, and dream it in daylight. Who knows what the 24th century may bring? Let's go. Boldly.

    • What do you think of William James's idea, in The Moral Equivalent of War, that the "martial virtues" humans have historically associated with war ("intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command") can and should be redirected to more constructive purposes? --I think it's a great idea we've never adequately explored. Once the global pandemic is well and truly behind us, I say let's reinvigorate the Peace Corps and every other agency we can dream up, to re-channel those martial impulses.
    • Will humans ever overcome war, and inaugurate *Kant's perpetual peace? Will they ever create or join a United Federation, devoted to galactic peace?
    The United Federation of Planets...founded on the principles of liberty, equality, peace, 
    justice, and progress, with the purpose of furthering the universal rights of all sentient life.
    Federation members exchange knowledge and resources to facilitate peaceful cooperation,
    scientific development, space exploration, and mutual defense.

    (continues

    Monday, July 5, 2021

    Lamp on

    The July 4 holiday always sends me back to Richard Ford, whose 1995 novel Independence Day has a special place in memory because my first reading of it coincided with the happy occasion of the birth of Older Daughter. 

     

    There it is, peeking from under her bouncer (isn't that what we called it?) out on the deck at our place on River Road. His Frank Bascombe's reflections on freedom, independence, self-reliance, parenting etc. all registered as the most timely and trenchant information I could absorb at the outset of the mysterious adventure called fatherhood. (And his father-son trek to Cooperstown offered an exciting prospect.) 

    Only later would I learn, to my great surprise, that Ford and his wife Kristina were childless. Could have fooled me, with observations like

    A parent's view of what's wrong or right with his kid is probably less accurate than even the next-door neighbor's, who sees the child's life perfectly through a gap in the curtain. I of course would like to tell him [her] how to live life and do better in a hundred engaging ways, just as I tell myself: that nothing ever neatly "fits," that mistakes must be made, bad things forgotten...

    The worst of being a parent is my fate, then: being an adult. Not owning the right language; not dreading the same dreads and contingencies and missed chances; the fate of knowing much yet having to stand like a lamppost with its lamp lit, hoping my child will see the glow and venture closer for the illumination and warmth it mutely offers.

    And I can just hear Older and Younger Daughter now, in chorus: since when were you ever mute?

    Fair enough. Nonetheless, I'm leaving the lamp on. 



    Sunday, July 4, 2021

    Real patriotism

    Saturday, July 3, 2021

    "Thank goodness"

    I've been saying that a lot lately, in gratitude for the competence, kindness, and simple goodness of the doctors, nurses, and caregivers who are seeing me through my challenging health event this summer. It's not just a figure of speech, for friends of the secular enlightenment like Daniel Dennett:
    There are no atheists in foxholes, according to an old but dubious saying, and there is at least a little anecdotal evidence in favor of it in the notorious cases of famous atheists who have emerged from near-death experiences to announce to the world that they have changed their minds. The British philosopher Sir A. J. Ayer, who died in 1989, is a fairly recent example. Here is another anecdote to ponder.

    Two weeks ago, I was rushed by ambulance to a hospital where it was determined by c-t scan that I had a "dissection of the aorta"—the lining of the main output vessel carrying blood from my heart had been torn up, creating a two—channel pipe where there should only be one. Fortunately for me, the fact that I'd had a coronary artery bypass graft seven years ago probably saved my life, since the tangle of scar tissue that had grown like ivy around my heart in the intervening years reinforced the aorta, preventing catastrophic leakage from the tear in the aorta itself. After a nine-hour surgery, in which my heart was stopped entirely and my body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until they could get the heart-lung machine pumping, I am now the proud possessor of a new aorta and aortic arch, made of strong Dacron fabric tubing sewn into shape on the spot by the surgeon, attached to my heart by a carbon-fiber valve that makes a reassuring little click every time my heart beats.

    As I now enter a gentle period of recuperation, I have much to reflect on, about the harrowing experience itself and even more about the flood of supporting messages I've received since word got out about my latest adventure. Friends were anxious to learn if I had had a near-death experience, and if so, what effect it had had on my longstanding public atheism. Had I had an epiphany? Was I going to follow in the footsteps of Ayer (who recovered his aplomb and insisted a few days later "what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief"), or was my atheism still intact and unchanged?

    Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now... (continues)
    [11.2.06]

    Friday, July 2, 2021

    Fauci, Humanist

    LISTEN. I was so pleased yesterday to see that Dr. Fauci had been named Humanist of the Year, I impulsively registered for the annual conference of the American Humanist Association. I've talked about attending that event for years, or at least wanting and intending to, but somehow managed never to follow through. I could think of no reason at all to skip the last (let's hope!) virtual/remote version, happening later in July.

    ...In the US and throughout the world, he is respected for his efforts to address COVID-19. Throughout the global pandemic, his push for evidence-based solutions and emphasis on the importance of science and reason has been a guiding light in difficult times. Dr. Fauci has identified as a humanist and mentions that he aligns with humanist values. He has said in recent interviews: “I look upon myself as a humanist. I have faith in the goodness of mankind.” and “I’m less enamored of organized religion than I am with the principles of humanity and goodness to mankind and doing the best that you can.”

    I wasn't surprised to learn that he's a self-avowed Humanist, any more than I was surprised that he's passionate about baseball. "Faith in the goodness of mankind" and "doing the best you can" goes hand-in-hand with suffering a losing streak without losing hope. 

    And, I can personally attest, counting on reason and medical science to see us through personal and global health crises is a winning strategy. It's also an answer to the irrationalist contrarians of the world, the Dostoevskian Underground Men and Grand Inquisitors who don't think humans have it in them to rely upon their own understanding and agency, to shoulder the responsibility for their own fate. Dr. Fauci has shown us the meaning of Sapere Aude in our time. Good call, AHA! ...LISTEN


    Wednesday, June 30, 2021

    Against entropy

    LISTEN. Enlightening class last night. I think maybe the most instructive conversation centered on that cliche that "everything happens for a reason" etc. My perspective, close to Pinker's, is that of course everything happens from causes, known, elusive, or merely speculated; but that just as obviously, not everything real is rational, not everything happens for the best or by design or with our collective good in view. 

    The immediate and irresistible example that came to mind was that horrific condo collapse in Miami. The causes are physical and structural and human, insofar as engineers' warnings of impending instability were unheeded. 

    Will good come of that collapse? Will lives be saved because engineers will now be heeded? Sure. Will that eventuality redeem, justify, rationalize, or vindicate the horror of the seminal event? Of course not.

    But I have to concede, many people of faith don't concede my "of course," many struggle with it. They want to be Enlightenend, and they want to retain a rational faith and belief in a Universal Master Plan beyond our most enlightened ken. I want to understand their struggle.

    And yet I still share William James's impatience with the "superficiality incarnate" on naked display from the likes of Leibniz, when they blithely reassure us that catastrophic pain, suffering, and unearned death in our little corner of creation is perhaps compensated by happier days in other corners of the cosmic vastness. I don't expect much light to fall on that form of thinking, if you want to call it that, no matter how long I listen.

    Pinker's right, I think. "Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink," condos collapse. Our constant challenge is to stave off shipwreck and carve out commodious spaces in which our lives may be lived more fruitfully and flourishingly despite the inexorable cosmic care-less-ness all around us, so very evident all the time.

    And here's my happy entropy-resistant news: my two-week post-op visit yesterday afternoon revealed the new spinal hardware I've been under orders not to damage through premature over-exertion, juxtaposed against the old broken system the indifferent universe had saddled me with. It's working like a charm, and I now have the green light to go out walking for as long as I please.  I feel like I've been gifted a new superpower, the power of unrestricted ambulation. Just call me Titanium Man. So we're off to Warner Park right now, to test reasonable limits. Entropy be damned. 



     

    == 
    Postscript. 2.1 miles, 46 "active minutes" in Percy Warner Park. A new beginning!

    Post-postscript, Jy 1: 2.4 miles, 44 minutes...

    Tuesday, June 29, 2021

    Enlightenment Now

    LISTEN. We're off to see my surgeons and physical therapists shortly, two weeks after dual surgery. I'm eager for their confirmation that my convalescence has been swift and that at least the more oppressive restrictions on my activity can now be loosened. 

    The great advances of medical science in our time is one of Steven Pinker's large themes, as tonight we open his Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress -- the book that inspired our course. A hundred or so scientists are responsible for saving more than five billion lives! - so far. Pinker's right to indict the pervasive ingratitude/ignorance of too many of us about that. "[T]he neglect of the discoveries that transformed life for the better is an indictment of our appreciation of the modern human condition."

    I think he's right, too, to say that we can measure and thus mark our progress with respect to countless indices. "...life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery..." 

    These are humanistic values, and coupled with a firm commitment to applied learning they have transformed our world for the better. I wouldn't have opted for the surgeries I'm rebounding from, already so much better than before, in the pre-anaesthetic age that ended just the day before yesterday. And aren't we all lucky not to have been swept up in pandemic a century ago? Can you imagine the toll COVID would have taken in 1918?

    Another of Pinker's large themes is entropy. Yes, in a closed system energy runs down inexorably. Dissolution is the ultimate fate of the universe as we understand it. But we don't live our human lives on a cosmological scale, we are tasked always to carve out the meanings and purposes of our lives in a suitably local context."Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny." So Pinker lines up with William James, as against the dark entropy-driven depressive ruminations of Henry Adams.

    The "second law" is wholly irrelevant to "history"—save that it sets a terminus—for history is the course of things before that terminus, and all that the second law says is that, whatever the history, it must invest itself between that initial maximum and that terminal minimum of difference in energy-level. As the great irrigation-reservoir empties itself, the whole question for us is that of the distribution of its effects, of which rills to guide it into; and the size of the rills has nothing to do with their significance. Human cerebration is the most important rill we know of, and both the "capacity" and the "intensity" factor thereof may be treated as infinitesimal. Yet the filling of such rills would be cheaply bought by the waste of whole sums spent in getting a little of the down-flowing torrent to enter them. Just so of human institutions—their value has in strict theory nothing whatever to do with their energy-budget—being wholly a question of the form the energy flows through. Though the ultimate state of the universe may be its vital and psychical extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the penultimate state might be the millennium—in other words a state in which a minimum of difference of energy-level might have its exchanges so skillfully canalis├ęs that a maximum of happy and virtuous consciousness would be the only result. In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe's life might be, "I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer." You don't believe this and I don't say I do. But I can find nothing in "Energetik" to conflict with its possibility. You seem to me not to discriminate, but to treat quantity and distribution of energy as if they formed one question... Letters of Wm James, June 17, 1910

     


     

    I took some time yesterday to enjoy Pinker's conversation with Stephen Fry. 




    It's a delight. And I think Steve #1 is right to call out the late Stephen Jay Gould for not getting the whole Enlightenment idea. NOMA, Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" proposal, goes badly off the rails when it denies the relevance of empirically-gathered knowledge in informing not only our knowledge but our values. That's odd, given his statement that what we've learned of evolution  is constitutive of the meaning of our lives insofar as science can speak to that. And with the advent of ubiquitous social media, we're further off the rails. It's making us dumber.

    "The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing" is not only not trite or old-fashioned, it has not even yet really been tried or even noticed by a teeming sea of so-called modern men and women. We desperately need to try it. Now.