Friday, March 30, 2012

What Am I Doing?

I had been working on a post for over a week and no matter what I did with it it kept coming out bitter, negative, and half-baked. I suppose that is indelibly what I am at this point, in all matters requiring the use of the brain at least, but no one will want to read such dreck.

(Although I want all the interesting or good-looking people I have ever known to be my friends on Facebook and to entertain me with their own pictures and piquant comments, I don't participate very much myself in return. Like most things on the internet, and modern life for that matter, it is too fast, or gives the sensation of being too fast, for me. This mode of communication works best when it can take the form of a conversation, at which form I am unfortunately even more exceptionally maladroit than I am at essay or letter-writing. Once or twice a day however I will come upon a subject on which I might be able to make some remark, and one in which I can even imagine a few people might take pleasure, though usually I refrain, and this, usually, is the proper course. I am almost never in sync with the general mood as far as my current thought process goes in any way, which is discouraging enough; but the near certainty that I would be exposed as the social media equivalent of the forkball hanging over the middle of the plate to anyone possessed of a more solid grounding in the fundamentals of either dynamic thought or social discourse--both is almost too terrifying to contemplate--is even worse. Still, sometimes, especially after a period of silence of one or two weeks, even these considerations are overruled by overweening self-love or some other inexplicable impulse to expression.)

This was the start of my post, which, while it very much inclines to negativity and bitterness, does not quite abandon itself wholly. The best that can be said for it is that it is a reasonably honest bit of introspection, which is, however, an inferior literary form in most instances. It did not take long for me to go entirely off-track:

(Such an occasion came up recently when my old school-friend [I would say school-chum but I don't think that is an approved term at our school] and avowed sometime reader Virtual Memories posted a link from the popular Marginal Revolution blog that is written by a trio [I believe] of indefatigable and intellectually and culturally omnivorous professors from the ascendant economics department at George Mason University, in particular Tyler Cowen, who is by my estimation the dominant presence personality-wise on the site. I had read this site in the past, both as it is frequently linked to by a variety of sources, and also occasionally as a general anonymous lurker, as Tyler Cowen especially often wrote about the sorts of things I am interested in. He started to annoy me rather quickly however, as I found the particular relentlessness of his expertise was making it impossible to derive even my usual pitiful quantity of enjoyment from any subject once he had had a go at it. My comment, pounded out rapidly in a rare burst of some kind of obviously viscerally felt heat, was as follows: 'I have to admit, this article encapsulates why I stopped reading this guy. I suppose it's plausible, if you are very knowledgeable and attuned to such things, that once in a while you might note something really important in a work of art that everyone else seems to have missed. With this guy it seems to happen about five times a day, even sometimes in things people have been reading or studying for 200 years, and always with absolute certainty on his part. Even if he is right in this instance, I can't stand the sneering tone towards the western critics who missed the references to Sikh theology in a Julia Roberts movie. It's petty and unmagnanimous. I know it's a characteristic of intellectuals since time immemorial, but in certain instances it is really uncalled for. We're not talking about missing blatant Hamlet references here. And as is usual with him, there is so much that the reader is supposed to take on his authority--like that he actually understands anything about Sikh theology himself--I got to stop, but the man annoys me to no end...')

It is true that I do not like the tone with which he writes, or travels, or eats, or otherwise experiences his almost unbelievably rich mental life, even if they happen to be in some manner correct, but so what? Today's smart and urbane people love the guy. He's everywhere (on the internet, anyway). He is evidently a perfect man for this time, of such a quality as I never foresaw, or recognized as the genuine article anyway, coming up in the world. He is by most expert accord not only a bona fide economist, but a very high level one in an age when a professional knowledge of economics is almost unassailable as a possession of truths that the non-specialist must accept and cannot credibly contend against, and this is not limited to me but seems to extend into the highest reaches of academia, the arts and even the government. He certainly has his messages and ideas in order, and ready to fire off at a moment's notice. I can't seem to be impressed by him, or trust that there is wisdom or important meaning in anything he says, though doubtless this is only significant of deficiency on my part. He is also an enthusiastic globalist, which perhaps is the inevitable and ultimately most desirable system for the greatest number of individual people, though as it does not seem especially suitable either to my temperament or my money-making skill-set or my social inclinations compared to a less globally-interconnected system, I cannot say that his relentless promotion of the various wonders that have resulted and will continue to result from this trend are having much of an effect on my attitude.

My friend responded to my outburst by linking to another article, about the old Allan Bloom book The Closing of the American Mind, which upset lots of people at the time it was published because, as I do with Tyler Cowen, they came to understand it as a devastating critique of their own wasted lives and lack of serious intellectual development or purpose. I obviously was, and am, a perfect specimen of the type of student of my generation that Bloom found so debased and devoid of any recognizable spark of life, though at the time I doubtless would have thought I could read or music-appreciate my way out of the worst of the cesspool easily enough. Bloom obviously was contemptuous of the general run of half-assed wannabe scholars, and I assume he would have been fairly cold to them if they had presumed a too great intellectual intimacy with him. There were a number of tutors at St John's who had studied with him either at Cornell or Chicago, one of whom at least was reputed to be one of his carefully vetted proteges, and they were fairly chilly towards me. They were cordial enough, and I suspect they adjusted their evaluations of me based on what they perceived my abilities to be, which was of course nothing too high; it was not difficult to notice that they altered the level of their conversation, their paper critiques, even humorous banter, depending on whom they were dealing with. You would think this would have torn me up more than it did, but I had to a certain extent bought into their value system where the life of the mind was concerned and knew that I was not living up to it. I did not necessarily want to be exactly like them either--though in later years I have come to realize it may have been a mistake, I had no great desire to develop personal relationships with my teachers when I was young--but I more or less accepted that they were going to judge me on terms that I was not at the time really equipped to perform up to, and sought elsewhere, among peers or the lighter realms of literature, for more realistic models to strive for.

As far as this relates to Allan Bloom, for one thing both his being dead and the ever increasing distance of time between his generation and ours makes him less personally threatening, if that is even the right word for what he is. His ability to affect my life negatively by convincing me, from a position of unassailable authority, with the whole of Greek literature ranged at ready attention at every portal of his brain, of all of the ways in which I am little better than garbage, is much weakened. (There are other traditions, multitudes of traditions of venerable standing, pre-dating and entirely free from the 20th-century, predominantly and deeply Jewish-influenced interpretation of everything of a remotely intellectual nature that has probably overinfluenced, as well as confused me, relative to what might have been a healthier and more productive way of engaging with the world for someone like me, whose personality tends more towards largely silent and solitary Baltic angst and despair...) (ed.--though when considered at a more alert hour I am forced to re-emphasize the utter deficiency of my memory and deep and thorough knowledge of any subjects compared to those most advanced in them, I still suspect that even if had attained to a much higher level of technical proficiency in language or music or mathematical studies, that it would be likely I should understand them in a different attitude than Bloom did, and that it might not be automatically wrong, [though probably everybody would think it would be].

I'm going to end this. Premature, but I'm out of days, and the general point is made.

My old teacher did have one story about Allan Bloom that I remember. When Bloom was an undergraduate at the U of Chicago, sometime in the late 40s or early 50s, T S Eliot came to the campus to give a lecture or to do something, I don't remember what. As one of the identifiably brilliant students in the school, Bloom was invited to the dinner for T S Eliot that was held at legendary U of C president Robert Maynard Hutchins's house, despite being at the time not long out of the tenement; apparently his main memory of the event was being taken aside by Hutchins's wife and sharply reprimanded for having sipped Coca-Cola from the bottle in the too near presence of the great poet.

One last Virtual Memories link. Are these people really our literati? Or any part of it? God help us.

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