Imperfect ‘Acquaintances’: Our Companions In Life

In Journey Without Maps (Penguin, New York, 1936:1978, p. 28) Graham Greene writes:

There are places when one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common: he may be cheap but he knew Annette; he may be dishonest but he once lodged with George; even if the acquaintance is very dim indeed and takes a lot of recognizing.

Greene wrote these words in response to his encountering Orient Express–an undistinguished, “cheap banal film” that was the cinematic version of his Stamboul Train–in Tenerife, and which forced uncomfortable introspection:

It had been an instructive and painful experience to see it shown….If there was any truth in the original it had been carefully altered, if anything was left unchanged it was because it was untrue. By what was unchanged I could judge and condemn my own novel: I could see clearly what was cheap and banal….There remained a connection between it and me….even into a book of that kind had gone a certain amount of experience, nine months of one’s life, it was tied up in the mind with a particular countryside, particular anxieties; one couldn’t disconnect oneself entirely, and it was curious, rather pleasing to find it there in the hot bright flowery town.

Given Greene’s inclination to flirt with the spiritual and the transcendent in his writings, he invites a more ‘cosmic’ reading of the claim quoted at the beginning of this piece.

One ‘place,’ of course, where ‘one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common’ is this world, this waking life. We are lonely, cast adrift from birth; we, strangers each and every one of us, need fellow travelers through this strange land. We clasp the hands of those we encounter, hoping for succor, for companionship; on birth, we had been fortunate enough to find parents, our first acquaintances, shepherds that helped us navigate the many shoals through which we had to pass. Later, we sought friends; then, lovers; hoping to find partners for our various journeys. The ‘memories in common’ here are shared remembrances of that terrible loneliness which we have known which we sense will never desert us, and which afflicts others too; we sense a need like ours exists on the ‘other side’ too; the companionship we offer will be gratefully accepted too. There are flaws and blemishes here in our possible companions beyond counting but we are willing to take them on board; for the monumental ‘task’ at hand, many imperfections will be tolerated and looked past; there is just enough familiarity here to serve as the foundation for a lasting relationship. It need not be a lifelong one; company till the next station will be good enough.

Note: Our need for companionship of any kind may, in the right circumstances, be exceedingly great; explorers of all stripes who have been forced to travel alone will even hallucinate companions during their extended sojourns. Memorably, during his famed 1953 pioneering ascent of Nanga Parbat, the Austrian alpinist Hermann Buhl spent the night standing upright on a icy rock ledge some twenty-five thousand feet above sea level; at night, his backpack became his ‘companion’ and protagonist for extended conversations.

The Defenses Of United Airlines’ Behavior Reveal Some Uncomfortable Truths

There are, roughly, two kinds of defenses offered of United Airlines’ behavior–in DraggingGate–that have been offered thus far. First, the ‘abide by the terms of the contract’ defense. Second, the ‘just shut up and obey orders, and everything will be allright’ defense. On closer inspection, of course, these two turn out to be instantiations of the same abstract concept: bow down to authority, legal or penal, and all will be fine. But for the time being, let us take a closer look at them separately.

The first defense, which bids us to ‘quit complaining because you know what you signed up for’ is especially fascinating. This defense demands that we surrender all notions, all norms, of social good-will to the obtuse, deliberately disguised, terms of a contract. With probability one, it can be surmised that the person offering this defense has never read the fine print of the many, many, contracts that regulate his or her life. The libertarian paradise of a world in which the government only exists to enforce contracts entered ‘freely into’ by various contractors seems a rather bizarre one when we realize that most contracts are unreadable by almost anyone lacking a legal education; moreover, many of those contracts contain terms that are ‘unconscionable,’ buried deep in some sub-clause somewhere. As I’ve noted elsewhere, misery needs company: I’m bound by contracts I find incomprehensible, whose terms are ‘forced’ upon me; so everyone else should be; there is no ‘fellowship’ of citizens or consumers here.

The second defense is exceedingly familiar. It is the one trotted out by defenders of the police whenever there is an instance of police misbehavior. Most offensively, it makes an appearance when the police have just performed an execution of a recalcitrant citizen, one who did not raise his hands in time, or perhaps spoke back insolently. If any injury ensues to a citizen–fatal or otherwise–well, too bad. Once a citizen has refused to comply with orders, all force, including its deadly variants can now be exerted to make the citizen bow down. Disobedience is a sin; one worthy of capital punishment if need be.

The recurring appearance of these sophistical arguments in the American polity is revealing. Why are ‘shut up and obey orders’ and ‘you should know enough legalese so that you can negotiate every single transaction you enter into your life’ held up as exemplars in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’? This regulated life–by contractual terms, by penal authority–seems a particularly grim realization of the American dream. DraggingGate reminds us too that the so-called ‘free market’ in aviation works because all airlines offer equally appalling service in a world where airline travel has become indispensable for business and personal affairs. Soon, we will have to fly; and we will find our restricted choices leading us back to United Airlines. (Why not open up the US market to Asian airlines?) Remarkably, not one passenger on the flight stood up to intervene; they all knew the consequences. They would either be thrown off the flight themselves–thus suffering ‘inconvenience’–or they would be arrested. They too, complied. As all those who defend United Airlines would have us do.

Perhaps we are, as Nietzsche worried, desperate to find other forms of authority–now that the religious  has been partially displaced–to rule over us; perhaps those exerting their wills in resistance to the strictures of contract law and the police remind us that we are living lives of subservience ourselves. We are authority’s minions; we do as we are told; so should everyone else.

On ‘Backing Down’ From A ‘Streetfight’

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked across a pedestrian crossing on Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, I found a large SUV, turning right, barreling down at me; he braked hard, even as I yelled out “I’ve got the ‘Walk’ sign, dude!” He yelled back, “We both got the light!” I yelled back, “I’ve got right of way!” He yelled back, ‘Fuck off!’ I yelled back, “Go fuck yourself!” Clearly, this was a fruitful and productive exchange of views on how to best negotiate street crossings. As I turned on the sidewalk, I noticed he’d pulled over to the side of the street, and was waiting for me to walk by his car. The driver was not alone; he had a belligerent female companion in the passenger seat who had also been screaming obscenities at me. I continued walking on the sidewalk, past the parked car on my left, keeping my eyes straight, walking on to my gym class. As I did so, I could hear their jeering; clearly, I had not risen to the challenge. My bravado was bigger than my bite; I had ‘backed down.’

Fair enough; I did. I smarted for a while afterwards, but it was the correct decision. I was outnumbered; even if I could have engaged in the undignified business of throwing punches or grappling with a belligerent stranger–who looked to be roughly my size, but about ten years younger–on a city sidewalk, I would have left myself open to being clocked upside the head with some hard object by my opponent’s companion. I could have, for instance, taken a bottle to the head or something similar. Given her visible demeanor, this sort of ‘participation’ in the fight was not unlikely at all. Street fights are always dirty; this one would have been no different. Given the emotions on display just earlier, this would have been a dirty business through and through. No one would have intervened; no one intervenes in street fights in New York City. Or anywhere else for that matter. I did not want the police involved; I did not want to suffer physical injury, a high price to pay for trying to remind a driver that he did not have right of way on a pedestrian crossing when the light turns green. Quite possibly, because the parameters of such fights are so poorly defined, I could have suffered an injury disproportionate to the original provocation. For as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve been haunted by the memory of the bodega store owner who tried to stop a teenager from shoplifting and was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head; the resultant injury caused permanent brain damage.

Quite simply, there was no upside to my responding to this provocation, to continuing this conflict. I swallowed hard, fuming, and walked on straight to my gym, where I worked out and flattered myself by performing a reasonably hard gymnastic move several times during my workout. Then, sweaty and satisfied, I returned home in time to say goodnight to my daughter before she went to bed. Her father hadn’t been ‘manly’ enough earlier; but this was good enough for me.

Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

On Congratulating A ‘Dropout’

A few years ago, I went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine at a Manhattan restaurant. As we placed our orders, I noticed my waiter looked familiar; he smiled, walked over, and said, “Hey professor, remember me? It’s D_; I took your Modern Philosophy class a couple of years ago.” Indeed, I did; I remembered him quite clearly as a budding comic book artist, someone who was normally quiet and reserved in class, but sometimes spoke up to offer a thoughtful comment or two. His facial expressions were often more eloquent; he frequently seemed to perk up in response to either the passages read out loud in class, or to the commentary I offered. (Truth be told, this form of feedback was highly gratifying; it often helped sustain me during our long class meetings at night.) D_ was also a thoughtful writer, keen to improve his writing, and to this end, often came to meet me in my office hours to discuss his papers. In any case, I asked him what he was up to now, fully expecting to hear a variant of the usual “I’ve got x more classes before I finish,” or “I graduated last year and am now doing y.” D_’s response was “Professor, your class changed my life; after I took it, I dropped out of college!”

My student did not offer me too elaborate an explanation of what influence my class had had on him, and given my social commitments, I could not press much further. He did say that he was now spending more time on what he really wanted to do; from my perspective, he seemed much happier than I had ever seen him before. I can only venture a guess as to what effect the content of our class–one devoted largely to sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysics and epistemology–could have had on my student: I suspect that talking about these sorts of foundational issues might have broadened my student’s perspectives on his own life and his attendant scheme of priorities. Thinking critically in one domain can often prompt critical inquiry in others; perhaps my student had realized that he was in college for the wrong reasons; perhaps he was merely going through the motions, and that his true passions lay elsewhere. Perhaps the concentration on questions in my class that were never asked elsewhere in my student’s life had prompted him to examine further those unexamined verities in his life that were keeping him in college; the result of that inquiry might  have been to prompt him reorder his life’s priorities and make a bold decision to reconfigure how he lived it; perhaps he had realized that he had merely been molding himself into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ form for the ‘real world.’ Perhaps philosophy had enabled the examined life and found it wanting in crucial regards. My student had made an existential choice in response.

After D_ made this pronouncement, I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” It’s not everyday that I congratulate a ‘drop-out.’ But D_ was sincere; and he had, like many others before him, showed that that term is far more pejorative than it needs to be. Alasdair Macintyre reportedly once said that “The point of a modern university education should be to ensure that it leaves the student entirely unfitted to the modern world.” There is a great deal to disagree with the way the modern world is structured and run; and too much of modern university education merely aids and abets those pathologies. I’m happy to have contributed, if only in the most minor of ways, to weakening one person’s allegiance to a way of life he had not chosen for himself, and had no further interest in pursuing.

An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

On Sunday, while watching David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, my daughter turned to me during one of its late tear-jerking moments–as the titular dragon, apparently named Elliott, faces grave danger from the usual motley crew of busybodies, law enforcement types, and crass exploiters who would imprison him for all sorts of nefarious purposes–and said that ‘sometimes sad movies make you sad, they make you cry.’ (For ‘Elliott,’ substitute ‘ET‘ and you will get some idea of what was afoot in the movie.) As she said this, her lips quivered, she swallowed rapidly, and her voice quavered and broke. She might even have dropped an actual tear. A short while later, as poor Elliott was further mistreated, she burst into tears and burrowed face down into the couch, snuggling up against her mother.

I watched this behavior with some astonishment–before I ran to offer her some consolation to the effect that this being a Hollywood movie, I could predict with some confidence that Elliott was going to be just fine. Indeed he was.

But my surprise and astonishment remained. For some reason, even though tears and crying are an all too frequent occurrence in my four-year old’s life–as they are in those of most others like her–I had not considered that she could be moved to tears by a melodramatic or melancholy movie. Tears on being denied sundry goodies, yes; tears in response to physical injury, perceived or imaginary, yes; but tears in response to the misfortunes of others, tears that originated in sympathy or empathy, no. Perhaps I was learning yet another lesson about the emotional complexity of children; perhaps I had not been paying sufficient attention to my child’s responses on previous, similar, occasions (she has often, of course, been frightened or awed by the images she has seen during her ‘weekly movie treat’); in either case, I had been educated. And impressed.

It is not entirely clear to me why I did not think children as young as my daughter could have had the reaction she did to cinematic and cultural offerings. After all, as I noted above, they are extraordinarily sensitive; and lacking a full arsenal of linguistic and emotional resources for coping with injury, crying makes all too-frequent an appearance in their responses to external stimuli. In the case of my daughter, I was also taken aback by her announcement that she was feeling ‘sad,’ that she was going to cry. The reaction that followed this announcement, one that was also, I think, infected with a kind of sympathetic fear for Elliott’s fate, would have been far more comprehensible to me; it would have followed a pattern of spontaneous, highly emotional reactions visible elsewhere. But her–dare I say, articulate–preamble threw me off. It was evidence of a verbal and emotional maturity that I had not previously reckoned with.

This will not be the last time, obviously, that my daughter will say or do something that will surprise me. Some of these surprises will be more pleasant than others. May the tribe of those pleasures of parenting increase.

Pat Tillman, The Skeptical ‘Warrior’ And ‘Hero’

The Pat Tillman who is the centerpiece of Jon Krakauer‘s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is a familiar, often admirable, archetype: the ‘warrior’ who wants to fight, to win glory, but who doubts the moral standing of the domain in which he will exercise his courage and skills, and as such, his own standing as a hero. This kind of soldier finds deeply problematic all those aspects of military life which are the subject of critique by those on the ‘outside’: the fascist discipline, the endless chickenshit (so memorably described by Paul Fussell in Wartime), the dubious justification of deadly violence, the quiescent acceptance of political atrocity. This ‘warrior’ finds, in the company he keeps, the best and worst humanity has to offer; his companions are not the bravest, the best, or anything like that; they are, instead, in the diversity they embody, perfectly ordinary. The battlefield promises sublimity, but it is also a zone for stupidity, cowardice, treachery, and the worst humanity has to offer. This ‘warrior’ sees it all; takes it all in; and continues to fight, to support his ‘brothers in arms.’ He remains conflicted; not for him the simple clarity of those who obey orders and care for little else. His inconsistency is a familiar one; we are all afflicted by it. We know we can despise something one moment, and yet still be unable to tear ourselves away from it, because of a conflicting commitment.

Tillman, an NFL player who signed up for the US Army after 9/11 because he wanted to ‘do something,’ to ‘fight for the right thing,’ found, almost immediately, that the military was not what he imagined it to be, that the wars he would fight were not the ones he imagined them to be. Yet, he fought on, unwilling to back out and quit even when he had the chance to do so–his contractual commitment called for a three-year stint, and he would complete it, despite his increasing disgust at the conduct of war, at military manners and ways of being. Given the conflict that seemed to be an ever-present aspect of his life in the military, his life’s end seemed grimly appropriate: Tillman was killed, in Afghanistan, by ‘friendly fire’ and his death was covered up by a military and administration keen to use his death for its propaganda value, to cover up any of its own operational, tactical, and ultimately, moral, shortcomings.

There will be more wars in our future, and many more soldiers will die fighting them. They will continue to fight alongside the ‘dregs of humanity’ and the ‘best their nation has to offer’; they will be led by clowns and geniuses alike; they will kill innocents. And  they will include, in their ranks, soldiers like Pat Tillman (and Bowe Bergdahl.) They will be caught up in the rush, but they will find time to step back and cast a quizzical glance over it all. Reading about them is useful, especially in the American context; we are a nation that fights wars all the time; we should know who fights for us, and what is on their minds. We should expect to find humans in all their complicated glory.