It has been another 9/11 anniversary and I tire of reading about religious child soldiers carrying AK-47s, bullying anti-gay Jesus kids, infant genital mutilation, teenage suicide bombers, and Hindu child brides. No matter where I look, if adults are participating in religions, then they are also pushing those same ideologies onto their kids. Regardless of what I think and believe, science shows human beings know very little. Our eyes register only 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum in the universe. Our ears detect less than 1 percent of its sound wave frequencies. Human senses--our brain's vehicles to understanding the world--leave much to be desired. In fact, our genome is only 1 percent different from that of a chimpanzee.
Amazingly, despite the obvious fact that no one really knows that much about what is going on with ourselves and the universe, we still insist on the accuracy of grand spiritual claims handed down to us from our barefoot forefathers. We celebrate holidays over these ancient religious tales; we choose life partners and friends over these fables; we go to war to defend these myths.
This vision of an anthropomorphic, handcrafter God is well on the road to extinction in the world of our children. Granted, the real, non-miraculous, massively parallel, and prodigiously wasteful process of mindless, algorithmic design trying in which the minimal increments of design have been thriftily husbanded, copied, and re-used over billions of years will not be easy to break into parable like stories.
That vision of the creative process still apparently left a role for God as Lawgiver, but this gave way in turn to the Newtonian role of Lawfinder, which also evaporated leaving behind no intelligent agency in the process at all. What is left is what the process, shuffling through eternity, mindlessly finds: a timeless Platonic possibility of order. It is a thing of beauty, as mathemeticians are forever exclaiming, but it is not itself something intelligible. Being abstact and outside of time, it is nothing with an initiation or origin in need of explanation. It creates itself ex nihilo, or out of something that is indistinguishable from nothing at all.
Unlike the puzzlingly mysterious, timeless self-creation of God, this self creation is a non-miraculous stunt that has left lots of traces. And, being not just concrete but the product of an exquisitely particular historical process, it is the creation of unique sequences--encompassing and dwarfing all the novels and paintings and symphonies of all the artists--occupying a position in the hyperspace of possibilities that differs from all others.
A child's mind is terribly susceptible to what it hears and sees from parents, family, and social surroundings. When a human being is born, its brain remains in a delicate developmental phase until far later in life. It's only later, when kids hit their teens that they begin to think for themselves and see the bigger picture. It's only then they begin to ask whether their parent's teachings make sense and are correct. However, depending on the power of the indoctrination in their childhood, people's ability to successfully question anything is likely stifled for their entire lives.
Once a kid hits their mid-teens, let them have at it--if religion is something that interests them. 16-year-olds are enthusiastic, curious, and able to rationally start exploring their world, with or without the guidance of parents. But before that, they are too impressionable to repeatedly be subjected to ideas that are faith-based, unproven, and historically wrought with danger. Forcing religion onto minors is essentially a form of child abuse, which scars their ability to reason and also limits their ability to consider the world in an unbiased manner. A reasonable society should not have to indoctrinate its children; its children should discover and choose religious paths for themselves when they become adults, if they are to choose one at all. We owe it to the children of the planet to let them grow up free from the ambush of belief systems that have a history of leading to great violence, obsessively neurotic guilt, and the oppression of virtually every social group that exists.
9/11 was a religious-inspired event. So was the evil of the crusades and the Catholic Inquisition. And so is the quintessential conflict between Palestine and Israel. If you take "God" and "religion" out of all these happenings, you would likely find that they would not have happened at all. Instead, what you'd probably find is peaceful people and communities dedicated to preserving and improving life through reason, science, and technology. An appropriate analogy of religion is that it's kind of like porn--which means it's not something one would expose a child to.
One by one I have been rereading all of my Top Thirty books to make sure that they deserve the honor that I had previously assigned to them. Like many others, I loved A Clockwork Orange and now that I have become convinced by Ray Kurzweil that people will soon be living forever, I’ve just finished a second reading of the book which included an epilog that was not available in the American version (or the film). Incidentally, Burgess wrote the book in 1962 and the film came out in 1973, which is why he wrote this epilogue in 1973.
In the epilog Burgess provides a lot of interesting background. The title of the book comes from the expression “as queer as a clockwork orange” which is Cockney slang for something so weird it subverts nature. It was a perfect title for an idea he was going to write about—how people suggested using aversion therapy to change juvenile delinquent behavior. The forced marriage of an organism to a mechanism, of a thing living, growing, sweet, juicy to a dead cold artifact—is that a concept of nightmare or what?
The hero of both the book and the film is Alex who is indeed a law (a lex) unto himself; he becomes a a creature without a lex or a lexicon. In the beginning of the book he is a human being endowed, with three characteristics which we regard as essential attributes of man. He rejoices in articulate language and even invents a new form of it (far from alexical at this stage); he loves beauty, which he finds in Beethoven’s music above everything; he is aggressive in the pursuit of his goals. With his companions –less human than he since they don’t care much for music—he terrorizes the streets of a great city at night visualized as a sort of compound of London, Leningrad, and New York. Alex and his friends rob, maim, rape, vandalize, and eventually kill. The young antihero is thereupon arrested and punished, but punishment is not enough for the State. Because imprisonment is not noticeably acting as a deterrent to crime, Homeland Security introduces a form of aversion therapy guaranteed, in a mere two weeks, to eliminate criminal propensities forever.
Alex, in his innocence, welcomes the opportunity to be “cured”. He has such faith in the indestructibility of his own libido that he considers himself more than a match for the behaviorist experts of the State. He is injected with a substance that brings on extreme nausea, and the onset of nausea is deliberately associated with the enforced viewing of films about violence. Soon he cannot contemplate violence without feeling desperately sick. As an act of love has been to him merely an aspect of aggression, even the sight of a desirable sexual partner brings on intolerable nausea. He is forced into walking a tightrope of imposed “goodness”. Society is pleased and looks forward to a crime-free millennium.
But men are not, after all, machines, and the demarcation of one human impulse from another is always difficult. Alex’s treatment has consisted in watching violent films and feeling induced nausea. These films have had, as “emotional heighteners”, soundtracts of symphonic music. After his treatment, the reformed delinquent finds that he cannot listen to Beethoven without feeling desperately ill. The State has gone to far: it has entered a region beyond its covenant with the citizen: it has closed to its victim a whole world of non-moral goodness, the vision of paradisal order which great music and traditional theologies convey. Maddened by a recording of the Ninth Symphony, Alex attempts suicide; shock and compassion are aroused in the liberal elements of society; Alex undergoes hypnotherapy which restores him to his former “free” condition; we take leave of him as he dreams of new and more elaborate patterns of aggression.
What Burgess was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing. When Alex has the power of choice, he chooses only violence. But, as his love of music shows, there are other areas of choice. The epilogue shows Alex growing up, learning distaste for his old way of life, thinking of love as more than a mode of violence, even foreseeing himself as a husband and father. The way has always been open; at last he chooses to take it. He has been a sour orange; now he is filling with something like decent human sweetness.
Is freedom of choice really all that important? For that matter, is man capable of it? Does the term freedom have any meaning? It makes me want to re-read the anti-authoritarian novels I read in high school: 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, Brave New World. Burgess even goes on and on about B.F. Skinner, who proposed that aversion was wrong and that positive reinforcement was always more effective. Skinner worked with animals (Burgess jokes about that) and the whole “you get more flies with honey” attitude works better for training animals he says. The same is true for people. Besides, aversion therapy removes freewill.
This leads to a fascinating look at religion (Calvinist vs Catholic) and a look at whether life is predetermined or if we have freewill or both. The “both” solution works something like this: God knows everything, and he knows what will happen to us all. But he also gave man freewill. How can this be? Burgess’ phrasing of the argument goes like this: “An omniscient and omnipotent God, as a gesture of love for man, limits both His own power and His own knowledge.” Said out loud, this is even crazier than many other things I’ve heard, even though I take it it’s more or less what most people believe.
But this is only the beginning of his discussion of freewill. There’s also the issue of voluntarily restricting one’s freedom (like in a job–you wouldn’t be there if they didn’t make you stay). He feels fortunate that as a novelist he does not have to subject himself to this. And of course, there’s the issue of the State forcing itself on people—as in 1984 or Brave New World. 1984 is more dramatic, and Burgess states that its very publication may have prevented such an outcome from occurring in the real world (although falsification of the past is rampant, especially in recent American history). But Brave New World may show the more insidious kind of societal therapy–submissive docility of the people though media, marketing, theology, and imposed contentment–something that you don’t have to look very hard to see.
In another musing on this website called The Moist Robot, I wrote of how the human brain resembles a large ant colony in many respects. For instance, a brain consists of billions of neurons that cooperate to achieve a common objective. The interaction among neurons is tighter than among ants, but the underlying principles are similar—work subdivision and collective responsibility. Consciousness is not a property of individual neurons, which automatically operate as switches that respond to input signals. Rather, consciousness is a holistic property that emerges and flourishes from neural cooperation when the system reaches a sufficiently organized complexity, in other words consciousness is a form of biological utopia. I wanted to see how the obedient layers in this utopia compared to the division of functions in other utopias so I started with a reread of Plato's Republic, then read Thomas More's Utopia and finished with a reread of "The Brothers Karamazov." The argument of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is simple: man is a weak, pitiful creature unable to achieve peace or happiness unless he submits to the rule of the few superior beings capable of determining his social destiny for him. This argument has been seen as a foreshadowing of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in the twentieth century; but it also continues a tradition of utopian thinking that began with Plato. The Republic is generally accepted as the first utopia—a depiction, that is, of the ideal state. But the exact nature of that state—the premises on which it rests and the contempt that it displays for the abilities of ordinary men—is, because of Plato’s great prestige, too seldom recognized. His utopia is predicated not on the great mass of mankind’s becoming wise or good, only obedient. In this regard, the Grand Inquisitor stands as Plato’s direct ideological heir.
The Republic begins as an investigation of justice in the individual, of the nature of the just man; only subsequently does it address the matter of the just state. Plato’s just state proves to be one in which the three strata of society—rulers, soldiers, and workers—each performs the specific social function that “nature” suited it for and only that function: rulers must rule, soldiers guard, workers work. The harmony that results from this natural division of social labor Plato calls justice. Analogously, the just individual is the one in whom the three faculties equivalent to the three social strata—reason, will, and appetite—are properly ordered. That person, the one ruled by his reason, nature meant to be a philosopher-king; those dominated by one of the other faculties belong in one of the other classes, which include, of course, the vast majority of the citizens of the Republic. Indeed, this distinction provides the rationale for the whole hierarchical arrangement of Plato’s utopia, and the implication is unmistakable: only the philosopher-kings are truly just men, everyone else falling short, in varying degrees, of the ideal psychic structure. Only these figures, their inner lives properly regulated, are meant by nature to rule the rest, just as the head rules the body. “A multitude,” Plato asserts, “cannot be philosophical,” a capacity reserved for a select few.
Plato’s logic in The Republic thus leads him to posit a utopia composed of a great many unjust (or at least non-just) men ruled over by a very few just ones. Since most of its citizens can never discover for themselves what is right or wrong, their proper civic duty consists in unquestioning obedience. Doxa or belief is the highest form of understanding of which the ordinary man is capable, as distinct from the philosopher’s noesis or appodictic knowledge, so that the task of the Republic’s rulers is the inculcation in the citizens of “correct” beliefs: beliefs that promote the stability of the state. Plato’s utopia thus poses a paradox: that his ideal state is composed largely of un-ideal individuals. “Both the warrior class and the masses are deprived of reason and must be governed by the philosopher–king. Women and children are held in common--"there is no marrying nor giving in marriage"--and mating is regulated to serve eugenic ends.
What [Plato’s] Socrates, in effect, is saying is that the perfection of the whole requires the subordination of the parts; and that the subordination of the parts contributes to the perfection of the whole. Going further he asserts that the parts would not be proper parts if they achieved perfection independently of their place in the whole. For the parts are defined by their function in the whole—for instance, the eyes by their function of guiding the whole man ...The relative incompleteness (or imperfection) of the lower classes—indeed of all three classes—is logically entailed by the perfection of the city as a whole. The state would not be ideal if its parts, as such, were ideal. This line of argument represents Plato—and the long tradition of Platonic utopias—correctly: for in that tradition, the ideality of the state does not depend on the perfection of its individual members, but on the perfection of the system itself. Indeed, the good of the polity is paramount and the individuals who compose it are to be judged by how well they subordinate themselves to and mesh with the system. Iindividuals “should be regarded, not as so many distinct beings, but as organs of one Supreme Being”—that is, of the State.
Before Plato, Lycurgus the lawgiver dictated a utopian body of law for ancient Sparta which is described by Plutarch. It declared equal possession among the "citizens"--that is, the upper-class members of the community. The "helots," who were in the vast majority, were virtually on the level of slaves. Instead of gold and silver for coins, iron in the size of bread loaves was used. All luxuries were banned, and both men and women were disciplined to endure hardships and were motivated to sacrifice everything for the welfare of the state.
When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate after AD 400, Augustine of Hippo, a devoted follower of Plato, developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God. distinct from the material Earthly City. There is not a specific practical plan for the government of the imaginary ideal state but rather a distinction drawn on philosophical lines between two guiding principles. In the "City of Earth," the love of self holds precedence over love of God; in the "City of God," the love of God holds precedence over the love of self.
In 1516, Thomas More's Utopia had no provision for private property, with goods being stored in warehouses and people requesting what they need. There are also no locks on the doors of the houses, which were rotated between the citizens every ten years. Agriculture is the most important job. Every person is taught it and must live in the countryside, farming, for two years at a time, with women doing the same work as men. Parallel to this, every citizen must learn at least one of the other essential trades: weaving (mainly done by the women), carpentry, metalsmithing and masonry. There is deliberate simplicity about these trades; for instance, all people wear the same types of simple clothes and there are no dressmakers making fine apparel. Sick Utopians receive tremendous care, but there are still people who become terminally ill and suffer greatly. In such instances, the doctors, priests, and government leaders urge the patient to recognize that they are no longer able to fulfill the duties of life, that they are a burden to both others and themselves, and that they should put their hope in the afterlife and choose to let themselves die. Those who agree are let from life during sleep, without pain. Those who do not agree are treated as kindly and tenderly as before. All able-bodied citizens must work; thus unemployment is eradicated, and the length of the working day can be minimised: the people only have to work six hours a day (although many willingly work for longer). More does allow scholars in his society to become the ruling officials or priests, people picked during their primary education for their ability to learn. All other citizens are however encouraged to apply themselves to learning in their leisure time.
The American version of the utopian myth is of free will in its simple primary sense. One can choose oneself and will oneself; and this absurdly optimistic assumption so dominates the republic that it has bred all its gross social injustices. Failure to succeed proves a moral, not a genetic, fault. “All men are born equal” becomes “No decent society can help those who fail to stay equal.” The myth becomes so pervasive that it even ends up as the credo of those, the underprivileged, who most need to disbelieve it. We see it in even the most intelligent liberals who are impeccably sympathetic in their attitude to things like Affordable Health Care, black anger, environmental control and all the rest; yet still they hanker after the old and other American dream of freedom to cash in on other people’s inequality. From the beginning Americans came to America to escape two things: political tyranny and fixed odds in the struggle for life, and they have never realized that the two aims are profoundly hostile to each other.—that the genetic injustice of life is just as great as the old European economic injustice. Their system dealt with the latter by assuming an equal dispensation of energy, talent and good luck to all men; and now we are smashed hard on the reef of far deeper genetic injustice.
In Dostoevsky’s presentation of humankind's heaven on earth, the Grand Inquisitor, he makes the spokesman for authoritarian utopianism a Catholic cardinal of sixteenth-century Spain; and, to give the story the fullest ideological significance, casts Christ, allegorically returned to Seville to witness the Inquisition, as his silent but compelling antagonist. Determining why Dostoevsky selects these two symbolic antagonists to enact the dialog of his story and what ideas he invests in each of them reveals the exact nature of his attitude toward utopianism. That Dostoevsky chooses a Catholic prelate to embody the secular millennialism of the nineteenth century emphasizes the peculiar equation that he made of socialism with Catholicism, both of which he detested as pernicious Western heresies, agencies of the Anti-Christ. For Dostoevsky “Roman Catholicism is even worse than atheism. . . . Atheism merely preaches negation, but Catholicism goes further: it preaches a distorted Christ . . . . the opposite of Christ.” Since Catholicism was only atheism masked and motivated by a ceaseless will-to-power, nothing but time, Dostoevsky feared, stood between its union with admittedly-godless socialism. In the figure of the Grand Inquisitor this union is imaginatively effected: Marx is mated with the Pope.
My favorite passage in The Brothers Karamazov is when Fyodor Pavlovich's atheist son tells him that there is no God and no immortality. Fyodor reflects glumly, "There's absolute nothingness, then." But then he presses on: "Perhaps there is just something? Anything is better than nothing. "Is there something? Is there anything? Any signs that there's more to life than the sum of subatomic particles--some larger purpose, some deeper meaning, maybe even something that would qualify as "divine" in some sense of that word? If you approach the spiritual quest with hopes this modest--with the humble skepticism of modernity rather than the revealed certainty of the ancient semitic world--then a rational appraisal of the situation may prove more uplifting.
What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there is some point to it all. At least it would be more evidence than the alternative--if history showed no discernable direction, or if history showed a downward direction, humanity as a whole getting more morally obtuse, more vengeful and bigoted. To the extent that "god" grows, that is evidence--maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence--of higher purpose. Which raises another question: If "god" indeed grows, and grows with stubborn persistence, does that mean we can start thinking about taking the quotation marks off? That is: if the human conception of god features moral growth, and if this reflects moral growth on the part of humanity itself, and if humanity's moral growth flows from basic dynamics underlying history, and if we conclude that this growth is therefore evidence of "higher purpose" does this amount to evidence of an actual god?
Of Marx, Dostoevsky knew very little—and despised, of course, what little he did know. His prediction, then, of the development of radical socialism into totalitarian Communism—and its alter-ego, fascism—rested on his reading of the future from the relatively benign, sentimental socialism of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet, Considerant and the like. Even in them, however, he saw the shape of things to come, the seeds of what Camus later would call “the socialism of the gallows.” Out of his antipathy toward the crypto-religious premises of socialism, that is, Dostoevsky wrote the mytho-history of Marxism before it happened, his prophetic power stemming precisely from his perception of a rival creed to Christianity, from that apocalyptic turn of mind that saw the Anti-Christ lurking in utopia and devouring the century with a specious promise of salvation.
Proclaiming itself—and long widely accepted as—a “science,” Marxism is now more generally conceived as Dostoevsky conceived it, as a religion. The old assumption that ‘scientific socialism’ is a scientific system of thought has tended more and more to give way to the notion that it is in essence . . . a religious system. It appears now . . . as the single most influential expression of a modern socialist movement that was inspired by fundamentally religious impulses and represented, in Martin Buber’s phrase, a ‘socialist secularization of eschatology.’The Grand Inquisitor argues for such a conception of utopia as he says:
"We corrected and improved Thy teaching and based it upon "Miracle, Mystery, and Authority." And men rejoiced at finding themselves led once more like a herd of cattle, and at finding their hearts at last delivered of the terrible burden laid upon them by Thee, which caused them so much suffering. Tell me, were we right in doing as we did. Did not we show our great love for humanity, by realizing in such a humble spirit its helplessness, by so mercifully lightening its great burden, and by permitting and remitting for its weak nature every sin, provided it be committed with our authorization? For what, then, hast Thou come again to trouble us in our work? And why lookest Thou at me so penetratingly with Thy meek eyes, and in such a silence? Rather shouldst Thou feel wroth, for I need not Thy love, I reject it, and love Thee not, myself. Why should I conceal the truth from Thee? I know but too well with whom I am now talking! What I had to say was known to Thee before, I read it in Thine eye. How should I conceal from Thee our secret? If perchance Thou wouldst hear it from my own lips, then listen: We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him, yes— eight centuries. Eight hundred years now since we accepted from him the gift rejected by Thee with indignation; that last gift which he offered Thee from the high mountain when, showing all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, he saith unto Thee: "All these things will I give Thee, if Thou will fall down and worship me!" We took Rome from him and the glaive of Caesar, and declared ourselves alone the kings of this earth, its sole kings, though our work is not yet fully accomplished. But who is to blame for it? Our work is but in its incipient stage, but it is nevertheless started. We may have long to wait until its culmination, and mankind have to suffer much, but we shall reach the goal some day, and become sole Caesars, and then will be the time to think of universal happiness for men."
In another section of this website called Hereafter I posited a future utopian existence for humankind after our Earth has been burnt to a crisp by our dying Sun. Gaia, like all mothers, is not immortal. She is going to die. But her line of descent might be immortal. Indeed, every being now alive on the Earth is the direct lineal descendent of one-celled organisms that lived 3.5 billion years ago. The age of the lines of descent of those ancient organisms, our ancestors, is a substantial fraction of the age of the entire universe, about 14 billion years. So Gaia's children might never die out -- provided they move into space. The Earth should be regarded as the womb of life -- but one cannot remain in the womb forever. We already have the rocket technology capable of exploring and colonizing the galaxy. Several of our space probes have already left the solar system and have begun traveling in interstellar space. What we lack is not propulsion technology but computer technology.
Arthur Clarke prophesied that our seed factories that colonize other stars should also contain an electronic archive filled with information that the designers of the mission thought might be useful to the colonists. Before creating this archive, a committee of ''men of genius and goodwill'' would review years of history and purge it of ''the decay products of dead religions'' - not just all holy books per se but also ''the immense body of literature - fiction and nonfiction - that was based upon them. Despite all the wealth of beauty and wisdom these works contained, they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds.''
Chase didn't need to have the truth coaxed out of him. "I don't want to get older," he said. "I don't want to change."
His father laughed. "seven isn't old. And nothing's going to change tomorrow." It was his birthday in a few hour's time.
"Nothing's going to change for you, for years."
Chase felt a flicker of impatience. "I don't mean my body. I'm not worried about that."
"I'm going to live for a long time, aren't I? Thousands of years?"
"Yes." His father stroked Chase's forehead. "You're not worried about death? You know what it would take to kill a person. You'll outlive the stars, if you want to."
Chase said, "I know. But if I do...how will I know that I'm still me?" He struggled to explain. He still felt he was the same person as he'd been when he was five or six, but he knew that the creature of his earliest memories, of three or four, had been transformed inside his skin. That was all right, because an infant was a kind of half-made person who needed to be absorbed into something larger. He could even accept that in ten year's time, some of his own feelings and attitudes would be different.
"But it won't stop, will it? It won't ever stop."
"No," his father agreed.
"Then how will I know I'm changing in the right way? How will I know I haven't turned into someone else?" Chase shuddered. He felt less dread now that he wasn't alone, but his father's mere presence couldn't banish this fear entirely, the way it had banished the terrors of his childhood. If a stranger could displace him, step by step over ten thousand years, the same thing would be happening to everyone. No one around him would be able to help, because they'd all be usurped in exactly the same way.
His father googled up a globe of the planet and turned it toward him, a luminous apparition painted over the gray shadows of the room. "Where are you, right now?"
Chase turned the globe slightly with a gesture, then pointed to their town, Bloomsburg.
"Here's a puzzle for you," his father said. "Suppose I draw an arrow here, on the ground in front of you, and tell you it's the most important thing there is." He marked the globe as he spoke. "Wherever you go, wherever you travel, you'll need to find a way to take this arrow with you."
This was too easy. "I'd use a compass," Chase said. "And if I didn't have a compass, I'd use the stars. Wherever I went, I could always find the same bearing."
"You think that's the best way to carry a direction with you? Reproducing its compass bearing?"
His father drew a small arrow on the globe, close to the North Pole, pointing due north. Then he drew another on the opposite side of the pole, also pointing due north. The two arrows shared the same compass bearing, but anyone could see that they were pointing in opposite directions.
Chase scowled. He wanted to claim that this was just a perverse exception to an otherwise reasonable rule, but he wasn't sure that was the case.
"Forget about north and south," his father said. "Forget about the stars. This arrow is your only compass; there is nothing else to steer by. You must take it with you. Now tell me how."
Chase stared at the globe. He drew a path leading away from Bloomsburg. How could he duplicate the arrow as he moved? "I'd draw another arrow, each time I took a step. The same as the one before."
His father smiled. "Good. But how would you make each new one the same?"
"I'd make it the same length. And I'd make it parallel."
"How would you do that?" his father persisted. "How would you know that the new arrow was parallel to the old one?"
Chase was unsure. The globe was curved, its geometry was complicated. Maybe it would be simpler to start with a flat surface, and then work his way up to the harder case. He summoned a translucent plane and drew an arrow in black. On command, his computer could duplicate the object faithfully, anywhere else on the plane, but it was up to him to understand the rules. He drew a second arrow and contemplated its relationship with the first. "They're parallel. So if you join the two bases and the two tips, they make a parallelogram."
"Yes. But how do you know that they make a parallelogram?" His father reached over and skewed the second arrow. "You can tell that I've ruined it, just by looking, but what is it that you're looking for when you see that?"
"The distances aren't the same anymore." Chase traced them with his finger. "From base to base and tip to tip, it's different now. So to make the second arrow a copy of the first, I have to make sure that it's the same length, and that its tip is as far away from the first one's tip as the bases are from each other."
"All right, that's true," his father agreed. "Now suppose I make things more difficult. Suppose I say you have no ruler, no tape measure. You can't measure a distance along one line and duplicate it on another one."
Chase laughed. "That's too hard! It's impossible, then!"
"Wait. You can do this: you can compare distances along the same line. If you go straight from A to B to C, you can know if B is exactly half the journey."
Chase gazed at the arrows. There was no half journey here, there was no bisected line in a parallelogram.
"Keep looking," his father urged him. "Look at the things you haven't even drawn yet."
That clue gave it away. "The diagonals?""Yes.
The diagonals of the parallelogram ran from the base of the first arrow to the tip of the second, and vice versa. And the diagonals divided each other in two. They worked through the construction together, pinning down the details, making them precise. You could duplicate an arrow by drawing a line from its tip to the base you'd chosen for the second arrow, bisecting that line, then drawing a line from the base of the first arrow, passing through the midpoint and continuing on as far again. The far end of that second diagonal told you where the tip of the duplicate arrow would be.
Chase regarded their handiwork with pleasure.
His father said, "Now, how do you do the same thing on a sphere?" He passed the globe over to Chase. "You just do the same thing. You draw the same lines."
"Straight lines? Curved lines?"
"Straight." Chase caught himself. Straight lines, on a globe? "Great circles. Arcs of great circles." Given any two points on a sphere, you could find a plane that passed through both of them, and also through the center of the sphere. The arc of the equator sized circle formed where the plane cut through the surface of the sphere gave the shortest distance between the two points.
"Yes." His father gestured at the path Chase had drawn, snaking away from their town. "Go ahead and try it. See how it looks."
Chase copied the arrow once, a small distance along the path, using the parallelogram construction with arcs of great circles for the diagonals. Then he had his computer repeat the process automatically, all the way to the end of the path. "That's it," Chase marveled. "We've done it." A lattice of diagonals ran along the path, marking the way, carrying the arrow forward. No compass, no stars to steer by, but they'd found a way to copy the arrow faithfully from start to finish.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" his father said. "This is called Schild's ladder. All throughout geometry, all throughout physics, the same idea shows up in a thousand different guises. How do you carry something from here to there, and keep it the same? You move it step by step, keeping it parallel in the only way that makes sense. You climb Schild's ladder."
Chase didn't ask if the prescription could be extended beyond physics; as an answer to his fears, it
was only a metaphor. But it was a metaphor filled with hope. Even as he changed, he could watch himself closely, and judge whether he was skewing the arrow of his self.
"There's one more thing you should see," his father said. He drew a second path on the globe, joining the same two points but following a different route. "Try it again."
"It will be the same," Chase predicted confidently. "If you climb Schild's ladder twice, it will copy the arrow the best way, both times." It was like being asked to add up a dozen numbers twice, grouping them in different ways. The answer had to be the same in the end.
"So try it again," his father insisted.
Chase complied. "I've made a mistake," he said. He erased the second ladder, and repeated the construction. Again, the second copy of the arrow at the end of the path failed to match the first.
"I don't understand," Chase complained. "What am I doing wrong?"
"Nothing," his father assured him. "This is what you should expect. There's always a way to carry the arrow forward, but it depends on the path you take."
Chase didn't reply. He'd thought he'd been shown the way to safety, to persistence. Now it was dissolving into contradictions before his eyes.
His father said, "You'll never stop changing, but that doesn't mean you have to drift in the wind. Every day, you can take the person you've been, and the new things you've witnessed, and make your own, honest choice as to who you should become.
"Whatever happens, you can always be true to yourself. But don't expect to end up with the same inner compass as anyone else. Not unless they started beside you, and climbed beside you every step of the way."
Chase made the globe vanish. He said, "It's late. I'd better go to sleep now."
"All right." His father stood as if to leave, but then he reached down and squeezed Chase's shoulder. "There's nothing to be afraid of. You'll never be a stranger, if you stay here with your family and friends. As long as we climb side by side, we'll all change together."
It all comes down to seeing what is important in life and what is not. What we make important is telling, and what we discard as unimportant is equally so. The truth of what we do and do not make important does eventually come back to us in terms of our health, happiness, and the success of our relationships. Today consumerism seems to have taken by storm the first position in many people’s lives. Concern over buying that next car, new house, furniture, electronics or whatever is what makes the world go round. In fact the world economy depends on it. The world’s economic order is being held together by the consumer (especially the American one), who if ever decides to stay home, will plunge the world into an economic slide that the present world system cannot possibly hope to survive.
Is consumerism, economies based on it, and capitalism, the system that promotes it, really the truth and highest importance to human life? In a book called "Crazy River" by Richard Grant, the author concludes his amazing visit to East Africa by visiting the Rwandan museum established to memorialize the victims of that country's genocide. In summarizing his thoughts he reviews the other genocides of the last century and arrives with great discomfort upon the conclusion that the only balance for humankind's propensity toward genocide and war might just be consumerism. Shopping may be the only interest of our species that is greater than our interest in whacking one another.
Fundamentally, the act of genocide embodies Man’s willingness to destroy an entire segment of the human population. The propensity to destroy a group of humans is universal: the potential for this is present in all societies. Given the right circumstances, the ability to commit genocide is easily converted into an act of genocide. As such, genocide is a collective enterprise: it involves collective thought, followed by collective deeds. The more a group defines its identity in narrow terms, the more it is likely – under pressure – to consider an annihilations mode of behavior. This can be found in all cultures threatened by another. There is nothing Asian or European or colonial about genocide: like the universal tendency to go to war, there is a similar urge to use violence of a more radical kind, on an exterminational level. In that sense, genocide belongs to the category of natural behavior, and not aberrant behavior. It follows that those who commit genocide are not bestial but human, no more and no less perverse than warriors, since genocidal wars are seen as wars against an enemy that must be totally erased, an existential war calling for sacrifice and heroics, as in any other war. In other words, before we undertake to understand genocide, we must be aware that it belongs entirely within the scope of normal human behavior. All other interpretations aiming to apprehend it must be limited by this caveat: genocide stems from humanity and not from a supposed perversion of it, even partially. In other words, genocide does not originate from a non-human source. But this is not to say that genocide does not affect those seeking to transfer some of the burden of responsibility from human nature to the meta-human dimension.
In Western philosophy, discussions of the "state of nature" have been central to the understanding of justice and political order that underlies modern liberal democracy. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote treatises on the question of the state of nature, seeking to ground political rights in it. Describing the state of nature was a means of and a metaphor for discussing human nature, an exercise that would establish a hierarchy of human goods that political society was meant to foster.
Hobbes's Leviathon begins with an extended catalog of natural human passions and argues that the deepest and most abiding one is the fear of violet death. From this he derives the fundamental right of nature, which is the liberty each man has to protect his own life. Human nature also provides three causes of quarrel: competition, diffidence (fear), and glory; "The first, maketh man invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the third for Reputation." The state of nature is thus characterized by "Warre...of evey man against every man." To escape from this perilous situation, human beings agree to give up their natural liberty to do as they please in return for other people respecting their right to live. The state enforces these reciprocal commitments in the form of a social contract by which human beings protect those rights which they have by nature but are not able to enjoy in the state of nature due to the war of every man against every man. The government secures the right to life by securing peace.
John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, states that human beings are less occupied fighting one another than they are in mixing their labor with the common things of nature to produce private property. Locke's fundamental law of nature, in contrast to that of Hobbes, gives human beings the right not just to life, but to "life, liberty, or possessions." Unregulated liberty in the state o nature leads to the state of war, necessitating, as for Hobbes, a social contract for the preservation of natural liberty and property. Although the state, in Locke's view, is necessary, it can itself become the denier of natural rights, and so he posits a right to revolt against unjust authority. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness posited by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence traces its ancestry directly back to Hobbes's right of nature, via Locke's amendment concerning the danger of tyranny.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origin of and the Foundation of of Inequality Among Mankind argues that Hobbes has not in fact uncovered natural man; the violent creature described in Leviathan is actually the product of the contaminating effects of centuries of social development. Natural human beings for Rousseau are indeed solitary, but they are also timid, fearful, and more likely to flee one another than to fight. Savage man's "desires never extend beyond his physical wants; he knows no goods but food, a female, and rest"; he fears pain and hunger but not the abstraction of death. Thus the rise of political society does not represent salvation from the "warre of every man against every man" but a bondage to other human beings through ties of mutual dependence.
Everything that modern biology and anthropology tell us about the state of nature suggests that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were incorrect in that there was a never a period in human evolution when human beings existed as isolated individuals; the primate precursors of the human species had already developed extensive social, and political skills; and the human brain is hardwired with faculties that facilitate many forms of social cooperation. The state of nature can still be characterized as a state of war, since violence was endemic, but the violence was not perpetrated by individuals so much as by tightly bonded social groups. Human beings do not enter into society and political life as a result of conscious, rational decision. Communal organization comes to them naturally, though the specific ways they cooperate are shaped by environment, ideas, and culture.
The most basic forms of cooperation predate the emergence of human beings by millions of years. Biologists have identified two natural sources of cooperative behavior: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. With regard to the first, the name of the game in bioogical evolution is not the survival of a given organism but the survival of that organism's genes. This produces a regularity that was formulated by the biologist William Hamilton as the principle of inclusive fitness or kin selection, which holds that individuals of any sexually reproducing species will behave altruistically toward kin in proportion to the number of genes they share. Parents and children, and full brothers and sisters, share 50 percent of their genes, and so will behave more altruistically toward each other than toward their cousins, who share only 25 percent. This behavior has been observed in species ranging from ground squirrels, which discriminate between full and half sisters in nesting behavior, to human beings, for whom nepotism is not a socially but a biologically grounded reality. The desire to pass resources along to kin is one of the most enduring constants in human politics.
The ability to cooperate with genetic strangers is referred to by biologists as reciprocal altruism, and in addition to kin selection is the second major biological source of socal behavior found in many species of animals. Social cooperation depends on the individual's ability to solve what game theorists label repeated prisoner's dilemma games. In these games, individuals potentially benefit by being able to work together, but they can often benefit more if they let other individuals do the cooperating and free-ride off their efforts. A form of morality evolves spontaneously as rational decision makers interact with one another over time, even though motivated in the first instance by nothing more than self-interest. However. these cooperative interactions begin to breakdown as the size of the of the cooperating group increases. In large groups, it becomes harder and harder to monitor the individual contributions of members; free riding and other forms of opportunistic behavior becomes more common.
Religion solves this collective action problem by presenting rewards and punishments that greatly reinforce the gains from cooperation in the here and now. If I believe that my tribe's chief is just another fellow like me following his own self-interests, I may or may not decide to obey his authority. But if I believe that the chief can command the spirits of dead ancestors to reward or punish me, I will be much more likely to respect his word. My sense of shame is potentilly much greater if I believe I am being observed by a dead ancestor who might see into my real motives better than a live kinsman. Contrary to the views of both religious believers and secularists, it is extremely difficult to prove or falsify any given religious belief. Even if I am skeptical that the chief is really in touch with dead ancestors, I may not want to take the risk that he really is. Pascal's wager that one should believe in God because he may actually exist has been operative throughout human history, though in its earlier stages he number of skeptics was possibly small.
Religion's functional role in strengthening norms and buttressing communities has long been recognized. Tit-for-tat, or returning favors for favors and harms for harms, is not just the rational outcome of repeated interaction but also the foundation of biblical morality and an almost universal moral rule among human societies. The Golden Rule mandating that you treat others as you want them to treat you is simply a variation on tit-for-tat, one that emphasizes the benefit rather than the harm side. Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that the survival benefits conferred by enhanced social cohesion is the reason that a propensity for religious belief seems to be hardwired intothe human brain. Religion is not the only way that ideas can reinforce group solidarity -- today we have nationalism and secular ideas like Marxism as well -- but in early societies it played a critical role in making possible more complex forms of social organization. It is hard to see how human beings could have evolved beyond small band-level societies without it.
From a cognitive perspective, any given religious belief can be described as a type of mental model of reality, in which causality is attributed to invisible forces that exist in a metaphysical realm beyond the phenomenal world of everyday experience. This generates theories about how to manipulate the world: for example, a drought is caused by the anger of the gods; it must be appeased by spilling the blood of babies into the furrows of the earth. This then leads to ritual, the repetitive performance of acts linked to the supernatural order, by which human societies hope to gain agency over their environment. Ritual, in turn, helps to delineate communities, marking their boundaries and distinguishing them from one another. Because of its role in building social solidarity, ritual can become disconnected from the cognitive theory that led to its creation, as in the Christmas celebrations that contemporary Americans and Europeans continue to observe. The ritual itself and the beliefs supporting it are invested with the tremendous intrinsic value of excessive consumption. They no longer represent a mental model or theory that can be discarded when a better one comes along, but become ends of action themselves.
Political power is ultimately based on social cohesion. Cohesion may arise out of calculations of self-interest, but simple self-interest is frequently not enough to induce followers to sacrifice and die on behalf of their communities. Political power is the product not just of the resources and numbers of citizens that a society can command but also the degree to which the legitimacy of leaders and institutions is recognized. As that legitimacy is challenged by the unverifiable but greatly entertaining mud slinging on 24/7 news programming and the Internet, new communities and sizable but momentary coalitions form like bees drawn to honey pheromones. The greatest problem with present patterns of consumption and wealth concentration is starvation. To feed everyone based on a European or American standard of living, we would have to gradually reduce the world's population to about 2 billion. Some people think that global hunger is a silent and giant genocide being perpetuated on much of the world’s population for every day 100,000 people die of hunger despite data from the World Food Program indicating that the world could presently feed from 10 to 12 billion people. There is no fatality in this nor act of god, it is assassination, for every victim of hunger there is an assassin. People starve as we fatten the world’s cows for dairy and meat production.
I was fat, dumb, and happy when I finished writing about cosmology, the functions of the brain, the constituents of matter, and the construction of the human survival machine because I thought that it was the study of science that had separated me from the people who continue holding a theological creation myth long after they have abandoned other childhood fantasies like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Then I clumsily stumbled over the fact that our experience of the visual arts also seems to have something to do with the construction of our belief systems. I have never heard liberals and conservatives accusing one another of artism like they do with all of the other isms although it might sometimes have been found as a component of what people call elitism.
In pre-modern physics there had been the thought that all knowledge of the world could be obtained by direct observation so that anyone with eyes and a bit of patience would have an equal shot at fathoming the mysteries of our existence. Somewhere on the road from Newtonian mechanics to relativity and quantum mechanics, physics became very dependent upon modeled realism. This understanding is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such physical theories or models predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other; rather, we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.
Sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century, and coincident with the earthshaking discoveries of new models in physics, modernist artists began to approach the study of reality with the same self scrutiiny as scientists and the new approach has been almost as annoying to traditionalists as quantum mechanics has been to classic Newtonians. I never could exactly figure out where the enlightenment petered out and modernism began but it seems to have happened somewhere near the end of the nineteenth century with the decline in the sense of what philosophers call "Ontological Continuity"; that is a stable mental state derived from a sense of continuity in regard to the events in one's life. When ontological continuity toppled, it initiated an avalanche sweeping away statistics, multiple perspective, subjectivity, and self-reference. Severally that led to the nonlogical, nonobjective, and essentially causeless mental universe that we enjoy so much today. Modern thought gave up the stubborn old belief that 'things' could be seen 'steadily and whole' from some privileged viewpoint at a particular moment. Modernism rejected the lingering certainty of enlightenment thinking and also rejected the existence of a compassionate, all-powerful creator God. Sigmund Freud had convinced many that the mind had a fundamental structure, and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of the parts of the mind. Just as with science, artistic appreciation became dependent upon the underlying model of reality which had been used by the artist to portray a reality that his consciousness had unvealed.
Artists have always been required to dance with the one who 'supports' them. In earlier ages, patronage for the arts had been the monopoly of selected, tone-setting makers of taste: monarchs, aristocrats, princes of the Church, and a few mercantile hubs like those in the Netherlands, an affluent minority of commercial magnates. The artworks that have survived from medieval and early modern centuries into ours, whether as stately mansions or precious objects in museums, demonstrate that many exalted clients had fulfilled their obligation to beautify sanctuaries and palaces, often munificently and tastefully, either out of piety, the pressure of self display, the love of beauty, or a compound of them all. By 1900 there were untold numbers of newly arrived bourgeois newcomers escaping the toil of railroad jobs and office clerkships to attend art exhibitions with dollars, pounds and francs jingling in their off-the-shelf pockets. Just what pleasures bourgeois like to spend their surplus money on obviously depended heavily on time, place, opportunities, their degree of political elbow room, familial habits, and a host of private motives. Liberty was no guarantee of good taste, any more than were spare funds. The question remained whether, and just how much, one could expect the middle class, or the growing number of the highly educated, to rise above their crude appetite for mere diversion. Cultural pessimists, usually journalists writing for the better monthlies, or publicity hungry academics with a fluent pen and a superior attitude, had no doubt about the inescapable triumph of the philistine. The coming mass society, they largely agreed, would be catastrophic for the arts. It would enable each ignoramus to tell the world that he knew nothing about art but he knew what he liked.
This rich and complex environment greatly eased the advent of modernism, but it also drew upon another epochal development that permitted it to mature into a movement more substantial than a mere distraction for bored aesthetes. Well before 1900, Western civilization seemed to be entering a post-Christian era, and modernists were deeply involved in these developments. The guardians of divine truths and magical rituals, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish alike, might moan over the escalating secularism of nineteenth century society, but they could also look with some satisfaction on places of worship still unquestioned, still crowded, still soundly endowed. The grip of religious bodies on education might be slipping, but they were still a cultural and poliical force to be reckoned with. Not long before his death in 1903, Gauguin, in a diatribe against the Catholic Church, put succinctly what being absolutely modern meant: "What must be killed so it will never be reborn: God."
To Friedrich Nietzsche's mind, on the lookout for half-truths and cultural hypocrisy, no deception was more obstinately resistant to correction than self-deception. God might be dead, but only a handful of his contemporaries had accepted this crucial fact of human existence. Most people, he believed, were still being victimized by that old, ingenious Judeo-Christian conspiracy that had induced the masters to yield to the slaves and then imposed upon them a new slavery under the aegis of respectable morality and religious faith. If anyone fitted the description of heretic in chief in a century half ready for the revelation, it was Friedrich Nietzsche. More than anyone else, he provided his world with a climate for modernism. The way that artists profited from this climate far outstripped the public's ability to appreciate their exhilarating originality. T.S. Eliot once famously warned that most humans are unable to tolerate much reality. This may hold true even for modernists. It may be that the greatest illusion they treasured was their conviction hat they had overcome all illusions. But, however the future may come to judge them, at their best they left works that survived them and that will survive us.
My new revelations of modernism come about as I observe the self-portraits of my friends and family as they present themselves within the Facebook galleries. Many aging friends present themselves at the height of their youthful beauty as if, like Dorian Gray, they might think that beauty is the only worthwhile aspect of life. The hope might be to have the self-portrait grow old as their own inner beauty continues to be on view for friends and family. Women often portray the portraits painted in their womb-rooms and nurtured into three dimensional form by their placenta as being the realization of themselves. Others present their household pets as an expression of their more fully realized selves. Still others present themselves more symbolically as some universally recognized icon like a Disney created animation character representing kindness, altruism, readiness for self defense, or great wisdom. We all seem to be looking for something better than what the mirror presents to us as a meaningless and fleeting image.
The Norwegian Edvard Munch concluded that Impressionism did not allow sufficient expression. He found it superficial and too akin to scientific experimentation. He began to explore what he thought he saw in the world around him and, even more, felt in the world within. He then began to paint things in a way that is different from that of other artists. He sees only the essential, and that, naturally, is all he paints. For this reason Munch's pictures are as a rule "not complete", as people are so delighted to discover for themselves. He believed that art is complete once the artist has really said everything that was on his mind, and this is precisely the advantage Munch has over painters of the other generation, that he really knows how to show us what he has felt, and what has gripped him, and to this he subordinates everything else.
His best known picture, The Scream, is widely considered the quintessence of modern angst, and he revisited it in several versions. We are presented with a scantily articulated figure -- we know not whether it is man or woman -- its hands clasped to its cheeks, its eyes staring, its mouth wide open, standing on a long bridge, with ominous clouds swirling around. We have it from Munch himself that the idea for this portrait of a nervous fit came to him after experiencing an overpowering anxiety attack. When I saw it in the National Gallery in Oslo I regarded it as the epitome of a representation for our crowded and hustling existence, an artistic primal scream. As I watched people react to it, I saw that many were made nervous and had a negative experience of the painting because they did not want to be reminded of those moments in our lives when we feel that way. All thinking people will always sense themselves within a cultural crisis even when we are not involved in a personal crisis so The Scream continues to be relevant to its own disturbing time, and to our own.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was very much part of the places in which he landed: Dresden, Berlin, Fehmarn, the Alps. In cities he did a lot of interiors, but he also did specific views of buildings and streets, like the Bellevue Dance Hall in Dresden, the Potsdamer Platz and Nollendorf Square in Berlin. They were essential to his understanding of how people come together, how life is formulated in the city. He sees the same surge and collision of forces in his landscapes. The mountains and trees and cabins and skies are not simply there, they come from somewhere, just as do the people that inhabit his city streets. The place they come from is him, not as a matter of self-centeredness but of ecstatic perception. They are products of his colors, the movements of his hand. They move into place only at his insistence that they are there already. Even more than Van Gogh, whose work he revered, he inhabits the intensity of the color and light he sees. His colors are primary--red, yellow, blue--sky and trees, moon and clouds, mountains--the images shaped and arranged in the simplest possible way. Yet the effect is of infinite complexity, because the brush has put down what is in fact there, and one perceives the enormous leap that has been made from the brush to as far away as the moon and beyond. A prodigious energy pushes his landscapes into existence, with yellow clouds racing across the sky and red trees madly choreographed, like the figures in the streets or dancehalls of Berlin. And there buried in the bowels of the landscape, is to be rediscovered the source of self.
Art is therefore understood as a means of engaging the world's energy, not as it is but as it is constantly becoming. It is a process of encompassing over time what is in fact instantaneous. Kirchner, of course was preceded by Van Gogh's emphatic compulsiveness, Munch's exhilarating inwardness, Toulouse-Lautrec's swirling fatalism, and even Vuillard's psychological intricacy, and parallels, or slightly follows, the Fauves, and particularly Matisse's, freeing of color from representation, though in a much more emotionally incisive way. Sources of energy early in his career are the studio (usually his own) filled with all forms of art, the bodies of young women and men, lovemaking, sprawling children, circus and cabaret performers, people in the streets consciously unconsciously performing, bathers on the shore in summer.
The small forms Kandinsky used at times made for a humorous symphony, some of them hazily resembling, but never truly immitating, structures appearing in nature. He introduces teasing shapes that could be interpreted as the portals of a cathedral or a horseback rider, but this only makes his inventions appear even more esoteric. Not even his mood -- or the mood he intended to express -- ever seemed unambiguous. From the time he adapted abstraction his paintings were almost literally indescribable. He worked vigorously, often in troubling uncertainty, on each of his pictures, and all that his audience could do was to experience them. Kandinsky's pictures only resembled each other.
The obvious properties we can see when we look at an isolated color and let it act alone; is that on one side is the warmth or coldness of the color tone, and on the other side is the clarity or obscurity of that tone. Warmth is a tendency towards yellow, and coldness a tendency towards blue; yellow and blue form the first great, dynamic contrast. Yellow has an eccentric movement and blue a concentric movement; a yellow surface seems to move closer to us, while a blue surface seems to move away. Yellow is a typically terrestrial colour, whose violence can be painful and aggressive. Blue is a celestial color, evoking a deep calm. The combination of blue and yellow yields total immobility and calm, which is green.
Clarity is a tendency towards white, and obscurity is a tendency towards black. White and black form the second great contrast, which is static. White is a deep, absolute silence, full of possibility. Black is nothingness without possibility, an eternal silence without hope, and corresponds with death. Any other color resonates strongly on its neighbors. The mixing of white with black leads to gray, which possesses no active force and whose tonality is near that of green. Gray corresponds to immobility without hope; it tends to despair when it becomes dark, regaining little hope when it lightens. Red is a warm colour, lively and agitated; it is forceful, a movement in itself. Mixed with black it becomes brown, a hard colour. Mixed with yellow, it gains in warmth and becomes orange, which imparts an irradiating movement on its surroundings. When red is mixed with blue it moves away from man to become purple, which is a cool red. Red and green form the third great contrast, and orange and purple the fourth.
Malevich felt that our savage forebears were the first to found the principle of naturalism: fashioning their drawings out of a dot and five little sticks, he tried to recreate his own image. This first attempt laid the basis for conscious imitation of the forms of nature. From this arose the aim of approaching the face of nature as closely as possible. All of the artists” efforts were directed towards the representation of nature's forms. Collective art, or the art of copying, had its origin in the tracing of the savage’s first primitive image. Collective, because the real man with his subtle range of feelings, psychology and anatomy had not yet been discovered. The savage saw neither his external image, nor his inner condition. His consciousness could only see the shape of a man, animal, etc. As his consciousness developed, so the scheme by which he depicted nature grew more complicated. The further his consciousness embraced nature, the more complicated his work became and the more his knowledge and ability increased. His consciousness developed only on one side, the side of nature’s creation, and not on the side of new forms of art.
Therefore his primitive pictures cannot he considered as creative work. The deformities in his pictures are the result of weakness on the technical side. Technique, like consciousness, was only on the path of its development. And his pictures must not be considered as art for inability is not art. He merely pointed the way to art. Consequently, the original scheme was a framework, on which the generations hung newer and newer discoveries made in nature. And the scheme grew more complicated and achieved its flowering in the Ancient World and the Renaissance of art. The masters of these two epochs portrayed man in his complete form, both inner and outer. Man was assembled and his inner condition was expressed. But despite their colossal mastery, they did not complete the savage’s idea: The reflection, as in a mirror, of nature on canvas. And it is a mistake to believe that their age was the brightest flowering in art, and that the younger generation must at all costs strive towards this ideal. Such a concept is false. It diverts young forces from the contemporary stream of life, thereby demoralizing them. Their bodies fly in airplanes, but art and life are covered with the old robes of Nero and Titians. Thus they are unable to see the new beauty of our modern life. For they live only in the beauty of past ages.
As a young painter, Mondrian had done some striking naturalistic landscapes, but he was to shift away dramatically from such conventional subjects. Like many other modernists, Mondrian was a driven man, obsessed by a gnawing discontent with bourgeois taste and a consuming need to strike out beyond it. Hs gradual move toward the celebrated grids was partly painful, at least mesmerizing, effort for him as he approached a path to what he called "pure reality." His landscape gave way to highly colored figurations that looked a little like a pointillist on a binge -- still recognizably windmills or dunes but increasingly patterns that existed for their own sake. Then from 1908 on he moved step by small step toward non-representational art. His trees and dunes still looked like trees and dunes but less and less so. His famous two still lifes with ginger pot (1911-12) were Cubist in inspiration, and the trees he painted in these years were stripped of all but bare trunks and branches, as though a mighty storm had blown away every trace of foliage. He was beginning to title his paintings "Composition," reducing his committment to the imitation of nature to the minimum. By 1917, he was experimenting with splashing colored rectangles across his canvases, it was only a matter of time before he would bring straight black lines and colored rectangles together. That moment came about 1920; th rectangles once in place became almost sacred to their maker.
Mondrian's conviction was that the more the human animal escapes from the authority of nature, the more civilized he becomes. In building great cities, in the triumphs of technology and science, humans had far outstripped nature; it was up to painting now to catch up with the engineers. For the mind was a vast creative potential and, as his work increasingly showed, at least requires no external source of inspiration. The vision that underlay Kandinsky's abstractions was replaced, in Mondrian, wuth a stripped-down structure; those who watched him paint could attest that he trusted his intuition alone in his search for a lasting artistic form.
De Chirico is most famous for the eerie mood and strange artificiality of the cityscapes he painted in the 1910s. Their great achievement lies in the fact that he treats the scenes not as conventional cityscapes - as perspectives on places full of movement and everyday incident - but rather as the kinds of haunted streets we might encounter in dreams. They are backdrops for pregnant symbols, or even at times for collections of objects that resemble still lifes. De Chirico's innovative approach to these pictures - an approach rather like that of a theatrical set designer - has encouraged critics to describe them as "dream writings." They are, in other words, disordered collections of symbols.
Key to de Chirico's work is his love of the classical past. He came to this through his appreciation for German Romanticism, and it was this which revealed to him new ways of looking at the classics, and ways of treating themes of tragedy, enigma, and melancholy. For de Chirico, the themes and motifs of the Greek and Roman classics remained valid even in the modern world. However, he recognized that the clash of the past and present produced strange effects - suggesting sorrow, disorientation, nostalgia - and some of the most powerful qualities in his work of the 1910s come from staging this contrast. Much of the impact of de Chirico's pictures derives from the restrained clarity of his style. He achieved this by rejecting the formal innovations of much modern art since Impressionism and instead opting for a frank, realistic manner that allowed him to depict objects with simplicity. The result was a style that, rather like René Magritte's, is rich in evocative mystery despite the straightforward character of the depiction.
The Belgian artist Rene Magritte had a lifetime specialty of titling his pantings in such a way as to present the ambiguitiesbetween the subject of the work and sober reality. Magritte was lucid about his confrontational intentions as he gradually became aware of them. In an autobiographical account, he singled out his melodramatic moment of truth. He was being shown a reproduction of the de Chirico's Love Song (pictured above) in whih a plaster head of Apollo shares top billing with a large rubber glove. Moved to tears by the experience, the future suddenly lay open to Magritte: to force the incongruity of surface realities into shocking harmony.
The simplicity in his work is a suspect simplicity. In his writings - which include general articles, a few literary pieces, and special articles on specific themes - and in the titles he gave to his works, Magritte was methodical, as he was in his painting. The unexpected is never mere caprice. Moreover, it resides not so much in Magritte as in ourselves. We are not prepared for, and we do not instantly grasp, his technique of thinking and painting. It is not recalcitrance on his part but a natural need to react to the stereotype phenomena of everyday life in a way contrary to expectation; it is a need to correct. What is more, in Magritte's work this became a discipline of feeling, thinking, and behaving which he discovered and evolved for himself. Accordingly, his method - others feel it was a discipline - is as valid a subject for inquiry as the works themselves.
In Surrealist fashion, Miró aimed to subvert the everyday and the prosaic, but in a highly individual fashion, through whimsy rather than nightmarish distortions. Starting with dissection, which entailed taking painting apart, piece by piece, and throwing out essential things. The pictures look intact enough, with their handwritten phrases and clouds filled with dots, until you notice that something is missing: paint, or all but a minimal amount of it. Most of each picture is raw, untouched canvas on which the words and clouds drift like flotsam from a ship gone down. A year later Miró gets rid of something else: skill. The wood panel used as a support in his piece called “Spanish Dancer I” is covered with a sheet of colored paper. A small rectangle of plain sandpaper is tacked on top of it. Glued to the sandpaper is a tiny cutout image of a woman’s shoe. That’s about it: no paint, almost no image, almost no artist. He had made himself into an artist devoted to insistent color and somewhat mysterious patterns, though never forgetting unmistakeable reminiscences of the external world.
Miro's Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird is an early masterful instance: a ruthlessly simplified human figure -- the head is a near circle with an eye its only figure; the body is an enlarged curving shape ending up in a huge single foot; the throwing arm is a straight thin line that bisects the figure -- stands on the beach, with the sea and the sky providing a tranquil backdrop. Miro wanted to transform -- or rather subdue -- painting to fit the demands of his imagination.
The two qualities that Dali unquestionably possesses, are a gift for drawing and an atrocious egotism. Without the first he would never have been able to gratify the second. He was spectacularly endowed and thorougly trained craftsman, and showed his talents and his learning from the beginning. His distaste for modern art, loudy proclaimed, was well known, and his admiration for the immensely successful, soundly academic Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier who was acclaimed both for his mastery of fine detail and assiduous craftsmanship. With a bow to widespread interest in psychiatry, Dali defined his artistic procedure as the "paranoic-critical method," which amounted to the "spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the critical-interpretive association of delirious phenomena."
There were many early signs that Dali was not just any boy growing up in provincial, middle-class Catalonia. Extreme timidity coincided with an array of obsessions, such as buttocks (fascination with, both male and female) and locusts (pathological fear of), that persisted throughout his life. In adolescence, Dali also became fixated on his unusually complex sexuality. First, he realized that he was poorly equipped for intercourse. However disturbing the discovery, he related it with typical verve: ''For a long time I experienced the misery of believing I was impotent,'' he observes in his ''Unspeakable Confessions.'' ''Naked, and comparing myself to my schoolfriends, I discovered that my penis was small, pitiful and soft. I can recall a pornographic novel whose Don Juan machine-gunned female genitals with ferocious glee, saying that he enjoyed hearing women creak like watermelons. I convinced myself that I would never be able to make a woman creak like a watermelon.'' The other discovery was normal -- except that, for Dali, masturbation was to be the main, indeed almost the only, sexual activity right through his life. These facts would hardly be relevant if they were not vital to an understanding of Dali's subsequent behavior and his art. An overriding sense of sexual inadequacy was surely one of the factors that drove him to create with such single-minded intensity; and most of the self-styled Great Masturbator's best paintings bristle with erotic allusions.
In his long lfe, Picasso spread his vast oeuvre across an astonishing spectrum, painting, drawing, sculpting, making graphics and ceramics. From virile youth to impotent age, he generated a literally unaccountable mass of self-portraits, trying every conceivable medium and inhabiting most conceivable roles. Picasso the dandy, the lover, the artist, the carouser, the clown, the friend, even the monkey, and the diminutive aged voyeur watching younger couples at sex. He launched styles, modified styles, lampooned styles with unquenchable originality until his final years. A shift in style might reveal that a new woman was occupying his bed. But urges other than erotic cravings or gratifications also roused him to action, above all aesthetic conundrus calling for aesthetic solutions. He often made art quite literally for art's sake In short, he was a one-mand band among the modernists.
The uniformly recognized trajectory of his works, that much-discussed succession of Picasso's styles, was in no way predictable. Each innovation emrged from inner monitions, from an imperative need to experiment. He could not be confined to a particular style, not even one that he had invented himself. In his life as an artist, Picasso's untrammeled ability to play, provide his audiences with repeated surprises. And himself no less: "Painting is stronger than I am," he said late in life. "It makes me do what it wants." It was this invaluable passivity before the demands of art, given guidance by his craftsman's self-discipline, that made Picasso protean.
Marcel Duchamp is the truly indispensable icon of modernist history. Other non-conformists undertook to revise, reshape, reinvigorate the craft they had learned to practice and distrust, but Ducamp's oeuvre invites the suspicio that he actually aimed at abolishing art as such. His motives defy full interpretation, for all his agreeable if selective openness; to make them particularly hard to read, he was, endowed with a sly sense of humor. His fondness for puns and word games was notorious; his irony pointed, though rarely wounding -- a typical French gift, his admirers thought. It is known that Duchamp was thoroughly alienated from accepted aesthetic conventions and in love with originality.
What he derided most heatedly was was what he damned as "retinal art," painting and sculpture that appeal to the eye alone. The only art he cared about was art that was somehow smart and alert; ideas for a work mattered more than the finished product. n short, it seems only resonable to take him as intent not on discovering novel principles for art but in delivering its funeral oration. Art historians who in recent years have announced the death of art usually give Duchamp the credit -- or the blame -- for killing it. With his "readymades," a creation peculiarly his own, he remains the most promising suspect because he appeared at the scene of the crime, heavily armed, for decades before later suspects were born.
Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase was a humanoid figure of indeterminate gender captured as it were at successive moments. Visitors crowded around this odd rectangular cluster of structures, perplexed, irritated, and stimulated to pointed jokes. One periodical launched a poetry competition seeking the most apt description and cartoonists tried their hand at caricaturing what struck them as an offese in oils. For some obscure reason, among epithets, o which there were many, "an explosion in a shingle factory" carried the day.
Paul McCartney found a singular way of expressing the sentiment that each of us lives in a “Romantic” world. During their off hours his inhabitants of the Yellow Submarine might meet together to reminisce about how the submarine was initially created and what would be likely to happen to it in the far future. They might develop a shared myth about an all-powerful deity who had created the submarine some 6,500 years ago and set it on some kind of course of human redemption. The redeemed might be rescued from future oblivion by some review of the individual performance of their duties. The slackers might foresee a punishing afterlife.
Members of the crew or the administrative staff of the submarine might attend these talk sessions and discover that crimes aboard the ship might be reduced through a posting of the rules leading to redemption on the submarine’s bulletin board. In order to increase the reception of these "Commandments", they might be posted as being issued from “on high”. Over the years these rules could be reinforced into a more understandable administrative framework through weekly devotionals and an annual sequence of rites observances.
Perhaps 5,000 years into the cruise of the submarine, in what was later referenced by some as the “Enlightenment”, some of the passengers on the submarine began to use telescopes and microscopes to more carefully investigate the sky of blue and sea of green. In addition, they wandered through the engine room and the propulsion devices and found that certain regularities were governing the heating systems, the spinning of the ship’s propellers, and the turbulence in the power transfer systems.
In an attempt to describe these regularities they collectively spoke and wrote about what eventually became known as the “Classical” perspective. These societal outliers would always be a minority and to protect themselves from the wrath of the “Romantic” majority, they were very careful to point out that their view was very compatible with the “Romantic” perspective and only mildly contradictory in areas where the majority of people had little or no interest.
Perhaps five hundred years later some observers of the “Classical” perspective with some improved instruments found some unexpected anomalies in their experiments on extremely large objects, microscopically small objects, and objects moving at a very high speed which led them to develop an even finer grained and less summed over approximation of the world later called “Quantum Mechanics”. Again this new view would be shared by only a very highly trained minority of humankind but was presented in a way to not contradict the coarser grained and more approximated views of the “Romantics” and the “Classicists” who usually had little or no interest in the extremely large, the microscopically small, or objects moving at a speed approaching that of light itself.
Perhaps fifty years later using much more sophisticated instruments revealed the existence of fermions, bosons, and quarks making up all the seeable objects in the universe and stemming from the Big Bang that had occurred something like 13.8 billion years ago. The large clumping of these particles such as galaxies, stars, and planets were all moving away from the initial explosion point and from each other at an enormous speed that was continuing to accelerate. The name “Standard Model” was given to this even finer grained and less summed over approximation of the world. Again this new view would be shared by an even smaller and more highly trained minority of humankind, but it was again presented in a way to not contradict the coarser grained and more approximated views of the “Romantics”, the “Classicists”, and the “Quantum” theorists.
In the last fifteen years, using the most sophisticated instruments, a group of scientists have discovered and are in the midst of proving that underneath each of the multitude of observed particles in the “Standard Model” is a single loop of “Superstring” vibrating at various frequencies to present itself as the masked components of the universe including the elusive particles called the “Higgs Boson” and the “Graviton” which glue all of the components together in what we once called the “Yellow Submarine".
The heir apparent made his debut completely equipped with all appurtenances, dependences, screws, cocks, faucets, hooks, eyes, nails, considered necessary for completeness of appearance, harmony of parts, and unity of effect in this most energetic, driving, and competitive world. He was the complete male in miniature, the tiny acorn from which the mighty oak must grow, the heir of all ages, the inheritor of unfulfilled renown, the child of progress, the darling of the budding age and, what's more, fortune and her fairies, not content with smothering him with these blessings of time and family, saved him up carefully until progress was ripe for his glory.
Such was the state of things when he entered the theater of human events on January 8, 2017. I would give willingly some more extended account of the world his life touched during these first few years, showing, in all its perspectives and implications, the meaning of life as seen from the floor, or from the crib, but these impressions are suppressed when they might be told, not through any fault of intelligence, but through lack of muscular control, the powers of articulation, and because of the recurring waves of loneliness, weariness, depression, aberration, and utter blankness which war against the order in a boy's mind until he is three or four years old.
Lying darkly in his crib, washed, powdered, and fed, he thought quietly of many things before he dropped off to sleep—the interminable sleep that obliterated time for him, and that gave him a sense of having missed forever a day of sparkling life. At these moments, he was heartsick with weary horror as he thought of the discomfort, weakness, dumbness, the infinite misunderstanding he would have to endure before he gained even physical freedom. He grew sick as he thought of the weary distance before him, the lack of co-ordination of the centers of control, the undisciplined and rowdy bladder, the helpless exhibition he was forced to give in the company of his sniggering, pawing admirers as dried and cleaned he was revolved before them.
He was in agony because he was poverty-stricken in symbols: his mind was caught in a net because he had no words to work with. He had not even names for the objects around him: he probably defined them for himself by some jargon, reinforced by some mangling of the speech that roared about him, to which he listened intently day after day, realizing that his first escape must come through language. He indicated as quickly as he could his ravenous hunger for pictures and print: sometimes they brought him great books profusely illustrated, and he bribed them desperately by cooing, shrieking with delight, making extravagant faces, and doing all the other things they understood in him. He wondered savagely how they would feel if they knew what he really thought: at other times he had to laugh at them and at their whole preposterous comedy of errors as they pranced around for his amusement, waggled their heads at him, tickled him roughly, making him squeal violently against his will. The situation was at once profoundly annoying and comic: as he sat in the middle of the floor and watched them enter, seeing the face of each transformed by a foolish leer, and hearing their voices become absurd and sentimental whenever they addressed him, speaking to him words which he did not yet understand, but which he saw they were mangling in the preposterous hope of rendering intelligible that which has been previously mutilated, he had to laugh at the fools, in spite of his vexation.
And left alone to sleep within a shuttered room, with the thick sunlight printed in bars upon the floor, unfathomable loneliness and sadness crept through him: he saw his life down the solemn vista of a forest aisle, and he knew he would always be the sad one: caged in that little round of skull, imprisoned in that beating and most secret heart, his life must always walk down lonely passages. Lost. He understood that humans were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us.
He saw that the great figures that came and went about him, the huge leering heads that bent hideously into his crib, the great voices that rolled incoherently above him, had for one another not much greater understanding than they had for him: that even their speech, their entire fluidity and ease of movement were but meager communicants of their thought or feeling, and served often not to promote understanding, but to deepen and widen strife, bitterness, and prejudice.
His brain went black with terror. He saw himself an inarticulate stranger, an amusing little clown, to be dandled and nursed by these enormous and remote figures. He had been sent from one mystery into another: somewhere within or without his consciousness he heard a great bell ringing faintly, as if it sounded undersea, and as he listened, the ghost of memory walked through his mind, and for a moment he felt that he had almost recovered what he had lost.
Sometimes, pulling himself abreast the high walls of his crib, he glanced down dizzily at the patterns of the carpet far below; the world swam in and out of his mind like a tide, now printing its whole sharp picture for an instant, again ebbing out dimly and sleepily, while he pieced the puzzle of sensation together bit by bit, seeing only the dancing fire-sheen, hearing then the elfin clucking of the sun-warmed people, somewhere beyond in a distant and enchanted world. Again, he heard their morning-wakeful sounds dear and loud, suddenly becoming a substantial and alert citizen of life; or, going and coming in alternate waves of fantasy and fact, he heard the loud, fiery thunder of music.
His crib was a great woven basket, well mattressed and pillowed within; as he grew stronger, he was able to perform extraordinary acrobatics in it, tumbling, making a hoop of his body, and drawing himself easily and strongly erect: with patient effort he could worm over the side on to the floor. There, he would crawl on the vast design of the carpet, his eyes intent upon great wooden blocks piled chaotically on the floor. All the letters of the alphabet, in bright multi-colored carving, were engraved upon them.
Holding them clumsily in his tiny hands, he studied for hours the symbols of speech, knowing that he had here the stones of the temple of language, and striving desperately to find the key that would draw order and intelligence from this anarchy. With infinite patience he found a block with an H that he thought had a huffing sound and pulled it forward. Again and again he looked for another block to place next to it. Finally he chose an E because he liked the look of it next to the H. He began carefully watching one of the huge figures as it picked up an object and made noises onto it. Great voices soared far above him, vast shapes came and went, lifting him to dizzy heights, depositing him with exhaustless strength.
On his next escape from the crib he quickly selected a block with an L and placed it next to the H and E. Admiring the line of blocks he next found another L and then an O before he tired of the momentous effort and lay down to sleep.
To defend your own reality and then impose it forcefully on the outside world is paranoia.
9/24/2017 Like most of my friends I have been enthralled by the 10-part, 18-hour documentary television series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the Vietnam War. As always the Ken Burns way of getting to the heart of complex matters draws very much on the technique of developing individual experiential narratives for the boots on the ground. I realized to my shame that I had never properly listened to my brother's narrative. All I had was a series of anecdotes that he had peppered me with over the years during our interruptions of laughter. So I stole the interviewing technique from Ken Burns and asked him again so that I could better weave his experience into the tapestry of the others.
My brother John arrived on March 29, 1971 at Bien Hoa Air Force Base about 16 miles north of Saigon. He then stayed there a few days before being loaded onto a bus with heavy screens over the windows and transported late at night to an airfield to board a C-130 transport. From here the huge stork departed to deposit its cargo of baby soldiers to several smaller airports where it was necessary to drop nearly straight down onto short landing strips. At each stop names were called out and groups of men were dropped off. With no windows and seats like bleachers it was a long night. At the last stop John was presented to his proud new in loco parentis commanders at Da Nang’s Red Beach.
The first things John noticed on his arrival were the heat and the smell of the country—the heat was constant, the smell varied from place to place. Some men talked of “stepping into a sauna” or “walking into a blast furnace.” One recalled that “the sweat just popped.” The smell was of native foods and fires and of American military contributions: “sweat, shit, jet fuel, and fish sauce all mixed together.” At the Red Beach base, fifty-five gallon drums sat under outhouses, and when they were filled they were pulled aside, drenched with kerosene, and burned. The smell of burning excrement was everywhere and it was unforgettable. They needed someone to burn the crappers in the rear so the new guys got to do all that sort of thing until they were assigned.
After he was at this base awhile he was given an assignment to be a perimeter guard at night. The guy he was sent into a foxhole with was a heroin addict and slept all night and wouldn't wake up. John (now newly minted as RJ) had to stay awake all night after working all day. That is the first he knew that those guarding him as he slept at night were either sleeping or really had no idea what they were doing. When it was suggested that a permanent guard force be established he chose to guard rather than sleep, hoping the people guarding him were awake. He and his new friend Red became full time guards in what was called Crispy Corner/Tower 5; Crispy Corner because they were already burnt out.
The men frequently described a green replacement as the “fuckin’ new guy,” but it was a term used descriptively or teasingly rather than tauntingly. An FNG was cause for concern, however, because of the increased risk of casualties due to inexperience. RJ Reynolds was one of the FNGs: “Now all of a sudden you are in this situation as a new guy, you don’t know anybody and the only thing that you have in common is that sharp focus of attention and emotions of the day or that period of time. So you don’t know names and backgrounds, you don’t know how they live. In that realm, the only commonality that you have with each other is knowing that you’re supposed to take care of each other.
The army recommended that men carry between forty-four and forty-eight pounds of equipment. The average soldier carried sixty pounds, and some had much more than that. They had camouflage tropical uniforms—much lighter than the earlier fatigues. They had baggy pants and a brush shirt that was worn outside the pants. Many wore no shirts in the heat. The old steel helmets were discarded and replaced by “boonie” hats – floppy with wide brims. Their tropical combat boots were a quick drying combination of leather and nylon, with insoles that gave some protection from sharp punji sticks. They carried ponchos for protection from the rain —but some learned not to wear them at night out on patrol. When these rubber garments got wet, they would shine, obviously undesirable at night in the jungle. The men wore their nylon liners at night—they didn’t really keep them dry but at least they didn’t shine.
Weapons were M-16s, a smaller and lighter rifle with a twenty-round magazine that fired a 5.56 mm bullet. This rifle was made for close-range fighting. The only problem was that it wasn’t made for Vietnam—the moisture and dirt caused it to malfunction regularly, and maintenance was very difficult in the jungle. By 1971 the military had worked through these problems with better lubricants, issuing more often in the middle appropriate cleaning equipment, and refitting the weapons with chrome chambers that reduced jamming.
Adapting. This was the word that fit the experience. Adapting, however, to the experience that was never constant. The uniforms, the boots, and the rifles—all adapted and all further altered in the field. For the men on the ground, “adapting” described their lives, learning to survive in the environment for which not even the best training could have fully prepared them, adjusting to circumstances and to equipment, confronting the reality of the war, with civilians often in the middle of the combat areas, dealing with the common shock of encountering the hostile attitudes of the South Vietnamese, civilian and military, all of this in the context of changing expectations from Washington. This was “Nam.”
If back in the States it was a big-screen moral and political saga, in-country, especially for those out in the field, it was a much focused view if a very existential world: “You’re not thinking about the war and whether it’s right or wrong, or whether it’s moral or not, or the right thing to be or even the smart thing to do. You’re thinking more about your own hide and your own position in life and the fact that you are in a war zone. So your world becomes smaller in a way. You think less geopolitically than you do in terms of your own day to day life. We were disgruntled when we were humping, tired, sleepy, hungry, hot, cold, sick, and wet or when things did not go right for us. Overall combat is miserable and nerve-wracking. We did not discuss much about politics because we were young and did not know much about the issues of different parties.”
On the same day that my brother arrived in Vietnam, a U.S. Army court martial board convened in Ft. Benning, Georgia, found Lieutenant William Calley guilty of the premeditated murder of at least 29 civilians at My Lai. Two days later, the same panel sentenced him to life imprisonment. It had been a lengthy and emotional trial, with soldier's photographs and chilling accounts of the murder of civilians in the village. Men told stories of soldiers shooting children, of automatic weapon fire aimed closeup at groups of scared and weeping families. It had taken three years for the army's discovery, investigative, and legal processes to conclude the case of Lieutenant Calley.
By then the outlines of the story were well known. On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the 20th Infantry Regiment, part of the 23rd Infantry Division, the Americol Division, attacked the village of Son My, known on the army maps as part of "Pinkville" and remembered as My Lai. The first platoon, headed by Lieutenant Calley, led the assault on the village, where allegedly there were NLF soldiers. But in fact there not. Before the first platoon left, they had killed between 374 and 504 Vietnamese civilians. These included old men, women, children, and even infants. This was more than hapless cross-fire with "collateral damage". There were mass executions of groups, gang raping and then the killing of women and girls, and mutilation of bodies. There was no evidence of anyone in the village attacking the soldiers. Some would insist that there were "Viet Cong sympathizers" there, and perhaps there were. But that was irrelevant to--and most certainly not an excuse for--what happened that day.
There is little doubt that by the time of my brother’s arrival in the spring of 1971, the conviction of the value of this engagement had faded sharply—perhaps more slowly among troops in Vietnam than it had for me back home. But it had faded. Surviving the tour became the obsession, and troops kept a close tally on how long they had remaining—looking for that stage when they would be “short-timers” and then get home alive. Everyone was scared to death they would get killed during the last month, the last week, and the last day. Everyone knew exactly how many days they had left in-country, sometimes down to the minute.
Skin, our skin, this precious skin. What a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish to save his skin. Once upon a time men endured hunger, torture, the most terrible sufferings, they killed and were killed, they suffered and made others suffer, to save their souls, to save their own souls and the souls of others. They would rise to every form of greatness and stoop to every form of infamy to save their souls—not only their own souls, but the souls of others too. Today they suffer and make others suffer, they kill and are killed, they do wonderful things and dreadful things, not to save their souls, but to save their skins.
James Baldwin wrote that he thought American arrogance was a new phenomenon in the world:
"It's not the ignorance of a peasant in Vietnam, or any peasant anywhere...If you are dealing with people who do not know how to read and know that they don't know how to read, it is at least conceivable that you can teach them how to read. If an African peasant doesn't know how to drive a tractor, or how to irrigate a barren field, he can be taught these things. But I don't know what you do with a people who are ignorant in the way that Americans are ignorant. Who believe that they can read, and who read their Reader's Digest or Time magazine or who watch the Fox News and think that they know something about the world; because they are told that they do. There is a distinction between a lack of education and the ignorance of the complacently powerful, those who had faith that their esteemed institutions would teach them what they needed to know about the world".
It seems that it is only in a crisis that Americans begin to pay attention to other people. It has to be an American crisis, of course. If two countries fight that do not supply us with some precious commodity, then the education of the public does not take place. But when a dictator falls, or the oil supply is threatened, then we turn on the television and they tell us where the country is, what the language is, how to pronounce the names of the leaders and what the religion is all about. The whole world takes an interest in this curious way that Americans educate ourselves.
America's claim to exceptionalism obscures something about ourselves. Our problem is not only that we don't know much about the rest of the world; but what we do know is an obstacle to original and accurate and moral thinking. We have long ago developed ways of preventing our own citizens from knowing the contours of our existence.
We don't like to think of ourselves as an "empire" until we are in a period of precipitous decline. Only then, with the balm of self-pity, does it become easier to accept thar we, the onetime anti-imperialist revolutionaries, the world's foremost lovers of freedom and independence, might be little different from the British suppressing the Indian revolt, or the French colonizing Algeria, or the Belgians divesting the Congo of its resources. Rejecting the word "empire" has long been a way for Americans to avoid taking responsibility for acting like one, which is a habit embedded in the American character since the moment of its birth.
In school we learn a folksy, even dorky version of American history. We remember the Puritans in their funny clothes, Plymouth Rock, drawings of the Pilgrims breaking corn with the Indians, George Washington sitting in a boat on the Delaware River. These are a child's memories, but the takeaway was a romantic notion of struggle and discovery. From a distance, this history looks far different. Taming a land covered in wilderness meant for the settlers a return to a pre-modern state; to survive, the early Americans had to re-enact, in double time, the phases of European civilization: first as hunters and gatherers, then as farmers, and finally as industrialists. Thus from the nation's first colonial settlement, the American people enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity for rebirth, which came with a nearly ritualistic form of amnesia. Becoming an American demanded that we forget our history--it made us forever innocent, becoming by definition, outside of history.
I am so late in figuring out a few of the simple things that smart people get a hold on quickly. Most of the people get their understanding of reality through the easy acquisition of the beliefs and social conventions of friends, family, and close neighbors and mimicry of the speech of others. Only a few people who aspire to build lasting things for people to safely use have a need to get an understanding of how things really are rather than how we want them to be.
Common beliefs and widely shared illusions are enough for almost all of us to grow up, fall in love, and produce children; and to then pass down our social conventions to our children to continue the pattern through tens of thousands of years. We didn’t need to know how the universe really was, we could be happy with the common beliefs that we had constructed of our impressions about it. In their hearts, most people are still living in an imagined universe, where space is simply little more than a shapeless emptiness, stars are scattered randomly, and common sense is a reliable guide.
As I said above, the universe is understood by any given civilization as “a mask fitted on the face of the unknown universe. The word consensus suggests an unexciting compromise that is not really true or fully satisfactory but simply the expedient solution of the moment. In fact, consensus on reality is what has made cooperative societies possible. A clear consensus on the reality of the universe would be an enormously valuable achievement, but consensus on anything becomes harder to maintain as communications become more global. Any story of the universe will do if everybody around you shares it. But if different people you meet have different stories, no story will do, because there is always the chance that it is only a story. Consensus has to be based on something impartial, and science is the closest that the modern world can come to that. There already exists a global unspoken consensus on science: no matter where people fall along a political or religious spectrum, and no matter what they may claim, in practice they trust their lives to airplanes, computers, and other technical products based on modern science.
The last time the global culture shared a coherent understanding of the universe as a comforting cosmic dwelling place was the middle ages. For a thousand years, Christians, Jews, and Muslims believed that the earth was the immoveable center of the universe and all the planets and stars revolved on crystal spheres around it. The idea that God had chosen a place for every person, animal, and thing in the great Chain of Being made sense in the rigid medieval hierarchy.
Today the universe in the popular mind has become little more than a shapeless mass or a fantasy setting for science fiction, neither of which appears to matter much in what people call “the real world.” In a reversal of all historic and even prehistoric precedent, it is normal today to consider people who are more concerned with cosmic reality than with making money to be out of touch and unrealistic. As a people, we now have the scientific ability to see much more deeply into the universe than ancient peoples, yet we experience it so much less and connect with it almost not at all. This widespread cultural indifference to the universe is a staggering reality of our time—and possibly our biggest mental handicap in solving global problems.
The only way for humans as a whole to get closer to the truth of the universe is through the partnership between scientists who are improving their theories and observations and a public that not only supports them to do this work but pays attention, asks what those theories may mean, and uses them to enrich and strengthen the larger culture. There is no truer guide than our scientific theories, and if they turn out to be wrong, they have raised us up and we have lived at their level and are ready for wider understanding.
Keats wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, --that is all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." But that was for those whose thoughts were limited to the earth. Our children will not remain here forever, and so we must prepare them for a larger sphere of endeavor. If quantum physics, relativity, and modern cosmology have taught us anything, it is that things are not always the way that they seem. The universe is under no obligation to be the way that our aesthetic sensibilities might wish or expect. To assume that we earthlings can accurately judge cosmic truth by what seems beautiful to us here and now is really hubris, and using beauty this way as a criterion for truth can be a prejudice.
A personal, intuitive view of the universe can often last a lifetime unacknowledged and thus safe from challenge, unaffected by any amount of formal education. Schooling rarely teaches us how to integrate new ideas into our thinking. Instead it lets us store them in the mental rooms where we first learned them, so that while intellectually we may juggle new cosmological ideas like erudite entertainment, our intuition reclines in an old overstuffed, and unaffected image of reality. Everyone knows, for example, that the earth goes around the sun, but we still talk about sunrise and sunset. Language is powerful and it can reinforce obsolete intuitions, as these words do—or it can challenge them.