Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Tolstoy did in lieu of Suicide

Those growing old and wondering if they have led meaningful lives might be interested in the following from The London Review of Books: . This is a review by James Meek of four books commemorating Tolstoy who died in 1910. Meeks at one point writes, "In A Confession, he runs through a version of his past: he pursued fame, money and pleasure, killed men in war, married, had children, and at the moment when he was at the height of his powers and had everything a man could seem to want, he lost interest in life and had to take measures to avoid the temptation of suicide.

Would you have a very different view of your life if you had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina? Not Tolstoy. He described those two as "negligible work."

"He began an intellectual quest for meaning" and found it in the "Christian faith of the narod, the common folk". . . In World War One, Wittgenstein was to read Tolstoy's paraphrase of the New Testament and become converted.

Converted to what? Christianity, to be sure, but nothing organized or widely accepted. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church. He became a pacifist and followed "the American writer Henry George in believing in common ownership of land). The Church and Government's hostility toward him increased his stature in revolutionary times."

Meeks writes that "Tolstoy's worldwide fame at his death is off the scale by which such things are normally measured. It was as if Picasso, after painting Guernica, had mutated into Gandhi, without losing any of his artistic reputation."

"Alexander Blok seemed to be anticipating Tolstoy's death as the end of an era of ideas, an era when, for better or worse, an idea could fall on a small town on the steppe or prairie, like a cinder from an explosion far away, and engulf it in an inferno of enthusiasm. 'While Tolstoy is alive, and going along the furrows behind a plough, behind his white horse, the morning is still fresh and dewy, unthreatening, the vampires sleep, and --thank God,' Blok wrote when Tolstoy was 80. 'Here comes Tolstoy -- indeed, it is the sun coming up. But if the sun sets, Tolstoy dies, the last genius leaves -- what then?'"

What then? Tolstoy would tell Blok and Meeks that he was attempting to live a simple Christian life, and if they wanted to see the sun coming up as it did when he pushed his plough, they could (and should) do the same sort of thing. It seems that Wittgenstein went far along those lines. He was ambivalent about his beliefs, or perhaps it would be better to say he didn't live up to his convictions, but neither did Tolstoy.

Did Hermann Hesse (who was born in 1877) have Tolstoy in mind when he wrote Siddhartha? How could he not? Here is the perfect cure to suicidal thoughts deriving from feelings that one's writings (like Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina) are "negligible work." One can take all that one has, give it to the poor, and follow Him. Not that Tolstoy did precisely that. He remained a very wealthy person, but in a sense he gave up all that he had been, and all that he had valued, and followed the path his spiritual search led him onto. A metaphorical "giving away all that you have" is probably the best approximation of what Jesus would mean in these modern times. A literal giving it all away might send you pushing a shopping cart filled with junk and living under an overpass; which is not what someone following Jesus would have been doing in His day. But a figurative giving away of all that you previously thought important but now think conflicts with what you ought to be doing is more like it -- and more like what Tolstoy did -- and Siddhartha -- and far preferable to suicide -- should any of you be quite that despondent.

Alexander’s Feast – writing poetry while old

I had the occasion recently to read several people, presumably in their fifties or sixties, bemoaning their fate, especially that they would never achieve the poetic greatness they once aspired to. Perhaps I misunderstood them and they were writing hypothetically, but the complaints (if such they were) stuck.

John Dryden was born in 1631 and died in 1700. Here is his Alexander's Feast: or, The Power of Music: An Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia's Day" written in 1697 when he was 67:

It is difficult for me to read Couplets. Enjambments ease this difficulty, but I have to work at it. I'm reminded of a recent article I read about dogs. Scientists have discovered that short-muzzled dogs have their brains in different positions than dogs with longer, traditional muzzles. They commented that all dogs live in a "world of smell" but they are almost certainly not living in the same world. I am definitely not living in the same world as Pope and Dryden. Even so, I work at it from time to time and seem to have come very close to liking this poem.

In an essay entitled "John Dryden: The Lyric Poet," Mark Van Doren quotes Dryden as writing, "'I am glad to hear from all hands,' he wrote to Tonson in December [1697], 'that my Ode is esteemed the best of all my poetry, by all the town: I thought so myself when I writ it; but being old I mistrusted my own judgment.'"

Van Doren then writes, "It is a question whether Absalom and Achitophel and the Oldham are not better poetry than Alexander's Feast, which perhaps is only immortal ragtime. . . few poems of equal length anywhere have been brought to a finish on so consistently proud a level and in such bounding spirits. . . The enormous vitality of this ode not only has insured its own long life; for a century it inspired ambitious imitators and nameless parodists. . . ."

Hmmm. Van Doren would have us believe Alexander's Feast is among the three best of best of Dryden's poems and that its excellence has insured its "long life." But notice the clause that qualifies this "long life": "for a century . . ." Is a century a long life for an excellent poem? I began this post intending to provide hope to the poets in their sixties who had not yet written their great poem. If Dryden could write a poem he and many of his contemporaries thought his best at age 67 surely there is hope for other poets in their sixties. However, if such an excellent poem as Alexander's Feast had a "long life" of only a century, then I might suggest to these mourning and disillusioned (if not suicidal) poets in their sixties, leave off trying to achieve something that has all these years escaped you and take up something soothing instead. Get a dog. These agreeable animals will treat you better than any critic and will add years to your lives. As to your poetry? Wait. In a hundred years it will all be over.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Freud and Serial Killers


There may be (I would say if I were being cautious) or probably is (which is what I really believe) a connection between Freud and Serial Killing. I don't mean actual serial killers like Jack the Ripper or Son of Sam, I mean their tremendous popularity to movie and TV watchers. You won't need to watch many episodes of "Law and Order, Criminal Intent," or "Law and Order, Special Victims Unit" (which I've been watching recently) before encountering a serial killer. There are so many of them in these and other movies and TV programs that I would think the writers must be hard put to dream up new motives for their proclivities. The most popular motives seem to be that the killer is on his spree because of Mommy or Daddy; which Freud would approve but that isn't what I mean here. But there are countless other motives.

One of the most frightening aspects of these modern times is that so much of our world has been taken out of our control. Marx tells us there are historical forces we can do nothing about. The Existentialist philosophers tell us that we can't know this world we were born into. All we can know is ourselves. But wait, Freud then tells us that we can't even know ourselves because we each have an "unconscious will." That is, we each have an unconscious will that we cannot access except by years of psychoanalysis and perhaps not even then. We might think we make a decision rationally but if we were to describe our decision to a psychiatrist he would tell us that the decision was really made in our "unconscious." We won't ever understand all the things we do, and perhaps we won't even know what they are. This belief in an "unconscious" has entered our common psyche. We all believe in it, but none of us understand it. We know a few things about it, but we don't know its power or limits, and we worry:

Is there mud on our boots? How did that get there? We don't recall walking through any mud?

Did we get high the other night; such that we can't recall all that we did?

Have we ever sleep-walked?

Is that woman looking at us strangely? Does she know me? I don't remember her, but then I wouldn't would I?

For all we know, our Unconscious Will has taken over at some point and caused us to do things that we aren't aware of. We may all be like Mr. Hyde without being aware of it. Maybe all we did is something that would embarrass our conscious selves, but maybe we did something worse: hence the popularity of the entertaining "Serial Killer." Nothing could be worse than that.

Serial Killers are very popular in the sort of TV programs Netflix describes a "gritty," but who can forget the "Man of the Year" Serial Killer Mr. Brooks played by Kevin Costner. Or the even more winsome Dexter who charmingly lives a normal life while at the same time "takes out the trash" which means kills bad guys.

Okay, maybe we are pretty sure we haven't done any serial killing lately, but what about our younger wilder days? Maybe there are bodies out there that we can't remember. Maybe there are even bodies in our back yard. Look at that pile of dirt. Is that a gopher? Maybe it's a root pushing the grass up?

We wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat overwhelmed by a sense of dread. We can't remember our dream, but we have been where our Unconscious Will lives and it has frightened us.

We wake up later to the noise of a truck and are jolted wide awake. Is that truck coming to pick up our trash or is it the police coming to dig up our backyard? We once again peer out the window at the pile of dirt.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dryden, Drogheda and Utilitarianism


            Last night I read Dryden's poem in honor of Cromwell.  He entitled it, "Heroic Stanzas, Consecrated to the Memory of His Highness, Oliver, Late Lord Protector of this commonwealth, &c."   The first time I read this poem, I was shocked.  I thought all the major literary and historical figures hated Cromwell.  Of course I shouldn't have been shocked.  As soon as the "restoration" occurred, Dryden wrote equally enthusiastically (if not as eloquently) about Charles II.  Emerson wrote that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little mind."  Dryden was not guilty of consistency, whether foolish or otherwise.  One might excuse him a bit on the basis of his need to write whatever was going to sell.  He needed the money, but did he need to convert to Catholicism upon the accession of Charles II?  His family was traditionally Puritan; so a poem in honor of Cromwell wasn't inconsistent, but his conversion to Catholicism and his praise of the Catholic Monarch was.  That he was interested in doing whatever was necessary to make a living could also be seen in the dramatic tripe he produced.  He admitted that he had no sense of humor but comedies were popular so he bent his "genius" to the writing of them.

            But if one sets out to study the English Civil War, one may end up more tolerant of Dryden.  He wasn't the only one to adopt the politically-correct support of the Catholic Monarch.  The intellectuals of the Restoration were brutal in their treatment of Cromwell's memory.  The old saying that the victors get to write the history was never truer than in the case of Cromwell, but as time went on why weren't Cromwell's achievements dusted off and resurrected?  Why did historians keep denigrating Cromwell as viciously as did the writers of the monarchy in the days of Charles II?

            To get a more balanced view of the English Revolution and especially Cromwell one needs (in my opinion) to read the Marxist historian Christopher Hill.  I am no Marxist and invariably argue against that position, but Marxism doesn't intrude into or disrupt Hill's treatment of his subject.  I believe I am (or was) sensitive to the Communist Party Line but I never discovered a hint of it in any of Hill's histories of this period.

            The last time I was reading extensively about the English Revolution and Cromwell it seemed to me the main thing that could not be forgiven was Cromwell's brutality after the Siege of Drogheda.  It occurred to me that Cromwell's tactics were Utilitarian.  He gave the men of Drogheda the chance to surrender and told them no harm would come to them if they did so.  But they chose to fight.  By killing all the men after the siege he created an example that saved the lives of countless Irish in subsequent confrontations.  No subsequent town, if I remember correctly chose to hold out as Drogheda did. 

             I wonder what Robert Wright thinks of Cromwell's actions at Drogheda.  Yesterday someone sent me a debate between the Utilitarian Robert Wright and the Thomist Robert P. George: .  I am no admirer of Utilitarianism but surely there must be Utilitarians in the home of that philosophy who admire Cromwell for his actions at Drogheda . . . if there are any who maintain a foolish consistency in their little minds.

When our dogs die

            Somehow we must reconcile ourselves to the short life-spans of our dogs, or we will become like my sister who mourned so over the loss of her Corgi that she couldn't bear to own another dog.  She seemed to think mourning was cumulative like arsenic and would one day kill us with its pain.  But I tend to think the more dogs we own the closer we are to accepting the natural course of things.  Farmers who raise animals for meat are notoriously callous about their dogs.  I could never be like them but I must accept, at least theoretically, that they are closer to the natural course of these events than I am.  And yet I can still mourn Dusty who was hit by a car when he was five and I was ten, and a little mongrel named Buzzer who was hit by another car when he was 6 months old, and a collie whom my mother sent to the pound because it barked too much and our land-lady threatened us with eviction unless we got rid of it.  And Brandy a little but very tough miniature poodle.  And Sentry and Trooper and Heidi . . . The pain and mourning spread out over them all.
            And now, though she was but seven this past May, Ginger has a grey beard, and what looked like mascara around her eyes has turned white.  Even more shocking, I have noticed that the muzzle of five-year-old Sage is beginning to turn gray. 
            "He won't return to me," David said of his son, "but one day I'll go to him."  One day some dog of mine will outlive me and it will be her turn to mourn.  May she not be like my sister.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The poetic motive -- a few thoughts

            I may have confused everyone  by trying to deal in an earlier note with both the need for old people (as a survival strategy) and the poetic impulse.  But there is probably a parallel.  While old people were necessary in hunter-gatherer times for the passing along of "practical wisdom," i.e., how to make spears, knives, clothing, and how to find or hunt food, the Poet was the story-teller who sang the tales of a heroic past.  Surely the poet was as important as practical old people, but would he have needed to live as long?
            Our knowledge of early poets is spotty.  Was Homer a single individual or a collective?  Did Homer write the Iliad and the Odyssey or were there heroic stories "out there" that he assembled into the epic poems that we have today?   Virgil wrote the Aeneid as a Latin response to the Greek Homer.  There are also heroic tales in Hindi and other languages.  Beowulf is another example. 
            When we come forward in time, the poetic motive changes -- at least in Europe.  Aside from Christian tales, there were the Troubadours singing of courtly love.  Love remains one of the most important motives for poetry, but what do such poems "pass along"?  When one reads of the non-dramatic poets of the Elizabethan period, the love poems were probably written to or about a beloved.  Consider Wyatt's poem "Whoso List to Hunt":

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

            Here we have a bit of courtly love.  The courtier, Wyatt, follows the lady "vainly."  He uses the image of a hind giving rise to the belief that he was probably courting Anne Boleyn.   One could not hunt deer in the king's preserve any more than one could with impunity court the king's mistress -- rather, the two things were equally dangerous.  If I remember correctly "noli me tangere" was the "do not touch" sign that pertained to the king's deer.  The poem is very clever.  Maybe his need to show it to his friends outweighed his fear of Henry VIII.  Whatever Wyatt intended with his poetry, it doesn't seem that he was concerned about passing along wisdom or truth.  He was probably interested in impressing his friends with his cleverness.  And, alas, he only lived 39 years.
            Modern poets seem more like Wyatt (although few are as good) than Homer.  No one (probably) today is trying to write an epic, but many enjoy amusing their friends with a casual or occasional poem, and they are often about love. 
            T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were very consciously "serious poets."  They rather pompously started a school of poetry and (Pound) managed who would be published and who wouldn't.  Pound doesn't seem interested in passing along either truth or wisdom.  He looked down on almost everyone and didn't seem to think more than a handful could understand or appreciate his poetry.  I've worked from time to time at understanding his Cantos but can't say that I appreciate any of them.  As to Eliot I do appreciate some of his poetry, and while I believe I do understand most of it, I doubt that I could describe my opinion about any of his poems without having my opinion disputed.  Eliot may have been even more of a poetic snob than Pound. 
            Poets in the Lowell era were just as desirous of achieving a "reputation," even Berryman who seemed to take nothing seriously, took "being the poet" very seriously.
            And Sylvia Plath screamed her Aerial poems to no one in particular while her husband, Ted Hughes, neglected her in England.  Plath committed suicide and Hughes lived on to be "the poet" in England.  Being a professional poet, whether in England or America, seems never to have demanded writing top-quality poetry -- at least that is my impression of Hughes and a host of others.  Poets like Hughes have been interested in their reputations and in their legacies, but what good are such motives when their poetry isn't good enough to survive them?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Poetry as truth and wisdom

A reader wrote:


Keats' is  a Universal Truth. If you wish to pass on wisdom. or not.


(A "poet" not concerned with passing on truth?)  Ahhhhhh  can't happen.... otherwise you're Ogden Nash.)



            LAWRENCE'S RESPONSE:    By saying "Keats is a Universal Truth" I assume you are referring to his body of poetry.   Lest we too rapidly leave the subject of passing wisdom on to the young as a possible concomitant to living to extreme old age, let me observe that I did not say that a poet wasn't interested in "passing on truth" but in "passing on wisdom" to the young.  It is part of homo sapiens survival strategy that a certain number of people in each generation would live an extraordinarily long period of time in order to "pass wisdom" on to the young.  "Wisdom" in our hunter-gatherer days had to do with finding or hunting food, making tools and clothing and knowing what to do and where to go when the weather changed.   I have been conjecturing that people who live to 100 in these modern times may be activating the genetic trigger that enabled the wise men and women of old to live long lives.   We are leaving this subject, wise people living a long time in order to pass on wisdom to the young, when we examine Keats.

            And you indicate that you are leaving this subject when you change "passing on wisdom" to "passing on truth."  While I will deny that Keats was engaged in the passing on of wisdom in the sense I refer to above, his "passing on truth" causes me to hesitate.  How could I deny that this person who said truth is beauty and beauty truth was involved in passing on truth?  Hmmm.  Actually I do deny it -- sort of.  I was once enamored of the Romantic Poets but then I grew out of them.  To say that truth is beauty and beauty truth no longer impresses me as it once did.   And if someone insists that this is a perfect bit of wisdom, I would like to hear an explanation, or an elaboration, or an example of what this poetic phrase is.  Is Beauty Truth?  I could more easily, I suspect, argue that Ugliness is Truth and that Beauty is but one step in the path toward it.   If Keats had a real urn in mind and was conjecturing about the immortality of the beauty he saw on that urn . . . I would ask where that urn is today and suggest that whether it exists in tact or in tatters, it is less beautiful than when Keats first viewed it. 

            As to Keats other poetry . . . perhaps an example might be helpful.  I have a lot of trouble reading the Romantics today, but I might work at it if there was some particular poem or poetry that impressed.  I am especially concerned about the idea that Keats may have been concerned with "passing on truth," for it is hard for me to believe that was in his mind -- or in the mind of any poet.

            What I object to is the idea that the poet "passes on truth" in the manner of a teacher or wise person.  How can such a motive be other than a didactic?  And didacticism is anathema to poetry -- at least modern poetry.  I once read Lucretius De Rurum Natura; so I'm aware that didactic poetry exists, but does it exist in these modern times.  Did it exist in the time of Shelly and Keats?  I don't really think you are saying that.  I think you are saying that Poetry, if it be worthy of the name is "true."  That is, there can be nothing in it that is false.  Consider George Meredith's "Modern Love."  I have not completely "out-grown" this sonnet sequence; so I would be willing to defend it -- sort of -- in a way I would not be willing to defend the poetry of Keats.  Here is the first sonnet:


By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:

That, at his hand's light quiver by her head,

The strange low sobs that shook their common bed

Were called into her with a sharp surprise,

And strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,

Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay

Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away

With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes

Her giant heart of Memory and Tears

Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat

Sleep's heavy measure, they from head to feet

Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,

By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.

Like sculptured effigies they might be seen

Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;

Each wishing for the sword that severs all.


            What Meredith has written here is "true."  That is, he is writing truthfully about the break-up of his marriage.   And since Meredith had ambitions as a poet, he wanted this sonnet sequence to be read; so in that sense he was passing it on to others, but I would deny that he was intending to instruct anyone with it.  It is more of a "confession," and in more modern times we have with Robert Lowell and his followers "the confessional school of poetry" -- all true, I suppose but not necessarily wise.



Daniel Schorr & further ruminations about old age

            A reader reminded me that Daniel Schorr lived a long time -- said he thinks he heard him just last week -- and suggested that since he had lived a long time went against my "ruminations."  As it happens, Daniel Schorr died at age 93 this past Friday:

            I didn't mean to imply that this wisdom-trigger (if there is one) is tied to "true wisdom."  I don't see how that would work.  It might not even be tied to results.  No one who hears this "wisdom" may believe it is true wisdom.  If there is any such trigger, it would probably be activated by the "wise person" himself.  If he believes he is imparting wisdom, that would probably be enough.

            In the case of Daniel Schorr, he was not alone in believing that.  In the article we read that "his greatest contribution came after a lot of other eminent journalists had left the fray," said Harvard media analyst Alex Jones. "He was a wise old man with all his buttons, a precious resource."

            The reader also mentioned someone who "lived to 104 and in good health for 103 1/2 of those years. He started at Syracuse China as a 13 yr old & worked there for 62 years--hand painting fine china for Kings & Queens and Nancy Reagan. (all the while doing his own 'folk art'... think : Grandma Moses primitives.) His painted milk cans were displayed in the Nixon White House, and other works in many other places, after the trip to china, with pics of pandas, the great wall, bamboo shoots etc. on give you a feel.  After he retired at 75 he went to work as a sign painter for the park service of Onondaga County NY doing that as well as for NYS doing the same for them for next 20 years. He was a marketeer and knew about publicity. . ."

            This latter fellow is more interesting than Daniel Schorr and speaks a bit about creativity and old age.  Up until 75 his "hand painting" sounds as though it would approximate other sorts of creativity.  We creative snobs might not credit him with much, but perhaps he thought his work important.  After that, when his creative impulse may dried up a bit and he continued on as a sign painter.  The reader describes him as a "marketeer," but I wonder how this fellow would have described himself.  A Chinese calligrapher might have painted "signs," but he may have taken creative joy in what he was doing.

            I'll make a few additional points.  The first is that if there is anything to this trigger that causes people to live a long time, it would be a "tendency" and not an absolute certainty.  In light of the way Natural Selection works, there would be some who would live to more than 100 who would show no signs of imparting wisdom and others who demonstrably imparted wisdom that did not live very long at all.  The survival strategy of our species would need nothing more than a sufficiency.

            The second is that In regard to poets and novelists, my impression is that they tend to have lives that are shorter than average.  Many commit suicide or spend long periods insane.  It may be (assuming my old-age-trigger thesis) that poets are like people with a job to do -- a teacher or an engineer for example.  They do their job and, retire from it, and die shortly thereafter.  The genome trigger may sense that their work is done -- the children taught, the designs completed, the poetry written, so it is high time they divest themselves of their mortal coils.  Of course this is just my impression of certain poets I admire.  One can refer to a "list of American poets," most of whom I have never heard, and find some that have lived into their 80s:   I initially had in mind people who lived past 100, but Robert Frost who lived to 89 would at least raise a genetic eyebrow.    But I never admired Frost all that much, for whatever that's worth.  A short-lived poet I admired was John Berryman who lived 58 years.  I also appreciated Sylvia Plath who lived 31 years, and Dylan Thomas who lived 39 years.  The latter two poets burned at a higher temperature than Frost, it seems to me, and used themselves up more quickly.    

            The third and last is that someone who strives to write a great body of poetry has a very different goal than someone intent upon passing on wisdom to a younger generation.  The first goal, on the face of it, is selfish.  The poet wants to be numbered amongst the great poets of earlier years, but he may not be interested in passing on wisdom -- unless he somehow puts his poetry in that category.  Is that possible?  But if so, would he not agree with Keats who in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" wrote" "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
" and then die at age 26?

Early morning ruminations about Old Age

            Why do some people live to great age but not others?  Medical science focuses on such precursors to death as heart disease and cancer but are there precursors to long life?
            Two “thinkers” I have been impressed with over the years lived in excess of 100 years.  Hans Georg Gadamer was born February 11, 1900 and died March 13, 2002.  And George Kennan was born February 16, 1904 and died March 17, 2005.   Both men led lives that would strike most of us as stressful.  Gadamer lived and taught (philosophy) in Germany through two world wars.  George Kennan was one of America’s major experts on Communist Russia.  He worked in Russia for many years and created the strategy that historians view as enabling America to win the Cold War.  So it couldn’t be ‘lack of stress' that caused them to live so long.  It could be said they had “good genes,” but maybe they engaged in the sort of work that caused certain genes to trigger in such a way as to enhance “long life.”  Both men sought to impart "wisdom" to their fellow men.  Could that have something to do with it?
            Anthropologically we know that one of the “survival strategies” of homo sapiens is its old people.  Other species don't need "old people."  Canis Familiaris, the dog, gets by quite nicely living ten to twelve years.  Dog lovers attempt to extend that period, but longer-lived dogs are not important to their survival as a species. 
            Homo sapiens have a different survival strategy.  The family or tribe which could best teach its younger members to find berries and herbs, to make spear points and knives, to make clothing for protection against the cold, and to pass along what some earlier generation learned about cataclysmic occurrences would have a "survival advantage" over a tribe or family which did not have such old people. 
            Genetic studies have shown that genes are not all “fixed.”  Many, perhaps all, are malleable.  If something happens in a certain way a gene will be triggered to change or expand to enable an individual to deal with the event. This is the basis of stem-cell research.  The genetic material in an embryo has not had many "triggers" activated.  So if the untriggered material can replace material that has "triggered" Parkinson's disease, for example, perhaps that disease can be cured. 
            On the other hand, triggers causing our deaths will go off eventually.  No scientist is suggesting that stem-cell research will enable anyone to live forever.  Limited life-spans is also part of homo sapiens' survival strategy.  It was never good for tribes to have too many people.  It took a lot of work back for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to feed an entire tribe.  Tribal members needed to "pull their weight."  If an individual were able and willing to pass on his knowledge to younger people, a gene or genes may have been triggered to enable him or her to live an usually long time.  But if an individual did not carry his weight, or was done performing his or her task, it would be an advantage to the tribe for such individuals to die as soon as possible.  There would be no "survival advantage" to a tribe to support individuals who took but gave nothing back -- even if they made their contribution when they were younger.
            Someone might object to my ruminations by pointing out that teachers live no longer, on average, than anyone else, but do these teachers go on teaching until they die?  Or do they retire from teaching and then die?  In the case of my long-lived examples, they both "taught" by means of their writings and discussions well into advanced age.  They had wisdom they wanted to impart and they kept on imparting it. 
            Of course "natural selection" doesn't guarantee that a given individual will be a certain way.  Even if what I suggest is true and you began "imparting wisdom," that might not give you a longer life -- in less there is a trigger available to all of us.  "Natural selection" occurs over a long period of time, over many generations, to favor certain characteristics and not others.  In this case it may be favoring those best equipped to "pass on wisdom."  
            As opposed to such individuals as Kenan and Gadamer, we all know of people who are in a rush to die.  We know of drug-addicts, alcoholics, and people who have committed suicide.  It seems plausible that there might be triggers to shorten the lives of those who could or would not teach wisdom -- or even carry "their weight" during a normal life-span.  The "wisdom" I have in mind is whatever would comprise the modern equivalent of teaching the young to find berries, make knives and clothing, etc.  
            As to the opposite trigger, the trigger that activates a "short life," I can recall reading about a "personality type" that was prone to develop cancer.  The article suggested that "pessimism" was a chief attribute of this self-destructive cancer-prone personality.  I suspect it will be easier for readers to accept that pessimistic people tend to have shorter-than-average lives than that individuals who have wisdom to impart are enabled to go on imparting that wisdom during longer-than-average lives.
            Last night while falling asleep I tried to think of something in the Beatitudes that would support or oppose these ruminations, but I couldn't.  The Beatitudes are about the process of life -- how to live well, and not about how to live a long time.  We should be concerned about being "merciful," "pure in heart" and "peacemakers," and not about living a long time.  What good would it do us to gain the whole world, as it says some place in the Bible, and lose our souls in the process?  Or, to associate that idea with the subject of Old Age, what good would it do us to live to Old Age if we were not "merciful," "pure in heart" or "peacemakers," etc.?   On the other hand it seems unlikely that people like Kenan and Gadamer could live past 100 if they did not have most of those attributes -- at least it seems so to me -- at the present time -- during these early morning ruminations.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Eternal recurrence versus Progress

            Francis Bremer begins his book The Puritan Experiment with the following: "On 6 February 1566, in the reign of Queen Mary, Bishop John Hooper was brought to Glouchester, the seat of his diocese, where he was burned at the stake."   Are we not tempted to think that sort of thing couldn't happen again, cruelly executing those who oppose the "official religion"?  Surely we have progressed beyond that sort of treatment of those who disagree with us.  But have we?

            We of the West have not thus far repeated the religious wars that ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but we no longer live in the era when we of the West were quite certain that only our opinions and laws mattered to the world.  While we gave up fighting wars amongst ourselves for religious reasons, we found others.  The largest and bloodiest wars this planet has seen began in the West.  To some extent we have exhausted ourselves.  We no longer want to rule the world.   We have opened ourselves up to the multiplicity of the world's cultures.  Who are we to think we have the best ideas, the best ways of doing things when the thing we have been best at is killing each other?  Why not open ourselves up to the other cultures?  Perhaps they can ameliorate our self-destructive tendencies.

            In Europe, more than elsewhere in the West, that "opening up" has brought an influx of people who very much believe in chopping off the heads (an Islamic equivalent to the Christian burning at the stake) of those who don't share their religious belief.  Bat Yeor and Oriana Fallaci have screamed out against what is happening in Europe, but insecure European Leaders aren't willing to emphasize European tradition, European ways of doing things over against Islamic fundamentalism.  Far better, they think, to accept all things, to tolerate all the people (and their views) whom the West dominated in earlier times.  Surely it is good to penitentially accept the bombings, defacements, car-burnings and fatwas.  We in the West deserve to pay for our past sins.  We need to be controlled and limited.  We need to listen to other cultures.

            Let me hasten to say that I don't agree with that popular Leftist view.  While we were killing each other in the West, other cultures were being as blood-thirsty as we were.  We exceeded them only in being more efficient about our killing.  So there is no culture to turn to that is fundamentally different from our own in that respect. 

            I don't subscribe to the Hindu, Nietzschean, or even Mircea Eliade's theories of "eternal recurrence" or "eternal return," but neither do I hold with the Leftist-Pacifistic belief in "progress."  We are not going to resume burning Catholics or Protestants at the stake, but if we allow the Yeor-Fallaci nightmare to take hold, we may very well one day see the equivalent.  We as a species have not "progressed" beyond killing those who disagree with us.  Aside from the fact that we have gone on killing each other for political reasons, the Peace of Westphalia was a kind of truce which "understood" the self-destructiveness of religious wars, but the Islamic world has not signed onto that "peace."  We have diluted our traditional Western Christianity to the point where few are willing to die for it, but that is not the case with the Islamic religion, and European "progress" has opened itself up to that.

            When I was younger I appreciated the Leftist (Marxist) ideal.  It was wonderful to believe that man could "progress" beyond his sins and failures.  All we needed to do was to modify our social circumstances and all men would become brothers.  There would be no need to fight with one another.  Life would be beautiful.  Unfortunately that "ideal" was disproved by events.  Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was not realized in Communist Russia.  What that Socialistic experiment taught those of willing to learn it was that no societal tinkering was going to change human nature.  The evils of National and Soviet Socialism are too well known to need repeating.  Perhaps it is because the European Left realizes that, that it is opening itself to "other cultures."  The Left rejected Liberal Democracy (Capitalism) and embraced Socialism, but when the latter proved to be an unachievable myth they were unwilling to accept, as Francis Fukuyama did in The End of History, the idea that Liberal Democracy would prevail in the world.  Without defining it systematically, these Leftists assumed a sort-of Rousseauean view whereby the simpler cultures of the "Third World" could be looked to as being preferable to our failed Western culture.  To trust in these "Third World" cultures requires more faith than I have.  Better to return to Christianity, which, with a little backbone, could more than oppose the inroads made by Islam in Europe.  Humanity has not "progressed" beyond faith.  It is naive of the Left to accept atheism as enlightened and progressive while at the same time turning to the primitive or at least less-well-developed views of Third World Cultures.  Far better, in my view, to mine our own Western Culture for what we need.

            I am arguing here that the Leftist "Progressives" are not moving in directions that will be good for those of us who live in the West.  Let other cultures develop as they will but we in the West should not be so willing to abandon our own.  Heidegger urged us to seek "authentication" in our own cultures.  This doesn't mean that we should embrace our entire past.  We should learn from our mistakes and strive not to repeat them, but at the same time we should value our successes.  To look only at the mistakes -- as anarchists like Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill are wont to do -- feeds the sick Western tendency toward self-flagellation.  "Who can save me from this body of sin and death?"   And with low-hanging branches they, the Chomsky flagellants, whip their own backs and are willing to lie down before any third-worlder willing to step on them.

            I have yet to read a systematic description of this Leftist Progress but there is the distinct smell of burning flesh in all that I have heard them say.


Monday, July 19, 2010

RE: Ridgebacks in a dry and arid land.

allard has left the following comment in response to  "Ridgebacks in a dry and arid land":

            Lawrence, I enjoyed the vignette of you and the dogs on a hot night in the urban wilderness. I say 'urban,' because it's rare to find Poe and Cheever in the wild——although who knows?——there are probably dozens of copies of Paradise Lost at the Everest Base Camp.
            In the 1980's we had a Bouvier; they're large, sturdy dogs with tough, protective coats which allow them to stay out in the cold and guard sheep and cattle, although these days there's really not much for them to do except sleep on their owners' beds.
            We then had two Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, the oldest of whom died in 2008, at the age of fifteen years and six months. Wheatens have abundant, silky coats, and they do well in the cold, but do not thrive when the temperature nears 80. Then they mostly lie on the cool tile floor and zone out.
            I'd imagine Ridgebacks, because of their origins would do better in hot weather than would most breeds, but you and your dogs seem to have a healthy sense of prudence.



            LAWRENCE'S RESPONSE:  There is plausible evidence that homo sapiens and canis familiaris evolved together in a symbiotic relationship.   I read recently that canis familiaris has the most malleable of any genome.  In a very few generations we can create a new breed for a wide variety of purposes.  In recent times, as you indicated, the chief quality we desire is someone to "sleep on [our] beds" or "mostly lie on the cool tile floor and zone out." 

            A humorist a few years ago defined the dog as the most successful "parasite" that has ever lived.  He chews up our shoes, poops on our floor, keeps us awake with his barking, humps the legs of our guests and in return we feed him by hand, pay for his medical expenses, walk him when he wants, and feed him better quality food than we eat ourselves.  As a "survival strategy" the dog's is second only to our own.  Those who argue that the cat's is just as good should recall that only when man settled into towns and began storing grain did the rat-killing-cat become important.  But for eons before that the dog travelled with our hunter-gatherer ancestors on hunts, guarded the women and children when they went a-berry picking and guarded our camps at night.  The cat might be better at lying on our beds and lying on the cool tile floors of present-day man, but the dog can still do a variety of jobs and if mankind's situation changes, the dog will change with it.  Whether the will make the adjustment is more problematic. 

            Yes, the Ridgeback is better in hot weather than most other breeds.  I'd like to claim that I selected this breed for that reason, but the truth is that my wife selected the Ridgeback years ago because she liked its looks and personality.  That seems to be the way most modern people choose breeds.  While it would make better sense to choose a breed that suits our circumstances, most of us choose breeds reasons similar to my wife's. 

            Then, being in a symbiotic relationship, we accommodate our lifestyle to whatever breed it is that we have.   If we have an Airedale and live in the desert then we buy clippers and keep him shorn.  If we have a heavy-coated breed that doesn't lend itself to clipping, we make sure that our dog can stay in an air-conditioned room during hot weather. 

            It does seem as though the Ridgeback is ideally suited to my present lifestyle.  My girls keep quiet when I am reading.  They are large and off-putting to any potential muggers or robbers.  They can hike as long as I can down at the river.  And if we happen to discover that we are out in a day that is too hot or too cold, they can make it back to the Jeep as well as I can.  But it isn't clear to me whether I chose the dogs to fit my present lifestyle or my lifestyle to fit my dogs. 

            Before we got our first Ridgeback I had a sail boat and spent a lot of time free-diving.  I thought that if I ever got a dog it would be something like a Portuguese Water Dog.   But then Susan selected the Rhodesian Ridgeback and my plans changed.  I tried our first Ridgeback on my boat and he hated it.  He puked in the cockpit and skidded about on the decks.  I worried that he would slide overboard in any but the mildest weather.  I could have retired close enough to the sea to continue sailing and diving but instead I moved to a region much better suited to the Rhodesian Ridgeback.  Our weather here in San Jacinto isn't terribly different from the weather where this breed was developed. 

            I'm not complaining.  Maintaining a sailboat takes a lot of work.  I was glad to be free of it.  When it was time to retire, Susan and I considered a lot of different places and finally chose San Jacinto . . . sort of.



Friday, July 16, 2010

Ridgebacks in a dry and arid land

            Yesterday afternoon the sky darkened and the wind whipped the trees in my backyard.  I checked the weather.  The temperature was 100 degrees but thundershowers were expected.  A storm was coming toward us from the south.  I walked into the back yard.  The wind lessened the effect of the heat; so I decided to go to take the girls to the river.  I hated the idea of not being able to go down there until the weather cools off in October.

            By the time we got to there the wind had died.  I checked the tops of the trees as I parked and they were dead still.  I decided to walk to the other side of the river and get up on the service road.  It is higher than the river so if there was any breeze it would be sure to hit us there, but when we got there I couldn't feel any breeze at all.

            Well, I thought, if this wasn't to be an enjoyable adventure in high winds I could at least make it a test.  We were at the river on an extremely hot day.  Perhaps we could handle it.  Perhaps we didn't need to wait until October.  Perhaps we could go down there in the late afternoons of our hot months.

            The insects attacked us enthusiastically.  There was no waving them away.  I sprayed my head and arms with Ben's 30 Wilderness Formula and then I sprayed the girls.  They have never liked being sprayed with insect repellant, but they stood quietly and let me do it this time. 

            There was no relief from the heat.  We breathed in hot air.  I was prepared to turn back if the girls showed any discomfort but they seemed fine, running down into the river from time to time to check the bushes.  If it looked like they were eating anything I flung stones near them to get their attention and yelled for them to get back up onto the service road.

            I decided to limit our round trip to about 70 minutes.  That would be a respectable work out on a cool day, if the girls had a chance to chase a few rabbits; who yesterday were probably all down in their burrows where it was cool.  Typically we would stop half way and have some water before we turned back.  Sage would invariably take very little.  Sometimes she would be so interested in other things in the river that she wouldn't even drink, but she was different yesterday.  She thirstily drank her share and would have drunk more had I poured it for her.

            On the way back Ginger was the first to show signs of being affected by the heat.  She lay down on the service road.  She only needed a few seconds -- or else she discovered that the road was too hot to lie on -- in any case that was the only time she tried to lie down.  Sage never actually stopped or stopped checking bushes on either side of the service road.  She easily kept pace with Ginger who lagged behind me.

             I stopped frequently to look back at them and could see in the distance beyond them a thunderstorm coming with flashes of lightning.

            At last we got to a good place for climbing down off the service road and headed back toward the Jeep.  I saw that we'd be going through a new pile of junk.  I normally rage at the river junk, but the heat had sapped most of the rage out of me.  I saw the familiar face of Edgar Allan Poe lying on the ground.  I picked up the book which looked in better condition than my recently purchased copy of John Cheever's short stories.  Inside the front cover was a stamp indicating the book came from the "Lib/Media Center, Middle School, Junction City, Kansas." Is that where these junk-strewing slobs came from?  Had they filled Junction City so full of trash that they needed a new town to befoul?  

            Another stamp identified the book as "7th Reading Level" and a third read "10th Reading Level."  What did those latter stamps mean?  I lost my copy of Poe long ago and wouldn't mind keeping this one, but not if Poe's stories had been dumbed down for Junction City retards.  The book took my attention off the heat and almost off the Junction City trash the rest of the way back to the Jeep.   I could see no evidence that it had been bowdlerized. 

            Later, back in the cool of my study the girls lay panting on the floor while I took a shower.  The shower helped a little but my head throbbed and I felt a bit queasy.  The girls finally quit panting but they didn't appear to be peacefully napping.  They missed their normal dinner time, but I wasn't going to feed them until they were ready.  Several hours later Sage came up to me and indicated that they were ready.

            In evaluating our "test," I concluded that we had failed.  Hiking in 100 degree heat with no wind was probably more taxing than was good for us.

            This morning I read the New York Times Article, "Arid Australia Sips Seawater, but at a Cost.": .  Australia barely has enough water for the 22 million people that live there.  Analysts predict that the population will rise to 36 million by 2050 so the Australian government is building desalination plants to be ready for them.  Not all Australians are happy with this plan.  Some think that 22 million people quite enough for that arid land.  Others think that rain water can be captured and waste water recycled more efficiently.  Visions of Herbert's Dune come to mind. 

            The writer of the article wrote, "Until a few years ago, most of the world’s large-scale desalination plants were in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, though water scarcity is changing that. In the United States, where only one major plant is running, in Tampa Bay, officials are moving forward on proposed facilities in California and Texas, said Tom Pankratz, a director of the International Desalination Association, based in Topsfield, Mass. China, which recently opened its biggest desalination plant, in Tianjin, could eventually overtake Saudi Arabia as the world leader, he said."  

            Desalination plants in California?  We could use a few in Southern California.  Australia thinks 22,000,000 people quite enough for their 2,967,909 square miles.  California, on the other hand has 43,473,597 people living in only 163,707 square miles.   Of course these lands were not created equal.  Californian has more advantages than Australia does -- perhaps even more than Japan which has 127,430,000 people living in 145,925 square miles.  I just wish that the new arrivals would quit dumping their junk in my river.