Notes on Our Sixteenth Meeting — THE FUTURE

The future is scary these days! That may explain the smaller than usual turn-out at this meeting devoted to contemplating it.

There were only seven of us sitting around the room. It was cozy, though, and we had a good talk.

1. Jaimey’s Critique of Yuval Noah Harari’s Shallow Thinking

Jaimey got us going by launching right away into a withering critique of Harari’s Homo Deus.

He maintained that, throughout the book, Harari relies on a kind of verbal slight-of-hand to put across a rather limited and superficial thesis.

Above all, Harari wants to assert that our familiar ways of thinking about ourselves are obsolete and failing us. To aid this thesis, Harari must insist that the mainstays of our usual understandings of our relationship to the world, little things like “consciousness,” “free will,” and even the unified “self,” have been revealed to be fictions — lies!

It follows from this that humanism (and its expression in the political sphere, liberalism) are no longer helpful organizing systems for our time. According to Harari then, we are on the verge of a brave new world which will require new fictions, new mythologies (he suggests “techno-humanism,” “dataism,” and the like).

To Jaimey, however, Harari’s bold contention is mostly bluster. The unified “self,” Jaimey assured us, has not been eradicated… because it was never assumed to be unified in the first place!

Harari insists that from the time of the Enlightenment on, many philosophers in the West have fixated only on the self as a utility-maximizing, rational agent, and have therefore ignored the emotional and expressive and changeable nature of our experiences. But that is laughably ignorant as a potted intellectual history of the West, according to Jaimey. “If Harari had even a passing acquaintance with German intellectual history,” Jaimey explained (and here, imagine his voice lowering into a soothing, Chomskyesque tone of disdain and dismissal), “then he would recognize that the dialectic between the Enlightenment and its critics has always been far more complicated than that.

“Even Kant would never have insisted that the self was merely a rational agent!” Jaimey stated, his eyebrows rising cheerfully.

It is this straw man (of the blinkered Enlightenment thinker), Jaimey continued, that leads Harari to make so many egregious errors throughout his narrative. For example, he groups 20th century fascism under the label of “evolutionary humanism.” Jaimey considered this an obvious error.  For Nazism and fascism unmistakably represented post-humanism, in that they ignored the irreducible self of the person in favor of the single characteristic of “race.” They are, we might say, textbook examples of post-humanism. After all, Jaimey observed, even a “genius Jew,” to a Nazi was still sub-human and considered unfit for civilized society.

But Harari’s telos requires him to see humanism as engaged in its “religious wars” in the 20th century; in other words, as just another “fiction” that emerged as a means of social control. So it would be deeply inconvenient for Harari to acknowledge that, in fact, a fierce commitment of many millions of people across the Allied world to process and fairness and individual rights stood firmly against this threat at mid-century. Certainly it would complicate Harari’s catchy narrative about the fragility of this “fiction” of humanism.

Jaimey also pointed out that for all of the trending news items and memorable sociological studies he plucks out of the internet, Harari ends up contradicting himself at times. At one point, for example, Harari concedes that nobody really understands “consciousness” yet. So how can he then proceed to draw conclusions about how our belief in it has been, or has not been, shattered?

In summary, Jaimey felt that most of Homo Deus is not much more than a kind of extended, improvised vamp, leading up to the admittedly difficult questions he poses in the last chapters. Those questions, Jaimey noted, are indeed disturbing and real:

What should the role of technology be in the future, considering that it is rapidly displacing human beings from their sense of being useful?

How far can we go with neuro-chemical enhancement and digital interfaces before we find ourselves unrecognizable?

2. A Skeptical Lens on the Enlightenment

Responding to Jaimey’s critique, I brought up another book that I read in anticipation of this meeting, The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. There are certain parallels in this book to the story Harari tells in Homo Deus about the development of humanism and the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Both see the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuality and reason and the rule of law as having fostered an unprecedented material boon for humanity. Both also see this new, ostensibly egalitarian/materialistic/hedonistic life as having creating enormous dislocation and anomie.

Yet whereas Harari sees the “fiction” of humanism as only recently becoming outdated by advances in neuroscience and data science, Mishra sees it as having been oppressive and unstable all along.

The Age of Anger focuses on the way that the Enlightenment creates resentments among the majority who adopt its aspirations… but have no means of satisfying them. This deep tension in liberal democracy, Mishra argues, arose from the very beginning of the 1700s.

Mishra traces a counter-Enlightenment story (from Rousseau to Herder to Fichte to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to Marx to Weber to Freud to the Futurist poets to Nazism to ISIS… and even to Trump voters). And he argues that this counter-Enlightenment wave is actually cresting in the present.

As the disorientation and furious change caused by liberal, democratic, individualist, consumerist society sweeps the entire globe, people everywhere, on every continent, are beginning to be consumed with the same violence and chaos that overcame Europe in the 20th century. People are angry because they feel shut out from the traditions and values of the past… while also feeling shut out from the future! There is only the volatile present.

The elite, Mishra points out, from Voltaire and Catherine the Great to Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, still triumph, even in a supposedly egalitarian, liberal model of society. Their vaunted philosophy may sound good rhetorically, but most people get left out all the same. So the disenfranchised turn to group identities, authenticity, order — all the ingredients of fascism and authoritarianism. Mishra notes in this context that Rousseau’s ideal society was the city-state of Sparta.

I explained to the group that this thesis, too, struck me as relying on a slight-of-hand, a reductionist approach not unlike Harari’s. For just because a moneyed and privileged elite emerges out of liberalism and capitalism, doesn’t mean that the whole Enlightenment project was and is a charade, does it? The principles of individual rights, equality under the law, free inquiry, and so on, enshrined in slogans like “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” are (pace Marx) not mere bourgeois propaganda.  Neither were they meant to occupy the entire ground of meaning in people’s lives.

They are procedural guides.

They were — and are —  as far as I understand them, simply intended to point the way towards a process by which people can create meaning for themselves in the most unobstructed way possible, without interfering with other people’s efforts to do the same. Liberal democracy can definitely be charged with hypocrisy and multiple and ongoing failures to create well-being, but that is not the same as suggesting that it is a scam. It may be deeply flawed and the best thing we have going.

Jaimey agreed that Mishra is following a telos in his book as well, and this requires him to see the Western Enlightenment project in a very skeptical light (after all, Jaimey pointed out, Mishra is writing form a post-colonial vantage point — and it is no doubt a necessary corrective to the blithering paeans to democracy and liberalism offered up by neoconservatives and the American media).

In order to point to the future, both books take a narrow and teleological view of the past. Perhaps this is unavoidable when trying to see ahead? You have to use one kind of lens or another?

3. More on the Question of Elitism

Our discussion of The Age of Anger led us into an extended discussion of elitism.

I argued that there are multiple definitions of “elite,” and the use of the same term for all of them leads, unhappily, to confusion. There is of course the moneyed, privileged elite — think Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the guest list at Mar-a-Lago, etc. But then there is what I think of as the “intellectual elite” — academics, policy experts, writers and scientists and artists.

To my mind, people on the Left often conflate the two, and as a result they sometimes… pour out the baby with the bath water, as the saying goes.

Hillary Clinton, for example, certainly has ties to both kinds of elites. But I would argue that her policy prescriptions, and likely her deepest commitments, are closer to the intellectual elite, whom most of us admire because they espouse roughly the values of liberal democracy. Despite her failings, Hillary probably does mean what she says when she talks about wanting equality and rights for all. She actually does want individuals of all stations and creeds and cultural traditions to be granted dignity, and given equal access to economic opportunity. Perhaps she doesn’t go far enough (free college tuition for all?), but when she doesn’t, to my mind, these are largely matters of degree and policy debate. Thus her ties to the economic elite (her own wealth, her speeches at Goldman Sachs, her resistance to seeking criminal prosecution of Wall Street after the crash of 2008), though real, do not represent, as far as I can tell, a nefarious attempt to bilk everyday men and women. In other words, it isn’t a scam.

Yet people let their frustrations about the rise of an “elite” make them cynical and even hostile towards liberal democracy as a whole, and often repulsed by the very people like Clinton who are its champions. My take is that, yes, there is a huge illiberal surge, just as Mishra suggests, and it is accurately represented by Trump supporters. But there is also a huge surge of people holding firm to liberal democratic values — expressed, for example, in the rapturous reception given by urban, privileged people (broadly speaking, what we might call the intellectual elite), to the musical “Hamliton.” Think of it as “Hamilton America.” It is strong too, perhaps even stronger than the atavistic forces of the Bannonites. Both of these forces are surging and powerful, at our present moment. That’s why I think that, despite its many failures and frustrations, we need to stand squarely with this liberal democratic culture, even at the risk of being associated with an “elite.”

Setenay suggested that before we try to impose our “Hamliton America” ( multi-cultural, pluralistic, liberal, democratic) values on the other half, we need to deliver for them in practical and economic ways. They need money, and access to jobs, and dignity. To this I answered: We can do both, can’t we?

But Setenay wasn’t that sure that these universal values can even be addressed before more fundamental concerns. What strikes her as more important than talk of values is to assess honestly where the power lies (I think of Lenin’s succinct question: “Who, whom?”). Yann took this argument up, saying that the reason that Trump voters have the views they do is actually because of inequality. Systemic inequality has led to poor education, discouragement, a cultural coming apart for many. No assertive, well-nourished, self-satisfied elite, talking about liberal democratic values of inclusion and tolerance will make a dent on the Trump base, without first creating more equality on the ground. The problem is circular, and it feeds on itself.

All of us agreed that the solutions are not obvious. Some of the forces are so big — automation, globalization, the dispersion of “fake news,” drug epidemics — that it is difficult to know how to counter them. Even where we can, it is increasingly difficult to get the elite to care (here is where there is certainly some overlap between the moneyed elite and the intellectual elite).

Yann is optimistic that even the most craven Mar-a-Lago denizens still want to live in a healthy and sustainable economy, and hence worry about the “unwashed masses,” to some limited extent. But he frets, too, that it used to be that the upper echelons of society actually needed the buy-in of majority of the people, for the simple reason that they required a large military and a productive workforce. In our digital, high-tech world of drones and robots, with the army and the workforce receding as felt needs, what will be the pressure, other than vague anxiety for the future of the country, to force the elite to care?

4. Claudia’s Timely Arrival

We were graced with the arrival of Claudia, who spoke directly to her experience working with people who face the raw end of the economy. She mentioned how many of the people she works with in the Alameda unified school district definitely feel a hard ceiling on their ambitions to rise in life. As a result, they are, as we would expect, resentful and angry.

She knows one Latina woman, for example, who voted for Trump for the simple reason that he promised to “make America great again” (this woman, Claudia reported, already regrets her vote). This one individual case seemed to me to support both sides of the equation! The problem of elitism is real. But the problem of misguided and even ignorant values in the ranks of the non-elite is real too. These two problems are intertwined, if not intractable.

5. Predicting the Future is a Fool’s Game

We ended the evening speaking briefly about our own visions for the future. I tried to stay away from describing a personal utopia (we had already done that at our Utopia meeting). Instead, I tried to describe what I think will actually occur…

Surely this kind of prognostication is impossible to do with any confidence, but what trends do we see magnified in the future?

I told the others that I tend to throw my hopes in with the eventual triumph of liberal democracy and socialist-leaning capitalism, once again (as it did in Europe and Japan after the disruption of the two world wars). With this hope in mind, I spun out an admittedly rosy scenario, in which the current upsurge of ressentiment described by Mishra resolves by, say, 2037?

Those many millions of people whose traditional cultures have been jettisoned and even assaulted by liberal, democratic, individualistic, consumerist values, will, I think, discover, over time, that new values do take root. Just as in present-day Sweden, or Australia, or Argentina, so in 20 years or so, will the people of Indonesia, and Nigeria, and Bangladesh learn to absorb a new, pluralistic, dizzying, sometimes confusing, but ultimately open-textured and liberating outlook on their lives. They will form reading groups to forge new meanings in this unsettled and unsettling world. Likewise, those in the already developed world in the West, who have watched resentfully over the past 20 years as their unfair and disproportionate share of the resources has slipped away, will learn to dial down their consumerist expectations. They will learn to accommodate themselves to what Thomas Friedman famously called the Flat World.

Oh, and the whole science of climate change turns out to be wrong! So there’s no ecological catastrophe. Wouldn’t that be nice. (Okay, my prediction ended up being a utopian vision, despite my best efforts to keep it neutral.)

Claudia spoke movingly of a future where a new set of values emerge, values which celebrate the “emotional life” of each person, as opposed to a combative, “compare and despair,” zero-sum game we presently find ourselves playing.

Setenay rejected my regulated capitalist/liberal/accommodationist utopia. She predicted that with the introduction of a basic universal income, and the expansion of health care as a right for all, the world will shift to a more communal model. Some private property rights may remain (you own your own house, for example), but after the “Rise Up” Revolution of 2026-32 there will be far more active redistribution of wealth, leading to increased opportunities.

In the end, we decided that we really don’t know what the future will bring. As Setenay pointed out, there will likely be “non-linear” events, such as an astroid creating an electro-magnetic pulse knocking out all communication satellites, which will set the world in a direction nobody could anticipate!

6. The Future of the Old New Way

As for the future of this group, The Old New Way, my inclination is to wind it down for the present.

We have had three years and a total of sixteen meetings. Sweet sixteen. Each one to me has proved invaluable. I find that I am clearer, three years later, in my thinking on so many questions that I had at the outset of this group.

I can also say, with pleasure, that the group has introduced to me at least as many questions that had never occurred to me before.

Thank you all, my friends, for participating, for pondering, for laughing, for debating, for dreaming.

With love and hope for a beautiful future, for as many people as possible,

Tom

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Notes on Our Fifteenth Meeting — DEPRESSION

We had a lively meeting. Considering the personal nature of our topic this time, I won’t give my usual dramatic rendering of our back-and-forth discussions.

Instead, here are a few of the areas we covered…

1. Depression as Both a Challenge and an Opportunity

Some members of the group spoke of their own or their family’s experiences with depression, and how it presents at once a challenge and an opportunity.

When you finally recognize depression for what it is, they agreed, there is a kind of relief to be had.

You have to accept that it is not likely to go away, this shadowy character (one member even gives her depression a name: “Demetrio,” a dangerous, handsome, dark-haired figure, always trailing her and looking for vulnerable moments to step into her life. She likes him but knows to keep him at bay).

Instead of trying to abolish depression from your life, these members explained, you learn to cordon it off, control it, anticipate its attempts to insert itself. Perhaps, too, you learn to avoid its familiar means of access, like alcohol or lack of sleep or poor nutrition.

One member spoke of making it conscious (so far as possible) and willfully turning his back to it, all the while knowing that at times he might have to face it again to subdue it.

Some spoke of learning to recognize its lies, particularly its false certainties about the utter emptiness of life or… their own shame and failure. “Ah,” you might say to yourself when your thoughts begin to gravitate towards a particularly brutal assessment of life or yourself, “I have heard that before!” You learn to discount the language depression uses to draw you in.

One member spoke of how she has actually learned to love her capacity for depression. Acceptance, in her case, does not require passive resignation. Instead, she has learned to celebrate the wide-ranging emotions given to her by depression. She plays “big,” as she put it. So she has learned to think of her depression as more than a threat, but as something that is the shadow side… of a part of herself which she cherishes. She wouldn’t want it any other way. It just requires more vigilance than for some who live with more of an even keel.

2. Depression As Seen From the Vantage Point of… Infinity?

Should depression be understood as a heroic struggle for Meaning in the face of the infinite abyss?

Or should be understood, to the contrary, as merely a frustrating set-back and time-suck in a person’s admittedly finite life, something to be given no particular value (or no more than, say, shingles)?

I suggested that the ways we talk about depression seem to fall into one of these two camps.

In the first camp you have Tolstoy’s Confessions (which Setenay summarized for us), or the “dread” of the existentialists, or traditional religious narratives of sin and redemption through faith. At least since the early 1800s we have the popular conception of the moody, shaggy-headed genius, heroically resisting the conventions of society or the world, at a cost.

George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2).jpg

Lord Byron, depressed genius.

In the second camp you have William Styron’s and Sylvia Plath’s memoirs, both of which are descriptive of a grim ride down to the rock bottom… pretty much without redemption. I mentioned in this context that perhaps I like Kafka so much because he doesn’t give his protagonists a heroic stature when he depicts their despair and disorientation. Yet somehow he makes their narrative arcs compelling to his reader anyway. Deeply depressed himself, he manages to straddle this gap between the heroic and the mundane.

3. Social and Cultural Aspects of Depression

We talked at one point about how different cultures, and different generations within cultures, have developed different norms around depression.

Jaimey mentioned how first-generation Holocaust survivors generally resisted speaking about their experiences. Yet as we see in the documentary Shoah, when pushed by the filmmaker’s insistent questions, they finally can be made to break down emotionally. Is anything gained by making them talk in the face of such pain — other than satisfying our prurient interest?

The filmmaker in that case faced criticism for pushing them too far. Yet…their sons and daughters and grandsons and grand daughers often seek talk therapy to enable them to emotionally process their family histories. Is one approach right, and the other wrong?

Setenay talked about how some Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide, particularly those still living in Europe, preferred not to speak of it, while their American children (in a group she attended) actively sought to put the pain and suffering of that experience into words. What is perceived as good for one generation may not be perceived that way by the next.

This brought us to a discussion about how depression has been feminized in American culture, so that men are often depicted as stoic and silent… but rarely labeled as depressed (Florence brought up Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas as an exception to this). We talked about how it is surprising that there are so few words for such a nuanced state: “melancholia” being one, “anomie” another, “ennui,” “malaise.”

It seems to be difficult to speak about — words fail. We are just scratching at the surface of our understanding of this aspect of experience.

4. The Relevance of Childhood Trauma or Loss to Adult Depression

Some members of the group spoke of painful events in their childhoods, and how these events continue to drive their darkest times.

Yet some of these same people noted that, at a certain age, they were able to distance themselves from it. “That was not me, and it had very little to do with me!” they tell themselves, and a great weight lifts.

Whether through geographic distance — moving to another coast — or simply through the passage of time, some people are able to adjust their focus to keep those old neural networks from lighting up too brightly.

I mentioned how in The Crack-Up F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of refusing to hold a “sad attitude towards sadness” or a “tragic attitude towards tragedy” — instead drawing a bright-line distinction between the hardships of his life and his own self. After coming across it a few weeks ago, I have found this observation useful for my own life. Since then I have reminded myself on a few occasions not to over-identify myself with my circumstances and the daily, hourly emotional responses I have to them. This is of course part of the practice of Buddhism, as well as aspects of all religious traditions (“turning it over to God,” etc.).

Some in the group who had enjoyed happy childhoods spoke of the opposite challenge: not so much trying to establish a useful distance from childhood trauma but, rather, trying to find ways to cope with the relentless, almost banal accumulation of suffering as we grow older.

In this respect, I admitted that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, and his struggle to bear up under the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” didn’t speak to me at all as a younger man. “What is this guy’s problem?” I thought to myself. “Why would anyone want to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’?”

Yet as life has gone on, I can relate more. At least I understand now what Hamlet is asking. How are we to deal with our suffering? When does the burden become greater than the reward? These are unquestionably valid questions at 48; they seemed silly to me at 18.

5. Achieving a Clarity of Understanding 

Some members pointed out that understanding itself may have quite important role to play in the avoidance of depression

Not only can people start to recognize depression’s language and familiar means of access, and hence tamp it down when it tries to poke its ugly head into their lives. More than that, some suggested that clarity of understanding can sometimes turn depression into something more akin to grief. It makes our response to suffering a manageable feeling as opposed to an intractable condition.

For some, the capacity to clearly understand and articulate the sources of suffering, when they were children, helped them to order it and contain it and overcome it in later years. For one member, it wasn’t even her own understanding. It was her friend’s extraordinary clarity at the time of her death that brought a sense of gratitude and peace, which would have been otherwise difficult to find.

We talked about how in an evolutionary sense perhaps depression has a distinct purpose. Maybe it functions to… slow… us… busybody… bipedal primates… down. To shift our attention away from our usual daily tasks towards more large-scale problems of existence in a longer time-frame. Maybe this is useful on some occasions.

In a fascinating way, when it comes to depression it seems that what goes on in our heads directly impacts our neurochemical state — and the reverse as well. Our heads and our bodies are working in such complicated ways together that it is not possible, sometimes, to distinguish where one begins and the other leaves off (ok, don’t say, “The neck?” — you know what I mean).

6. Taking Leave

As it got to be 11, we had to leave the discussion there.

Thank you to all who came and shared your reflections. What a rare and valuable opportunity to discuss some of the more unpleasant aspects of life with an open-hearted and open-minded group of friends.

See you next meeting!

Notes on Our Fourteenth Meeting — THE LIVING PLANET

The Possible Hypocrisy of Our Professed Love for Nature

I launched us off by talking about the constant tension I feel between my desire, on the one hand, to have the living world matter, really matter, for me — as a sensual experience and as a source of emotional and moral guidance — and then, on the other hand, my guilty sense that I will never stop exploiting its resources.

Don and Yann sat near me on the sofa, which is covered with the skins of multiple cows. A fire burned behind me, which happened to be fed by gas… but I confessed that I have no doubt that if it demanded logs I would happily throw another onto it when the flames grew small.

Sometimes my rapture about nature, and our insistence on our deep embeddedness in it, strikes me as… obviously hypocritical.

“Aren’t we like SS officers,” I asked, “sitting around our bunker in the death camp, talking sentimentally about how much we love the sacred singing of those inmates in House #13?” We love nature in a sentimental way, while all the time we ruthlessly exploit it.

Yann spoke up to say that this ignored the many gray areas. Yes, we exploit nature, and we always will. But as our awareness grows of our interconnectedness we can do just a little bit better to treat the living world with respect and care. The abuse of the orcas in Sea World is coming to an end in the U.S. because public awareness was raised. Many of us purchase cage-free chicken eggs, even at an increased price. We do not clear-cut forests in as many places now, but rather, like the author of The Hidden Life of Trees does in Germany, we devote ourselves to considering how best to maintain eco-systems (well, until Trump reverses all that).

“So I get it, you’re saying we are not so much SS officers,” I answered. “We’re more like… the low-level Polish guards standing in the snow. They do what they can to sneak a crust of bread into the hands of an emaciated inmate, making it just a little bit better, while still earning their pay.”

The hypocrisy still troubles me (all unfortunate Holocaust analogies aside). Which is it? Do we want to open ourselves to nature as equals, or do we want to persevere in our primate-based habit of dominance?

After all, I pointed out, we like dominance; we can’t deny it. We like scoring a winning goal in soccer. We like it sexually, sometimes (to varying degrees). We like the thrill of power when we accomplish something significant in a public arena. Would we really ever be willing to abdicate that aspect of ourselves in order to maintain a more harmonious and equitable relationship with the living world?

Death and Vegetables

Don talked of how he struggles with this question of power on a very personal level. Already a vegetarian for some 30 years, he even wonders about the ethics of eating vegetables! This started when he became aware that the needs and vitality of plants are not as different from our own as we like to think.

In response, I shared with him an excerpt from a book by Dorian Sagan, Death & Sex, (brought to my attention by Setenay) in which Sagan describes how our very mortality is bound up in our shared evolutionary history with plants. Sagan eloquently points to how we are all bound up in a cycle of birth and death, so even as Don eats a plant he can recognize that he too will be “eaten,” disposed of, turned back into humus someday. It goes back to the process of sexual reproduction, which require that the “older generation” becomes unnecessary once sperm meets egg (or archegonium, as the case may be) to create new life.

Sagan points to the earliest fossil record of sex:

“The oldest ejaculation in the fossil record occurs in the Devonian, 408 to 363 million years ago. The paleological preservation of the salacious scene is reminiscent of the erotic frescoes of erotic paintings preserved at the village of Mount Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius. Long before humanity, the earliest preserved ejaculation took place among a member of the Rhyniophyta, a phylum that contains the first land plants, which began to diversify some four hundred million years ago. The act was caught in flagrante delicto by chert, fine crystalline quartz with an uncanny ability to preserve fossils. Algaophyton major is one of the most common plants in the volcanically preserved Rhynie Chert, named for the nearby village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Early in the colonization of land by plants, and before the evolution of true leaves, the fast-setting minerals preserved a host of petrified plant, fungal, lichen, and animal specimens. (Animals evolved earlier but came to land after plants.)

“Since sex usually occurs in water, it doesn’t tend to preserve well. But in one four-hundred-million-year-old silica-rich deposit local changes in pH remobilized some of the silica, leaving behind thin films of the original organic material. In the specimen the chert beautifully preserved the plant’s delicate archegonium (from goni, Hindi for ‘sack,’ akin to yoni, Sanskrit for ‘vagina’) — the female sex organ. Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaphyton’s antheridium, its male sex organ — filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the ‘money shot’ of pornographic films — an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer’s Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record.”

Detailed preservation of sperm ejection from sporangia in the Rhynie Chert fossil

Sagan continues:

“The sexual reproductive cycles that got swinging not even a billion years ago, brought with them a frightening complementary motion, the switching from side to side of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. With meiosis came mortality because going back to sperm and eggs eventually meant discarding those trillions of somatic cells that, although having brilliantly served their purpose, were not directly represented in evolution. And with reproductive sex came programmed cell and differentiated body death, because evolutionarily our bodies are husks, biodegradable reserves of valuable bioelements that belong to the ecosystem and must be returned, like overdue books, after performing their natural duty of keeping going the larger energetic process. Personally, as intelligent animals, we identify as individual bodies. Although easier said than done, the mystics advocate a larger view in which we identify with the cycles of natural energy-transforming forms, as well as release from such cycles, which they call nirvana. Creeping behind the bright prospect of Mesozoic ginkgo-sniffing reptiles, primeval ejaculators, and the first fragrant flowers was that dark figure, the inevitability of their demise. A melancholy note was struck in the cosmic love machine [underlining added].”

Setenay read aloud Sagan’s conclusion that our involvement in this cycle of sex and death has a consoling spiritual aspect:

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

Or as David Abrams puts it, in his Becoming Animal:

“As an omnivore, an eater of the flesh of plants and sundry animals, willing to taste almost anything… I find myself entwined in a great gift of economy, wherein each life partakes of other lives and gives of itself in return… If we ingest the land’s nourishment not only through our eyes and ears but also through our hungry mouths — chomping leaves, seeds, and muscles with our teeth, moistening them with our saliva, and swallowing them down into our depths, incorporating the world’s flesh into our own — it can only be so because we too are edible. Because we, too, are food.”

Does that make you feel any better, Don? The knowledge, as you chomp down on a piece of broccoli, that you will die too?

What It Takes Truly to Appreciate Nature

In talking about his own relationship with the living world, Ken mentioned Martin Buber’s writing on the value of moving from an “I-It” relationship with nature to an “I-Thou” relationship.

He had previously sent to me by email this excerpt from Buber, which I will include in full now:

Notes on Our Thirteenth Meeting — SECULARISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS

As the meeting began we talked a little about Charles Taylor’s book, A SECULAR AGE. But we quickly moved on to more personal reflections on how we feel about living without supernaturalism.

1. The Many Different Paths to Meaning

Claudine spoke up to tell us about a conversation she had recently with a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley. He argued forcefully that all meaning reduces down, ultimately, to the question of power. The rest is just idle talk. “Who are you, living in imperialist America, to waste your time with discussions of secularism and the supernatural while people are dying from your government’s abusive policies in the Middle East?” he asked.

This reminded me of Soviet ideology in its heyday. A “New Soviet Man” proudly rejected the attenuated, bourgeoise intellectualizing of the West. He avoided abstract questions about “meaning” (separate from specific historical circumstances), in favor of “praxis.”

And I was right! It turned out that Claudine’s interlocutor was, indeed, Russian and had spent his formative years in the Soviet Union.

We agreed that this unnamed anthropology professor’s approach — seeking “praxis” and looking to power as the primary lens with which to determine one’s meaning in the world — is one of many possible approaches to living in a secular age. Even Obama seems to hold a version of this, when you consider the sacrifices he has been willing to make in the name of “passing the baton“.

Others include:

  1. Art Appreciation and the Pursuit of Beauty
  2. Tourism/Adventure
  3. Physical Risk-Taking (free diving, wingsuit flying, river rafting, etc.)
  4. Dandyism/Fashion (i.e. self-presentation)
  5. Free Love/Sexuality
  6. Athletic Training/Competition
  7. Pursuit of Excellence (chess, spelling bees, handicrafts)
  8. Nature-loving
  9. Social networking
  10. Consumerism
  11. Awards/Recognition
  12. Ecstatic dance

…and many more.

I confessed that none of these is my single-minded path to meaning. Yet I do have a yearning for some kind of solace, something that would help me navigate the bare and often brutal facts of daily life.

As it is, my closest approximation to a path is an insistence of the importance of… love. I wondered if this is a residue of my upbringing, which was influenced by my mother’s early exposure to the themes of love and forgiveness in Christianity.

Is love enough?

(I also used to have the “civic religion” of the American experiment to hang my hat on — “that all men are created equal,” “the last best hope of earth, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” “I have a dream,” and all that. But Trump’s election, and my resentment at the voters, and my concerns about human beings’ obvious cognitive flaws, to put it bluntly, have complicated that one. I’m sad to say that I am now far more skeptical of democracy as a source of meaning than I used to be.)

2. Does Our Secularism Have Discontents?

Yann asked everybody in the room to raise their hands if they sometimes yearned for something other than the brute and bare facts of daily life, as I had just confessed that I do.

To our surprise, only Setenay and I raised our hands! The other 10 or so in the room sided with Yann in affirming that they do not seek anything beyond the material/natural facts of the world — what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” This world, this life, is enough for them.

Yann elaborated a little on his position. Generously paraphrasing a toast I gave at a dinner party years ago, he said that he sees our “tiny planet” as precious place in a “vast, cold, impersonal universe.” And that vision, fixed in his mind at all times, is enough to flood him with curiosity and appreciation for what we have.

Jaimey explained that, having grown up as a child in a hippie community, with a non-religious father and a Buddhist mother, during a skeptical time (the Vietnam war dragged on), he has never looked for more that what is. Jaimey also mentioned that he thinks that his father’s habits as a therapist shaped his response to the world; he finds himself approaching problems in terms of a process and not looking for a definitive answer.

For Jaimey, then, the process is the answer.

A number of group members suggested that they turn to “nature” for all the solace they need.

Florence revealed to us that the relentless focus of our Old New Way discussions on the needs, relationships, and values of human beings, increasingly bores her. She sees humans as only one animal amid a panoply of life-forms, including plants. And she wishes that we could shed our obsession with our own human minds and bodies and learn more directly about the plants and trees and grasses and algae and plasma that surround us.

I pointed out that we too, as a particular species of primates, are part of nature. Moreover, our particular modes of thinking are unavoidable — however hard we try, we will never think like trees. (As Florence pointed out, the time scale of a tree, for one, is so removed from ours.) But it goes both ways, I added: they can’t think like us either! So I said that while I appreciated Florence’s intention, to my mind the renunciation of a human-centered approach is folly. We are stuck with ourselves, whether we like it or not.

In this regard, I mentioned what I consider the folly of the poet Robinson Jeffers’ famous “anti-humanism”,  a worldview that, unfortunately, pervades his poetry. Jeffers consistently denigrates human beings, while gorgeously and memorably praising the rest of the natural world. But this is, as far as I can tell, simply the inverse of the Great Chain of Being assumptions that he grew up with. (His father was a Christian minister. Oedipus complex, anyone?) I urged Florence to resist trying to rank us against the natural world, either way. Humans don’t belong on top, sure. But neither do we belong on the bottom.

3. Nature as the Go-To Source of Meaning

Yann mentioned a recent hike to a mountaintop with his son when he felt a communion with nature.

Natalie mentioned how, as a birth doula, she made a point to embrace a giant redwood tree outside of Alta Bates hospital in order to ground herself before each childbirth.

Anne talked about a powerful experience she had once hang-gliding off a cliff in Marin, when a hawk flew alongside her as she landed.

Setenay mentioned that she feels a deep, unspoken connection when walking among redwood trees, even though she only saw one for the first time at the age of 27.

But again, this connection to nature, as powerful as it is, struck me as only one of many possible paths to meaning. Nothing wrong with it. Certainly, it is a tranquil and non-violent form of communion in most of its expressions. (Hunting is an exception.) But is it really enough for them?

I wondered aloud whether the passion and centeredness and feelings of love and communion that Yann, Flo, Nathalie, Anne and Setenay (and all of us) feel in the connection to nature are not so unlike the passion and centeredness and feelings of love and communion that members of ISIS feel at the end of the day when they sit down for tea in their compound in Syria…

After all, their limbic responses to their sensations of comradery are natural too as human beings. Isn’t the attachment to a mountaintop or a tree or a hawk gliding in the air operating on a similar neurological basis as the attachment of a jihadi to his fellow jihadis? Life-form to life-forms on this tiny planet.

And if we can’t make useful distinctions, then don’t we come crashing back to the brute and bare facts of this world all over again?

4. Meaning as Practice… or Manipulation?

Ken spoke of his experiences years ago on a kibbutz in Israel. He admitted that despite the moving times he had, in the end he could not commit to the supernatural beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. Hence he felt it was time to move on. Jaimey pointed out that even in a religious setting there will always be varying degrees of belief among the members. So religion can be seen as more of a practice than a belief system. Certainly, Reform Judaism, or the Unitarian Universalist Church, or Buddhism all take this more open-ended approach.

For Claudine, though, all of these religious traditions, even in their most moderate forms, are effectively manipulating people’s natural limbic needs and desires. She felt exploited by them when she was younger. Anne mentioned that she did too, and that was why she refused to attend church as a young girl despite her mother’s angry insistence. Jaimey tended to agree that this is what religions do, even in their moderate forms.

5. The Analogy to Romantic Love

I shared my friend Oliver’s recent suggestion that a religious commitment may not be that unlike the experience of romantic love. It is not subject to refutation or rationalization. It represents a surge of energy in one’s limbic system, and survives on that basis.

How I long for my limbic system to “light up” in the way that I have experienced romantic love, but in a larger context than a single couple! The ecstasy produced would be almost unbearable. Despite my resistance to supernaturalism, I do sometimes envy the limbic ecstasy that religion provides its followers. Even while I agree with Claudine and Jaimey that they are being manipulated.

So I am therefore left at an impasse: I want something “bigger” than the quotidian facts of my life, something to hold my suffering and inspire me in moments of frailty, but I don’t expect to find it. I want more than the social, the constructed, the fleeting and ephemeral, whatever it is we happen to generate while we “follow our bliss.” Yet I am too skeptical to subscribe to any unitary perspective on meaning (no New Soviet Man or even Burning Man acolyte, I). Even more than that, I see any such exclusive commitments to be damaging and stifling. The desire remains, though, even while I know it cannot be satisfied.

6. Imagine

At one point I shared with the group that in preparation for this meeting I had been reflecting on John Lennon’s much adored anthem for atheism and honesty, “Imagine.”

I told the group that after so many years of tearing up to this song and singing along in the car, I had only in the last few days realized that John Lennon let a flaw into it, a lie. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” he sings…

“You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one”

Up until the last line, I am with him entirely. And I would like so much for even that last line to ring true!

But of course the world will never “be as one.”

We are diverse. We have conflicting interests. We have different taste, different agendas, different ideas. We will organize around passions that do not sit well together.

He may be right that world would be improved if we lived with “no possessions” and “above us only sky,” but it will never be unified by any one point of view. The truth is that this is a problem that cannot be resolved… because the problem/non-problem is our existence itself. (Jaimey’s turn to accepting the process as the answer comes to mind.)

7. Living in the Body and not the Brain

The hour was getting late, as another poet of our time would have it.

Nathalie, on her way out, remarked that the discussion was too “heady” for her. “I live more in here,” she said, gesturing with both hands down the length of her body. (Alas, as interesting as our discussions are in this group, I would venture that we all feel this frustration at times. It is so hard to speak to one another with our hearts fully open.)

Walden spoke of “stopping the chatter” of his mind and living with more of a direct connection to the world. This, he said, would also help him live his moral mantra to “not act like an asshole.” The chatter, in his view, leads to assholic behavior.

Towards the end of the meeting I played a song, Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee.” After the song ended, I described how on Christmas day, with my wife Renée dozing on the sofa next to me by the fire, I had played this song on an old crackling LP.

I had felt touched by Muddy Waters’ representation on the guitar of the meandering, key-shifting buzz of a honey bee. I had also felt touched by the sadness underlying the singer’s acceptance of his “honey bee”… when she comes back home after making honey in so many places without him. The song seems to live in a space beneath the chatter. It definitely speaks to the body as well as the brain.

8. Some Questions Facing the Old New Way at this Juncture

We concluded with a brief conversation about the Old New Way as a reading group. After two and half years, where do we go from here?

Earlier in the meeting, of course, most of the members present had admitted to having very little interest in my desire to find and refine a non-supernatural language through these discussions. I had thought that we were in this together! But it turned out that for Yann and the others (with the possible exception of Setenay, and perhaps Don?), these meetings simply represent an opportunity to discuss intellectually substantive topics with like-minded people. For all they care, these meetings could be about calligraphy, as much as about love or utopia. The point is that we share a secular worldview, but unlike me they don’t feel a need to explore the ramifications of this worldview in terms of meaning and action.

So in some sense this called into question the nature of our group. Am I, as the organizer, alone in my Quixotic quest to find and refine a non-supernatural language of meaning for our present day lives? Does the rest of the group merely look onto my efforts with bemused affection? If so, does that realization steer us in a different direction? Or do we carry on as before?

We broke up in good spirits. All good inquiries.

It was nice to have Walden and his son, Alex, stay for a bit while I was putting away dishes. We spoke of suffering. As usual, Walden was not an asshole.

Notes on Our Twelfth Meeting — UTOPIA

It was good to launch into the new year of Old New Way. After drinks and refreshments, as usual, we headed into the living room at 8:30.

1.  Three Levels of Utopia

I started us off by recounting what I had clarified for myself while reading and reflecting on the theme of utopia over the past month.

I explained that I had come into this topic, back in August, with an unstable notion of utopia as something both universal and yet curiously specific too.

Like most people, I had large-scale dreams of fairer resource distribution, equality of opportunity, ending the release of carbon into the atmosphere, eliminating poverty, establishing peace on earth, all that good stuff.

But I also had small-scale dreams of strolling under leafy trees and across lush meadows with like-minded people, planting seeds together until the sweat dripped off our brows, gathering in houses built by our own hands. At night, I imagined us enjoying rapturous dances to live music, under a full moon. Happy to do my shifts cooking, dishwashing, and helping with the childcare, by the way! That kind of thing.

As I read and reflected, though (I already described some of my process in the Diary post below), I realized that there are actually three quite distinct levels of utopia.

i.

First, there is the level of the “meta-utopia” (the political philosopher Robert Nozick helped me grasp this one). The meta-utopia is the overarching structure of society and government and economics holding it all together. Currently, in the developed world, this structure is called free-market capitalism with varying amounts of a social net, or, more succinctly, “neoliberalism”.

Other models of meta-utopia, scattered around the globe, include: dictatorship, theocracy, socialism, and there are even still some remnants of Communism. A handful of the books that I read invoking utopia (e.g. Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams) insist that, whether we like it or not, we are currently transitioning out of neoliberalism to a “postcapitalist” and “post-work” society, in which the increasing automation of work allows for a basic universal income.

I confessed to the group that on this “meta-utopia” question, I have no idea what structure, if any, would be optimal for the world as a whole.

The complicated questions of how to more efficiently, more equitably, distribute resources, how to minimally interfere with aspirations of human beings all around the world, in so many different geographical and cultural settings, are simply beyond my limited ability to resolve. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the US Constitution, the Paris Agreement — all of these are, to my mind, laudatory attempts to organize society on this level. If we combine these global institutions with the careful regulation of the market economy (laws that reign in the financial sector, pharmaceuticals, monopolistic entities, etc.), does all of this, in fact, constitute the best of all possible worlds?

Probably not.

Maybe we could do better?

I’m honestly not sure. (Makes me think of Churchill’s remark that “democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others that have been tried.”)

Would a universal basic income, as proffered by the New Left, provide a more optimal meta-utopia? The more I thought about it, the more I found I have concerns about the unintended consequences of this “post-work” vision. How does it change incentives? What would people do with their time and energy? The truth is that I have concerns with our current politics AND the alternatives.

Over all, then, I realized that — shocking, I know (terrifying to Setenay, I am sure) — I have nothing definitive to say about this first level of utopia.

Well, there is one universal change I would make. I would lean, of course, towards discouraging supernaturalism and “faith” talk of all kinds (aka religion), since I think these outdated ways of thinking cause many more problems psychologically than they solve. So perhaps that is one meta-utopian modification I would make if I could: I would actively establish a global institution, not unlike the ICC,  with the mission of protecting freedom of conscience worldwide, against the imposition of supernatural claims by states or individual actors.

Other than that, I’m not sure what to dream for the world as a whole.

ii.

But then there’s the second level of utopian thinking. Here we come to the small-scale, more enchanting utopias that we all conjure up to comfort ourselves on bland or otherwise hard days.

I shared with the group that when I feel adrift in our technology-driven, consumerist nightmare of 21st century life, I find myself drawn to a primitivist sensibility. I long for the way I imagine the Ohlone or Miwok Indians lived in these same hills, under these same oak trees.

We might call this second level “local utopia.” I acknowledge, though, that my own quirky vision of a limited, local community, living harmoniously with nature, has no more weight than another person’s vision of an urban community, full of flashing lights, psychotropic enhancements, free love and jangling voices. To each his or her own. Even my wife and I would not agree on this one (she wants symphonies; I could get by on birdsong).

Recognizing this diversity of local utopias, I see how important it is that our meta-utopia enables each of us to pursue our more substantive dream as far as possible. Think Tom Cruise and the Scientologists. Think surf bums. Think militia groups in Texas. In the U.S., with a certain degree of privilege, you are pretty free to do this. But that’s a big caveat, as many do not have the time or resources even to consider it.

iii.

Finally, I concluded, there is a third level of utopia: the immediate. We might call it “inner utopia.”

This is what emerged for me, spontaneously, when I put a pencil to paper on the day before the meeting. It doesn’t have anything to do with structure of society as a whole, or even the schedule of who plants seeds and who cleans up in our local communal garden. It is a matter of mind, rather than place.

Here’s what came out of me when I sat down to write. To my surprise, it took the form of a poem:

 

UTOPIA

Fair fields and wood-beamed halls

Sandy roads, leveled by hand

To each according to each according to each

Generous helpings for all

These are other people’s utopias

Mine is smaller

 

It is your back

It is your wrist

It is us having

Just a little more time

Before we die

 

Now when I think about utopia I will think of it with a little more clarity and ask myself, first, which level of utopia am I considering: meta, local or inner?

2. Utopias Around the Room

Next, we went around the room and heard a little of each member’s utopia.

Claudine started. She presented a transparent sphere, illuminated from within by light violet and orange and pink glowing lights. When we looked more closely, we saw a female figure floating in the center of the sphere. Claudine said this was her utopia.

At first I thought she was saying this satirically, as in, “We can only find utopia when we are alone and removed from all contact with other people! Just let me float silent and alone in my crystal sphere!” That’s not what she was saying, though. Claudine explained to the group that the object she brought in was a positive one in her mind.

It represented the serenity and peace that she feels she needs to find first, if she is to find utopia. To Claudine, then, the project of utopia begins with the “inner” level.

Dean pointed out that all governments, all campaigns — to cut to the chase, almost all human activity requires utopian thought. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for example, are unmistakably utopian documents. (The Port Huron Statement is another one that comes to mind, as I write this.)

Dean worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Bernie’s calls for a less wealth inequality, more fairness, free higher education for all, single-payer health care, definitely invoked utopia. Even though he is by nature a skeptic, Dean admitted, he nevertheless finds himself drawn to fighting for specific goals. The future matters.

Marie-José and Renée both mentioned that their Catholic upbringings had largely soured them on utopian thinking. They both associate the word “utopia” with heaven — in opposition to hell. Since this whole dichotomy strikes them both, ever since they were young, as ridiculous and destructive, talk of utopia has these unfortunate connotations too. To them, as recovering Catholics, the world is a place of nuance and adjustment and daily commitments, not idle fictions that will never be achieved.

Setenay said that her utopia would have to apply fairly and equitably to ALL people around the world. She is suspicious of the effort to conjure up local utopias that do not take into account people in the world who cannot afford to dream. Start with resources. Get people food and water and basic medical care first, before you step off into First World la-la land and talk of meditation centers and ritual dances. She is a meta-utopian, we might say.

Florence had written in to say that addressing climate change, for her, supersedes all utopian thought. Get the planet fixed, make sure humanity survives the next century, and then we can talk more specifically about how we live. But the control of carbon and other toxic chemicals has to inform how we think about the daily patterns of our lives.

Eliana, visiting from NYC, mentioned that she and a few friends have been focused, recently, on the challenge of moving from eros to agape, that is, the challenge of broadening possessive, “romantic” love to a more inclusive, compassionate love. Her utopia would be a psychological one, in which we broaden our capacities as primates, and thereby improve our species ability to co-exist. This struck me as very close to John Lennon’s emphasis, in his post-Beatles solo work, on love and its transformative power. It involves “inner” utopia, no doubt, but moves quickly to questions of local and even meta utopia…

Anshu spoke of her struggle to find utopia among the hurly-burly of life. She thanked Claudine for her sphere, saying that it moved her. And she stressed the need for personal agency, calling Renée a strong example of that.

3. Conclusion

By the end of the evening, I felt good. We had comfortably and safely talked about our dreams for a better world, and as far as I know, no one had been made to feel embarrassed.  We had revealed some of our private wishes.

That, to me, felt like the right place to start: talking to one another, openly, about how things might be better.

It occurred to me, after the meeting, that utopian thinking is by its very nature a collective enterprise. It’s hard, if not impossible, to do alone. So the task I had given the group, to bring in a representation or expression of your own utopia, had the order reversed!

If we were ever to get serious about utopia, clearly we would need to form a separate group, dedicated to this idea and nothing else. We would have to spend at least a year, maybe more, just talking, freely and unabashedly, about our dreams before we even agreed on the first rule or sanded down the first wood beam.

Thanks for coming, everybody. Please add anything I forgot in the comments.

See you next month!

Notes on Our Eleventh Meeting — PHOTOGRAPHY

We gathered as usual at 8 pm. In a burst of optimism, I sent my kids upstairs, telling them to get their pajamas on, brush their teeth, and put themselves to bed. By 8:30 we moved into the living room.

1. Tom’s Presentation: What Do Photos Do For Us?

I talked a little about my own bafflement about why I post to Facebook. What is the purpose in my mind? But then I shifted the question to what a photo means to me in a purely private sense.

Yann caught this shift and clarified that… we were no longer talking about social media, then? I took his correction and tried to narrow my point of what a photograph means to each one of us privately.

Still, as our discussion got underway, it all got mixed up anyway!

Setenay remarked that she posts photos online mostly for her family in Turkey to view. So Facebook functions for her a kind of convenient photo-album. She feels that photographs are always nostalgic and sentimental. They are also celebrations, though. But perhaps, she suggested, there is another use of them: as a way to construct meaning in our lives.

Marie-José mentioned that, for her, photographs play a very different role: they simply provide a method by which to capture the unique way she sees the world. For example, she said, she may see two lines intersecting on a light post, or on a store window, and she will snap a quick photograph of that. This happens all day long, little instances when she wants to hold a moment in time. At home, Marie-José confessed, she spends a lot of time organizing and sifting through her digital photos, categorizing them by theme and visual impact.

Kristen said that because photos capture time they give her pleasure — she does not dwell on the loss, or even feel nostalgic, but instead the memories lift her.

I mentioned how the more I have learned about the neural plasticity of our brains, the more suspicious I have become of recorded images. According to neuroscience,  photographs and home videos, once viewed, will dominate our memories whether we want them to or not. Other, more elusive memories will not merely get crowded out or overpowered; they will, in effect, get erased.

For that reason I am glad that I have never watched Renée’s and my wedding video — I want the experience of that day to stay rich and strange in my mind and not get reduced to a single, somewhat arbitrary perspective.

2. Yann’s Question about “Arabic” vs. “Western” Understandings of Photographs

Yann brought up that he has read that in the “Arab” (Muslim?) world art is not understood as a separate realm of beauty and aspiration than crafts. Art is work like any other kind of work. There is shoddy work. There is excellent work. That applies to making a chair. It applies equally to painting a portrait.

In the West we are accustomed to this idea of an artist inhabiting a separate realm — that of the “fine” arts (or so we call it). “Where do members of the group stand on this question?” he asked. “Do you have the “Arabic” view or the “Western” one? Is art more elevated?

A number of people responded that they think of art as just another craft.

I mentioned that for years I have been feeling that the deluge, the vast quantity of art that reaches us now (through the entertainment delivery systems like Netflix and Xfinity, Youtube, etc.) has changed our understanding of what artists do.

Artists are no longer as rarefied as they used to be. Especially young people seem to celebrate all forms of creativity on equal grounds these days. In fact, some time over the past 10 years we have lost the high-brow, low-brow distinction entirely! (For example, a ridiculous but effective clay-mation story on Youtube may be valued as highly as much as a 16th century poem by John Donne. It’s a “whatever works for you” kind of thing.)

Manon spoke up to say that there does seem to be something about making art that is distinct from crafts.

She ran a preschool for many years, and she described for the group how, on occasion, one of the children’s drawing would turn out to be obviously spectacular. Just the right arrangement of colors and textures. A strange thematic unity. A shocking perspective on, say, what a brother looks like, or a dad (in my own family, I always wondered why I looked so dippy in my children’s early drawings — what devastating truth were they seeing to make them draw me like that? But that’s another story).

But these occasional triumphs of form by preschool-aged children are not the same as art, Manon, argued. Art, to her, is qualitatively different when an artist aspires to a great drawing, than when a child stumbles upon it.

Picking up on this point, I asked Yann if it wasn’t true that some singular mind, some unique artistic sensibility, has to be in charge, even in building the non-representational patterns in the mosques of the Middle East. Surely someone instructed the craftsmen (were there, are there, craftswomen?) to use only aqua-blue and yellow tiles in this one section; to broaden the arc here, and hollow out the bricks just so.

So there was a singular mind, then, with a clear vision, behind the “art,” wasn’t there? Even if it is true that it wasn’t and isn’t valued any more highly than a craft. There is a distinction, even if it isn’t recognized.

I said I agreed with Manon that there strikes me as something missing if we abandon the value the West has (at least since the 17th century) placed on the aspirations of the artist to communicate, not merely to decorate.

4. Art as Communication

Walden followed on this by suggesting that art is nothing more than a form of communication. That is its function. This led to a discussion about Aristotle’s Politics, and his point that outside of society, outside of the polis, “man is either a god or a beast.” That a human life only flourishes in a social setting. I described how this insight was a turning point for me when I was studying philosophy. I had entered graduate school looking for my own individual sense of right and wrong; I left looking to define the values of the world as I wanted it to look. (I was influenced by Richard Rorty in this outlook as well.)

3. Photography

The rest of the meeting we spent, with great pleasure, sharing the photos that people brought.

Kristin brought some gorgeous black and white images by the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, famous for his ability to capture the “decisive moment.” Here are two images Kristen shared:

HenriCartierBresson.HyeresFrance.1932

 

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Coley showed a photo that she took at the end of summer, two summers ago, on Tomales Bay. She said that she especially like the doubling, even the tripling of the point-of-view in this image, starting with Adeline (our daughter, standing under the tree), then, closer to us, the unseen photographer (Coley), and finally the viewer, whomever you may be. (Is there a fourth? Deep question.)

(Click here for Coley’s image: it’s online.)

Unfortunately I don’t have any other submissions to show. Please send them in if you want to.

Oh, and you are worrying about whether the kids put themselves to sleep all by themselves? They did! No idea how late. The truth is that I completely forgot to check in on them, but when I went upstairs at 11 pm they were all asleep in the dark, tucked in, happily dreaming.

I should have taken a picture.

 

 

Notes on Our Tenth Meeting — AGING

A lot of people showed up to discuss aging. Who would have guessed that this, of all topics, would draw such enthusiasm?

We enjoyed some bread and cheese, red and white wine, tea, a delicious bulgur salad brought by Setenay, and colorful cupcakes brought by Dean.

At 8:30 pm, we made our way to the living room.

1. Tom’s Presentation: A Norwegian Folk Tale and… a Musical Time Lapse

First the story. I read it most recently in Robert Bly’s book, The Sibling Society (in which he laments the increasingly youth-obsessed, horizontally-structured contemporary culture, and poses this story as a counterpoint).

Being part-Norwegian in my ancestry, I had actually stumbled upon it before with my son George, and it gave us a good laugh at the time.

It is an old Norwegian folk tale.

A traveller is lost in a snowy wood. He trudges along as the sky darkens. Just as he is almost giving up hope, he sees a small cabin ahead of him.

A man, who looks to be about 30 years old, chops wood outside of it.

“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I possibly stay the night with you? Night is falling, and I am far from home.”

“You must have been very worried,” says the man, leaning against a stump. “I am glad you found this house. But you will have to ask my father.” He points to the front door.

So the traveller climbs up the steps to the front door and enters.

Inside, he is met with warmth. A fire burns in the kitchen stove. He sees a man of about 60 years, crouching on the dirt floor to feed more kindling into the stove.

“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I stay the night with you? I am lost, you see.”

“I am glad you found this house,” says the man, “But you will have to ask my father.” He points to a room farther in.

The traveller goes in. The inner room is dark, but he can barely make out an armchair in the corner. An old man of about 80, quite shrunken, his skin so gray as to appear colorless, sits on it.

“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I stay the night here?”

“I understand why you asked,” says the old man. “But you will have to ask my father.” He waves a finger at the far corner of the room.

The traveller feels his way until he bumps into a small bed. On it lies a man of about 100 years, very small. The man peers up at the traveller with sunken eyes.

“May I stay the night?” asks the traveller. “I would think so,” whispers the old man, “But you will have to ask my father.”

In the corner of the room, the traveller sees a crib. Stepping closer, he sees little wrinkled man curled up inside of the crib. He bends down and says, in the gentlest voice possible, “May I spend the night in this house?”

This little old man, who looks to be no more than six inches long, answers, “You will have to ask my father.”

Following the gaze of the shrunken man below him, the traveller turns to looks up at the ceiling. He sees a hunting horn, hanging from a beam over his head. When he comes closer, he sees, sleeping on it, a very old man, about an inch long.

“May I stay the night with you in this house?” asks the traveller.

The old man looks up, the skin sagging from his face. “Yes,” he says.

The group, properly freaked out by now, let out a laugh… followed by a kind of groan. (Terror? Recognition? Hard to say.) But really, when you think about it, I said, we all have these little “fathers” and little “mothers” inside of us, our ancestors, all the time.

With that, I moved on to the next part of my presentation.

I am going to play you a familiar song, I said.

First, we will hear this song performed by the artist when he was a very young man.

Next we will hear it played after a lifetime of experiences. Same song, same words, same music. Completely different meaning.

I pushed play and Bob Dylan began singing, “The Times They Are a Changin” from his 1964 album by the same name.

After about a minute I faded the volume down. Then I played Dylan singing the same song, many years later (I played the version from his MTV Unplugged concert in 1995.)

Here is a video of him playing it at the White House as recently as 2013, almost 50 years after he released it:

Listen to how the whole perspective has shifted…

Same person.

Entirely different person.

2. The Question of “Wisdom”

Lucie started us off on the right note by observing that aging is a gift. Any complaints we have are completely overshadowed by the blessing of being able to live into old age. That was a good thing to have in mind as we started getting into it.

Ken and Kristen, in quick succession, suggested that, in their experience, older people accumulate a kind of “wisdom” from which we can learn.

Kristen spoke lovingly of her grandfather, who had an intelligent and inquisitive mind and, as a result, consistentuly gave wonderful advice to her.

She recalled how, for example, in the days following 9-11, feeling completely distraught, she called her grandparents for perspective. Having lived through World War II and Hiroshima and, well, the latter half of the 20th century, her grandfather explained that he saw this event as part of the movement of history. His experience told him that people across the world would surprise her and rise to the challenges posed by terrorism; that terrible events sometimes herald a powerful response.

Ken, too, spoke of the wisdom of elders, and how we should venerate them for their varied experiences.

I explained that my starting-point for the discussion was quite different.

You see, I said, having seen Nebraska, I had developed a new understanding of what this so-called “wisdom” of age represents… The old man played by Bruce Dern in Nebraska is — let’s be clear about it — a total dick. He is selfish, obstinate, repressed, grouchy to an extreme degree, an alcoholic, quite possibly demented. We begin the movie convinced that he is nothing but a problem, certainly an almost unbearable burden on his son (who appears to be in his 4os).

Yet at the movie progresses we come to appreciate that the common notion of an inheritance, a “legacy” if you will, moving from the older generation to the younger generation, is really quite superficial, even specious. It’s true, this old man has very little to give: no insight, no kindness, certainly not any money. But the gift of a “legacy,” we come to realize, is really one that the younger generation bestows on the older one. Over the course of the movie the 40-something son first recognizes, and then chooses to honor, his father’s fully subjective, singular understanding of the world, even with all of its foibles.

Perhaps the “wisdom” of old people, then, is not an objective accumulation of knowledge or insight — they still may get it all wrong and even, on many occasions, act like total dicks. Instead, though, I learned from this film that “wisdom” is the accumulation of subjectivity. It is a kind of nutrient-rich water. An old person deserves respect by his or her very singularity.

I mentioned that seeing this movie actually changed my relationship with my own parents. I sat there on the couch, after watching it, and thought about how, as I enter this chapter of life, I am faced with a choice: complain about my parents, as so many do, or accept them as they are. I choose to honor their subjective understandings of the world (without necessarily agreeing with them). I choose to cherish, rather than judge. To me, their “wisdom” is real because it is more deeply theirs, not because they know more than anyone else.

Claudine pointed out that we can appreciate our parents — and older people generally — for the knowledge or insight that they may have, while at the same time acknowledging that they have other blind-spots and failings, as do we all. In her case, she recognizes her father’s vast array of factual knowledge and analytical skill, and she turns to him for answers when these apply. He may have very different values than she does (as she experienced on a recent vacation in her parents’ retirement community), so there are other areas that she may not turn to him for advice — for example, parenting questions about the use of digital technologies? And that’s alright.

Walden spoke up to play “devil’s advocate,” as he put it. He pointed out that many of the obstacles in the way of a more just and equitable society are put up by old people. He had two words for us: Trump voters.

So why should we defer to and venerate older people? Maybe wisdom resides in youth?

I answered that while it is true that many old people get much wrong, stuck as they are in traditional habits of mind, etc., still, they seem to have an intangible sense of things that younger people don’t. It’s not their grasp of facts, or any one experience they have tucked under their belts… It’s some kind of wily “getting-it” that seems to accrue to them over time.

I posited that even the most ill-informed, gray-haired, foul-breathed, flag-waving Trump supporter, after a day spent blabbing on about illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, might have… some strange, subjective insight about a relationship problem you faced, if you sat together for breakfast. The wisdom of older people may be something like a spice cabinet. You open one jar and it is empty. You open another, and you can’t believe how much you have missed that particular flavor all your life.

Walden acknowledged that it is true that older people can have surprising insights; he didn’t disagree with what I said. But his point still held, that they are sometimes apotheosized too much, considering their limitations.

3. Cultural Differences

Setenay talked about how in Turkish and Circassian cultures old people are treated very differently.

When an older person enters a room (whether that person is an uncle or a great aunt or merely a friend of your father’s), anyone younger rises. You converse with older people with a different language altogether, than you do your friends. (I imagine that even eye contact is sustained longer?)

When Setenay first moved to the United States she was horrified that her friends would even think to label their parents with run-of-the-mill adjectives: they are “really old-fashioned,” she’s so “uptight,” oh my god they were acting so “ridiculous,” my dad’s “going through a midlife crisis,” when my mom called she started getting so “picky,” and so on. She would not think of summing up the characters or behavior of her parents in this way: to a Turkish girl her parents simply are who they are, and she is not to try to pin them to a board like a collector of butterfly species.

Anne, from Germany, mentioned that Germans, too, have a sense of obligation and duty to their elders. But she said that cultural differences do not override reality. She emphasized that older people, however we may want to ignore it, do show a variety of personal traits, regardless of the cultural protections that they may be afforded.

Some may be generous and thoughtful and deserving of lifelong respect. Some — sorry, but it is undeniable — may be undeserving of much at all! They may be physically abusive, deceitful, hateful, jealous, divisive, small-minded. And in such cases, whatever the cultural construct, younger people may need to call their elders out. (I think of two amazing movies that show cases of this: Monsoon Wedding and Celebration — if you haven’t seen either of these you should, immediately — they are unforgettable.)

Yann spoke of his relationships with his French mother and Austrian father. When he was quite young he came to accept the ways in which he would have to care for them, rather than be cared for by them. Yet this did not engender bitterness or ingratitude in his case.

“Why is that?” I asked. He answered, simply, that in his early 20s he recognized that his parents were who they were — and were not capable of changing. So he came to love and accept them even with their limitations. His mother (a very impressive woman — I have come to know her) is blind, and this means that Yann has to worry for her on many occasions, but this is not a burden. He simply accepts it as part of the fabric of their life.

Some members in the group  wondered, though, at how much this kind of respectful treatment of elders is made possible by having ample resources. Even Yann agreed that there may be an economic calculus at work, and as older people become less… economically valuable, they become, correspondingly, more expendable.

Anshu mentioned that in India more and more old people are all but abandoned by their children — to run-down group homes or even worse. They are simply too expensive to maintain.

Marie-José said that sometimes a person just needs the right combination of factors to sweeten the end of life. Her French father, who was often an unpleasant person when she was growing up, in recent years has made a complete turnaround. Two changes took place: first, he developed a healthy fear of death (an aneurism did that) and, second, his doctor upped his bipolar medication. The combination has made him a happy, charming man, a man whom she had rarely before seen.

We all agreed that it is so intensely individual, this aging process. Each parent, each person, accumulates physical ailments, emotional states, psychological conditions, moments of grace and ongoing torments — and the end-result is completely unpredictable.

Looking around the room, we might ask: who among us will age well in the next 30 years? Who might age poorly? We have no idea.

4. How to Age Gracefully

With one exception: Don.

I revealed to the room that Don is in his 70s. (Okay, just 70 years old… but still, impressive!) Everybody went into shock, as we all know Don to be one of the most vigorous, open-minded, bright-eyed, youthful people we know. His cheeks glow, his blue eyes flash. He is interested in… um… pretty much everything. He has many friends in their 20s, 30s, 40s. He teaches multiple classes, attends film festivals, concerts, writer’s evenings. In short, what gives, Don? How do you do it?

He said that he takes satisfaction in thinking of his life as a series of rooms. Each time he leaves a room, the doors close behind him. But he leaves it without regret. That is because he fully inhabits each room as he goes, and then is fully done with it.

At the same time, he finds that the friendships and relationships he has nurtured in these rooms do not go away! You might say that we walk with him into the next room, and the next.

So he seems to have a way of being present but not attached to the setting or the habits of each phase. Right now, for example, he is an active grandfather. What will this room hold for him? What will the next hold when the kids go off to preschool?

5. Gender Differences

Hulya spoke up to say that she wanted to hear more about the experiences of the men in the room, as we find ourselves aging. What do we fear? What are we struggling with?

Since she was the one who had sent in an article entitled “The Floppy Penis,” the men in the room knew exactly what she was getting at. But we ignored that insinuation altogether. (We will leave her to her own speculations in that regard; perhaps they will better retain their… um… form that way?)

Instead, I answered exclusively in regards to men’s mental lives.  I mentioned that I have noticed my parent’s generation of men seeming to become more narrow and closed-off than the women their age, and this worries me greatly. For already, at 46, I feel the appeal of becoming more… narrow. It calls to me like a spell, like a song coming from deep in a forest…

Just do what you like, Tom.

Stop trying to please other people.

Just do what you know. What works.

There’s something appealing in this for men. (Am I right, guys?)

I can imagine myself at, say, 70, living a far more simple life, reading my books, planting a garden somewhere (if I’m lucky), driving my car around town for some errands, not giving a hoot about the larger world of demands and expectations.

This, I think, is a trap that men can fall into. They close off, narrow down, and it feels liberating, until it tips into obstinacy and isolation.

In my experience, older women, on the other hand, seem to grow ever more wide-ranging and open in their interests and affections. They sparkle and smile, and squeeze hands in secret communication. They make an effort to travel and increase their exposure to the frictions of life, all at the very same time that their husbands or other men they know seek to insulate themselves.

It seems to be a cause for much friction in old people’s relationships. We saw it represented in Stegner’s The Spectator Bird.

I explained that I want to resist this, yet I want to take the best of it too. I like the idea of honing down to the core, the movement to simplicity; I just don’t want to be an old codger.

So how do we men recognize when we are at the tipping point? When we start to “calcify”? (Don’s word — or did you say, “ossify”?) It’s a good question for men.

But there is another dilemma facing older men, I added: the question of sex. (I guess I couldn’t help myself and stumbled into the physical aspects of aging for men, after all.) It seems to me that men face a kind of binary choice in their old age. Either they… turn away, succumb, relinquish their youthful urges, soften into their old age (Hulya’s ears just pricked up at the word “soften”). Or they refuse to “go gently into that good night”! Is there a middle ground?

The poem I included by Frederick Seidel is one of many he writes in which he brazenly boasts of his triumph over Time… as a conqueror of young women. His poems are full of images of his old, gray, flabby body matched up against soft-skinned women with rosy lips and luscious hair… and more. Many older men (at least those with a modicum of financial success and status) face this choice in a way older women do not:

Do you go for it? 

Or do you refuse (so as to honor other values, like loyalty, tenderness, mutuality…)?

What does it mean to “age well,” from a man’s perspective?

Indeed, you see many men in the Bay Area leave their long-term marriages, even at the cost of their devotion to their children and their network of hard-earned friendships. In effect, going for it. Are they wrong to do this?

And it’s not just Seidel. A more decorous poet like Robert Hass writes of this dilemma too (indeed, he went for it, and left his marriage for a younger woman):

 

Against Botticelli

1.

In the life we lead together every paradise is lost.

Nothing could be easier: summer gathers new leaves

to casual darkness. So few things we need to know.

And the old wisdoms shudder in us and grow slack.

Like renunciation. Like the melancholy beauty

of giving it all up. Like walking steadfast

in the rhythms, winter light and summer dark.

And the time for cutting furrows and the dance.

Mad seed. Death waits it out. It waits us out,

the sleek incandescent saints, earthly and prayerful.

In our modesty. In our shamefast and steady attention

to the ceremony, its preparation, the formal hovering

of pleasure which falls like the rain we pray not to get

and are glad for and drown in. Or spray of that sea,

irised: otters in the tide lash, in the kelp-drench,

mammal warmth and the inhuman element. Ah, that is the secret.

That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.

That we are not otters and are not in the painting

by Botticelli. We are not even in the painting by Bosch

where the people are standing around looking at the frame

of the Botticelli painting and when Love arrives, they throw up.

Or the Goya painting of the sad ones, angular and shriven,

who watch the Bosch and feel very compassionate

but hurt each other often and inefficiently. We are not in any painting.

If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.

We’ll walk down through scrub oak to the sea

and where the seals lie preening on the beach

we will look at each other steadily

and butcher them and skin them.

 

2.

The myth they chose was the constant lover.

The theme was richness over time.

It is a difficult story and the wise never choose it

because it requires a long performance

and because there is nothing, by definition, between the acts.

It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman

he fucks in the ass underneath the stars

because it is summer and they are full of longing

and sick of birth. They burn coolly

like phosphorus, and the thing need be done

only once. Like the sacking of Troy

it survives in imagination,

in the longing brought perfectly to closing,

the woman’s white hands opening, opening,

and the man churning inside her, thrashing there.

And the light travels as if all the stars they were under

exploded centuries ago and they are resting now, glowing.

The woman thinks what she is feeling is like the dark

and utterly complete. The man is past sadness,

though his eyes are wet. He is learning about gratitude,

how final it is, as if the grace in Botticelli’s Primavera,

the one with the sad eyes who represents pleasure,

had a canvas to herself, entirely to herself.

 

This conversation topic, admittedly a distasteful one, dropped like a stone.

(Isn’t there something about an older male poet boasting of his sexual performance — especially when he compares it to stars first exploding and then “resting now, glowing” — that is particularly irritating? Or do you think I am being unfair? Is this ageism at work? Please comment.)

6. Concluding Thoughts

Much more was said, but it is beginning to blur for me, a few days out.

There were some hilarious physical gestures made by M-J, which I will not describe, some touching stories by many members of their own experiences.

At one point Dean emphasized that he has turned to living a more “juvenile” lifestyle in this latest chapter of his life. “I have absolutely nothing going on in my head,” he declared, “The lights are completely turned off.”

We all laughed, knowing full well that this is not the case (if only based on his insightful contributions to our discussions at these meetings!)

I ended by saying that I am so often aware, during these discussions, that we are merely scratching the surface of these topics. When we talk for a few hours about what it means to be animals, or how we may better understand aging, we clarify our thinking in useful ways. But after this initial clarification, like a quick soap and a rinse, we need a long soak.

I hope that we can return to these topics again, circle back, and that our discussions may, over time, become less about clarifications, less about point-counterpoint. I wonder if we can structure the meetings so that they offer opportunities for an experience almost like a meditation? What is aging to you, once we get beyond the sharing of ideas and observations? What is it in your most quiet moments?

Next time we address this topic, some suggested, perhaps we can go around the room, and everyone can take a moment to talk about how he or she would like to age? What is the vision you have for yourself in 20, 30 years? Describe the setting you imagine, the details of your life, the (hopefully varying!) routines, the persistent thoughts you hope to have…

Thanks for participating, everybody. See you next month.

Tom