gall and gumption

Saturday, October 24, 2009


To disorder the moral sensibility, and to reap profit from ill-educated appetite, seems the major work of contemporary culture.

In my more paranoid moments I imagine that this work is a deliberate and systematic assault. But then I calm down and then I think it's probably more like South Sea bubbles or tulip mania or Dot Com Booms or the fabulous world of derivatives or the Tower of Babel. Eric Hoffer wrote that the dragon is a composite of all the things that humans have to fear from nature, while the Devil is made up of all the things humans have to fear from each other. The Devil has been with us a long time, and he keeps up with trends.

I think it has always been hard to sort out our moral priorities. When I was working at the Horrible Corporate Job (HCJ) the two directors of my department were these two older women who ran it as a sort of "mother-hen" operation. The women outnumbered men by that critical amount that encourages the propagation of the "mother-hen" culture. If you were "good" you got praised and if you were "bad" you were made to feel vaguely disgraced and unworthy. That is, we weren't just doing a job, we were all "friends"; the most favored "chicks" were those who habitually let it be known how they were martyring themselves for love of the job. You were less good if you did not show that you were eager to please, and you were bad if you showed that you were displeased at the casual abuse of your free time. The "good" chicks got praised and fussed over and went back to their cubicles feeling virtuous and loved. If I had gotten over the "PhD thing" and wanted these two dreadful women directors to love me, I suppose I would have been going along peep peep behind all that cluck cluck. But there are bigger things in life than being sure that everyone finds you lovable, and again, this is, for me, a matter of dignity. I make a sort of calculation: "What have you done for me lately?" What would two dishonest, manipulative, incompetent, frightened women give me in exchange for me giving my countenance to this loathsome caricature of human relations? Interesting conversation? The means to buy my own Caribbean island? The shining light of their moral insights? And yet that one of them who said, "This is corporate, if you don't like it you can leave," sincerely thought of herself as my friend. And in the spirit of friendship I said in reply, "I can respect that people might have to submit to these conditions out of necessity but I hope I never live long enough to hear myself say that to anybody. I hope I never get to the point where I'm carrying such a thing around in my head." No one who asks me to make such a bad bargain can be a friend. This made her cry, but I doubt that I'd make many people cry if I spoke to them like that. She was one of those people that cries easily.

One of the things I learned from my friend Jamie Astaphan the evil steroid drug doctor was that when you trade your truth away to get along with people they never give you full value. I mean, when they demand that of you as a condition for the offering of mere decency, you do not win. You give them a dollar of self-respect and they give you back 43 cents and a bottle cap and think they have been recklessly generous.

Therefore I have been constrained to think about what I must be willing to live without, and what I can't live without. I think I've chosen the way with the hard landings; I had a famous academic once yell at me that I was practically committing theft in acting as though I could study literature in the way I chose rather than obediently following the leadership of theorists such as himself. He had worked very hard to get to the point where he could have opinions that people listened to: who was I to have opinions of my own? That I should think myself so entitled was a gaucherie. He made this little speech in a room full of people, and apparently my contempt for what he said was so visible on my face that it set him off again. He kept demanding to know why I was looking at him like that.

We are all so tempted and challenged. That's why so much literature treats the subject of temptation and corruption. And then there's that whole other thing of recognizing reality, of getting ourselves out of the suburbia of our minds so that we can recognize what is happening and call it by its proper name, "to praise what deserves praise and sow blame for wrong-doers." This is very hard. You have to understand what deserves praise and be able to recognize wrong-doers. And then there's that other thing: doth her great actions spell,
By what was done and wrought
In season, and so brought
To light : her measures are, how well
Each syllabe answer'd, and was form'd, how faire ;
These make the lines of life, and that's her aire.

Same old stuff, you see. The Ancient is the Modern. Jonson put a lot of work into it. Is it any harder now? I don't know. Probably best to keep the r-word to ourselves.


At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Gerry said...

The devil never gives you a good deal. At 43 cents on the dollar his ROI is slipping, you drove a hard bargan.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger Phil Cubeta said...

Blogged you back.

At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who enjoy Hoffer's wisdom may also find this new book interesting (it quotes Hoffer)--

PREMATURE FACTULATION: The Ignorance of Certainty and the Ghost of Montaigne

author, Philip D. Hansten

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