Saturday, February 04, 2006

Do we need ideals?

R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1967), $10.00.
Adam Phillips, Equals (New York: Perseus, 2002), $15.95.
Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (New York: Vintage, 1988), $12.00.

"Every moment of pure compassion in a soul is a new descent of Christ upon earth to be crucified."

Simone Weil, The New York Notebook (1942). (See my story "Pieta.")

During much of the twentieth century and into the new millennium there has been an unfortunate tendency to undermine some of our loftiest ideals merely to replace them with the absence of ideals -- that is, to substitute for positive values the negative or utter absence of values of an increasingly nihilistic society.

This tendency has been accompanied by a snide, insulting rudeness on the part of persons who know "very well" those few things that they know very well, and have decided that neither they nor anyone else needs to know much more. Most of these persons, for some reason, subscribe to the Nation magazine and eat organic rice. I will not say a word about black Converse high tops (which I love) or nose rings. I think that this disdain for high culture and lofty, time-honored ideals is a mistake. I also suspect that this effort to "start" anew, to dispense both with what is good and bad in our heritage, cannot succeed.

In the first place, it may be impossible to live without ideals of some sort. Those who dismiss all ideals -- whether aesthetic, ethical, romantic, political or other -- have simply adopted one set of ideals over others. In other words, they favor the ideal of a life of brutal "factuality." (I call this the "Joe Friday" view of life: "Just the facts, mam.") Needless to say, there are many kinds of facts. Whether ideals are truly believed may also be a fact. The question whether an ideal is "true" may be factual, for example, depending on how it is understood or discussed. It is also the case that exalting facts over "wishy-washy" values is a "value judgment."

Time for a disclaimer: I am fully in sympathy with those whose motive is to liberate sexual mores. "Let's all have sex and forget the world's troubles!" This is a rallying cry which I fully endorse and to which I subscribe. As the politicians say, "I am for that." Yet such freedom about sexuality, ultimately, also depends on time-honored ideals of respect for personal autonomy and self-determination, and is hardly a celebration of nihilism.

The impoverished conception of life without higher ideals seems excessively bleak, to me, and is bound to be unsatisfying. The debunking mentality and "anti-ideals" attitude is based on one set of subjective and arbitrary ideals, I think, which are no more sophisticated or true than the, allegedly, unrealistic and impractical values of the nineteenth century's Romantic poets. In fact, today's trendy contempt for high culture and designer anarchism is shallow and insincere. It reeks of the Left Bank and Madison Avenue, of that sentiment captured by Oscar Wilde's observation of a hat in a chi-chi London shop: "With this hat, the mouth is worn slightly open ..."

Today's popular dismissiveness towards values and ideals may well be a symptom of our diminished emotional lives, not to mention indicative of a lack of imagination and intelligence. It is certainly symptomatic of a poverty of feeling that I find distressing. It is the attitude of the college sophomore who discovers that his first love has been disappointing. Real love deepens with pain, including the pain of loss and betrayal. Ideals do not exist to make us happy, but rather to guide us in the task of being human. Our trendy cynicism, I think, is an attitude that should be worn "with the mouth slightly open."

If life is correctly described as a movement towards death, then it does not necessarily follow that death is the purpose or meaning of life. The assumption that "death is what life is about" is a version of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. By the same token, all romantic love between a heterosexual man and woman may have an underlying physical explanation and a corresponding possibility of fulfillment (you think?), but this does not make the love of men and women (or of any two adults) something which is reducible to copulation, or worse, to a matter of genitals only.

The same may be said of sex -- sex is not (and this should be on the obvious side of things by now) always about "love." By the same token, eroticism is about much more than the sexual act. But when spiritual love finds its perfect physical expression, then in the words of that great poet Don Juan De Marco, "Wow, there is nothing like it." Nancy Malone, a Catholic theologian and writer says: "I am concerned ... to reclaim the erotic for spirituality and to reclaim the part that the erotic in literature may play in our spirituality." Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 154. Ms. Malone has led me to an important theological work, which is only mentioned briefly in her book, Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. (p. 197.)

If this celebration of eros is dismissed as a mere "protest against death" by the Freudian cynics, then that is fine by me. I like to protest against death as much as the next guy. I wish that I might do more than that, since death is "really depressing" (in the words of Woody Allen) and love is just the opposite.

It has been suggested that a "cynic is a disappointed idealist." Oscar Wilde again. Perhaps the currently fashionable cynicism in Western culture may be explained as the result of disillusion: it has followed upon the collapse of nineteenth-century Romanticism (existentialism has been described as Romanticism for the twentieth century) in the hyper-industrialized and technological "postmodernist" societies that contain such things as computer blogs and something called an "I-Pod."

Humanism and the optimism of the Enlightenment -- which I like to defend -- ran headlong into two world wars and the experience of Hitler and the Holocaust, giving rise to a sense of moral exhaustion, which is still with us. Yet to abandon the highest values of our civilization in the relatively affluent and successful period that has followed upon these wars is to give the victory to the enemies who were responsible for those horrors in the first place -- enemies who were defeated, with great effort and sacrifice, in the struggles of the last century.

It is the view of persons as "things" -- or "meat puppets," as someone once said to me -- to be used and discarded, to be thrown away, and the "ideologies of power" to which such views of the person give rise (which are certainly not scientific), along with their religious-fundamentalist counterparts, that have led to more wars and genocides. They are what lies behind the forms of terrorism that we now struggle against.

According to newspaper accounts, in the terrorist incident in Beslan, Russia -- and you can't make this up -- several of the children who were hostages were made to witness the murders of their fathers and then made to dance afterwards, for no particular reason, by persons claiming to protest, in this exemplary way, Russian and Western "cultural hegemony." I do not envy the inner lives or emotional level of the people who did those things. I shudder to think of what "cultural hegemony" under such persons might be.

Beyond what Freud called "ordinary unhappiness," is the emptiness and lack of meaning that characterizes the lives of so many of today's aging, would-be hipsters, who remain much "too cool" for values of any kind, for whom others are either chumps or sexual objects. (This is aimed at you, Alex.) The idea of self-sacrifice is "an idiotic illusion," they yawn, while the lack of taste or joy in their lives is just "the way things are," they add with a shrug, rather than the obvious result of this morbid and false philosophy of anti-idealism or nihilism which they advocate.

There is certainly no shortage of horror and suffering in the world, but (if you search for them and hang on to them) there are also beauty and generosity, joy and meaning. Most of all, there is love. Any human being who has never felt an ideal or passion for which he or she would make the ultimate sacrifice -- a loved-one, an idea, a value, or the safety of a child -- is a deeply impoverished and sad excuse for a human being.

For such a person one feels not so much anger or an inclination to engage in debate, but only pity and disgust. This is true regardless of the faults and -- to use Monica Lewinsky's term -- "issues" that we all know ourselves to have to struggle against, as individuals, in our lives.

People say that love is an illusion, but is it more of an illusion than wealth or power, or any of the other baubles that we pursue to avoid coming to terms with the fate that awaits us? I doubt it. In his recent novel entitled The Dying Animal, Philip Roth has examined these themes with a level of sophistication and artistry that I cannot hope to achieve, so read that book if these thoughts intrigue you. Better yet, wait until my novel is written. (It may not be as good, but I need the money more than he does.) These lines are nearly a century old:

In every dream thy lovely features rise;
I see them in the sunshine of the day;
Thy form is flitting still before my eyes
Where'er at eve I tread my lonely way;
In every moaning wind I hear thee say
Sweet words of consolation, while thy sighs
Seem borne along on every blast that flies;
I live, I talk with thee where'er I stray:

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