Monday, February 20, 2017

I've Had Enough With Rolling Boulders, I Want More Moss On Me

A bad cold kept me from doing anything yesterday, so I sat and read a couple collections of Orwell's essays. Superb stuff all around, but I had to admit that I resembled some of his remarks on Charles Dickens:

I could do without the horde of children, and I prefer to do my own chores rather than rely on servants, but quibbling details aside, yes, this sounds like an acceptable deal to me. Home life is always enough, indeed. Forever in a kind of love and forever in a kind of selfishness and self-enjoyment, you might say. Pace Orwell, I don't see anything contradictory about combining purposelessness and vitality. "Purposelessness" doesn't mean that you sit around in a vegetative state; it simply means that you're capable of generating depth and meaning from within an outwardly simple, ordinary life. I'm never bored, and I've always got things to do (with not enough time to do them in). It's just that none of those things would be impressive to anyone else. My life is like a bonsai tree — insignificant by your standards, a wealth of meaningful details by mine.

Obiter Dicta, no. 2

[T]he source of the philosopher’s modesty lay not in a low opinion of himself but rather in the low value he attached to the opinions of those who praised him.

— Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic

Aristotle said that anyone self-sufficient enough to do without social conventions and comforts must be either a beast or a god. Spinoza, the non-beastly philosopher in question here, certainly had experience with the fickle, volatile nature of public opinion, so it's understandable that he would put little stock in praise from others. But how could a god be modest? Perhaps by virtue of recognizing that one's godhood is nothing special; in fact, it's the most common thing there is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Impermanent Things

Brad Warner:

Is this what American Buddhism has come to? Has it become an entirely partisan endeavor? Is American Buddhism now indistinguishable from Leftist politics? Maybe that’s overstating things. But it genuinely worries me that we may be headed in that direction.

...There is a strong assumption among American Buddhists that if you believe in peace and the oneness of humankind, as the Buddha taught, then you would surely follow the political philosophy of the American Left. After all, Leftists are for love and light, and against war and badness. Conservatives stand for hate, killing, and carnage.

I used to believe that myself. But I don’t anymore.

Yuval Levin — whose new book is excellent, by the way — once noted something almost stunning in its unacknowledged obviousness: we are all liberals. That is, no one of importance wants to bring back monarchy, a landed aristocracy, or feudalism. No one of importance wants to live under communist or fascist dictatorship. Right-wingers and left-wingers alike agree on the importance of individual freedom, representative government, pluralism, rule of law, etc. And yet, political debate is like a think tank built right on top of the active fault line of psychology. However genteel the arguments, however many presuppositions and goals shared in common, it takes very little for tribal instincts to inflate any difference of opinion to apocalyptic proportions. The narcissism of small differences, Freud called it. And so, in modern American politics, the progressive wing of liberalism and the conservative wing of liberalism are both convinced that to let the other wing near power would be the prelude to Armageddon. The only cure for it, so far as I can see, is the perspective granted by time. Live long enough and pay attention, and you'll soon become desensitized to the constant state of red alert. Your adrenal glands or your interest will give out once you realize that some, perhaps many, people just aren't content unless they're running around screaming with their hair on fire. Both sides are permanently convinced that the other side controls everything and are moments away from unleashing catastrophe, regardless of who is currently in power. There is no political answer to this absurd state of affairs, only a personal one — just walk away. Stop wallowing in outrage and go enjoy the many good things in life beyond politics.

Brad, as I recently feared would happen, is experiencing the same thing I did several years ago as a basically liberal-leaning fellow with an interest in religion and atheism. He's seeing his Buddhist subculture become increasingly dominated by the same sort of militant left-wingers that insisted on fusing New Atheism to New Left identity politics, and he feels compelled to call it what it is. Being a figure of slight prominence in American Buddhism, however, he has attracted the sort of vengefulness that comes from people who use politics as an outlet for their borderline personality disorders and who are not prepared to tolerate opposition. In this case, someone has publicized the fact that Brad has a nephew who writes for conservative outlets and is a Trump supporter. In the hysterical world of online leftism, the suspicion of even a germ of thoughtcrime means that the suspect must be socially quarantined and assumed guilty by association until proven innocent. If Brad had any money or influence, he'd probably be subjected to an economic embargo to starve him into submission as well.

Buddhism in America, popularized by the baby boomers as part of their general fascination with all things exotic and mystical that promise liberation from supposedly-stultifying Western norms, has long been part of that progressive cultural orbit, so it should be no surprise, in my opinion, to see it influenced by the latest trends among culture-war reenactors. The image of Buddhist monks self-immolating to protest the Vietnam War still serves as an inspirational example of authentic political commitment among leftists. The very least modern Buddhists can do is flame a few Trump supporters on social media.

Thankfully, though, Buddhism has a self-defense mechanism built into it to prevent it from becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of partisan politics. Sitting quietly and meditating about the inherent illusoriness of existence has a way of eventually undermining rigid dogmas. Sincere practitioners will likely grow past this kind of shallow, politically-engaged Buddhism. I wouldn't call myself a conservative any more than I would call myself a Buddhist, even though I've learned a lot from both, because the most important thing that I've learned is to be suspicious of labels and narratives. Buddhism had always taught me that we create much of our own misery by believing too strongly in the illusory solidity of our identity, and the intersectional leftist drama of the last several years taught me that the easiest way to destroy your own intellectual integrity is to identify too strongly with a political tribe. Retaining the ability to shift perspective is what allows us to see when we're getting ready to go to war over a trivial difference and change our behavior accordingly.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Suddenly, a Synapse Fired!

It's amazing how a metaphorical cliché appropriate for rock music lyrics becomes profound when Dr. White Coat, Ph.D. uses it. "Such-and-such affects your brain like cocaine" is the "It was a dark and stormy night" of pop neuroscience writing. We need a Bulwer-Lytton category expansion to include nonfiction clickbait.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

But You're Not So Radical

Jia Tolentino:

Of course, this being a polemic, there’s not much space given to how, exactly, the total disengagement with our individualist and capitalist society might be achieved. 

"Of course." I like the implicit admission here. You weren't expecting something more than the impotent flailing of tiny fists, were you? Tsk.

Here, we have a former Jezebel editor in the New Yorker reviewing the ever-ridiculous Jessa Crispin's new book about how feminism has been co-opted by the system and rendered toothless, harmless, and far too friendly to bourgeois capitalist social norms. In other words, the same problem radicals have been fruitlessly complaining about for decades: despite being endlessly challenged, interrogated, deconstructed, and reimagined, the "system" of leaving people free to make piecemeal improvements to their own lives at their own pace via their own discretion has continued to blossom in popularity like Audrey II, leaving mystified radicals to wonder what in the unholy name of Adam Smith happened. I like to think of it as the infinity mirror problem of radicalism: an endless line of identical poses reflecting an illusory substance. "Of course" nothing is going to change, but at least writing an angry feminist book, or reviewing it in a prestigious outlet, gives you a vantage point from which to look down and sneer at the "shallow" sorts of feminists who don't realize that emblazoning car bumpers, tote bags and coffee mugs with clichéd quotations about girl power is simply gauche. Decorating your actual politics with chimerical yearning, however, is apparently the height of sophistication.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Noteworthies (5)

• Songwriters on Process interview with Neil Fallon of the band Clutch. Fallon is one of my two favorite lyricists in rock music (along with Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse), so it's great to get some insight into his reading and writing habits. Speaking of reading, his ten favorite books.

• Joseph Heath, "The End of Privacy, Part 2: Scoring Pro-Social Behaviour"

Consider This with Stuart Campbell. I'm generally not one for listening to podcasts or audio interviews, but after following a link to the most recent interview with Roger Scruton, I looked through the archives and saw quite a few others that look very interesting, including many authors whose books I have either read or plan to read soon. Guests are able to respond at length to intelligent questions, which was a pleasant surprise, accustomed as I am to interviews which are little more than ping-pong matches with soundbites and slogans.

The Enduring Wisdom of Montaigne, by Jeffrey Collins. I learned that sometimes, if you Google the title of a paywalled article, clicking on the resulting link will bypass the paywall. It worked in this case for a book review in the WSJ that I wanted to read.

• B.A. Brown, "Illiberalism Rising"

• Kenan Malik, "Not Post-Truth as Too Many Truths"

Via Alan Jacobs, another book that touches on the history of my kind. I suppose I'll have to get a copy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Speaking Words of Wisdom: Let It Be

John Gray:

One of the most attractive features of cats is that contentment is their default state. Unlike human beings – particularly of the modern variety – they do not spend their days in laborious pursuit of a fantasy of happiness. They are comfortable with themselves and their lives, and remain in that condition for as long as they are not threatened. When they are not eating or sleeping, they pass the time exploring and playing, never asking for reasons to live. Life itself is enough for them.

...Whereas human beings search for happiness in an ever-increasing plethora of religions and therapies, cats enjoy contentment as their birthright. Why this is so is worth exploring. Cats show no sign of regretting the past or fretting about the future. They live, absorbed in the present moment. It will be said that this is because they cannot envision the past or future. Perhaps so, though their habit of demanding their breakfast at the accustomed hour shows they do have a sense of the passage of time. But cats, unlike people, are not haunted by an anxious sense that time is slipping away. Not thinking of their lives as stories in which they are moving towards some better state, they meet each day as it comes. They do not waste their lives dreading the time when their lives must end. Not fearing death, they enjoy a kind of immortality. All animals have these qualities but they seem particularly pronounced in cats. Of all the animals that have lived closely with human beings, cats must surely be the least influenced by them.

Let me be clear. Gray is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. I agree with most of what he writes, and even when I don't, he's still usefully thought-provoking. In his capacity as a book reviewer, though, I've noticed for some time that themes which have become prominent in his own recent books, such as Straw Dogs, The Silence of Animals, and The Soul of the Marionette, tend to bleed over into his reviews. Reading the above passages, it's impossible (for me, at least) to not be distracted from the book under consideration — a book about the history of house cats, in this case — and put into mind of Gray's own writings, in which he criticizes and scorns what he considers to be the fallacies and follies of political liberalism, its overweening faith in reason, and mankind's inability to live contentedly in a form of Keats's negative capability. It's a bit like having a mental pop-up ad intruding into my thoughts.

In this particular phase of his career, he strikes me as the prose equivalent to Robinson Jeffers, whose concept of "inhumanism" seems to bear a strong family resemblance to Gray's godless mysticism. Like Tor House, Jeffers's granite dwelling on the California coast, Gray's reviews occupy an austere, forbidding perspective under which the themes of the book being reviewed, if possible, are used as supporting stones to be cemented into his own philosophical edifice. Should they lack intellectual solidity, then, like waves, they dash themselves into mist upon the unforgiving rocks of Gray's worldview.

The problem with having a theory of everything is that everything becomes about your theory. It could simply be a result of my close familiarity with Gray's own work, but I find myself anticipating, in each review, what feels like the inevitable paragraph where he makes the implicit measurement against his own perspective and pronounces the book in question to be worthy or wanting by comparison. Perhaps it's unrealistic of me, but when I read a book review, I prefer the reviewer to be heard but not seen.