“All the World’s a Bill-Bard” at Berfrois

Something new up at Berfrois. In which we argue for the power of the napkin poem! If yr sitting out with a cup, give it a read?img_20161112_130954

Learning to Deconstruct Finally

Derrida seems satisfied if not happy with his contradictions, with having learned finally to live with them unencumbered by any implicit criticism. His primary concern in his last days appears to have been what comes after the final act of writing. After all, “there are, to be sure, many very good readers (a few dozen in the world perhaps, people who are also writer-thinkers, poets)” (34). Were he a blogger, would Derrida be thus assured of 36 followers? Jesus had only 12, but even they were not always reliable.

Can a writer ever finally trust any reader? Part of the problem seems to be that readers do have an unconditional freedom to read from their own particular singularity, always peculiar. It’s all they can do, as general readers, apart from the 36 carefully selected followers, who must leave their families behind. It’s not that whatever you say will automatically be misunderstood, but that conditions of freedom vary among individuals. But Derrida says at the same time, “You don’t just go and do anything with language; it preexists us and it survives us” (36). For Derrida, deconstruction was a form of “self-critique” (45). Before “learning to live finally,” one must deconstruct oneself.

In his idea of “The University Without Condition,” Derrida wants “absolute claim to an unconditional freedom to think, speak, and critique” (48). The presumption is there are conditions set by “political or religious power” (48). Kant’s solution that scholars be free to say whatever they want as long as they keep it in the University was not enough for Derrida. But the philosopher who leaves the University becomes an outsider, a blogger, as opposed to a scholar. Not that it matters, because

“…you do not know to whom you are speaking, you invent and create silhouettes, but in the end it no longer belongs to you. Spoken or written, all these gestures leave us and begin to act independently of us.” (32)

Jesus spoke to a general audience, asked for similar unconditional freedom wherever he happened to be located, but he was ready to give to political power what belongs to political power, while Christianity too often has turned into a University that, like the University of Kant’s that Derrida points out, is only free on its own grounds.

Any notion of finally can only be fantasy; life goes on with and without us. What happens finally is the words stop coming, we stop thinking with words, and must figure out some other way to deconstruct.

Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview [with Jacques Derrida]. Melville House, 2007. 95 pages, including a 27 page selected bibliography of works by Derrida published in English.

An Economy of One’s Own

In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).

He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).

Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).

But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty

The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty

Hunger is a condition of life: no hunger, no life. The spider spins her web, hungry for the busy bee dancing by hungry for blues. The cactus patiently awaits the coming of a distant, dithering cloud. The salmon swims against the current, hungry to finish its ritual. A homeless man wanders into a soup kitchen, hungry for food, and stays for the writers’ workshop, hungry to tell his story (Frazier). When we are hungry for something, are we happy or unhappy? Yet when our every hunger is satisfied, we are dead. Do we grow less hungry with age?

Sometimes, we are hungry to forget. Senility may satisfy that hunger, but the hunger to interfere with memory can occur at any age – consider the days spent on our many varieties of smack, dementias of the soul. Our culture inconsistently values certain kinds of hunger while frowning on other kinds of hunger: healthy hungers might include hunger for money, attention, or success in a chosen field; unhealthy hungers might include greed, fame, or the trappings of success. The poet is hungry for a new word, the salesman for an easy client, the surfer for an empty wave, the injured for revenge, the soldier for peace; we can be hungry for anything. Maslow suggested a hierarchy of hungers, but that seems too easy, for hungers can strike with surprise, while we often don’t recognize the source of our hunger, and self-actualization can lead to complacency, smugness in one’s work, for example.

One thing we don’t seem to be too hungry for is old age.  Maybe that’s because, as Atul Gawande has said, “We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time. So when we study aging what we are trying to understand is not so much a natural process as an unnatural one.” One consequence of the newness of aging longer, Gawande suggests, is that “we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.” And not only are we unprepared to stop our fall, “most of us in medicine,” Gawande says, “don’t know how to think about decline.” A geriatrician could help, if we could find and afford one, but doctors don’t like working with old people, so there’s a woeful shortage of geriatricians, while what we need when moving into old age isn’t medicine and a rest home but a purpose for living, a hunger.

But we value youth; wrinkles are a bummer. A recent article in Forbes (Barlow) indicated men in increasing numbers are undergoing cosmetic surgery because business prefers good looks, in spite of studies that show beauty used as a gauge for skill lacks credibility. We value youth, good looks, and money; where does this leave old folks? “You wonder too much for a Sandman,” Logan 5’s partner, Francis, tells him. “When you question, it slows you down” (Logan’s Run). No one is hungry in Logan’s plastic city, a truncated Shangri-La. But that’s not quite right, for the Runners are hungry, hungry for Sanctuary, though they are not quite sure where or what that is, and no one finds out, since no one lives past the age of 30. Life has become a limited Internet access contract. “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults” (Bly viii).

Why are Americans not happier? At the Becker-Posner blog, Becker, the Nobel Prize winning economist, confesses, “I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.” But happiness, in the economist’s world, seems to having something to do with having something to do: “…perhaps utility has in fact not improved over time, or perhaps more likely happiness statistics are deviating from unmeasured increases in utility.” Posner, the Federal Judge, trying to explain why, while income has risen in recent decades in the US, happiness has fallen, reminds us that “Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” Yet one thing may be certain, as evidenced by the results of psychoanalysis: explanations alone don’t make us happy.

Recent studies on happiness agree that money does not buy happiness: “…a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction” (Kolbert). As we buy and throw away, and buy and throw away again, the problem seems to be that we do not know what will make us happy. In the absence of hunger, the only thing left to do seems to be to take a nap. But we awake, hopefully, from our naps. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Mirror,” old age is the face of a “terrible fish” that rises daily from a dark lake of sleep and gradually molts with the face of one’s memory. Yet in Logan’s Run, when the young people discover the first old person they’ve ever seen, they are fascinated by the wrinkles in his face, marvel that he not only knew his parents but also was raised by them, wonder what the words “beloved wife husband” on the tombstones mean. “That must be the look of being old,” Jessica says, touching the “cracks” in the old man’s face. Meanwhile, Francis, Logan’s ex-partner, catches up with the Runners, and says in anger to Jessica, “He was a Sandman; he was happy.” The Sandman does not hunger to question, and Logan’s answer that there is no Sanctuary, no opposing viewpoint, “does not program” on the inside.

Perhaps one source of our current unhappiness is similar to that of the Cumaean Sibyl’s, whose immortality, like a new washing machine sold without a warranty, did not come with eternal youth. She aged and aged, increasingly unhappy, until nothing was left but her voice, and after a thousand years of withering life, her last wish was to die. If we could live without pain or stress, all of our needs provided for, as in Logan’s Run, able to buy a new face or even a complete body any time we tired of the old, the only catch though that we could not live beyond a certain age, what age would we select? The source of our unhappiness may be our unwillingness to grow old, the inability of our youth obsessed culture to value the wrinkles of old age as beautiful, desirable. In a culture so hungry for youth, people die earlier and earlier. We need to develop a hunger for old age.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tom. “Loving that Face in the Mirror.” Forbes 27 October 2011.
Becker, Gary. “Happiness and Wellbeing.” Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.
Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Frazier, Ian. “Hungry Minds.” The New Yorker 26 May 2008.
Gawande, Atul. The Way We Age Now.”  The New Yorker 30 April 2007.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Everybody Have Fun.” The New Yorker 22 March 2010.
Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. 1976. Film.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Mirror.” Performed by Natalie Clark, Radio Theatre Group, August 2011.
Posner, Richard. “Why Aren’t Americans Happier?Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.

also note: “Pastures of Plenty,” a song by Woody Guthrie; “Land of Plenty,” a film (2004) by Wim Wenders; and the song “The Land of Plenty,” by Leonard Cohen (2001).

Happiness and the Humanities

Chris Beha’s investigative report (Harpers, Oct. 2011) on the for-profit higher education experiment is an impressionistic view of the inequities of degree access and funding. Not quite Maigret goes to [night] school, but this is US culture, the land of opportunity, and of second opportunity. Is the for-profit model hopeless? Cut to England, where the LRB Blog reports equity firms are about to seize a market opportunity: the purchasing of Universities by private hands. The degree is the product by which we’ll catch the conscience of the customer. Yet Beha suggests an important question: Is college making us happy?

Maybe college isn’t necessary or desirable for everyone. But has innovation and reform in higher education been hampered by the same self-serving forces that Joel Klein has argued explain the failure of American high schools?

It’s been a rough month for the Humanities. In Florida, there’s talk of limiting degrees offered to those that are “practical.” One wonders what those might be in the current job market. We need a new word: merittechocracy. But isn’t the market already moving in Florida’s direction? Humanities enrollment and attrition rate at UCLA suggest Westwood is no longer the bohemian capital of LA. The UCLA 2010 annual report offers more insight: “At the same time, we conducted a thorough review of our academic programs with the goal of streamlining majors, reducing unnecessary units and courses, and helping students graduate in a timely manner. We also pursued initiatives that will produce new revenue streams, including an enhanced emphasis on translational research, which will deliver more of our faculty’s inventions into the marketplace and potentially lead to licensing and royalty revenues for UCLA.” The product is big business.

But there’s a reading crisis spreading perniciously throughout the land. And reading is important. In a November, 2007, report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read,” Chairman Dana Gioia had this to say about reading: “All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact— books change lives for the better.”

The first front on which to begin combating poverty and inequality is reading. And who’s got the books, if not the Humanities? But if the Humanities, now on the Endangered Animals list, become extinct, who will ask the question, “Are you happy now”?

Breakfast at Beckett’s

In their engagement of the studies referenced on the declining level of happiness of Americans, Becker-Posner begin to wrestle with the difficulty of quantifying for economics study human behavior as a market influence.

Late last night, after class, happy with a bowl of homemade chocolate ice cream, I flipped on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the Sundance Channel, and it occurred to me that perhaps the unhappiness of Americans has something to do with its writers, for a culture can only be as happy as its artists. We have, of course, come to confuse celebrity with art, and anyone can achieve celebrity status. Our ballplayers might be considered artists. But our insistence that they be heroes both on the field and in the museum results in a collusion of unhappiness.

Where our novelists are concerned, where the great American novel remains an elusive grail, the unhappy string of strikeouts has all but emptied the stands. Consider the Lost Generation hopefuls, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald; substituted with the failed promises of Vidal, Mailer, and Capote; and the newest crop, including Vollmann and now Keith Gessen, whose All the Sad Young Literary Men imagines nothing less than the success of unhappy celebration, yet at least does so without the usual self-delusion of greatness.

I flipped the movie off and headed to bed but first grabbed an old copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s off the shelf. In the book, unlike the movie, Holly has already gone lightly, leaving a heavy absence in her wake – the rest is flashback, beginning with “Her dispraising eyes surveyed the room again. ‘What do you do here all day?’ I motioned toward a table tall with books and paper. ‘Write things.’…‘Tell me, are you a real writer?’ ‘It depends on what you mean by real.’ ‘Well, darling, does anyone buy what you write?’ ‘Not yet.’”

And so on, until this morning when I pulled Samuel Beckett’s Molloy off a shelf. Too many think Beckett a despairing, desperate, depressing writer, but I’ve never thought that. He’s nothing of course like Capote, who, nevertheless, as Beckett commented on his own fate upon receiving the Nobel, was also “Damned to Fame.” But we must remember not to confuse narrators with authors; in those cases where the narrator is the author, yet the book is still called fiction, I think of the self-conscious infielder who can’t get his mind off his last throwing error.

Turn to any page in Molloy and count the number of times the word “I” appears. It’s extraordinary, each page, held at a distance, so that the I’s stand out, like some iconic, Concrete poem.

Becker, Posner, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Don’t miss the Chicago Two waxing on happiness in the latest posts at the Becker-Posner blog; the January 10 posts are impoverished economic analyses attempting to explain why Americans are unhappy. Neither the Nobel economist nor the federal judge seems happy with his conclusions.

Even as they both begin to move away from the Chicago School’s famed ignorance of psychology, the problem still seems to be with their approach, as John Cassidy explains in his January 8, New Yorker article, “After the Blowup”: “A useful new economics will need to integrate an awareness of human nature with extensive practical knowledge and high-level mathematical expertise” (32). It’s not that an attempt to explain human nature is lacking in the Becker-Posner posts. They both conclude that the pursuit of wealth is the paramount claim of value for Americans, but they ignore their colleague Rajan’s argument “that the initial causes of the breakdown [the recent crash] were stagnant wages and rising inequality” (32-33), that upward mobility, in other words, is a metaphorical, ultimately unreachable carrot, for as one moves upward, so does the top.

Their analyses do not mention half-day commutes in mortgaged, gas-expensive rigs to institutionalized jobs (public and private) so Dad can pay the mortgage and Mom get the health benefits and pay for daycare until the divorce where everyone gets the Community Chest card that says “Return to Go.” Posner argues in his conclusion that “People have a strong preference for more income over less and thus for a rising standard of living. Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” The faulty assumption in Posner’s argument is the claim that more income leads to an improved standard of living. Rising income results in rising costs of living and a breakeven that continues to move upward, like the unreachable carrot.

Becker seems closer to reality: “My conclusion is that happiness data have been useful, and the relation with income is plausible. Yet happiness data do not enable us to directly measure utility and wellbeing. I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.”

Posner gives Adam Smith short shrift, for Smith is much more devastating in his argument than merely suggesting that “people fool themselves”: No doubt we do fool ourselves, about many things, but about money buying happiness the fooling is an aggressive and dynamic belief, not passive and benign, a belief that requires as a tenet a dichotomy of human worth. This belief is what allows some of us to live comfortably in mansions paid for by the labor in sweatshops of people who live in shanties: Smith says, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” This is at least evident in the gated communities that sprung up in response to a new age of fear fostered by the holders of the carrots to secure their own positions of power and wealth, increasing the gap between the claim of value and its reason and exposing the underlying faulty assumption that wealth buys happiness, for as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in Merle Travis’s classic “Sixteen Tons” (1955):

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”