De Brevitate Vitae: Thoughts at Fifty

It just so happens I read De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life) a few days before turning fifty. Although it’s not a book of maxims, Seneca does tend to boil his thoughts down to simple, straightfoward expressions. If you were inclined to make a desk calendar of Stoic reminders to live each day to the fullest, Seneca would be your man. So, here, at the very witching hour of my birthday (Mom says I was born around three), is a list of things Seneca says to do to live an excellent life. I’ll take them as a kind of checkup.

seneca_360x450_0
Seneca
  1. Live with purpose. Seneca tells Paulinus, his correspondent, “The problem is not that we have a short life, but that we waste time. Life is long and there is enough of it for satisying accomplishments if we use our hours well. But when time is squandered, . . . when it is spent with no real purpose, the finality of death grips us.”
  2. Just pick something. Seneca says you need a central focus to your life, and he even seems to imply that it doesn’t matter what it is. The point is to be anchored to a single pursuit. “Those who have no real purpose in life are ever rootless and dissatisfied, tossed by their aimlessness into ever-changing situations.” I can honestly say that just picking something worked for me. Although my career is not my life, I can say that once I picked it, unglamorous as it is, and stuck with it, everything else that brings happiness, like love, family and well-spent leisure, had the opportunity to fall into place. My twenties and early thirties, by contrast, were a series of being tossed aimless into ever-changing situations.
  3. Be wary of public life. Seneca reminds us that celebrities (yes, Rome had them) spend all their time being sponged off by sycophants, and politicians, even if they are good, are constantly exhausted by the weight of their work. Seneca’s decription of the trials of the “god-like Augustus” prefigure Abraham Lincoln, who toward the end of his war complained pitiably that he wished he could shed his burden. He had a “tired spot” deep inside him, he said, that nothing could touch. Augustus, similarly, “never stopped praying for rest and to gain release from public affairs.” I have truly taken Seneca to heart on this matter; I do nothing but tend my private garden.
  4. Focus. This one is hard. Our easy, prosperous world today presents a myriad of opportunities—for leisure, work, study, what have you–and some of us would like to consider ourselves polymaths, trying to excel at everything, even if we cannot. Seneca anticipates one of the most important conclusions of 20th century cognitive psychology, that attention is a scarce commodity, and the more you divide it, the poorer you perform. His words on the matter: “No single worthwhile goal can be successfully pursued by a man who is occupied with many tasks, because the mind, when its focus is split, absorbs little in depth and rejects everything that is, so to speak, jammed into it.”
  5. Mind the mortal horizon. There is no need to dwell on death, but Seneca reminds us, tersely and directly, of something Heidegger muddied up by writing an impossibly long, unintelligible book about—the certain approach of death, and the philosophical consequences of that certainty for how we live in the here and now. Seneca proposes the following meditation: “If each man could see the number of years he has left ahead, just as he can see the years he ha left behind him, . . . how careful he would be with them!”
  6. Manage your expectations. This is possibly the central tenet of Stoicism. If you don’t get your hopes up, they won’t be dashed, even by tragedy. Mostly what Seneca means here is that you should avoid being carried along by a passive kind of hope, “by thoughts of a distant tomorrow” and that you should act purposefully today. In a somewhat deeper vein, Seneca seems to have it in for religious supernaturalism and its capacity to drain life of meaning: “Postponing life is the greatest waste of time; it deprives you of each new day life brings: it steals from the present with the promise of the hereafter.” Can there be a better summing up of the deliberate vacuousness of religion? I determined 17 years ago not to let religion steal from my present, and I have never been happier.
  7. Virtue clears the mind. The main reason to be morally excellent is, of course, for the sake of others. I avoid murder, theft, loudly playing Hair Metal, etc., because I wish to avoid harming others. But Seneca emphasizes that treating others well also brings internal rewards; it makes us better at introspection. “A clear conscience,” he writes, “gives the tranquil mind power to explore all parts of its existence; but the mind that is preoccupied, as if burdened by a yoke, cannot turn and look back.”
  8. Don’t be a fop. My beautiful wife would probably say I carry this rule too far, but it runs deep in me. I observe the principle of simplicity in appearance right up to the edge of slovenliness. Here is Seneca, weighing in rather emotionally on my side: “What would you say of those men who waste time getting their hair cut once a week, debating how each lock should appear? How angry they get if the barber makes a mistake! Which of these fops would care more if his country was in disarray than his hair?” Priorities, gentlemen! At the risk of taking things over the top, I tend toward Seneca’s final judgment on letting oneself be victimized by fashion: “Such a life of luxurious despair is below human dignity.”
  9. Shun cruelty. This one seems a no-brainer, but it was a real issue for Seneca, who was all too aware that the government he served was in the habit of staging death orgies for the entertainment of the masses. Is it not enough, he asked, that condemned men must be put to death by the state? “Must they now be crushed alive by monsters?” Elephants were the new thing. Although Roman civilization had a long way to go, Seneca was looking in the right direction. Today, in the liberal, prosperous, democratic parts of the world, we are starting to grasp the truth that cruelty, in the words oft he philosopher Richard Rorty, ist he worst thing we do. Not blasphemy, not offenses ancient social codes, not sins against the gods or their representtives on earth, the ruling class, but cruelty is the worst thing, and that which we should avoid above all else.
  10. Be conservative. What?—Am I not the partisan of the liberal left I appear to be? Of course I am, comrades, but I also realize that reform and progress proceed on the back of the past and by way of insitutions built by our ancestors. Anticipating Edmond Burke and Roger Scruton, Seneca abjures us to be very careful about dismantling structures we have inherited and which have been shaped over the course of centuries. “Unless we are complete ingrates,” he reminds us, “the lives of those men that preceded us should be seen as sacred. Their collective existnce paved the way for our own time on Earth.“ It is precisely this debt that the (reformist) Geroge Eliot has in mind as she closes Middlemarch with these imperishable lines: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
  11. Study history. Seneca says we can positively cheat the passage of time by communing with the ages. “Why not turn the tables on this absurdly short and fleeting span of time we are endowed with by spending some of it in the past, which is boundless and inhabited by men better than ourselves.” Although I feel I am just catching up in this area, I am giving it a serious go. Nothing clears up the myths of the present by going back and studying the past. I try to work in a book of serious history between every four or five novels I read.
  12. Pick a hero and copy him. This I have done, or at least I am in the process of doing. Orwell is my guiding star. Seneca says, “Select a genius and make yourself their adopted son.” There are really too many candidates to choose from. I could bore you with a list of fifty minds whose works are worthy of close study, but as I approach the top of the list, the virtue that stands out is intellectual courage–Socrates, willingly accepting the death sentence pronounced on him by the very laws he respected; Jan Hus, smiling from the stake as the cardinals and bishops burned his books before they turned to burn him. Orwell, for me, occupies the top rank. Although he was never put to the harrowing trials Socrates and Jan Hus faced, he survived the rather more drawn out challenges to moral decency posed by things more familiar to me—commericalism, propaganda, tyranny, the threat of total war. He also wrote these beautiful lines, which I think are the best a mere book reviewer and radical journalist can do in the way of summing up the meaning of life:

“This attitude [of ascetic saintliness] is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

Orwell’s thoughts on this matter ultimatley address the most gracious way to greet death, by living a full, decent life, with the right kind of loyalties—people over principles, moderation over extremism, hope over despair, and, of course, love over detachment. I’m not sure whether Orwell ever read Seneca, but he lived, and wrote, as if he knew well this reminder of the old Roman: “There is no surplus [of time]. The amount is fixed like the soul. Though small, the amount is sufficient, and thus when his last day comes, the man who knows this will greet death appropriately.” Cultivting that ability seems to be what all our choices are about.

Today I start down the backside of what Jorge Luis Borges called our first hundred years, our allotted time of mortal life, and I feel lucky to have stumbled on Seneca’s words at this witching hour.

 

 

Advertisements

Who Is Freedom of Speech For?

The critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens left behind a mystery when he died in 2011. A fierce opponent of theism, Hitchens had written a book in 2006—God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—that not only dissected theism with rational precision but also heaped scorn and ridicule on religious believers. He called his position “anti-theism,” the idea that, not only does God not exist but that his non-existence is a good thing, given the wickedness and delusion enabled over the ages by the very idea of him.

When Hitchens went on tour to boost God Is Not Great, he asked his promoters to find adversaries to debate him wherever he went. The result was a series of intellectual street brawls. In melodious Oxford English and with formidable recall of centuries’s worth of texts, sacred, historical and literary, Hitchens repeatedly mauled his opponents, with charm and erudition. And he spared no contempt for onlookers. “Ha, what a stupid question,” he burst out to a fellow atheist who thought he was being clever by asking Hitchens what right he had to deprive believers of the comforts of their faith.

After the book tour, Hitchens joined panels of fellow “new atheists” to debate believers on a series of related issues—whether the Catholic Church was a force for good, whether religion improved public policy, whether Islam was a religion of peace, and so forth. Hitchens more or less gave the last five years of his life to the cause. Through it all he exuded a deep, righteous wrath for religious hypocrisy and fatuousness.

And so it comes as a shock to anyone who follows Hitchens to discover that the founder and firebrand of anti-theism admitted he would not, given the opportunity, rid the world of religion altogether. In a symposium with his fellow “horsemen” and again in a conversation with his debating opponent, pastor Douglas Wilson, Hitchens says if, mirabile dictu, he had managed to turn the masses away from religion one mind at a time, and he came before the last believer, he would not be able to deliver the coup de grace. He would not drive religion from the world. This admission is extraordinary in itself: Hitchens seemed to lack the courage of his convictions, something he made a point of never lacking.

Then comes an even deeper shock: Hitchens appears not even to know his own convictions. Asked why he would not extinguish faith, he admitted, twice, that he did not know. Although he proffers some desultory Hegelian thoughts about needing an antithesis to sharpen his thesis and liking the sport of debate, what stands out is his lingering “I don’t know.” He remained haunted by the question’s unanswerability, he said in 2009.

If I may be so bold: I can answer Hitchens’ question for him. I know why he would not kill religion.

The answer can be recovered from the things Hitchens wrote and said about free speech. If this essay were simply an exercise in Hitchenology, a matter of resolving a tantalizing biographic conundrum about the man, I wouldn’t bother, partially because I couldn’t imagine Hitchens being interested in such efforts himself. Stick to the issues, I hear him saying.

Well, the issue, free speech is an all-important one, and Hithens is a radical defender of it. The only thing Hitchens requires of a proposition for it to be worthy of defense is for it to be sincerely held. It need not be supported by evidence the majority finds credible. Steadfast belief is enough to earn Hitchens‘ respect for the sanctity of the individual mind, no matter how out of step it seems with the received view or the authority of experts.

This much we can learn from Hitchens’ defense of historian David Irving’s right to deny the Holocaust. Despite the wealth of evidence indicating the Holocaust happened, Irving retains the right, in Hitchens’ assessment, to conduct research that tries to debunk the standard view, and he has the right to publish books relating his findings. If we forbid such speech, we open the door for governments to prosecute thought crime.

It is well worth recalling that many key scientific discoveries and principles of modern philosophy were once considered so deplorably misguided as to call down the death penalty on their authors. If we wish to keep such power to dictate thought out of the hands of governments, Hitchens believes, we must abide the expression of any sincere opinion, “obviously” wrong as it may be.

luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg

Clearly Hitchens has no symathy for Irving’s view, just his right to hold it. Hitchens may have acquired the tactic of seeking out one’s bitterest enemies to vivify one’s appreciation of free speech from Rosa Luxemberg, a life-long heroine of his. “Freedom of speech,” Luxemberg wrote, “is always for the one who thinks differently.” At an international socialist conference in Fance once, Luxemberg’s debate opponent could find no translater to relate his thoughts in French. Rather than let him go unheard, Luxemberg volunteered to act as his translater herself, and she did the job with gusto.

But isn’t Luxemberg wrong in her pithy formulation of the matter? Freedom of speech is for everyone, not just the one who thinks differently. What Luxemburg means to say, I believe, is that the holders of the majority opinion exercise their freedom of speech frictionlessly and with no anxiety of losing it. In this sense, anyone defending a majority view is not even conscious of the constant need for protecting speech freedom. They know they will be heard without taking extra pains.

Consensus provides its own guarantees of freedom of speech. The dissenter lacks this automatic validation.

It is precisely when one is being shouted down by the mob, taken away in handcuffs by the authorities, or subjected to priestly torture that one so keenly perceives the need for protecting free speech. If the man comfortably lodged in the friendly crowd of consensus cannot imagine this perspective, he does not really know what the commodity is he enjoys so fluently and  naturally. This is Luxemberg’s point.

And so Luxemberg’s conception of free speech presents a clear and distinct test of good conscience: one must always be able to imagine oneself in the position of one’s diametrical opponent, and one must respect his right to hold beliefs contrary to one’s own even if one cannot understand his grounds for holding them. Real democratic debate depends crucially on this faculty.

The scenario that Hitchens’ fellow horsemen propose to him, in which he could, by a final act of suasion, rid the world of religion, would be, I believe, too like the scene in 1984′s Room 101 for Hitchens to follow through with it. He could not bring himself to break the final dissenter.  As vile a poison as Hitchens thinks theism is, dissent—in any form–is too precious to be deliberately annihilated, even for a good ideological cause. He will not play-act even a liberal, rational version of O’Brien in Room 101. If free speech is for anyone, it is for Winston Smith, the one who thinks differently.

So why does this curious fact about Hitchens matter to the rest of us? Because it applies to any dispute about ideas, ethics, or politics, and, Lord knows, there are plenty of those these days.

The whole point of reading philosophy and literature is to expand one’s moral imagination, to be able to say to an an ever-larger group of people, “I’m with you.” Luxemberg’s maxim that free speech is for the dissenter reminds us of the best way to broaden our moral imagination. The older we grow, the more we read and think, the more skilled we ought to be at imagining ourselves in the position of our opponents–the more we ought to practice this as a mental exercise.

Who is freedom of speech for? It is for those who think differently from you.

Lucky Jim: A Review

All great novels are about the meaning of life. Middlemarch, Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment, they all exude great, solemn mystery or radiate shafts of glory. They speak epochal truths; they go deep into the human heart.

Can a light comic novel be great then?

The question presented itself recently as I was reading Kingsley Amis’s 1953 Lucky Jim and my sides ached with laughter. Jim Dixon, Amis’s indelibly misanthropic hero, a graduate student at a provincial English university is trying to hang on to his lecturing job in Medieval history with a minimum amount of study. His real passion is chasing skirts and grimacing at how far out of reach life’s really nice things seem to be. Dixon‘s character is defined by an accute sensitivity to irritation, minor assaults on his bland happiness. One day, as his professor’s answer to a pointed question dribbles off into a verbose soup of non-answers, Dixon reflects, “For the first time since arriving at the College, he thought he felt real, overmastering, orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred.” This is Dixon.

jimAside from being laugh-out-loud funny, why did Lucky Jim raise the question of greatness for me? First, because it depicts an anti-hero that anyone living in the developed West can immediately identify with. Even if we have never gazed on an English university or thought of studying history, we are all harried by the same niggling, modern irritations Jim is.

Who has never had to politic with a cretinous bore who happens to be one’s boss? Who has never grudgingly attended an hours-long social function of the exact kind one would pay richly to avoid even for five minutes? Gripped one’s car seat in sweaty panic as the driver casually annihilates every convention revered by the rest of the motoring public? Stood stunned by an educated person’s inability, over the course of several stammering, drawn-out minutes, to form a clear sentence about a simple topic?

If you have ever felt offhand annoyance at such things build to an operatic rage, you will find a muse and maestro in Amis’s Dixon. (I even found myself wanting to be good at certain contemptible things Dixon is good at, for example, using intentionally unintelligeble hand signals to escape a looming scene of horror or boredom that has already locked one’s fellows in. Staff meetings come to mind.) I will come back in a moment to the philosophical significance of Amis’s louche meditation on life as a series of minor threats to one’s comfort. For now, though, I’d like to consider Lucky Jim’s more apparent merits.

One reason any critic would have to think seriously about ranking Lucky Jim among the greats is its pure stylstic excellence. It contains several memorably crystaline passages and at least one that will be recalled and cherished centuries from now as a literary gem alongside Shakespeare’s war rally in “Henry the Fifth” and George Eliot’s haunting final paragraph of Middlemarch. Amis’s topic? The hangover.

In the scene in question, Dixon had spent the prior evening at the home of his boss, a full professor of history, barely keeping a lid on his contempt for a house full of academics gathered to recreate authentic Medieval “village” music. Miserable among so much pretentious flatulence, then caught out in a song for not being able to read music (he had said he could, “in his own way”), Dixon sneaked out to the local pub. He rapidly downed nine pints, achieving a kind of release from Sartre’s hell. Returning to his professor’s home and fumbling toward his room in the dark, Dixon stumbled across a bottle of port, whose contents he decanted unsteadily, half down his throat, half down his (white) shirt. His night thus capped, he passed out in his room. The next morning dawns in this manner:

“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad.”

In another scene, an almost-compliment from his almost-girlfriend Margaret freezes Dixon in his reflexive stance of expecting the worst. She calls him tactful and attentive. Does this stoke feelings of well-being? It does not. “Dixon alerted all his faculties. Conundrums that sounded innocent or even pleasant were the most reliable sign of impending attack, the mysterious horseman sighted riding towards the bullion-coach.“ Dixon senses Margaret is trying to draw him into an entanglement of intimacy without sex—decidedly not one of life’s nice things.

Dixon dislikes almost all his peers, at least in some small way. He makes a telling exception, though, for Atkinson, a fellow boarder in his house who was a tank commander during the war. “Dixon liked and revered him for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and of not meaning to let this detestation become staled by custom.” Atkinson laughs “barbarically” at others: he is a man with his hands on the ropes, in Dixon‘s estimation. (And Atkinson is, by the way, the only character in the book who does something unambiguously good for Dixon, contriving near the end of the story to help him win the pretty girl.)

Comedy is at least as much about misdirection as hyperbole, of course. And so it is with Lucky Jim. All the while Amis is telling of Dixon’s exquisite daily trials so poetically, he is showing a whole new farcical dimension of his main character. Dixon’s wrath at ordinary life, we discover, frequently outruns even Amis’s expert ability to describe it. There are occasions, we are reminded, so woe-inducing, so disorienting in their offense on our joy, that they reduce us to pre-linguistic displays of contempt or outrage. Dixon is an inveterate maker of faces.

We find, in the course of the novel, that Jim has gathered up a store of the following faces to punctuate certain offenses or to staunch certain kinds of wound:

A shot-in-the back face,

A tragic mask face

A Chinese mandarin face

A crazy peasant face

A lemon-sucking face

A martian invader face

A sex-life in Rome face

An Eskimo face

An Evelyn Waugh face

And an Edith Sitwell face.

I had to look the last one up. Here it is:

edith-sitwell
Edith Sitwell

What to make of Dixon’s—and, one feels, Amis’s—steadfast misanthropy? Is it no more than a romp through the lighter side of modern angst?

The Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera defined the novel as a prose meditation using experimental selves to discover a new facet of human existence. Yes, fine, you might say, but is there anything new about a character who is bothered by the run of ordinary life? Dostoevsky‘s Underground Man seems to have already done that trope to death, and to a much more serious point.

Amis, though, is on to something different. It is not quite Dostoevsky’s specialty, existential dread. Amis gives a clue as to what it is in this passage, a reverie by Dixon as he collects students’ history exams:

“Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chaing Kai-Shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.”

Let’s apply Kundera’s definition of the novel literally for a moment. If Dixon is an experimental self, an alter ego tried on by Amis—and proffered for the reader to try on—to show the world in a certain light, what is the experiment’s independent variable? What is it that Amis dials up and down in Dixon to to produce the novel’s desired effects? Annoyance. Irrascibility if you like. But can that base sentiment be the pivot on which a great novel turns?

Yes, it can.

In Lucky Jim’s supreme achievement of misdirection, it does speak an epochal truth, despite Amis’s light-comic tone. For the first time in history, it says, humans have built political units rich, liberal and stable enough to sustain societies in which it is possible, more or less all the time, to remain in a state of feeling inconvenienced by minor things. Conditions that would have been inconceivable luxuries for millennia can now, for the last minute of human history, give grounds for constant fretfulness. This outcome shows, in Kundera’s “scientific” sense, that any decent person can, and must believe in the reality of human progress.

Although Lucky Jim is much more than this stark moral, it does have what Orwell would call a message, and that message is much more political than a good novelist would care to let on: “You never had it so good!” So the next time you casually use the phrase “first-world problems” to mark your chagrin at being put off by an embarassment of riches, remind yourself that Kingsley Amis has written a whole novel about what you are feeling, and it is a great novel.

 

Our Trump Moment

Unpleasant facts need to be faced, as Orwell reminds us. Here’s one that sort of jumps out: a petulant, vain, cretinously incurious bully is making a serious run for the U.S. presidency. It is not an issue we can duck and call ourselves self-respecting democrats.

The problem is not Trump himself. American society has long had repellant tycoons in its upper crust, and ordinary Americans have occasionally picked one out and valorized his wealth as a sign he had what it took to reform or even transcend our politics. Schwarzenegger, you may or may not recall, said he would “blow up boxes” in politics. I’m not sure what that meant, but Californians wanted it, and the Schwarzinator seemed eminently in a position to do it.

The unpleasantness of Trump himself masks two even less pleasant facts. The first is that we like him: we have put Trump in a position to contend for the presidency. He is, in a deeply democratic sense, us. But the question must force itself on us nonetheless: How has Trump happened? Scabrous buffoon that he is, how can he have won the support of staunch, freedom-loving republicans (small r) descended from Jefferson, Franklin and Thomas Paine? Have we become Yahoos?

Let’s put off that painful question and attend first to some comforting abstractions.

First to point out is that Trump followed a “natural” path to appeal to our savage, pre-political selves. Before we are democrats, we are Hobbseian primitives who seek security above all else.  Whether Trump has calculated it or not, he has tapped into one of politics’ primal motives–the need to band together in dislike of others.

It feels good to form a group based on shared animosity. Original hatred was the formative force behind the first hunting packs of Homo Sapiens, and it is the cause of children’s otherwise inexplicable ability to form cruel cliques and to bully weaklings nearly to death. With rare exceptions, it is not adults who teach children such wickedness. Our instinct to rally comrades by baring teeth together at the nearest perceived threat has a million-odd years of survival value behind it. Without those first fearful groups, we wouldn’t be here today. It is in part—indeed the worst part of–our biological legacy as social animals that makes it so hard to shake our Trumpishness.

The humanist may here feel like protesting: but all of culture tells us we can transcend our base origins. Philosophy, literature, and some of the world’s religions preach that our primal hatreds are well worth shedding; that even if the battle is a losing one, our lives are nobly spent getting over cruelty and scorn and nurturing goodwill instead. This high-flown ideal is, in a sense, what it means to be human. But Trump, in a sense, knows our secret: he knows it feels good to hate. (Dostoevsky knew this too, so don’t think it is only demagogues who happen upon this dark discovery. The luxuriousness of cruelty is a theme that menaces the reader throughout The Brothers Karamazov.)

personalities-donald-trumpDo you wonder why Trump’s petty insults and thuggish threats to audience members have gained rather than lost him support? If you don’t mind my putting it so archly, for the same reason Hitler’s foreigner-baiting invective bouyed him up so winningly in Munich’s beer halls. Hitler‘s frank contempt for “normal”politics and his direct denunciations of alien pathogens transported his countrymen to that exquisite primeval place where they could feel the glowing hatred of others expanding inside them into a brave new ideology. They would make Germany great again: a truly Wagnerian moment that must have been. How good it must have felt for politics to flow, for once, naturally from their instincts!

Fearful populism, by the way, has been a very successful vehicle for Vladimir Putin. Indeed Putin could be called a virtuoso in this field where Trump is a clodhopping understudy. Putin’s rise to power and steady acquisition of authority directly under the noses of people who are increasingly becoming his subjects has been based on his expert cultivation of fear and contempt. Before Russians could rise again from the ignomy of the USSR’s collapse in 1991, they needed to name new enemies which would be worthy of unifying and actuating their national will. Putin provided these. In the end, the specific list of threats—NATO, homosexuality, Pussy Riot—didn’t matter all that much. What mattered was that Putin could reliably find a majority of his countrymen to hate and fear them.

The most curious feature of the Trump phenomenon is his enduring support from evangelical Christians. On paper, Christianity is designed to overcome, or at least resist, fear and hatred of others. Its practitioners profess, among other things, that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Paul, the leading Christian saint, disliked sex, and the desire for it. He said the noblest thing to do with lust was to extinguish it through meditation on the sacred, or, failing that, just get married. Once. It was better than burning in hell. Paul would have–I think I am safe in saying–seized up and stopped writing epistles had he ever been cheered by a pal to grab the next Corinthian nymph by the pussy. At least one likest o think it. And yet Paul’s acolytes today condone Trump’s unrestrained raunch.

By what dizzy-making exertions of dialectic have evangelicals come to support a man who appears determined, in word and deed, to debase their principles and then smirkingly grind their faces in the detritus? It is unseemly. Although a few evangelical opinion leaders have stepped up (rather late in the game, one would say) to break with Trump, the Don’s approval rating among evangelicals—avid, apparently, to forgive and overlook a whole host of sins—has barely dipped below the 70 percent mark for months.

Before I cock the stern eyebrow of reproach even further upward, though, I feel compelled, by the milk of human kindness to offer another comforting abstraction. In his landmark book on journalism, Public Opinion (which all Americans should read),  Walter Lippmann points out a vastly underappreciated fact about the structure of political choice in a democracy. No matter how deeply, accurately and consciensciously a country’s thought leaders expostulate a vital issue—on war, taxes, choice of leaders, etc.—the matter ultimately comes before the voters or legislators as a crude binary choice. Even the best-informed citizens must bow to the tyranny of the two-place ballot, weeping, as they do so, for all the nuance that the democratic process churns up and throws away.

And so the evangelical can take comfort in the fact that she faces a forced choice between two compromised candidates, one of whom must be made out to carry one’s banner with less hypocrisy than the other. This is where the dialectics come in, in all their Hegelian subtlety. Despite leading a life that seems designed to outrage all Christian principles, Trump, the evangelicals believe, is being used by a higher intelligence to advocate for the very values he personally trashes. God carries this out by being particularly wily, even deeply mysterious. And so, when America produces the closest thing it ever has to a National Socialist candidate for the presidency, you need not shudder or gawk open-mouthed to see half his supporting ranks filled out by the lambs of God. It’s all part of God’s plan.

Yes, well. How do the rest of us get by? Not very well. Here is my last comforting abstraction. While it is not quite fair to say we get the candidates we deserve, it is true that we have more or less passively witnessed the evolution of a political system that is now only capable of elevating criminals, or at least deeply morally compromised people who are constantly contemplating criminal acts, to its top. You cannot run without lots of money, and you cannot govern without dancing to the two-line harmony played by lobbyists who pay you handsomely to jigger the law and regulators who advise you how to do it. It has been going on long enough now that anyone wishing to become a politician today knows full well s/he is joining a criminal enterprise. If you’ve been waiting for it, this is the second, even uglier fact that the Trump phenomenon forces on us.

Of course it was not always this way. The law was once made in a chamber where parliamentarians debated one another, sincerely, one likes to think, with an eye to maximizing the public good. But please see this highly interesting article by George Packer which describes how law-making happens today. Spoiler alert: lawmakers spend the vast majority of their time raising funds and consulting with lobbyists and regulators, only gathering together for astonishingly brief and infrequent sessions in which no meaningful debate takes place. If you have more time on your hands, and you want a serious answer to the question how we have ended up with two species of lout contending for our highest office, read Francis Fukuyama’s The Decay of Political Institutions. It will repay your efforts generously, but it will also lead you to face a fact much more disquieting than the rise of Trump—that our political institutions are breaking down and, without deep reform, possibly even revolution, they will keep producing Trumps or other kinds of moral atrocities as their champions.

 

 

A Sort of Homecoming

Last Sunday I finished the Heidelberg Trail Marathon, a 42 kilometer romp through the hills that surround one of Germany’s most beautiful old cities. The course had a little bit of everything: grandeur (it started and finished in the justly famous Castle Gardens), charm, several long, moderate climbs up through old, dark forests, two trips across the Neckar River under luminous blue skies, and, as a climax, a lung-burning ascent up the Himmelsleiter, an ancient set of broken, blocky stairs (1,200 of them) carved out of the local red sandstone, leading straight up the hillside at a grade of 15 to 20 percent. The path’s name means “Heaven’s Ladder,” but most of the runners I passed on it were stooped low with effort and cursing all that was holy.

himmelsleiter
Climbing Heaven’s Ladder

I hadn’t meant to do the run. My big event of the year was supposed to be the Sella Ronda Trail Race, a 61-kilometer circumnavigation of the Sella Group, a majestic massif of craggy, luminescent limestone peaks in the Tirolean Alps. My race-day performance in the Alps, though, was anything but majestic. Although I paced myself to finish the course within the overall time limit of 12 hours, I paid too little attention to an internal time cutoff at the 35-kilometer mark. I arrived 10 minutes late and got pulled from the course, 26 kilometers short of the finish line.

It was a failure on several levels. The most immediate was that I felt, at the time, like I could go on and finish. I still had gas in the tank. Most galling was the feeling that I hadn‘t been beaten in an all-out contest of athletic will; I could have lived with that kind of defeat. I had just made a simple mistake in preparation, the one thing I thought I was good at. Had I spent even an hour studying the route closely, I would have seen that I needed to speed up slightly for 10 kilometers or so during the first half of the course. Instead I dallied and saved myself for later.

At the deepest level, though, I felt the preparations I had made, including two training runs of 50 kilometers and several just shorter than that, most of them started in the dark at 4 o’clock in the morning with my headlamp on, ultra bag packed the night before, clothes set out so I wouldn’t wake my family rummaging for them in the predawn dark, had all gone to waste. My fraught running season was over, ended prematurely on what felt like a technicality.

For a week or so my thoughts were only of remonstrance. A friend reminded me that I had blogged optimistically about finishing Sella Ronda. All sportsmen know, of course, to avoid forecasting their own success, or, as he put it, a great pitcher does not talk about the no-hitter. It’s a sure jinx. Hemingway also counseled manly silence in matters of action: nothing ruined a good performance, he wrote, be it in soldiering, fishing, bullfighting, what have you, like “putting your mouth on it.” I had definitely broken the old man’s rule.

I even waxed scientific. Had I done anything that might be shown objectively to have slowed me down at Sella Ronda? Maybe.

Cognitive psychologists have long known that thinking or speaking certain words will awaken associations to “neighbor” words. If you think “chocolate,” for example, you will think “sweet,” “brown,” or “candy” faster and easier than you will think of unrelated words, like “tall” or “rhythmic.” Later, psychologists also discovered that words can even influence executive control, the brain’s instructions to the rest of the body. This instruction-giving is what makes us what Aristotle called “self-movers,” the most amazing thing in nature.

In the best known experiment that suggested this curious mind-body connection, a group of particpants completed word tasks connoting old age. Control groups did word tasks that were either random or connoted youth. All participants were instructed upon completing their word tasks to walk down a long hallway to complete an “unrelated” task. They were secretly timed as they walked. The result? The “old” group walked measurably slower, shuffling along to a pace apparently set by mere words about senescence.

Let’s jump to my trip to the Italian Alps. I always bring plenty to read when I travel, and this time I wanted something short and purely for diversion. So I brought the stinging wit of Kingsley Amis-one of his shorter efforts, Ending Up. I need hardly give more than a one-sentence summary to suggest how badly I might have erred with this choice. Ending Up tells a grimly sardonic story of five seventy-somethings pottering away their last years in a worn-down house in a drab part of England. They are alternately loopy, melancholy or bitter. Although the tale is crisply told, its subject is inevitably the slow human unwinding as we become finalists in the contest of life. Did my reading of two hundred-odd pages of torpitude dog my steps in the mountains the next day? Cognitive psychology says it might have.

The one thing my ruminations told me clearly was that I had to put a stop to them; I needed to punctuate my season properly rather than leaving it hanging on the ellipsis I had acquired at Sella Ronda. Just sitting back and “processing” the failure seemed like a betrayal of the sacrifices I had made, and which I had asked my family to make, throughout the spring and summer.

The rest of the story is brief. Heidelberg was everything I wanted it to be. Although I am not one of those people who think poetry descends on our random choices to consecrate them with harmony and meaning, I will say that everything about running the Heidelberg trails felt right. I applied myself from start to finish, never let up, and achieved an expiation of my sins at Sella Ronda. I finished four seconds under my goal of five hours.

finish-line
At the finish line in the Castle Gardens

It was also a sort of homecoming. On a July evening in 2015, the night before I was to have major back surgery in a Heidelberg clinic, I slipped out of my room and jogged sweatily up the Himmelsleiter to the top of the Königstuhl. The Königstuhl is a hilltop that drinks in a view of the ruby-red rooftops of old Heidelberg nestled below in the calico lime-jade of high-summer maples and junipers, stretching out to the hazy golden sweep of the Rhein-Neckar Valley beyond. In the summer it is intoxicating. I wanted to take in the same seductive sight that had stolen the hearts of Mark Twain and Sommerset Maugham, two of my favorite writers, just in case “anything happened” when I went under the knife the next day. It is not for nothing that we have such impulses. Somthing did happen the day after my surgery, and I achieved a state very close to clinical death. Going up the Himmelsleiter had nearly been my swan song.

Maugham recalls, very affectingly, in Of Human Bondage, how he arrived in Heidelberg as a young man on a spring morning, found his guesthouse on the slopes of the Königstuhl, arranged his books in his garret room overlooking the castle and, in so doing, felt for the first time like the master of his own life. He also discovered in Heidelberg that his own life was a thing of beauty, as magnificent as the glowing green trees and the red sandstone castle, bridges, and churches they embraced. I discovered much the same thing when I lived in Heidelberg, a long time ago, and it has never left me. For five hours last Sunday, I got to feel it all over again.