Monday, January 14, 2013

The Wisdom of Mirth

Friedrich Nietzsche.  Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.  Trans. W. Kaufmann.  New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.  ISBN: 1400067820.

It was mere coincidence that I happened to read these two books together, coincidence that almost makes you believe in deity (since they go together so well, with Taleb even recommending Nietzsche's writings as containing some of the clearest anticipations of his ideas that he has uncovered). There is much I could say about either book, and maybe later I will try, but here I just want to talk about one thought that I have after finishing both.

It seems to me that the take-home message from both is that people cannot control outcomes, individually or collectively, but that they can and should aspire to own (and embrace) their destiny.  I cannot control whether I get cancer, but I can and should aspire to bear cancer nobly if it falls to my lot (as it might, in spite of all that I or anyone else might do to prevent it).  We cannot make society safe (from crime or war or drugs or death in any number of forms), but we can and should aspire to make it love nobility.  We can publicly worship those people and values that we love for the good they have done, and we can publicly pillory those we hate (for the good they think they have done, to our harm).  We can show others the gods we worship, and let them decide to worship with us or revile.  If they worship, then we respect their contribution as they make it (demanding nothing from them that they are not comfortable providing).  If they revile, then we respect that contribution (demanding nothing from them that we aren't willing to give them ourselves: they can live in peace, doing whatever nonsense they please, as long as they don't expect us to worship them for it or take any active part ourselves in stupid stuff we don't believe in).

Society isn't about bringing us all together in one big happy family, in which everyone gets along perfectly with everyone else.  Society is about reconciling us all to the fact that this will never happen.  We don't all see eye to eye.  We never have.  We never will.  Some of us have the courage to stand for what we believe in, even when others make that very painful for us.  These people are heroes.  Some of us prefer to wait for someone else to tell us what to believe, what to fight for, how to live.  These people are the mob (who might be scum).

What separates heroes from the mob isn't necessarily what they do (not that that isn't important at all, of course).  It is how they do it.  We all fight for causes, somehow, someway.  Are you a noble fighter?  Do you have respect for those who abstain from your fight for their own noble reasons?  For those who fight on the opposite side because they are convinced that you are a dangerous idiot who deserves to go to hell?  Do you love such people, more than the mob who fancy themselves your friends because they happen to fight on your side--not because it is theirs but because they want to cool?  If so, then you are a hero (no matter what church you belong to, what beliefs you have or don't, what politics you espouse, or what you do for a living: heroism is about playing strong and fair, not being "right" or "winning" or some other such nonsense).

We are all, individually and collectively, characters in stories that we tell one another (and ourselves).  What kind of characters should we be?  Heroes, we say (and so I assume, for the moment: in any case, we all approach the business of storytelling from an egocentric point of view, wondering how we fit in and what good, heroic deeds we should do).  So what kind of heroes should we be?

In my experience, there are two kinds of hero.  One is the tragic hero, who faces the reality that he cannot control outcomes by killing himself in attempt to do so anyway.  ("Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!")  This kind of heroism can be very inspiring (very purely, nobly heroic).  It can also cause a lot of pain and anguish that are not (strictly speaking) necessary (from a point of view like mine: here we enter into my personal views on the best kind of heroism).  If we aspire to become tragic heroes, we run the risk of enhancing our suffering, and perhaps the suffering of those around us.  (The tragic hero wears hair shirts to mortify his flesh when he gets too frisky with joie de vivre.  He puts out his eyes rather than see evil.  He does not take it well when he learns that he has killed his father, slept with his mother, or otherwise broken any custom in the moral code he holds sacred.  He would much rather die than be dishonored.)  That path, noble as I can see that it is (in the examples of men and legends around me, including the legend of Jesus), is not for me.  I prefer another.

My path is the path of the comic hero.  This kind of heroism is not immediately as prepossessing as the tragic variety.  Where the tragic hero faces insuperable odds with Stoic calm and resignation (waiting to commit suicide like Cato when the inevitable happens and Caesar wins), the comic hero prefers jokes and an optimistic cynicism. ("We're really screwed here, but maybe something new turns up unexpectedly to save our sorry butts!")  Humor is the key here, any humor.  Gallows humor.  Slapstick.  The point is to make the show go on.  You can do everything the tragic hero does, if you must, but your attitude is one of cheerful defiance (not heroic resignation).  Instead of acting like Achilles (e.g. Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo"), you emulate Odysseus (e.g. Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry").  Talk is cheap.  So you talk, a lot, and game the system that the tragic hero refuses to dignify with any response other than laconic contempt.  You know you don't control your outcome utterly, but you don't really care.  Instead of tapping your mom and ripping out your eyes, you ride that dung beetle to the throne of Zeus with gusto, and cheerfully accept whatever reception waits.  ("I get to do battle with Ares?  Great!  Sleep with Aphrodite?  Even better!")

Tragedy makes your focus narrow.  You are drawn inexorably toward the doom you cannot avoid, the doom that is written all over your entire world (your family, your people, the stars, and so on and so forth).  You are impotent, but you still stand bloody and unbowed, confidently awaiting the Black Swan that is going to ruin you once and for all.  Comedy, on the other hand, leaves you wide open.  You aren't drawn anywhere.  Who knows what ridiculous prank the universe is going to play on you next?  The most you can do is try to keep your shirt on while Zeus throws the dice again.  Maybe this time you won't end up with egg on your face, but as long as it is there, you might as well laugh, right?  Maybe today you are stuck fighting some interminable, awful war on foreign shores, but tomorrow you could be bedding a goddess.  Better take that shower after all.  You might need it!  You are always waiting for the Black Swan that is going to save you (whether from some really bad guys or just a really bad movie script, because comedy has room for the small as well as the large).

Heroism works best by adapting us to the situations we face--allowing us to give each problem our best shot without feeling too bad about the results (which are never entirely in our control).  Comic heroism, I think, makes it easier for us to adapt than does the tragic (even as the tragic is intuitively easier to understand and even emulate: many a man who struggles to live as a hero has little problem dying as one).  Laughter really is the best medicine, the gift that lets us embrace and transcend our own smallness and meanness--the pettiness that comes with thinking that your individual thoughts are somehow intricately bound up with the meaning and purpose of the entire universe.  Of course they are!  Just like your bowel movements, and the bowel movements of other living things (including small and large cattle: we need bullshit to live, honestly!).

Life is funny.  It would be insufferably tragic, if it weren't also so ridiculous, so unexpected and absurd.  A series of mistakes and stop-gaps, compounding over time, a hopeless tangle of purposes and cross-purposes canceling each other out, and out of it all comes this ape pretending to explain everything with a bedtime story (wait, I mean a gajillion bedtime stories).  The earth is impossibly old!  No, wait, she is incredibly young.  Her wrinkles clearly prove ... that the Intelligent Designer went to fashion school?  Nay, that she was once a dragon, and we live on her corpse!  (Or was it a turtle?  In fact, it may be turtles all the way down!)  In ancient times, the first man was made of mud.  (Or was it blood?  Maybe we should kill a bunch of heretics to find out.  If they bleed red liquid, we'll know we're right!)  And then the Lord made woman.  (From mud, or from a rib?  More importantly, why on earth would he do such a thing?  Why make something that doesn't have a penis?  Well, it has boobs!  Point taken!  Clearly we must save it from doing anything that might shake those things too much when we're not around to gape at them.  Shut them up at home, for goodness' sake!)  And then they made more people.  (People!  How did they make people?  Are we old enough to have this discussion yet?  Probably not.  Let's say a stork gave them babies!)  And then the people were wicked.  (Wicked?  What means that?  Well, they fought, and ate, and farted, and had babies, and got sick, and died, and other stuff.  Wait, why is eating bad?  And babies--what's wrong with getting those from storks?  It makes sense that war be something bad, but what makes it happen?  Hell, kids, you ask too many questions!  Let's just say there was this evil dude named Satan who did it all.  Or was his name Ahriman?  Loki?  Was he a dude dude, with a thingy, or was he maybe something else, like a snake?  So many questions!  Maybe we should just make Satan a mad scientist and be done with it.  But how does that make him different from God?)  And then we had to punish the wicked so that others wouldn't be like them.  (Because punching you when you're sick means that I won't get sick, right?  No.  Stop taking everything out of context!  But is there really any other way to take it?  Snap!)  And so on, and so forth.  We are only ever telling the same story over and over, varying the particulars as some among us accidentally learn a few "new" things (forgetting that there is really nothing new or old for those who cannot tell the difference) and attempt to convey understanding of them with old words.

All religions are true.  All are false as well.  What matters is not so much which one you believe, as whether you live well.  Do you tell your lies sincerely, and live by your code well?  Could you die today and wake up happy, even if you were in hell?  If you can say yes to that, then I approve of you (not that you care or ought to, but you have my approval whether you want it or not).  Life is first about what we do, second about how we do it, and only last (and least) about the words that we or others use to tell stories about it.  It doesn't matter who the storyteller is (whether he is a man or a woman, a paleolithic shaman or a modern scientist): the story will always be incomplete--a pale reflection of things that are more real than it is, helpful in some ways but in others worse than useless.  Some of us worship the stories.  We worship them wildly, madly, destructively, with a passion that cankers all that is most noble and heroic in our souls.  Nietzsche and Taleb call us away from such fanaticism, away from the worship of stories--into the clear, cool light of day, where we must make our choice and meet our doom the hero's way (without knowing or caring how results turn out after we've given our best).  You can meet your doom however you please.  I don't know what it will be any more than I know my own, but I do know this: whenever mine finds me, I will be laughing.  Vale!          

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