Posted by on January 15, 2014
Jan 152014

Other misfortunes occur. The skies overflow, the earth fissures, the winds erupt. The great disaster is a great event, a cataclysm. With droughts nothing happens. All is quiet and still.

Summer turns to fall, to winter, to spring, and then to summer again. The seasons circle, until the circling slows and grinds. The supposed inexorable is deferred, and then withheld. Fall slips by winter, heading off toward spring.

I recall those ancient minds that transformed provincial floods into global calamities. No doubt they did the same for droughts. All the world became a desert. And had not the Earth gone dry? Who had seen otherwise? The thought might have been a comfort, or it might have been a dread, but it was not cruel. They had not been singled out. They did not suffer the misfortune alone.

I cannot enjoy this conceit. Storms are there beyond the eye’s horizon. They float above the water’s curve, diverging and dissipating before arrival. The Earth itself has not gone dry. We can know this. We do know this. We have been singled out. We suffer this misfortune alone. That is a cruelty afforded by today’s grand perspectives.

Other misfortunes end because they exhaust themselves in their occurrence. They happen and can endure no longer. Droughts do not carry their durations within them. They are delays that end only when displaced from without. The storms one day arrive. The seasons circle once more, and all again seems inexorable. So the drought concludes. Until then all is quiet and still.

The Humanity of The Humanities

 Posted by on September 7, 2013
Sep 072013

I collect articles lamenting the decline of the humanities. One day I may read them. It was perhaps a lapse of judgment that placed the latest entry in the genre before my eyes rather than upon the amassing pile. “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.” So the article states. The assertion can be put even more bluntly: to be human is to need the humanities. This is both true and false.

The Axial Age did not unfold as neatly as Karl Jaspers told it, but at various times, and in various ways the great reflective turn that he described did occur. Human beings began to wonder, as they had not previously, what it was to be human. The exploration and study that attended this wonder were the humanities. No longer given by mere existence, now an object of intense rumination, humanity became a possibility of inward and outward realization. Humans need the humanities not because we are human, but only in so far as we rise to conceive of humanity as a possibility.

Reflection is not the mentation we presently tend to value. Instead we prize the fitting of means to ends, especially when those ends are comfort, convenience, and distraction. The humanities belonged to burdened men of solitude who wished not to be taken by shallows and illusions.

Better than asking why we need the humanities, we should ask instead what we forget by abandoning them. The humanities rightly understood are less about knowing well-read texts than about the dispositions impressed by reading texts well. The texts will remain, distributed, indeed, more widely than ever. But they will not be read well. They will be distracting idles, picked up, pieced through, and put down without impression.

Man will not degrade into an unintelligent being without the humanities. No, he will continue contriving ever more clever means to ever more commodious ends. He might even be happy, as the incognizant usually are. Were we to abandon the humanities, we would no longer strive to be human in the way that our best progenitors strove to be human. Humanity will degrade to the given, but we will not perceive the degradation because we will have forgotten that men once aspired to anything more.

Is the Age of Humanities at an end? If it is, then perhaps we need the humanities only to provide that someone remembers to note its passing and to deliver its unheard eulogy. Or is it merely in eclipse? In that case, then perhaps we need the humanities to ensure that someone still remembers enough to ask “Are we?” whenever another purports that we are human.

A Union Divided

 Posted by on August 20, 2013
Aug 202013

Most essays age quite badly. A few hardly age at all. The essay James Fallows wrote more than a decade and a half ago on American politics and the media belongs neither to those most nor to those few. It retains a sense of presence even as it echoes with the past. The witless, feckless, indulgent, aggrandizing media that he described are as they were, only more so. The politics, however, is different.

The press, Mr. Fallows wrote, “are interested mainly in pure politics,” which is to say with politics as a “cynical game” in which “ambitious politicians struggle for dominance” and “advantage” over “rivals.” For Mr. Fallows this is politics at its “meanest and narrowest.” The “real meaning” of politics, he insists, inheres not in these struggles between politicians and parties, but in “collective efforts to solve collective problems.”

I will not charge naivete. When the essay was written, one might still harbor an assumption of collectivity. That is no longer the case. Far from assuming collectivity, American politics now contests it. Rivalry is its crux and content. This does not mean that politics has truly become the cynical game for dominance and advantage that Mr. Fallows laments. It means that the cynical game is now neither a game nor cynical.

Though we frequently forget it, games are supposed to be inconsequential. And by cynical I assume Mr. Fallows means insincere. Contemporary politics is neither inconsequential nor insincere. Who determines the character of the American collective? Who counts in it? Who has power in it? Who decides? These are matters of intense consequence, and the rivals that contest them do so sincerely.

If American politics cannot pursue collective efforts to solve collective problems, this is only because that collective is itself the core political dispute. This is a union divided, and that division is the essence of its politics. This is why, in a curious way, today’s politics is what the political press still says it is: purely antagonistic competition.

The media was not prescient a decade and a half ago, because the pure rivalry they portrayed did not yet exist. And the media does not speak to the real substance of these times either. They fail not because they cover the rivalry as if it is all that matters; it is all that matters. They fail because they still believe the contest a mean and narrow cynical game. They fail because they cannot understand the real stakes. They fail because they mistake the trenchant for the frivolous.