Friday, June 03, 2005

 

I'll have some Apocalypse, now, please.

It is perhaps reflective of my own upbringing, characterized as it is by attendance in a staggering number of churches that reflect very nearly the entire spectrum of Protestant Christianity (…we’re talking attendance in everything from Pentecostal to Lutheran, Quaker to Mormon…) that I have always found it necessary to guard against a certain predilection for apocalyptic scenarios. In point of fact, my own university work, which culminated in a creative writing thesis, was characterized by precisely this struggle, and the dawning awareness of the danger of too close an adherence to a worldview characterized by visions of the end of the world. One’s actions, I suspect, might be fundamentally (no pun…though I like the pun anyway) altered should one come to hold closely to a belief that the world—or at least the human world—will not last out one’s lifetime. In a sense, it’s just a grander expression of how one’s behavior might change if one were told that they had but 6 months to live. Facing extinction, on either a personal or species-wide level, our priorities tend to change pretty radically. In these days of terror alerts and global warming, aware, as I cannot really fail to be, of the ultimate insignificance of this speck of dust we’re riding, much less our role within the universe we’re riding it through, I have to confess to an ongoing struggle with despair. After all, of all the ‘isms’ out there to choose from, I’d have to concede that the one I find myself in closest alignment with is humanism—and it’s difficult to nurture any belief in any humanist project if one is made to acknowledge the indifference of our universe toward that project.

So how to avoid that? Probably the single most employed means by which I manage to keep myself from sinking into the morass resulting from this sense of species-wide mortality—a morass that takes what is arguably its most attractive form in precisely that apocalyptic vision I fight against…sort of a metaphysical femme fatale, I suppose—is to place, at least for a time, a higher premium on the ephemeral than I do on the eternal. Instants become grand expressions of the unexpected miracle of awareness, and are treasured accordingly, and a single laugh from an attractive woman is worth far more than entire universities being erected in one’s name. Joy becomes a central means of measuring the worth of a given experience—a ‘good in itself’. As with all “solutions,” this one presents a double-edged sword, because it is only too apparent that joy must battle with something very other than itself…an ‘evil’ that is in essence the opposite of joy, while in existence presenting itself, quite often, as joy. To take a single example, we might cite the human capacity for sadism: the fact that there are humans out there who, if they do not exactly take joy, as I mean it here, in the suffering of others, at least derive some satisfaction from it. But the satisfaction felt, in a single instant, by a single person, in causing or witnessing the suffering of another is valuable, in the above schema, both for its ephemeral nature and for the fact that it is undeniably an expression of that “unexpected miracle of awareness” lying at the heart of any rejection of a “monumental” approach to values.

The above, much as it might present itself otherwise, is not a prelude to describing any recent depression (though, truth be told, winter 2004-2005 was a particularly rough one, on this end, bookended by a nasty bout of political malaise on one end and a minor operation on the other, with a decided lack of adequate funds coloring the whole…), but a justification cum introduction to a piece I snagged from a book given me to read during my brief stay in hospital. It’s one of those oddities I particularly like having on my bookshelves—other examples being my $0.25 copy of Borges’ “The Book of Imaginary Beings,” or my $1.00 copy of cummings’ “The Enormous Room”—a collection entitled “The Groucho Letters,” which is, of course, a collection of some of Groucho Marx’s correspondences. A restful book, not without substance, but good for those periods when, for the sake of my own mental health, I really have to take a break from other writing—and reading—duties. Groucho, as do all comedians, defined himself in terms of an art form that tends to place a premium on what is not lasting, while whacking at the base of anything presenting itself as monumental with the blunt hammer of satire. So I guess, in this sense, he’s the sort of personage I tend to align myself with. And while by no means a man given to despair, it is somewhat heartening to see his more human frailties peeking from behind the persona. Anyway, dispensing with further woolgathering, I offer you the following, a column Groucho wrote for Variety magazine, dated June 7, 1947. Not in the least a despairing note—quite the contrary. But it has enough cynical bite behind it to suggest I’m not entirely unique in my struggles, and enough humor to remind me that human despair is perhaps the most insignificant—and laughable—response of them all.

Good things, both.



Dear Abel:

I trust this is illiterate enough even for your sheet.

Regards,
Groucho


Variety, which calls itself the bible of show business (actually it’s the babel of show business) recently printed a news story to the effect that for “The Jolson Story,” Al Jolson’s cut—despite the fact that he didn’t appear in the picture except for a brief moment—would amount to three and a half million dollars.

I have appeared in many pictures through the years (at the moment I can be seen in all my pristine loveliness in “Copacabana”), and I would swear on a stack of Bob Stacks that I have never pulled down any dough that has ever remotely touched this figure. Perhaps this is the signpost that show business has been waiting for. If a Jolson picture can roll up a ten million dollar gross without Jolson, how much more could it have made without Evelyn Keyes and William Demarest? Maybe the studios have been going at it the wrong way. Perhaps they should stop the present custom of bunching seven or eight stars in one movie, and eliminate all the feature names in a picture.

I can just see the marquee at the local theater. Coming next week: “I Wonder Who’s Hissing Her Now,” without Olivia de Crawford and Clark Power. It can’t miss. I am sure that millions of people stay away from the movies because they dislike the stars that are appearing at the local Bijou, but if they were assured that so-and-so wouldn’t show his ugly kisser on the screen, my guess is they would tear the doors down to get in.

I am speaking from personal experience. In my time I have met hundreds of people who have said, “Hey, jerk, when are you going to quit the movies and get a job?” and if it’s true of me, it certainly must be true of dozens of others whose talents may be even less than mine.

This system could also be applied to other fields of endeavor. I am sure that many political candidates are defeated because the public has been given the opportunity to see what they look like. The next great political victory will be achieved by the party that is smart enough to have nobody heading the ticket.

My theory is that there are too many people and too many things. Suppose you got that semi-annual card from your dentist notifying you that most of your fangs are about to drop out and you had better get up to his abattoir before you spend the rest of your life gumming your fodder. Wouldn’t you rush up there with much more alacrity if you were certain that this white-coated assassin wasn’t there to greet you with his chisel in one hand and his pliers in the other? Imagine if horse racing had no horses—thousands of people could go to the track each day and save millions of dollars.

Years ago, there was a theory called Technocracy. Perhaps mine could be called the Theory of Scarcity. Take the actors out of the movies, take squash and rutabagas out of restaurant menus, take Slaughter and Musial out of the Cardinals, and take Gromyko out of the U.N.

As for marriage, I know hundreds of husbands who would gladly go home if there weren’t any wives waiting for them. Take the wives out of marriage and there wouldn’t be any divorces. But then, someone might ask, what about the next generation? Look, I’ve seen some of the next generation—perhaps it’s just as well if the whole thing ends right here.

Comments:
Most excellent! How was your surgery, by-the-way? Everything put back where it belongs, I trust? How do you say, "Why do you need to shave that?" in German?
 
I hope your health is moving in the right direction now! (I'd been wondering where you were).

Believe me, you aren't alone in your thoughts (or your conclusions). I've been feeling quite the same, and reading Emerson's essays, with an emphasis on both living in the moment and for the joy of it (but morally so), have done me good!
 
Randall: Warum müssen Sie das rasieren?

All's good on the health front, no worries. What the hell I'm gonna do with my life, that's another matter. But I 'spect it's much the same with many.

Robin: speaking of Emerson, got a funny (I think) quote from a poet/correspondent/friend of mine recently, accredited to Emerson, no doubt with Keats "Truth is beauty" line in mind: "Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies."
 
Beauty is in the I's of the beholder.
 
Gene
Got to you blog via your website, liking both. But, trying to could myself among those apocalyptic fundamentalists (lower case "F" on purpose-- I'm not mean enough for them to allow me into their mainstream, but I like their passion for truth mixed with willingness to do something about it) counting myself as one of them, I ask: what's wrong with a somewhat domineering-but-benevolent Father Above all this madness? As an Organizing Fact, the concept of God as a rather traditional Father works quite well, except for our rebellion against him, no? Interested in you idea, given your breadth of experience and present outsider point-of-view. OK, outsider from over here by me, anyhow! Thanks

Gordon
 
Gordon:

Glad you're enjoying. As to the question, the 'domineering' may be the problem on a personal level. That's just personal, though. For me, there's no need for such an organizing structure to justify/explain moral behavior--and I'm especially about the latter. There's a deep antagonism within the Christian faith against reason...us being faulty creatures and all, and having been driven from the garden for being brazen enough to seek out the knowledge of good and evil (and I'll not even get into the paradox presented us through the fact that morality of any form presupposes free will...which appears to have been part of that particular god's design, though the means by which it is given to humans is reason enough to mete out death and labour pains on us all...in other words, we were punished for putting god's plan into effect? Odd brain-twister, that...and don't even get me started on the gambling habits of a benevolent father who wagers one of his children's souls (and a good part of his productive life) in a bet against his arch-rival...)...I simply choose knowledge over faith, even with full acknowledgement of the centrality of faith to human consciousness.

Where that faith is placed is another matter. I do not presume to say whether god--or even this particular god--actually exists--I do say that I can't know about that. But where I can and have imagined a world governed by that god, I find most adherents to the Christian faith are a little less willing to reciprocate by really, really imagining a world without that god. In such a world, it is too easily argued, morality simply evaporates. From my perspective--and I do believe I'm joined by some very intelligent humans in this--morality becomes much more present, because the problems and evils we perceive in this world are no longer left to a supernatural being to clean up. They're our responsibility, and after we die, we can do nothing more to clean them up. The fact that Christianity allows for one to postpone those solutions is reason enough for me to reject the basic schema pretty thoroughly--and the fact that I think an infinite god large enough in terms of consciousness to make room for one who exercised considered doubt about his (and even that his is not infinite...) motives and movements.

Believe in god or not...I'll not fear one. That's no basis for love. And when it comes to apocalyptic schema, that's precisely the equation that's being drawn.
 
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