An Idle Curriculum as Salvific

painter's hand

Update (in the body of the text)

“What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” Vonnegut’s fictional holy man Bokonon asks in the “14th Book of Bokonon”.  The answer is “nothing”.

That is an interesting construction.  A “Thoughtful Man” allows us to posit the opposite; a man, or human, without thought.

“Thinking is the most overrated human activity.”  Wendell Berry (quoted in “Swimming Lessons” by David Ehrenfeld)

As animals we simply are.  I remember a Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin laments that he must figure out what to “be” while Hobbes only IS and his “becoming” already IS as well.  Hobbes replies that it is impossible to improve on the perfection that is “tiger-ness”.

I’ve always counted that comic strip as simple and effective illustration for my own understanding of being.  We are stuck in conceptual conundrum–what might a human “become”?  This becoming is entirely a social construction that is irrelevant to our “organic” becoming.  We are born, we move through maturation into senescence, we die.  Our “gift” is our grit–we will eat and multiply as a means of biotic balance–we will feed the earth and some of her other creatures with our decaying matter.

What, in the face of that, should we “hope”?

I often write about our human endeavors with anger and frustration; even sheer confusion, asking, “Why in the world would we think that is a good thing to do?”

We have a lot of problems.  It is our Western European and American “way” of living that is likely doing the most harm to our humanity.  It is a given that this way of living is destroying the environment in which we live.

A long time ago Orson Welles made what was arguably a better movie than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons.  Both Kane and Ambersons are essays as well as stories in that they tell us the ways in which the species, through mechanical manipulations and the unacknowledged privileging of the technological over the human, drives itself towards perceived “scientific advance” at the expense of nearly every other aspect of life.  These movies diagnose us as individuals and as a culture.  They are steeped in irrevocable loss.  (Update) Kane, the character, is nearly “sold” into a banking custodianship after accidental wealth is conferred upon him as a child; it is a fable of wealth, as a replacement for home, as it fails us even in our most humanistic ambitions.  Ambersons tracks the decline of one family’s fortunes as coincident with the rise of the automobile and the consequent changes to our small towns and the pace of our living

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We privilege change for its own sake; we encourage a restlessness that debases our sense of home.  We promote exodus.  Consider that transportation itself set the model of displacement and division that all of our products encourage, enforce and enhance.  The loss of home sets us adrift.  A detached self is needful of external satisfactions.  A detached self feels anxiety in its loneliness.  It is this feeling that encourages “becoming” something other than a member of a tribe/family/community.  We must “make” something of ourselves.  This springs out of a sense of not belonging anywhere…we are in permanent exile.

Still we only offer ourselves two ways of combating this empty life, two ways of expressing being; selling or being sold.

I am against both.

It has been shown that there are tribes of the Earth and tribes of the Sky.  The sky god requires offerings to aspiration; to becoming a being detached from the ground.  This god is a demiurge; the father of lies.  We are of this tribe in the West.  This god is most evident in Commerce and Chemistry; Mammon and Materialism.  This is the soul displaced.

We are of the earth.  But our minds cannot abide the realization that we are of a kind with all other beings.  This we hate.  This hate is what fuels the worship of the sky god.  This is why we made stories of our near-divinity.  We will not die.  We WILL against death.  We build towers in vain; we seek mechanical insight.  We strive to know “the beginning” thinking that if this is known then we can beget ourselves.  To achieve this is to erase what his human in us.

Out of this comes ONLY self-regard.  ONLY species-regard.  Out of this comes Dominion.  Out of this comes Property.  Out of this comes Power.  We must USE in order to define being.  This anxiety, this rootlessness, this emptiness is the engine of our economics of consumption.

Listen.  This power of self-regard tied to the predominance of one sense, sight, has created extremely narrow and rigid creatures.

Understand that philosophical justifications of dominance like “utilitarianism” and “pragmatism” spring from the belief that many beings SHOULD be considered negligible as factors in equations.

There is, to me, only one chance for continued existence for each of us.  We must give up the destruction of being detached, dissatisfied beings.  We must embrace local satisfactions.  We must gain by divesting.

Ideally, becoming “other” than an animal called “human”, becoming other than a creature that only operates as an ecological element of natural balance, means artistic discovery and expression.

Language IS our being.  We must embrace what is playful in being by communing with others via language, via arts–music, painting and poetry specifically.  It is in this way that we will discover what it means to be at home in the world and at the same time feel our unique being AS at one with the world.  But it is essential that this is done within a community of sharers.

Thoreau may still be our best guide in this; perhaps also Emerson and Montaigne…they “essay to be”.

But, more ready to hand there is Van Morrison in “Saint Dominic’s Preview“.

Chamois cleaning all the windows
Singin’ songs about Edith Piaf’s soul
And I hear blue strains of No Regrets
Cross the street, The Cathedral Notre Dame

Meanwhile back in San Fancisco, ooh
Tried hard to make this whole thing blend
As we sit upon this jagged rock
Story block with you my friend

And it’s a long way, long way to Buffalo
It’s a long way to Belfast City, too
And I’m hoping that Joyce, don’t blow the hoist
But this time they bit off more than they can chew

And we gaze out on
And we gaze out on
And we gaze out on
And we gaze out on

Saint Dominic’s Preview
Saint Dominic’s Preview
Saint Dominic’s Preview

All the orange crates are scattered
At the Safeway Supermarket in the rain
Ev’rybody feels so determined
Not to feel anyone else’s pain

No one makin’ no commitments
To Anybody but themselves
Talkin’ behind closed doorways
Trying to get it and outside at the shelf

And for every
Every cross town country corner
Ev’ry Hank Williams railroad train that cried
All the chains n’ badges, flags and emblems
Ev’ry strain on ev’ry brain and ev’ry eye-i-i-i

Oh, the restaurant tables are completely
Covered, covered, covered, covered
And the comp’ny’s paid out for the wi-yi-yi-yi-ine
Got ev’rything in the world ya ever wanted, don’t cha?
Right about now your face should wear a smile

Get on up

That’s the way it all should happen
In the fairytale state you’re in
Well, have you got your pen and notebook ready?
Sign right here
Sign right here
Now when you get it

An’ way over
On a 52nd Street apartment
Socializin’ with the wino, few
Used to be hip and get wet with the jet set
But they were flyin’ too high to see my
See my point of view

And we gaze out on
And we gaze out on
And we gaze out on

St. Dominic’s Preview


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  1. focus October 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Very nice Doug. Your discussion of the sky and earth was one I would like to see expanded more–there is a lot of substance and room for discussion there. Much of Van to love and time for me to revisit some of his work.

    I end with the words of the immortal Lloyd Dobler: ” I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

  2. Douglas Storm October 2, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    I could not include that inimitable line from Say Anything as it didn’t fit the tone of the piece, but I sure was thinking it. Of course I did use Calvin and Hobbes!

    the belief in the “home on high” (which Van actually says in Astral Weeks–along with “ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world) is the core of our desire to be other than human, other than animal.

  3. Joshua October 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Philosophy is for poets. Science is for everyone else. You should consider starting a poetry blog, as your flighty blathering doesn’t lend itself well to rational thought.

    1. Douglas Storm October 3, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      Aside from that not being a very polite way to engage, I would suggest that real science is philosophy and vice versa. A search for truth with our only resource, mind.


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