BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I am all the time lecturing my kids. Like all fathers, I use my lectures to advance two themes:
- What makes the world go ’round, and
- How to be.
No wonder men feel like kings in their own homes. We might be louts and jackasses, but within our walls, we have carte blanche to speak, as Saul Bellow put it, the “highest human phrases.” It’s a wonder we ever go anywhere, out where we are just peasants.
My kids have absolutely all the stuff they want or need, which makes it hard for me to get my two main points across. Here are my two main points:
There are only two powers in the world worth having:
- The power to create things from your own mind, and
- The power to connect to other people.
Like all my ideas, I stole both of these. I don’t really recognize my own ideas until I see them written down in other people’s books. This probably comes from reading the Bible as a child, but I digress.
The first point I stole from Socrates, Milan Kundera, Walt Whitman, Slavoj Zizek and Kurt Vonnegut. Weird combination, I know. But they all say more or less the same thing: humans are happiest and most fulfilled when they are creating. To paraphrase Vonnegut, you are better off and more dignified as a human being if you are creating something even as humble as a crappy poem or simple electrical circuit than if you are grabbing stuff. Look how hard creative geniuses work. They don’t do it for the money. The mathematician Kurt Gödel only weighed 88 pounds when he died. He was on the verge of finishing the Incompleteness Theorem and he forgot to eat.
The second point I stole from Wittold Gombrowicz, Orhan Pamuk, James Baldwin and E.M. Forster. If Forster were alive today, he would be called a prissy little lefty fag, at least by some. I call him my moral muse and hero. He epigraphed his short novel Howard’s End with the (now) famous phrase, “Only connect,” and that’s pretty much him in a nutshell. He thought the strong should not bully the weak and everyone should spend more time thinking about the moral consequences of their actions. We only have 70-odd years of life, and Forster thought it would be a dreadful waste to spend that time not connecting to others who are in the same bind. We’re all on the clock. Better to face it together than alone.
Gombrowicz, Pamuk and Baldwin are a little more abstruse on this point, but they all champion it in some way. No man is an island, they say, so you might as well figure out how to love or at least value the people who help make you who you are. For Baldwin, this even meant finding a way to love your tormentors. They too “helped” make you who you are. Baldwin would also be called a fag by some today, but I digress. He is a moral giant, and it’s a good thing he’s dead because we don’t deserve him anymore.
Why am I jotting these thoughts down? Because I just read an outline of Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have Or To Be, and I realized that I had stolen my whole moral scheme–points one and two–from him. So it goes.
Believe it or not, tycoons and politicians will actually try to convince you that having more stuff is the key to being happy. Go to Walmart, they say. Find an attractive piece of crap offered at a rockbottom price thanks to offshoring, slave labor and other production efficiencies. You’ll feel better.
Bellow, Socrates, Kundera, Whitman, Zizek, Vonnegut, Gombrowicz, Pamuk, Baldwin, Forster and Fromm all say, in very pretty ways, fuck that. You are much, much better than that. You are not meant to consume. You are meant to create and connect.
At least that’s what I’m all the time telling my kids.