Alas, the problem today is not consciousness, as many believe, but rather the psychological processes which precede awareness, as we build our identities while being shaped by our own tools. There is a widespread bias in today's social sciences called “social constructivism,” which holds that society can be “constructed” by humans to take whatever shape we would prefer. Not only is this obviously not possible, given endless failed attempts to do just that, but rather it is the reverse. We are “constructed” by the technologies we habitually use—starting at a very early age. What Piaget termed the “concrete operational” phase of development is particularly sensitive to this shaping—not determining, since formal cause is at work—as that is when humans are neurologically configured to deal with the particular world in which they live. Change the environment and you will change the resulting neural networks. When Frank Zappa sang about “Plastic People,” he was not kidding.
Saunders calls language “a meaning approximator that sometimes gets too big for its britches and deceives us.” Stories can call attention to this deception, imparting a teaching analogous to the spiritual counsel of Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence: “there is a time when . . . a soul’s own ideas, intuitions, work, investigations, and inferences become sources of delusion.” When ordinary human speech “realizes all its weaknesses and shortcomings and feels completely baffled,” God disentangles the soul from its troubles “far more easily than novelists, working away in the peace of their rooms, extricate their heroes from all their dangers.” Not being God, the storyteller sometimes does better to make our troubles palpable rather than solve them.
It would be folly, Saunders believes, to relegate art’s effects and its essence to the rational. Art has reasons that reason cannot understand. We “turn to art” precisely because “we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.” Sometimes, though, the book devolves into facile moral maxims that mix self-help and sentimentalism, as when Saunders tells writers to “go forth and do what you please,” adverse advice that seems especially bland when served next to sharpened craft-talk.
But for Saunders, however emotive his morality may be, fiction is fundamentally moral; a badly-made story lacks moral authority and a well-made one can lead us to love better. Saunders is not wrong to trace the pulse of many literary problems to our strivings after moral salvation: Great works contain multitudes. The Russians teach us that lasting literature is not merely “something decorative,” Saunders writes, but “a vital moral-ethical tool.”
Finally, Jefferson’s image of a wolf being held by its ears can still evoke our sympathy, reminding us of the terrible tragedy of slavery. For Madison, however, republican government itself amounts to holding the wolf by its ears, in the sense that each of us may—and at some point will—be part of a majority faction that can easily devour those who stand in our way. In addressing the dangers of faction he gave special attention to faction based on race, calling it the basis of “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” He insisted that future generations of Americans understand clearly the role that slavery played within our constitutional founding. If race-based faction was the most dangerous and repugnant form of this republican disease, it was not the only form. Madison also recognized that, “so strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Madison always reminds us that the most fundamental problem in republican government is our own nature. This is a hard lesson to hear, which is why Beard found it so shocking, and why Farrand sought to drown it out. Broadwater’s Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution succeeds in correcting Beard by allowing Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence to speak on their own terms. It is less successful in allowing Madison to speak on his own terms.
The issues with the book arise when it comes to extrapolating its lessons. Beauchamp is aware throughout that his celebration of military virtues and traditional values do not transfer easily to civilian life. He seems quite content with this, and offers the book in the spirit of thoughtfulness and critique.
Capitalism lacks order. Despite Beauchamp’s critique, this is probably its greatest redeeming feature. Yet, like Plato offering martial solutions to Athenian democratic problems, Beauchamp’s insights are of tremendous personal value. Order is admirable, as long as it’s freely chosen.
Did You Kill Anyone? offers a way back to a language we have forgotten through a form that is familiar. Original, sharp and counterintuitive; it is a truly refreshing read.
Plato describes beauty as the only virtue that is visible – though physical beauties are lower than invisible beauties of soul. Virtue begins with a love of beauty. The other virtues, Justice, and Truth, must be found lovely before they will be diligently pursued. “You choose a beloved according to your disposition and character, as though the beloved were a god, the lover fashions and adorns an image/statue to be the object of his veneration and worship.” To love beauty, wisdom, knowledge, truth, and justice, in others, those qualities must already be inside you. It is beautiful to appreciate beauty, and it is wise to seek wisdom. And we seek those things in our beloved. We recognize those qualities within them and encourage them to search for them.
A sociopath loves no man, because he admires no man. He does not love beauty or knowledge. If he does not have those qualities in himself, he cannot recognize them in others. He finds no one beautiful nor just. Someone has to be little bit beautiful to love beauty, and wise to pursue and admire wisdom. Just as we hate those qualities in others that we hate in ourselves – qualities we either have or fear that we have – so we love aspects of other people that we too share – negative and positive projection. Of all the negative qualities we could hate, we hate those most that have formed a wound within us. And of all the positive qualities we could love and admire, we love those most those things we already participate in, to some small extent.
The impact of Germany on Ortega’s thoughts about his own country can be seen in his first major publication, Meditations on Quixote (1914), a book which, far from merely being a commentary on the famous Spanish novel, serves as a summary of Orteguian thought. Influenced by the biologist Jacob Von Uekull’s idea that a living organism must be studied within its environment in order to be understood, Ortega argued that human life must also be understood through its circumstances: “Circumstantial reality makes up the other half of me as a person: I need it to imagine myself and to be my true self,” he wrote. Social status, historical period, nationality, geographic location, and economic situation are all relevant when it comes to understanding how one sees the world and oneself, since they determine our perspective. This idea is summarized in Ortega’s most famous quote: ‘‘I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.’’ In just the same way that Ortega ventures out into the world down the Guadarrama river near his hometown, or that the Ancient Egyptians would have ventured out down the Nile, we also venture out into the world from our own places of origin. Regardless of how many new ideas you may open yourself to, and no matter how much they change your way of thinking, it will always be you perceiving them; your past experiences, your childhood, your economic and social status, your nationality, your historical period are vital in defining you as a person.
Whilst strolling through the forest near the El Escorial monastery outside of Madrid, where the family frequently took their summer vacations, Ortega recognised that although the idea of a forest implies a large expanse of woodland, it never actually presents itself as such. Instead, we only ever see a tiny portion of a forest whilst walking through it – only a few of the trees and a couple of paths. As we are led down its narrow, shaded pathways, new sections of the forest gradually reveal themselves as we leave the previous ones behind. It’s important to remember, however, that the entire forest never reveals itself to us. In the same way, philosophers, like anyone else searching for any kind of objective truth, must be aware of their circumstances. To generalise, the particular angle from which you see things inevitably affects the way they look, determining your perspective on reality. But although our situation determines our perspective, we can also improve our perspective, by actively seeking to broaden our viewpoints, and making an effort to gain a better understanding, both of our own circumstances and those of others.
What does this mean for us as individuals?
To answer that question it’s helpful to look at Ortega’s famous phrase in full: “I am I and my circumstance, and if I don’t save it, it cannot save me.” So it’s not just a case that we’re determined by our circumstances, we have some duty towards them. Moreover, as living beings, we find ourselves thrown into the world, where we are surrounded by a set of circumstances that we must deal with. Reason is our cognitive response to this reality, our attempt to make sense of the whole forest beyond the small section we directly perceive. Turning the famous conclusion of René Descartes, “I think therefore I am”, on its head, Ortega instead says, “I live therefore I think” (see What is Philosophy?, 1929, English trans. 1963). He means that our reasoning is a result of our life and its circumstances: it is vital. As a result, we must accept that although for us it seems rational to think A is followed by B, people in a different position may just have legitimately reasoned that B is, in fact, followed by A.
These days, as the author reminds us, there is almost nothing that doesn’t impinge on “fitness”. Everyone should be taking “supplements”, and even sleep has been app-ified so that the obedient worker in the age of the quantified self might maximise her productivity during the next workday. “In neoliberal times,” Martschukat writes, “preventive self-care is the task of each and every one of us.” But the combative or militarised tone of many modern fitness regimes (boxercise, boot camps, Tough Mudder) encourages their customers to think of them as actually heroic. “If the fitness aficionado strives for a higher good, as befits a true hero, then this good is their own success, raised to the status of social principle.”
One irony in all this is that the success of hypermuscular actors Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80s helped create modern gym culture, and yet the torsos of Rocky or Conan the Barbarian are not exactly models of what we now desire as “fitness”: they are too extreme. Martschukat views them as ugly, even monstrous, but one might agree more with Arnie, who in the era of his pomp described himself as a sculptor: his body was a countercultural work of art, beautiful yet in some profound sense useless. In these times, just to slump back and eat crisps while watching Predator might, too, be a precious form of resistance.
At the end of Feline Philosophy, Gray comes out, as it were, of the closet: he offers, as an epilogue, a brief series of analects, ostensibly the lessons that cats might teach us. “If you are unhappy, you may seek comfort in your misery, but you risk making it the meaning of your life. Do not become attached to your suffering and avoid those who do.” (Incidentally, as I think most of us would agree, avoiding people who have become attached to their suffering is more or less a full-time job.) “It is better to be indifferent to others than to feel you have to love them.” Gray has rarely been so openly instructive.
Feline Philosophy permits us to see more clearly than any of Gray’s previous books his true nature. He is not really the enemy of the prophets but their competitor. Where they seek to seduce the multitude, Gray seeks to console the few. His books are designed to strengthen you against the slings and arrows; to teach you to live, insofar as it’s possible, without the need for meaning.
What about the cats? Feline Philosophy collects many moving and provoking anecdotes about cats, real and imaginary: Mary Gaitskill’s Gattino, who appears in her memoir Lost Cat (2020); the kitten that the war reporter Jack Laurence rescued from the battlefield in Hue during the Vietnam War; Saha, the feline protagonist of Collette’s novella La Chatte (1933). But it behoves me to say that nothing here measures up to one throwaway line in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift: “The cats came and glared through the window, humourless.”
In one word – humourless – Bellow makes what is, for me, an irrefutable argument for the human over the feline. Cats may not suffer from illusion or from the fear of death. But they are incapable of finding anything funny. (I find I can’t resist quoting another Bellow phrase, a few lines later, in which the cats enter the kitchen “bristling with night static”.) An aspiring cat himself, and a prophet for the contemplative few, John Gray does not do humour. He would probably suggest that jokes are merely another form of displacement activity – merely another illusion. And of course reality, seen from inside the Total Perspective Vortex, may not, in fact, be a particularly amusing thing to contemplate. But I can’t help suggesting, in valediction, that some illusions may be worth hanging on to, after all.
Ishmael, too, is a modern man, but one that is an observer and commentator on Ahab’s quest. Like Ahab, Ishmael is a Christian in name only. He attends the Whaleman’s Chapel before he boards the Pequod and listens to a sermon with no mention of Jesus Christ, but one rather that offers a series of moral warnings against “false pilots” who seek “popularity and honor” above all else. The sermon, as “impressive and moving” as it is, Morissey writes, unites “neither the congregants with one another nor the messenger with his congregants.”
Ishamel’s true belief is in a kind of progressive tolerance. He finds the cannibal Queequeg a better “Christian” than most Christians, but he also embraces the other side of the coin. If all men are equally good, they are also equally bad. “Just as we are all savages,” Morissey writes, “beneath the civilizational surface, so we are all cannibals,” and Melville suggests that it is, perhaps, that cannibal nature in man that is the true driver of American expansion, not some Emersonian universal goodness.
Melville had no time for Emerson (or Whitman’s) pronouncements on the inherent goodness of mankind. For Emerson, “Nature turns all malfeasance to good. Nature provided for real needs. No sane man at last distrusts himself. His existence is a perfect answer to all sentimental cavils.” Such a view was dangerous in Melville’s view. It treated the inescapable darkness in mankind as an illusion, one that would disappear with the light of knowledge. If this darkness were ignored, it would allow men to be duped into following a strong man like Ahab on a pseudo-spiritual quest for knowledge.
The men on the Pequod are isolated from each other, which allows Ahab to unite them in his hunt for the mysterious Moby-Dick, using whatever tools at his disposal to gain support. Ishmael shares to some degree Ahab’s quest, though he is more interested in seeing the whale than mastering it, stating at one point that “the parent of fear” is ignorance, which leads him, Morissey argues, in a “boundary-pushing…quest for knowledge.”
In his recent interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama initially tries to see Trump as an authority figure—even a proto-fascist—only to confess his puzzlement: “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter.” But is that Trump? No, rather the opposite. He is much closer to the characters of Dreampolitik so vividly captured by Joan Didion: the bikers who no longer regard the small irritations of life as something to be tolerated, the aspiring actresses who regard the future as somehow managed by a Hollywood divinity with its benevolent providence. “Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or hassling: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.” Later in the interview, Obama comes closer to the truth, though predictably he recoils from accepting it. Trump is not a figure of authority but a figure of freedom—freedom understood as the realization of every desire, no matter how extreme, in the here and now—and therefore someone representing powerful and growing forces in contemporary American society.
In this vision, the world exists to provide a stage for our fantasies. This is harem politics on the grandest scale. Unseemly and, in its current form, most likely unsustainable. What strikes is how much it relies on destruction as a force. There was only one alternative to Trump and that was to push Trumpism to the breaking point. And yet, all throughout the Trump years, the system worked. I think it worked even better than people assume, because the American system of government is not meant to be a placid Northern European social democracy. It is meant to create considerable room for the enactment of political fantasies, while preventing them from becoming too real. Every time Trump pushed things in the direction of reality—in the direction of imposing his stories on everyone else as real—the system pushed back, not so much by moving toward some more-accepted version of the world but by insisting that Trump and his followers remain mostly within the domain of fiction and playacting, that is, in the world of Dreampolitik. The system worked, but the problem is it now works to prevent only catastrophic outcomes, and it works through cycles of boom and bust.
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