Posts Tagged ‘William James’

What matters: reflections on a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi

Saturday, August 30th, 2014


Earlier this week, an instructor was training a nine-year-old girl to shoot with an Uzi, aiming at the image of a man some yards away. She inadvertently killed a real one, her instructor. A terrible occurrence on so many levels, but for the moment let’s consider the video that was inadvertently taken of what turned out to be a slaughter. It went viral. In other words, the accidental video of a man being killed functioned on some level as some sort of lurid entertainment (I can’t see any other purpose in watching such a video – and no, I won’t even reproduce the photo).

On a Facebook thread, as my friends and acquaintances expressed horror of the popularity of the video, I pointed out that this was perhaps not so surprising in a culture where a contemporary idol such as Kim Kardashian rose to fame with a video of herself engaged in sexual intercourse – or was that Paris Hilton? Or both? The femmes du jour become interchangeable at this point. The common point of reference is that sex and death have become casual entertainment for voyeurs, which is all of us. (One can include, I suppose, simulated sex and death in movies and TV shows, since part of the brain does not distinguish between reality and the filmed recreation of it – if you experience horror or arousal at either, you prove my point.)

The idea that the human person has any kind of innate dignity, that we draw a veil over at least sex and death (as well as bowel movements), that any kind of human activity might be private or intimate – increasingly strikes people as arbitrary and an anachronism, especially if sex, death, or a marriage proposal are click-bait. We are losing a language to even discuss such matters in a culture where the greatest fear is boredom and becoming fat. People are feeling increasingly uncomfortable at any kind of depth, any view of their roles as something other than a consumers of videos, electronics, sports, as “seekers” of the most shallow and transient kind of “happiness.” We’re a long, long way from Antigone, who sacrificed her life to honor and bury her slain brother – she disappeared in the rear-view mirror decades ago.


Zen-inspired Dutchman

Here’s where I’m going: a few days ago I said the maiden name of ISIS is nihilism, and a few readers quibbled with me. The ISIS murderers have religious beliefs that impel them, and therefore they have “values” – of course, I responded that the religious beliefs are the merest fig leaves for mayhem. As William James wrote, “for all sorts of cruelty, piety is the mask.” Few people will express absolutely no value for anything – and such masquerades can easily be disproved. Hold a man’s head under water for a minute and he gets real pretty fast. (I love telling that to my non-dualist friends and others who deny the existence of the real.)

A few years ago, back when I imagined I still had room somewhere in my home for another book or two, I was rummaging through the $1 bin at the Stanford Bookstore and I ran across this quote in a small book:

“A much abridged symptomatology of modern Nihilism would include: disregard and detachment of all values except the immediate satisfaction of the narcissistic individual and herd impulses … atrophy of all notions of relatedness and responsibility to other humans, to animals, plants, the earth … degeneracy of the sense of beauty, truth, goodness, hence total mistrust of disinterested service … degradation of all fellow beings to the status of Things … progressive debility of all the higher functions by unrelenting and total bedevilment by electronic noise and imagery, media trivia, spectator sports, laugh shows, quizzes, commercials, propaganda for whiskeys, presidents, celebrities, gadgets, space trips…. Unavoidable consequences: alientation from self and environment – consumer addiction – identity crisis – existential vacuum – depression – mass psychosis – violence – sexual depravity – drug and alcohol addiction – teenage and all other categories of suicide, including our own’s collective incubation.”


Out of Africa

The book out of Woodstock, Vermont – What Matters – was written by a guy I’d never heard of, Frederick Frank (1909-2006), a Dutchman who served as a doctor on Nobel peace laureate Albert Schweitzer‘s staff in Africa, and was also an artist. He went on to publish 30 books about Buddhism, especially focusing on the Zen variety, and also a memoir, Days with Albert Schweitzer. Not normally my thing, but I thought he was dead-on about our times.

Here’s more:

“All consistent egocentricity is insane. Nihilism is the collective and endemic form of this insanity.

Whosoever, by ineffable grace, or sheer good luck, has survived this century of insanity, of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Papa Doc, Pinochet, of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, of Bhopals and Love Canals, yet still underestimates the contagious virus of Nihilism as Absolute Evil, hardly merits his survival.”


“In our nihilistic chaos every national, every ideological collectivity has dishonored itself utterly. Gulag, gas chamber, torture cellar, apartheid, induced famine, nuclear holocaust, have routinely been justified with an ad hoc gnosis of ideological twaddle and demonic hypocrisy.”


“The difference between ‘democratic’ and ‘totalitarian’ Nihilism is the difference in semantics, in ritual, in rhetoric and in categories of victims.”



Guess who?

So I wonder … René Girard writes that opponents come to resemble each other more and more, all the while insisting on their differences. “They” cover their women in body bags, “we” think “freedom” is putting them in string bikinis and encouraging them to starve themselves to death so they fit into them. Same disease, different symptom. We both have a fascination with weaponry, used in a way that devalues human life and responsibility. I’m not going to belabor the equivalence with a terrorist, genocidal, wannabe state that beheads children and crucifies those it dislikes – it would be obscene to do so. While you may not have full-blown leprosy … what’s that funny spot on your back? How long has it been there? Maybe you want to check it out.

Nihilism? Maybe we ought to look in a mirror.

Jacques Barzun: “I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

He avoided the political fray. (Photo: Harper Collins)

Jacques Barzun died two weeks ago, on October 25, at age 104.  I’m only starting to think about it.  The New York Times described him as “the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence…”

“Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.” He published his “most ambitious and encyclopedic work” at 92.

Barzun largely created the field of cultural history, which his biographer Michael Murray describes as “an all-inclusive synthesis: not only kings, battles, laws, and statistics, but also habits, beliefs, influences, and tendencies, in art and literature, manners, morals, science, and religion, and the social setting in which these were found.”

Murray’s comments about Barzun arouse my envy.  He writes: “it is hard not to be dazzled by a man who, during a four-week period in 1953, read and reviewed André Malraux’s Voices of Silence and The Letters of Franz Liszt, edited the galley proofs of his book God’s Country and Mine, adapted them into articles for the Atlantic Monthly and Vogue, gave speeches on campus and at a Partisan Review banquet, reworked four lectures for publication, and offered a broadcast on WNYC. All this, mind you, apart from his teaching and dissertation duties.”  Ah well, as Barzun himself wrote in The House of Intellect (1959): “The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.”

Now here’s the reason I’m going over all this.  Like many Americans, I found this year’s elections a dispiriting process.  I find the slagging matches between sides depressing, the gloating and the defensive justifications wearying, and the whole reduction of complicated thoughts and reactions into political labels outdated and simplistic.  So Frank Wilson of Books Inq sent me this quote from Barzun:

“In short, the market – like the state, like any institution – has its limitations, as severe as the state’s. Consequently, each device must be controlled by intelligence and adapted to circumstance. For my part, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist, each dogma applicable to some necessary activity.

“I imagine, in fact, that the triple label applies to most people. Very few want the fire department a private concern; and again most people are communists within the family circle, at least until the children are grown up.”

Common sense, as Voltaire observed, is not so common.


Postscript on 11/9:  What fun!  The recipient of the letter quoted above has come forward in the comment section below.  Christopher Faille, an author and a contributor to Forbes,  has lots more on his website, Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed – more excerpts from their correspondence here, and a consideration of Barzun’s affinities with William James is here.  “I’m trying to do some curatorial work, getting my letters from this great man into proper order with a commentary giving context. I believe Columbia University archives are the proper ultimate destination for the material,” he writes. Thanks for the heads-up, Christopher!