Archive for December, 2006

Leaving the forest

Like Cynthia Ozick, as a little kid I was a Romantic, devoted to total immersion and pure experience rather than deliberate interaction with it. And as one’s real surroundings are often not enough for someone not yet ready to participate actively in life, this frequently took the displaced form of indulgence in fantasy and the imagination. Eventually, as an awareness of my own place and doings in this world began to take hold, this shadowy hedonism came to seem less defensible. And then a fixation, at least on the intellectual level, with duties and rules of conduct. One comes to see that immersion in experience is never complete, because experience slips irrevocably into the past. And the only form of nostalgia which is not tinged with loss is a memory of having behaved admirably or at least decently. Because we cannot continue to enjoy our past lives, but can only hope to be able to respect them. But I think now that a sense of obligation to others is not really sufficient either. Like the Law, it tends to shut down alternatives rather than putting us willingly on the right road, to drag us reluctantly through life rather than driving us by inner volition. Only love can do that. Which is where an element of misanthropy is fatal. Sometimes I look on those who simply love more than I with plain bemusement. And I often feel greater compassion for little animals than people, not because I value their lives more, but because people are competitors. All living creatures, animals, plants and people alike, compete and fight to secure the good things in life, but a small dog or cat, like a baby, is no danger to me in trying to get its share. But in human society everyone has a certain status, so that just by virtue of their existence people come into competition.  This may have a semi-rational basis, but it is all just internalized as instinct.  In any case, it suggests that to cultivate a kindlier way of life perhaps requires changing one’s view of others more than one’s view of what deeds are allowable. And that the attitude embodied by Goethe’s words “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen” (“Whoever tries with every effort, him can we save”), perhaps does not represent the right psychology.

Speaking truth to power

“art activist Hans Haacke explains why he dares criticise the USA, but not Islam: “When I did works critical of Apartheid or Bush’s politics, there was no reason to worry that in doing so, I’d be putting people’s lives in danger. I knew the American National Guard wouldn’t pull out their guns and start advancing… But my reservations against criticising Islam aren’t cowardly, in fact they might even be wise.”