Notes on the Human Condition and Its Expression

Earth is a human planet (for now – it wasn’t always one), home to the human condition, of which there is (as far as we know) only one. There may be other human heavenly bodies, but it seems unlikely, given the diversity of life and the size of the universe. Life elsewhere probably won’t appear like life here. Anyway, on Earth, humans enjoy symbiotic relationships with other forms of life, animal and plant. It’s a lively place, teeming and seething and awash with plasma and chlorophyll. Not all the symbiotic relationships are necessarily mutually beneficial. Things feed, often giving nothing back. Nothing new here.

The human condition remains hidden under cakes of cosmetics. Born with no name, it hides from its own ignominy. It can’t show itself except through indirect expression. It cancels itself out, no remainder.

Humans spend vital energy and expense denying themselves and others their human condition. Denying oneself the proper fit of one’s human condition seems to be its X factor. One opposes others their human condition in an effort to abjure any knowledge of it in oneself. “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew” (Matthew 26:74 KJV). That rebuttal is how metaphor is created – language at all, really. We never quite seem to know what something actually is, only what that something is like. What is it like to be human, and why do we go to such pains to avoid it?

An electrician I brought in to help on a project, working along side him, pigeon-holed me as some sort of believer, when the subject of the human condition came up, and said he doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see or measure. Fair enough. Seems an odd line for an electrician to hold, though. I seem to be a magnet for these kinds of discussions.

There is at least one absolute fact of the human condition: we are not alone. Try as we might, we can’t get rid ourselves of others. And, no matter how much we might try to get away from ourselves, we always wind up where we started.

Look a little closer and you’ll see the human body a planet plays host to billions of myriad creatures, inside and out, enough bacteria in the big bang of a single sneeze to begin a new universe. And we swap spit. Begin the Beguine. The human condition is a merry-go-round dance.

Scarcity – Musical Chairs. After losing his daughter, on the brink of suicide, Buckminster Fuller proves scarcity a fallacy solvable through technological evolution and equitable distribution (see “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth”).

Scare City, politics of fear, your other is out to get you. Better out them before they out you. Fuller offers examples of the difference between mind and brain. Mind is a characteristic of the human condition. Mind is universal; brain is local.

Jesus was a perfect naked expression of the human condition: nakod, nudus, nagna: unadorned, vulnerable, reckless, and rash. The Church has kept itself in business for 2,000 years dressing him up, confusing virtue with penance and desire.

“Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 14:26 KJV).

The expression of the human condition is found in sacrifice and altruistic behavior, in non-competitive endurance. What is called character, as in ethos appropriate to its subject, by which is meant integrity, honor, or right values, is yet another dressing for the human condition, a dressing of privilege. Character wears a suit and tie; but it as often wears motley.

Samuel Beckett expressed through text and drama the human condition in a bare form. And Beckett showed that a sense of humor is an important characteristic of the human condition, as he helped develop the tragicomedy, where literature becomes a striptease down to the human condition.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 I was a kid listening to the adults talking things over. My parents and their friends, mostly other parish members, were teenagers during World War Two, or a touch older and had served in the military or had watched others leave and knew some would not come back. They remembered listening to the war news evenings on the radio, in newsreels at the movie theater, weekend matinees. They experienced shortages, rations, and new factory jobs. They knew what atomic weapons were, heard when they dropped. They read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the newspaper. It was not reasonable to deny the possibility of their use again. Someone said we were lucky to be in Los Angeles, about as far away from Cuba as you could get in the US. Someone else said the spreading radiation could be worse, first like a sunburn that doesn’t show up until you’re back from the beach, then your skin is on fire, then more than skin, deep dark blistering blubber oozing juice and falling off the bones like a pig just out of the rock pit. It might be better to have the bomb land right on top of you. Out like a popped zit, a local teen quipped, for which he got a smack, but the adult with his pig went free. Being working class Catholics, they had all of course voted and prayed for Kennedy. One of them mentioned the US missiles in Italy and Turkey and a good old fashioned argument erupted that ended with beers and barbecued burgers and dogs and beans and hugs all around and the women and youngest kids inside praying the rosary while the men and older kids sat out with beers and smoked and talked about work for the week. I was an age where I could have stayed for the rosary or hung out with the men, but I was not invited to comment either place. I could wander off for an hour or two and no one would notice. A long seven years later I would reluctantly be wearing an Army uniform.

A uniform is another disguise of the human condition. When two opposing soldiers wearing different uniforms meet, they still share the same human condition, but they wear different masks of it, show different expressions of it. The human condition then becomes the universal code by which we accept our commonality, or shared features and attributes, our shared similar virtues.

Virtues are unlike values. Values are locally defined and ritualized. When a particular value is removed from the locality of its origin, it may cease to be of much use. (The poet Robert Creeley said, “Ritual removed from its place of origin loses meaning.” Values may also be fake or faked, as in “Good Country People,” or “Good Family Values,” platitudes or propaganda that when examined closely and all assumptions and presuppositions exposed are found to be hollow terms or labels of disguise.) Virtues are universal. Kindness, humility, love, forgiveness, patience, endurance – these are virtues. They transcend the local masks and express the human condition found worldwide. In virtues we recognize the human condition as a universal reality. It is on the basis of that recognition that rules of engagement and war are created and adhered to. It is on the basis of that recognition that torture is made universally criminal. It is on the basis of that recognition that cooperation, the same cooperation that is seen functioning on the altruistic cellular level (see E. O. Wilson, who has now suggested the gene is not characterized by selfishness, but by cooperation, thus questioning ideas based on survival of the strongest, the populist, or the nativist) is understood to be more important than competition.

There is no guarantee the human condition will endure. It could morph into something new and different. It could be destroyed completely.

There are incentives and rewards to living a life of values, membership in a group, for example, even if one only makes a pretense to sharing the values of the group, or misuses or reinterprets the values in a way that undermines their original purposes. There is no incentive to live a virtuous life.

Tolerance is not a virtue. Tolerance may be a value, in as much as it’s better than intolerance, but to tolerate is not to accept. Tolerance anesthetizes, as intolerance attempts to persecute or destroy differences. Acceptance is the virtue, and is far more difficult than tolerance.

It’s not enough to acknowledge the human condition in another. One must recognize the human condition of another as the same as one’s own human condition. No differences. We must continue to search for ever lower common denominators than are indicated in a comparison of values.

The Golden Rule is subverted by self-loathing. How can one love another as one’s self if one does not love one’s self? Loving one’s self means accepting one’s human condition, and accepting one’s human condition means accepting that one shares that condition with everyone else, whether or not you feel you share the same values, beliefs, or goals as the other. Yet, paradoxically, it might be possible to hate one’s self while loving another? Enter, unrequited love.

Is self-loathing simply a severe form of poor self image? Vices pander to the poor self imaged. Vices are masks, escapes from self loathing, medications. Virtues are the outward expression of the human condition. The virtuous accepts that self-loathing may also be a characteristic of the human condition in the sense that all masks show a human in hiding, a fugitive from self truth.

Is there a need for virtuous living? No. And, as said, there is no guarantee that the human condition will endure. Maybe it will continue to evolve or morph into something that doesn’t at all recognize virtue, but we could scarcely then call it human as we now define humanity (humanity as in, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”).

It’s difficult to agree upon values, what’s of value. It can be difficult adhering to one’s values, even as one embraces them as right. Anyone can be virtuous, at any time. Virtues are often worthless, no exchange, no stock value. The Church’s idea of indulgences makes a mockery of virtue, tries to capitalize on the essential worthlessness (in the existential sense) of the human condition.

Virtue requires action. Virtue is a verb. Value does not require action. One easily plays one’s values close to the vest. Value is desire. What we want. Even when it’s not good for us. Values are never satisfied.

Cruelty is a mask of self-loathing. If you would torture another, you are simply a sadist. Cruelty is a vice.

Character as a value has local limits. Masks are local. If virtue is character, it must be universal.

How to build a universal character?

We may think we love the human condition, but it does not reciprocate. The human condition is the lipstick on the toilet paper. Value is the lipstick on the lips.

Metaphor is often not helpful, but what is the lowest common denominator of the human condition? Are there virtues, selfless acts of sacrifice that ask for and indeed achieve practically nothing? Where do these virtues come from, and where are they going? How are they expressed, if at all?

Some Bibliography

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2006; 2007, Norton paperback. For Appiah, cosmopolitanism is the effort to learn to live together in a global society that recognizes and accepts differences while working on a shared basis of a universal sense of right and wrong that works toward the benefit of all. Appiah writes as a philosopher, which means he insists on logic, reasonableness, the unpacking of what we might do separated from why we might do it (because, as he points out, we might often agree to do the same thing but for different reasons). I am not a philosopher, and in my writing, I make no such distinctions. I’m afraid I’m a packer, not an unpacker, at heart, or by temperament. Likewise, Appiah is a scholar and academic, and follows the conventions of academic argument. As a rule, I do not follow any such conventions.

A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Andre Comte-Sponville, 1996 (Petit Traite des Grandes Vertus); First Owl Books Edition 2002 (with the added subtitle, “the uses of philosophy in everyday life”). Comte-Sponville describes, defines, and discusses the following virtues in this order, a chapter devoted to each: Politeness, Fidelity, Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Generosity, Compassion, Mercy, Gratitude, Humility, Simplicity, Tolerance, Purity, Gentleness, Good Faith, Humor, Love. Readers might find it difficult distinguishing between values and virtues, or how being polite somehow might compare with being in love.

E. O. Wilson: I’ve written several posts with references to Wilson. I was initially more interested in the questions of peer review, but I’ve since given up hope there – as far as peer review establishing or ensuring any kind of so-called scholarly credibility. Though I still recognize the importance of following conventions in order to participate in practical, fruitful argument, the throwing off of certain academic conventions opens a door to more free and creative pursuits. Anyway, here is a lively post on Wilson and altruistic behavior. The implications of his turnabout are huge, and, in turn, speak to the value and legitimacy of research, scholarly, and academic work.

A Sentimental Piece

vacant lot, a wild flower
where once a soldier
fell, his last thought
a rose in his
girlfriend’s hair.

Espressos and the Hippopotamuses

From the sidewalk table sipping our espressos,
the vinegary smell from the torch smoke crossing
from the workers re-tarring the post acute rehab
hospital entry awning roof across Belmont, we saw

the first hippopotamus drop to her belly, blocking
the intersection, car horns jeering futilely, the hippo
happily like a humongous semicolon, skin winking
wet, waiting for the independent clause to follow;

the mother comma still far down Belmont, the paint
of the hippopotamuses a bubbly brown espresso,
now tan now black red umber shadows folding and
rolling in banana slug butter fat, the hippopotamus

before us yawned and hollered something, now
in the harsh spotlight of a police helicopter, and
the buzz from these espressos we expected
to last for tens of millions of years, by which

time the hippopotamuses and the whales
would tenant together the salt water open air
reservoirs, a sprinkling of reactionary
helicopters rusting in thick dusty green aloof.

Sawn Knit

Chairs off course know search ring a stiff lilly
Cheers off corset nill touch ping a short rally
Chilly fur coarse none such amongst the still
Thesis natch nought loopy stock still hush
Thus ditzy dippy bee causal dingus thrill
Thoughtless remiss trunk full tree bananas
There is rash such art as false tranquility
Of pass age there is nothing prack test
Charts no excerptions pair of phones snail
Espresso café square corner tables
Seats side walked there there now close
Call this way where begins such still life
Naturally there is no such thing as a still life
Docile no stiff necked bowl of animus

Sidewalk Cafe Table Paper Napkin Poems

img_20161109_144329Afternoon walk close in and find a cafe with sidewalk tables to sit out with an espresso, on watch and wait.

Wait for some light that might soon start to seep through a cracked world.

World War II and the Nazi army advances on Paris. You can hear artillery fluster the banlieues. Do you try for a train or run the roads south with distraught families or take a table on the sidewalk of some tree hidden rue (for you are on the streets where all is rue) and order an espresso and write a poem on a napkin:

And the poem on the paper tablecloth is perhaps as typical of the way Prevert got around in France in the min-Forties as it is of his poetry itself – a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.¹

When I was inducted into my Guard unit, the 140th Engineer Company, in 1969, they were still packing the M1 Garand rifle. Before firing, we learned to disassemble and reassemble the eleven part trigger housing group. The M1 was a fine weapon, as Woody Allen’s Hemingway character in “Midnight in Paris” might have said, but of course didn’t – that was Paris of the 1920s. The M1 was heavier than its successor the M14, which I was introduced to at Fort Bliss, but you fired them both like rifles, sighting in and taking aim, adjusting elevation and windage. The M16 seemed a light, plastic toy in comparison; you pointed it and sprayed. Even as a kid I was attentive and sensitive to words, but it wasn’t until Basic Combat Training that I realized the unique place nomenclature played from certain perspectives – the naming of things, the naming of parts, in particular, and how, in certain circumstances, you couldn’t simply go to a thesaurus for synonyms as variable substitutes. You had to find the real right word.

Henry Reed’s poem “The Naming of Parts,” from “Lessons of the War,” illustrates the uses of proper nomenclature, and of paying attention:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.²

Whatever you happened to be holding at Fort Bliss in the fall of that year, M1, M14, M16, the proper nomenclature called for but one word: weapon. Call it a gun, and you got down with it for 20 or 30 pushups, kissing its butt and calling out, “One, Drill Sergeant; Two, Drill Sergeant”; etc. If you dropped it, you got down with it again. If you set it aside or missed-placed it, you were accused of having a taste for self-abuse, and got down with it again.

Help Wanted: Poet – Must be good at naming things

img_20161111_121309In his November 14, 2016 Financial Page article for The New Yorker, “What’s in a Brand Name?,” a one-page gem, James Surowiecki anecdotally mentions the time Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to come up with a name for one of its new cars. She came up with a bunch, all rejected. Sometimes, the key to naming something successfully is found in the action word sublimate. But it is called advertising. Advertisements are arguments in which attempts are made to persuade us to do something that probably won’t be good for us. So we might, for example, get Arthur Godfrey telling us what kind of cigarette is best for us. Borrowing someone’s credibility to pitch your argument is a tricky business. Scholars describe it as a means of persuasion called ethos; others may call it a slang profanity, remain unpersuaded, and know it’s best to choose your own cigarette.

“They are playing a game,” R. D. Laing opens the first knot of his Knots:

They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.³

img_20161110_145049It’s fall, and soon winter will come in, and most of the cafes locally will move their sidewalk tables and chairs indoors, and it will be harder walking and wandering to find a place to sit out with an espresso in what might remain of the afternoon light (in the Northwest, the world is also cracked, but in winter, that’s how the water gets in). A certain discomfort is a necessary good for some kinds of writing.

Over the past week or so we visited several cafes for an afternoon espresso at a sidewalk table in the waning light of fall, hoping for some inspiration from the general rue for a paper napkin poem. Alas, we got no paper napkin poems. But we got some sidewalk espresso music, and enjoyed a few clean, well-lit places, and took a few pics we offer here in lieu of napkin poems.

¹ From “Translator’s Note” (1964) Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s introduction to City Lights Books The Pocket Poets Series: Number Nine, “Selections from Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert, San Francisco, July 1958, Sixth Printing February 1968.

² Reed, Henry. “Naming of Parts.” New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92 (.pdf).

³ “Knots,” by R. D. Laing, Vintage Books edition, April 1972, page 1. Originally published by Pantheon Books in 1971.

Fall Doodles

Still Life

On the table a yellow

bowl

green apple
red pear
fuzzy pink    peach

blue-green    ba
nana

All

as verbless as
the bibelots all
in nice rows of yore
Nana’s touchless
glassed shelf.