“It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.” – David Foster Wallace
A poem by Emily Dickinson:
A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.
And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,–
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head
Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home
Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.
This poem reminds me of a mockingbird I see every time I walk to the garden in the morning. The bird sits there on top of the street sign, whistling as I pass, and even lets me approach without nudging an inch, but as soon as I turn the camera on he flutters away–not frantically but calmly, as if to say, “close but missed me again!” Yes, being mocked by a mockingbird every morning is now part of my routine, and one of the small pleasures I carry with me for the rest of the day. As they say, it’s the little things…
Today at our summer camp one of the kids asked a question that made me think maybe, just maybe, all is not lost. We were discussing migratory birds and reading a book about how they navigate. In the book, the author describes how scientists put birds in enclosed spaces and then change a bunch of variables, like the amount of light, whether or not stars are visible, etc., in order to figure out how each species uses points of reference in order to steer them to their destinations. In some cases the birds’ eyes were covered to see if they would fly into the walls without the use of sight, and in other cases the birds were released into a planeterium to see if rotating the stars in irregular patterns would disrupt their internal honing systems.
As we finish reading this segment of the book, a flurry of questions ensues, most of which are pretty irrelevant and many of which aren’t actually questions but kids just raising their hands and then forgetting to come up with a funny comment. But then, after the fray has died down a little, one little girl raises her hand and asks, “Did the birds like being put in the experiments?”
Listen to this story that ran this morning on NPR about some young rich people buying a mountain. Or as the tagline reads: “A team of entrepreneurs wants to turn a Utah peak into the next cool hub for culture and new ideas.” Can you tell already why I’m linking to this story?
First, the company in question, called “Summit,” focuses on “putting together invite-only event experiences,” a phrase which the narrator somehow says without even giggling. And if that wasn’t difficult enough, I don’t know how she gets through the line “they’re building a permanent place for people with ideas.” Oh, but it gets worse…
Investors, who pitched in from half a million to two million dollars each, can opt in to build a house on the mountain in question–a mountain apparently unaffected enough by human development to still be called “powder mountain”–but their real opportunity, the narrator assures, is to “build a community.” Listen to the shrill saws grinding at around the four-minute mark and tell me it doesn’t make you cringe and recoil with disgust at the sure fate of any number of the mountain’s current inhabitants. It’s ugly, really.
But still, while committing the cardinal sin of burying the lede, the most eye-roll-inducing moment comes at the end, when the narrator says, over sounds of birds chirping, that nature has a message for the developers, which they decipher: “I don’t think anybody in this community feels like they’ve achieved what they’re going to in this world and now they’re done; we are looking to continue to create great things in the world as we move forward.” Cut back to the narrator, who concludes: “boundless ambition, to match their mountain” as the story fades out to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (not kidding).
Luckily, I was listening to the story in the car, so I could unleash a steady torrent of obscenities without the danger of anyone overhearing. I did actually say, though, as I was flipping off the radio, “Oh I gotta blog about this later.” Voilà.
“A great value of antiquity lies in the fact that its writings are the only ones that modern men still read with exactness.”
So much of what we discuss when we discuss philosophers is their aura: the swirling ethereal cloud that is either made of stories (i.e. filtered, second- or third-hand ideas about their ideas), or made of their highly sensationalized biographies. Or sometimes it’s some conflation of the two: Marx wrote a blueprint for (and single-handedly brought about) the Soviet Union, right?
When remaining in this ambient bubble, any formulation of thought about what the philosophy can offer us inevitably loses sight of the initial catalyst of that very process: the text itself.
No one may suffer more from such a text-detached fog as Nietzsche, who, depending on the day, is authoritarian, nationalist, racist, antisemitic, or all of the above—in short, a Nazi—and who, by virtue of being both a scholar in the classical tradition and a product of the 19th Century, is also provincial, pedantic, anachronistic, and irrelevant. Whew.
But the text still sits here (and at your local library), cloud or not, and every time I pick it up—whether it’s been days or years since I last did—it always offers me something of value: some new way of thinking about things or some new reason to feel emboldened and happy (for one of the biggest misconceptions of his work is that it’s overly cynical or depressing, when in fact much of it is about experiencing joy by creating meaning—and indeed about joy being its own meaning).
This week’s example is about the glorification of suffering. Hitchens has made this same point about Mother Teresa and others, but even Hitch might stand jealous of this masterful weaving of words:
If we admit, for example, the truth of the doctrine of Schopenhauer (but also of Christianity) concerning the redemptive power of suffering, then it becomes regard for the “general welfare” not only not to lessen suffering, but perhaps even to increase it—not only for oneself but also for others. Pushed to this limit, practical ethics becomes ugly—even consistent cruelty to human beings. Similarly, the effect of Christianity is unnerving when it commands respect for every kind of magistrate, etc., as well as acceptance of all suffering without any attempt at resistance. (from On Ethics, 1868)
For a good recap of Josh Fox’s solid performance on Real Time on Friday night, read this.
At one point all three panelists were rattling off Idiocracy-level “arguments” for fracking, including Kellyanne Conway’s “but it creates jobs” bullshit. We’re fine with someone irrevocably poisoning the groundwater, apparently, as long as that person gets paid for it. Isn’t that doubly stupid?
Here’s Fox’s latest work on fracking: The Sky Is Pink