Monday, December 7, 2009

Striving after the Wind

The book Ecclesiastes speaks of the vanity of vanities. It speaks of striving after wind--this beats spitting into the wind, let alone Richard Rorty's pissing in the wind. Rorty would have it that all modes of community (or solidarity) are mere contingent piss winds. Rorty is so bleak that it is not the old joke that you can't tell me it's raining when you are pissing on my leg. Rather, given the fortuitousness of everything that one holds dear "all the way down," one should be as lucky to have someone or anyone pissing on one's leg because otherwise it is mere rain. It is simply wet, and it is from the sky--why question it? Rorty leads one to the assertion, "please piss on my leg and let me know my life matters." Unfortunately he tells you that piss is merely rain. This sounds like President Obama's policies--a rain that feels like piss. Vanity of vanities indeed!

So let's stick with the Ecclesiastes motif--it is much more profound (or at least more ancient) than Rorty--let alone Obama. You may think that in mentioning Ecclesiastes (or Qoholet to be more precise) I'm in tune with the Pete Seeger a la the Byrds version of turn, turn, turn. However, I must say that this song (as beautiful as it it is) is the most asinine version of Ecclesiastes ever. In Ecclesiastes, God does not give two shits whether it rains or whether we hug each other. There is no Obama style (or Jim Wallis style) social gospel gotta help out the poor with more state action theology here. Rather, there is an understanding that God does not care for anyone or everyone. In this theology we're all too poor. It is a natural theology that says the world is indifferent and that that is the way God made it.

Now one may think such divine indifference is grounds for our own rebellion against it--and what power this rebellion has shown indeed. If God does not provide then we can provide for ourselves. Modern thinkers as diverse as Bacon and Locke and Marx speak of the ability of us humans to make for ourselves what nature does not provide--including the ability to make ourselves. Allegedly, we can make a world where we are no longer subject to the arbitrariness of nature or the vicissitudes of history. It will be a world where we are fully at home, and its progress cannot end until we are there (wherever "there" may be--even if we've come a long way).

Nowadays we in the West--individuals who are ensconced in a middle class life--live into our eighties. That is, we live this long if we don't smoke or drink too much. We conquer diseases left and right, and with biotechnology who can say what the limits of human ingenuity can make? But for what end? Why do we (some of us) continue to drink and smoke too much? It must be a disease that science can conquer because we know (as studies show) that no one finds happiness in booze or tobacco. However I remember one of Walker Percy's more beguiling questions in Lost in the Cosmos regarding why people take drugs, and one of his more interesting answers, viz. life is painful and at times exceedingly boring, and drugs make you feel better. Life is hard and confusing, filled with pain and failure, and drugs at least offer a relief from such a blunt monotony.

Perhaps the pursuit of happiness has no definition other than what human happiness makes for itself. I have friends who find happiness in monastic tranquility, others who find it in exploring (and testing) the boundaries of conventional morality, and still others who (Ismene-like) say you better find your pleasure in the ordinary limits or else you will pay too much with suffering. Each and every way has its peculiar nobility, but who's to say what is best? Surely there is some version of the noble human life that is beyond the relativistic answers. However, it is surely not found in the answer of a science which cannot provide a notion of the good other than a power that consists in the continual overcoming of endless discovery.

I remember working with an Irish doctor (proud of his Irishness) who had never read James Joyce. I was reading The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and he thought it was silly to waste my time in such nonsense. He thought that reading such particular visions of the whole from a real basis was nonsense--even if that peculiarity was shared with his own Irishness. It had nothing to do with science which was the cosmopolitan language which allowed him to move from Ireland to Galveston, Texas and beyond. Nonetheless, I think James Joyce dealt with questions this "idiot" doctor could never deal with. This doctor told me that he desired to live to 100 years old--that was his sole ambition. The true meaning of mortality, however, was how that issue alone makes itself felt in an individual life. This doctor meant a lot to me (as a negative example), but his decision in terms of scientific and technological prowess and my decision in terms of reading Joyce seemed to presuppose some sort of shared community. One can strive to live forever, but then one can never live a full human life in terms of excellence. His community was life at all costs, and mine had to do with a life worth living. Strangely enough, his life and the way he lived it was one that seemed worth living to me in my bookish youth.

What does this have to do with President Obama (since I mentioned him earlier)? Everything. In domestic policy, he offers health care without any striving for the bare life beyond itself. He wants a life administered by experts from beginning to end. Life at all costs is worth living because death is the worst thing that can happen. However, in foreign policy, he puts up for risk several thousand lives in Afghanistan in a manner that precludes any victory. Steering between his left and right he offers a mere striving for striving's sake. He has no problem leading soldiers to their death in a calculus that seems to be equalized with his health care program.

Of course, none of this ultimately has anything to do with President Obama. It has everything to do with my own loneliness and its inability to reach outside of itself.

Ecclesisates speaks of an indifferent God--ineffable, if not absent from one's own life. To be sure, this revelation needs to be coupled with many other versions (e.g., Job, Song of Songs, the entirety of the New Testament), but in its own inevitability it cannot be denied.

I suppose I should end this post with a reference from "pop culture," and a band with the appropriate name, The Primitives. In their song "Crash" they sing--"Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na, Slow down you're gonna crash." See here.

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