Much writing today appears to be produced by people who do not yet know they are going to die — who have not yet met Ivan Ilyich or Ivan Illich, neither Tolstoy’s unhappy protagonist nor the author of Medical Nemesis (1974). Their writing looks more like tagging than anything — notification of the author’s present life. Another way of saying the same thing, practically, is to note that most writing today is SEO’d, and has no life at all if it is not boosted and pumped by its author on social media. “So I wrote a thing,” a young author will say when providing a link, differing little in spirit and ambition than those illocutionary classics, “Kilroy Was Here”, or “Snorri [made] this hammer”. Often it seems that it is not the writing itself, but the tweet promoting the writing, that is the goal, just as now it is common to go to Iceland, say, primarily in anticipation of how this is going to look on Instagram. One thing about turning fifty is that it gets a lot harder to think of work in that way, as the activity that establishes us in life, rather than as the effort, inevitably imperfect, to create a faithful image while there is still time of the layout of one’s condemned interior castle.Justin E. H. Smith’s Substack, 07/26/2022
If polls are to be believed (let's assume, in this case, they are), Americans have a complicated relationship with, say, abortion. They don't want Roe vs. Wade to be overturned, though perhaps many don't quite grasp what it would mean. But they also support some restrictions on abortion that are not legal under Roe. Basically, the majority of people in our country want abortion to be legal during the first trimester, and restricted after that.
This doesn't, when you put it that way, sound all that complicated at all. It sounds almost reasonable, except to those partisans on both side who equate reasonableness with the great evil of compromise. (Why legal in the first trimester, if abortion is murder? Why illegal in the second, if it isn't?)
These partisans — some might even term them "elites" though that seems like a genuine misunderstanding of the word — have decided that complexity is mere inconsistency, and they hate inconsistency, except when it serves their purpose to be so (which is pretty much all the time, though they won't admit it). Whatever our opponents believe, we believe the opposite (even if we believed the opposite ourselves until very recently), and we are so committed to our opposing belief because it is so simple, so obvious, so uncomplicatedly true that they are wrong and we are right.
Most of us still live (for now) in a murkier, more complex world. On most issues we find ourselves empathetic to real people caught up in real world situations, which is why those partisan "elites" try so hard to distract us from specifics by turning everything into abstractions. It's easier to hate someone in the abstract, and you can't destroy someone you don't hate.
Christians, of all political persuasions, should understand that people are human beings, not abstractions, since that is how we are called to relate to and love them. We should also be comfortable with complexity. Our faith, after all, is a profound mystery; there is nothing simple about Christian truth. (Years ago, returning to the church and wrestling with faith, I honestly believed that the resurrection was a "beautiful metaphor" and then quickly realized that, actually, it's a terrible metaphor; there are a million possible better, more appropriate metaphors; and in fact it is the complexity of the resurrection and its implications that led me to embrace its truth.)
Unfortunately, too many Christians these days have traded the beauty of mystery for an ugly certainty, and the power of compassion for the cowardice of power.
The great sorting of the last several years reminds me of the Gravitron, that circular amusement park ride in which everyone rests against a padded wall. When the room begins to spin, the centrifugal force pushes everyone back against the wall with such power that one can't step away from the wall and into the center, toward those on the other side, even if one wishes to.
Eventually, everyone gets sick.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,John Updike
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Currently reading Justin E. H. Smith's The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, a couple of quotes:
"It is common now to read on the Internet accounts of human action that model it on artificial systems and that have no other resources for conceiving human motivation than those borrowed from programming, even when what is at issue is human moral failure … Such reduction of others to a sort of program is the flip side of what we have already identified as 'presenting as a brand,' and both are expressions of the more general problem of what we may call 'algorithm creep': the tendency to see an ever broader portion of the world, and even to see ourselves, on the model of the algorithms that run our new technologies … "
"Social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are, in the end, video games, and so is LinkedIn, and so is ResearchGate. The social-media platform I know best, Twitter, has slowly revealed its video game nature to me as I have become more familiar with it. Twitter is a video game in which you start as a mere 'reply guy,' and the goal is to work your way up to the rank of at least a 'microinfluencer' by developing strategies to unlock rewards that result in increased engagement with your posts, thereby accruing you more 'points' in the form of followers. Conversely … Fortnite and other such massively multiplayer first-person-shooter video games are also, inter alia, social-media platforms … The programming is fundamentally the same, but with different graphics. And together, all of these platforms are contributing to the gamification of social reality …"
So as I'm sure you know, the Senate quickly passed — unanimously, mind you; unanimously — a bill that would render Daylight Savings Time permanent. Now, all specifics aside, I think one should quake in terror at the prospect of pretty much any legislation that would rapidly pass a current chamber of Congress without any opposition. One can safely assume that whatever the topic and whatever the legislation's intended consequences, the unintended ones will be monstrous. (UPDATE: The fact that this particular legislation appears to have passed due more to incompetence than malevolence is not, um, any more reassuring.)
Obviously, that is the case with this bill, which threatens the entire country with dark winter mornings and will, in about nine or ten months, provoke a hue and cry from parents and early morning workers that will likely dwarf the current iteration of culture wars. After all, that's exactly what happened in 1974, when we first tried this experiment.
I was four years old in 1974, so I have no firsthand memory of it, but I'm a little surprised that I either had never learned of it, or (more likely) had once heard about it but, until the current controversy, had forgotten about it. It's a perfect example of how we, as humans, can't really be expected to learn from history because we don't even learn from our own lived past. I mean, 1974 wasn't that long ago — Joe Biden was in the Senate!
Alan Jacobs is on fire today in a blog post that explains why we get grumpy as we age: because we keep experiencing the same damn things over and over, and not only does nobody else learn from them, nobody else even seems to remember that they already happened.
He goes on not only to diagnose the problem — not the repetition itself, but our response to it, which is usually either increasing frustration or a nihilistic detachment — but to propose a cure, of sorts. It's certainly not a quick-fix solution but perhaps the only one we have, to seek a detachment that is not based in being an asshole but in finding peace:
"The first step, I guess, is to know what the Bible teaches, what the Lord commands of us. The second step is to understand that if I can shame and silence my neighbor with a Bible verse but have not love, I am no better than a clanging cymbal. The third step, the terrifying step, is to hold my tongue until I can love the Troy Chathams in my life."
“The great hypocrisy of our skeptical age is that its greatest moral accomplishment — a moral vision founded upon universal human rights — depends on enchantment, a belief in the sacred character of human beings and life. No scientific equation or empirical test reveals this truth to us. The inviolate dignity of human persons doesn’t show up in petri dishes, brain scans, or Hubble space photographs. Our shared belief in the sacred value of human beings is not a factual, empirical, testable, observable, data-driven claim. Our dignity is an enchantment, the ghost of God still haunting the machine, and it’s the bit of supernaturalism that keeps the secular world from tipping into the moral abyss.”Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eels
Some folks who make it through life-threatening experiences like a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis and its subsequent treatment think of themselves as having "learned something" about life, mortality, etc. Many of them are eager to share this wisdom.
I'm not one of those people. I have no idea what I learned from the experience itself (though I have lots of informed opinions now about cancer treatment and medical institutions, which I probably won't share in this space). Perhaps someday I'll figure it out.
However, a link included in a blog post from Alan Jacobs did remind me of one thing I learned about myself after being advised by two leading cancer centers that my tumors were inoperable (fortunately, they were wrong — again, I have opinions). At the time, I prepared for what seemed inevitable (and is, of course, for us all) by granting medical power of attorney to my husband, but I decided against developing an "advanced medical directive" — a document that outlines all of the various ways one might find oneself in a non-responsive state and what one would like done about it.
Many people believe that filling out these forms is a way to alleviate the burden on your loved ones, to save them from having to make a decision to, as Elaine Benes said, "yank [the plug] like you're starting a mower." As I contemplated the fill-in-the-blank directive template — a Mad Lib of mortality — I realized two things:
- One, there would be little point to marriage if it didn't involve burdening each other; we are all burdens every day to those we truly love, hopefully joyous and loving burdens (if occasionally irritable).
- And two, completing that form felt too much like I was trying to falsely bolster a sense of control over something which I had already learned would always be outside of my control — namely, my life. (Ok, so maybe I did "learn something" from my experience — but admitting that "we cannot actually control anything and should stop trying so hard" doesn't seem like the sort of feel-good lesson most people seek from their cancer-having friends.)
I'm an extremely fortunate person to have met and fallen in love and chosen to share my life (to its end) with someone I can trust to accept that burden, as horrible as it would be for him, just as he could burden me with the same. Others, I know, have different experiences, different lives, and I'm sure that detailed advance medical directives may be the right choice for many individuals.
Anyway, I thought of all that this morning when I followed a link from Jacobs' post to an article from Gilbert Meilaender and found that he summed up my own thoughts better than I can:
"I hope, therefore, that I will have the good sense to empower my wife, while she is able, to make such decisions for me—though I know full well that we do not always agree about what is the best care in end-of-life circumstances. That disagreement doesn’t bother me at all. As long as she avoids the futile question, 'What would he have wanted?' and contents herself with the (difficult enough) question, 'What is best for him now?' I will have no quarrel with her. Moreover, this approach is, I think, less likely to encourage her to make the moral mistake of asking, 'Is his life a benefit to him (i.e., a life worth living)?' and more likely to encourage her to ask, 'What can we do to benefit the life he still has?' No doubt this will be a burden to her. No doubt she will bear the burden better than I would. No doubt it will be only the last in a long history of burdens she has borne for me. But then, mystery and continuous miracle that it is, she loves me. And because she does, I must of course be a burden to her."
Phil Christman interviews the prodigious Adam Roberts — classics scholar, parodist, translator, award-winning author of science fiction. At one point Roberts notes that the "grandiose and hyperbolic melodrama" of which many of us are enamored, even addicted, is false, in terms of its relationship to actual life, and perhaps unnecessary. He says:
… no gigantic space explosion or earthquake or collectively vast hideously beweaponed battlecruisers the size of moons can capture the intensities occasioned by the quiddities of ordinary living … It’s what Chesterton says: the two great human dramatic stabs are mortality and ridiculousness: every (wo)man is tragic in that they have to die; every (wo)man is comic if their hat blows off and they have to chase after it down street.
Lately I've been thinking about melodrama, its demands on our imagination, and how those demands seep from the dream-space of content consumption into our waking lives. It's true that the dullest of human lives contain all the tragedy and comedy necessary for meaningful drama, but it doesn't feel true, does it?
I think Roberts undersells the addiction aspect, at least in this brief snippet of his thought (perhaps he delves more into the concept elsewhere). We crave the "big stuff" of explosions and post-apocalyptic struggle, and we need each spectacle to out-pace the previous one. That's what we get in a world where content choices have exploded, along with the budgets and technologies that make each movie or dystopian TV show seem so much cooler than the last one, at least until it is quickly forgotten. Streaming is the heroin of popular culture.
This particular addiction is to an experience, not a substance. Science fiction tropes have long warned us of the dangers of artificial entertainment becoming so lifelike and all-consuming — the "metaverse" of lore — that we lose ourselves inside a fantasyland, becoming brains in jars or, at least, heads in VR helmets. Perhaps someday that will be a concern, but so far it seems that instead we have become so bored by the real world that we are remaking it into one more similar to the "grandiose and hyperbolic melodramas" of popular culture. Conspiracies, villains, the conviction that those who think like us are "good" and that our political opponents are not misguided or wrong, but literally "evil." We turn school board elections into apocalyptic showdowns and fail to notice the absurdity.
Then, when something actually evil happens — like the literally evil invasion of Ukraine by Putin's Russia — instead of mourning the tragic turn while hunkering down as a society to do the hard work of defeating, or at least containing, that evil, many of us simply treat it like another cultural spectacle. Sitting senators (!) call for assassinations like a moviegoer loudly offering advice to the characters on screen. Some pundits (idiots) gustily root for a shooting war between the USA and nuclear Russia. (Other pundits, also idiots, claim "the real totalitarianism" can be found in American COVID-19 restrictions.)
The "real world" is a dangerous and deadly place, full of stubborn sinners (aka people like me, and you). While those of us in the West cling to our smartphones and share our expert opinions on everything and nothing, people in other countries, such as Ukraine and Yemen, are hungry, dying, brutalized, experiencing actual oppression and siege.
And we (at least in terms of Ukraine) treat it like we are watching a movie, instead of an evil war of aggression that should be managed carefully and diplomatically by those of us on the outside so as to avoid the escalated spectacle of a nuclear conflict. No, we don't recognize ourselves as actual players cheering for the doom of civilization, but as an audience demanding more, bigger, more, now.
It's enough to make one think that Chesterton might have been right for his time but wrong in ours, that now there is only one "human dramatic stab" because we have managed to turn mortality into something ridiculous.
Postscript: Adam Roberts has long been on my list of "authors I need to read but haven't yet," and Christman's interview sent him straight to the top. I'll decide on which of his works to start soon. But I don't want anyone to think based on this blog post that I'm claiming any sort of familiarity with Roberts' work in general.
Saunders writes of Tolstoy's "Master and Man" in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:
"Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.
"What a relief this model of transformation is. What else do we have but what we are born with and have always, thus far, been served (and imprisoned) by? Say you're a world class worrier. If that worry energy gets directed at extreme personal hygiene, you're 'neurotic.' If it gets directed at climate change, you're an 'intense visionary activist.'
"We don't have to become an entirely new person to do better; our view just has to be readjusted, our natural energy turned in the right direction. We don't have to swear off our powers or repent of who we are or what we like to do or are good at doing. Those are our horses; we just have to hitch them to the right, uh, sled."
You don’t need to watch Succession (I don’t) to get what Brandon Taylor is saying:
“I don’t think that things necessarily need to justify their existence. I mean, if you enjoy something, that is enough. Surely. But the more I watch Succession, the more I feel like, what is the point to all of this. We are just watching. And sometimes we feel as we watch. But mostly, we are just watching. But does it tell us something that we do not already know? Does it reveal anything? Does it force us to see anew something we missed? Does it refine or deepen our feeling for what it is to be alive? Or is it just, I don’t know, shadows dancing on the wall?”