Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Katabasis Again

I am not sure how I feel about this.  On the one hand, it is sad to see that I might be unemployable even if I weren't such a loser (i.e. if my books were already written).  On the other hand, I have less to lose now if circumstances force me out of the market.  I can transition to another life without the interlude of fake success that is a temporary lectureship or visiting professorship.  I don't have debts, yet.  My kids are young.  I still know them, still interact with them regularly.  My wife and I are close, and she has a job that isn't going to vanish overnight (the way mine will).

I can still read.  I can still write.  I can still teach, even, and make a positive difference in the life of some community where I will be something other than an empty cipher (with the label “failure” trailing me everywhere I go, as I fail to live up to expectations that move inexorably to inspire more effort, more busywork, more committees sitting in dark rooms demanding that people have dreams and then destroying those dreams so that they can meet again next year and do it all over again).

I don't think the humanities are a dead end.  I love the liberal arts.  I don't need to be rich or famous, or a professor, to have a meaningful life as a humanist.  What I need now is the confidence to transition from being a big-company man (a big-company humanist, a mercenary willing to do anything to work for the big-time winning army on a shrinking battlefield) to being something else (a small-company man?).  I do need a community of sorts.  But it doesn't have to be your standard academic department.  It doesn't have to involve prizes and piles of cash and loads of time spent currying favor (by writing the right way about the right things for the right audience).

My friends have done all sorts of interesting things with their lives—unexpected things, educational things, seemingly unimportant things that became very meaningful to them and their families.  I am open to that now.  I don't need academic success.  I might want it, like the guy in this article, who is a much better scholar (in terms of track record) than I am right now—but that does not matter.  My wants are empty and vain—vanitas vanitatum.  I can want anything, superficially speaking.  What I really want, what I really need, is the kind of two-way commitment that Mormons call a covenant.  I thought I had this with the LDS church, but I didn't.  I wondered whether I might have it with the university.  I don't.  So I need to move on.  The big church does not love me.  The big university does not love me.  Maybe some small group will.  I promise I am worth investing in.  I will give back, and what I give will not be worthless: it will be the best that I am capable of, the highest expression I can muster of whatever qualities Nature has given me.  I do not take credit for these qualities.  I do not demand respect for them.  I merely seek to use them for the improvement of humanity—my own and that of other people, who might be students, colleagues, friends, family, enemies, etc.  Es macht mir nichts.  Whatever comes from my own job hunt, in and out of the academy, I am ready.

Success to me looks small and modest.  A little group of people who care about me, as I care about them.  A little culture we share together, contributing to one another as we are able without reference to something as abstract and meaningless (not to say poisonous) as "the field" (or "the market" come to think on it).  My ideas are not produced for the market.  I did not go to school to serve the market--to teach it, to enrich it, to enlarge it, to make its fattest denizens "too big to fail."  The masters of the universe--economic, academic, and religious--appear to me in the guise of vultures who batten on the corpse of culture.  They pretend that this vampirism of theirs is necessary, is the very apex of culture even, but that is precisely a lie.  They might argue that it is a noble lie in the tradition of Plato.  I don't personally experience it that way.  If it turns out that I cannot embody this lie well enough to live by it myself, then I will have little problem leaving it behind--and living by some other lie, a lie of my own construction that I can believe instead of a lie some other person tells me.  "Sour grapes!" they will call after me, as I leave their feast, and the charge will be true.  What do I care that it is?  I must go on living.  If that means that I must fight the church, the academy, and the market instead of joining them, then so be it.  We shall be enemies, and I shall do my very best to wage honorable war, aspiring to a death (literal or metaphorical) like Cato's.

I have given those vultures all they asked.  I gave them my youth, my strength, my faith, my sweat, my blood, my tears, my time at home and abroad--and what do they give me?  Scholarships, so that I have no debts now?  Libraries I can still aspire to access?  Years to read and learn about all kinds of human culture more or less at my own will?  These are no mean gifts.  I value them quite highly, actually.  Even if I find the end of the vultures' feast obnoxious, when I am meant to be the main course, I cannot fault its beginning.  I see the bad and the good--in the church, the university, and the market--and I see how they are the same.  I enjoyed the good, and so I must suffer through the bad.  My suffering is easier to bear when I realize that it need not go on interminably, that I need not join the author in that line of whipping-boys begging the masters to let them into the good-old-boys' club (with tenure, healthcare, library funds, paid leave, and all these other vanishing privileges that I don't need or afford).

I reflect that my LDS mission has prepared me well for life.  I spent two years in Spain, two years during which I woke up every day to be insulted by almost everyone I met.  The Spaniards hated me viscerally because I was trying to force my religion upon them.  My LDS mission leaders hated me because I was so unsuccessful in this endeavor.  I bore it all stoically, for the most part (there were a few lapses into passionate rage that I regret).  I became hard.  I learned that it is useless to plead with people who hate you.  It is useless to invest too much of your own fragile identity in the opinion of some stranger who sees you as a cog in his bureaucratic machine (be that a church, a business corporation, a political faction, or a university: they are all at root the same nuts and bolts repeating the same process, a reduction of individual humanity to bland corporate profit that managers call "the greater good" and use to justify giving themselves all kinds of perks and privileges for which they risk nothing of their own if they can help it).  Every time you give your soul to these vultures, every time you let their bureaucratic process override your individual humanity, you die--and become a little less moral, a little less able to maintain that precious illusion of integrity that we require to exist virtuously.  The recurring lesson of my youth, adolescence, and young adulthood is that you don't compromise yourself to serve corporate ends, no matter what some official suit tells you.

When the suit offers you religion, ask him how much tithing he wants (and notice that you cannot afford it).  When he offers you food, examine the label (notice that it says "food product") and the advertising (notice that real food doesn't require a prostitute to make you buy it).  When he offers you a job, read the contract (notice that being paid for 2-3 years to do busywork is one of the poorest definitions of "freedom" that exists if this process leaves you dependent on suits for the basic physical necessities of life: Aristotle would call this freedom slavery).  When the suit offers you glory and honor and meaning, the ultimate prize, look closely at those he passes over. 

Look at the people who don't get honor from the suit because you do.  Look long and hard at the grim reality that honor is precisely the linchpin holding the entire framework of the suit in place.  It is the crux of the game, the keystone that allows suits like Agamemnon to run idiots like Patroclus to early death.  When I first read the Iliad as a naive undergraduate, I was perplexed and bothered by Achilles.  "What an ungrateful, irascible wretch!" I thought.  "He should make things up with Agamemnon.  After all, the big guy did say sorry, and then offer him all kinds of stuff to make up for what he stole. Society requires forgiveness to exist and get on, right?  We cannot carry grudges forever.  We cannot afford to sulk forever like Achilles, the big baby."  Today, I see things differently.  I would never take anything other than the bare necessities of life from Agamemnon, and even then I would think twice.  (Maybe if I didn't have a family, I wouldn't even take those.  Sometimes, it is better to die than to live.)  The virtuous man, the man with real integrity, doesn't take anything from people like Agamemnon.  You don't fight him by becoming him, either.  The answer to that awful question that Popper discovers behind all the talking in Plato's Republic--the question who should rule?--is very simple.  Nobody with any self respect should rule.  Nobody with any decency should go about telling other people how to die.  The good ruler is the one who abdicates soonest and makes himself first to suffer most from his rule, which is always going to be bad (no matter what ideology informs it). 

I get Achilles now.  Sometimes, I feel just like him (meaning I want to throw my hands in the air and yell, "Fuck that shit!" when Agamemnon comes into my office to demand some new token of servility from me or one of my subordinates).  But I am not made to fight the system.  I am not built for virtuous suicide, though I finally think I understand it.  No, I am Odysseus, the hateful wretch who serves Agamemnon so well that nobody notices his rebellion until the war is over, the ships are gone, and he is heading home to claim the only thing that really matters to him--his family.  When it comes down to fight or flight, I will always flee (like Odysseus: he only fights when the other side is asleep or unarmed or otherwise at a significant disadvantage).  I run from shipwreck to shipwreck--from the ruin of my religious vocation to the ruin of my professional career, and so on and on being hated and cast out until I finally find my death.  But I have my family meantime, which is more than Achilles or Agamemnon (especially the latter, for all his rhetorical fuss and bluster about traditional values) can boast.  My wife won't stab me in the back.  My sons aren't out to eat their parents.  My parents aren't distant Olympians.  Agamemnon can keep his gifts, his kingdom, his honor, whatever carrot or stick he is currently using to goad sweating slaves.  I don't want it.

Now, if you will excuse me, your Majesty, I am going to get busy building some kind of boat, so that I can leave your Highness and the Achaeans to do whatever it is you came to do with the Trojans.  I have other things to do, other places to be, other paths to tread.  Viam aut inveniam aut faciam ultra te saevosque canes tuos.   

1 comment:

  1. Some afterthoughts. As one climbs the corporate ladder in religion, politics, or academia, it is actually harder in some ways to deal with success than failure. Failure invites introspection, course correction, humility, virtuous poverty (that distinguishes empty desires from real needs). Success invites the opposite of all these things, tempting us to let others define us, to presume that our current course is good, to become arrogant when something or someone challenges this complacency, to wax fat and kick those we deem beneath us (surely their poverty is a fault in virtue rather than the opposite). In the pursuit of virtue, what one really wants is the character of Grigori Perelman. One wants the single-minded dedication to good work that creates real beauty, and the moral fortitude to refuse all of the prizes that the world tries to bestow when against all odds that beauty comes within sight of its lecherous eyes.

    I aspire to be a classicist who does the best work he can and then refuses to take honors and accolades for it (whether I deserve them or not: I must come to the place where, like Perelman, I simply do not care at all either way). I see this now. I embrace it. I will make it part of my character as a humanist, that I refuse to take honor or prestige for myself in exchange for whatever fruits my humanism might produce. I don't spurn all those who do take such rewards--that would be a poor way to spend my life--but my own work will occur in deliberate isolation from the academic cursus honorum (which I renounce as immoral and unvirtuous for me, though it may be a source of good to someone else).