Word and Image of Vermont

This site exists to promote the pleasures of discussion and to nudge us all -- myself included -- an inch or two towards decency. You're welcome, and encouraged, to comment on any of the opinions you encounter here by using the e-mail link on the left.

John R. Turner
Thoughts for September 13, 2017

On Thursday night, the 14th, Shirley and I are flying to London.

We’ll spend three nights in London at the Tavistock Hotel. Then on the morning of the 18th, we’ll go out to Heathrow, get a rental car, drive up to Market Bosworth just to the east of Lichfield, and explore Samuel Johnson country for three days. Much as I have tracked Johnson over the past years, I’ve never been to his home town. So now I’m going to rectify that mistake.

On the 21st, we’ll curve back around to the southeast, to Deal, on the coast of Kent, and for three days visit places nearby -- Canterbury, Rye, Sandwich, et cetera.

On the 24th, we’ll head west, and spend two nights on the south coast of Devon at Abbotsbury. I don’t know exactly what we’ll do there. It’s beautiful country, so it will be pleasant just to sit around. There’s a gigantic swannery nearby, but I doubt I’ll go there again. I’ve been twice before and each time had experiences with unfriendly swans. But if you have ever wished to see more swans than you ever imagined, closeup, it’s a good place to go.

Our final two nights we’ll stay at St. Just, a village on the southern coast of Cornwall, just up from Lands End. We’ve been to St. Just many times, but we’ve never spent the night there. This time we’ll have a cottage right down on the water, where we can watch the waves smashing the cliffs.

Then, on the 28th, we’ll drive back to Heathrow and come home.

I’m not taking a computer with me, so there will be no posting while I’m away. I am taking my Kindle, and I set up an e-mail account on it so that anyone who wishes can write to us. The address is jrt190724@gmail.com.

I hope nothing more horrible than usual happens in the United States while we’re away.

Thoughts for September 1, 2017

Hester Thrale (recently become Mrs. Piozzi) visiting Lyons in the fall of 1784, was strongly impressed by the good taste of the city, and emphasized how genuine taste is a matter of distinctive imagination: “It is observable that the further people advance in elegance, the less they value splendor; distinction being at last the positive thing which mortals elevated above competency naturally pant after.”

She’s right about that (though I don’t much like the metaphor “pant after”). She adds to this judgment her contempt for “the paltry distinction which riches alone can bestow.”

In the United State now we need a contemporary Hester Thrale to point out more carefully than it has been done heretofore that the current president is degrading American taste even below what it was before he became a major political player. One might say that’s far from the worst thing he’s doing, but I would argue that deplorable taste is a significant feature of all his political stances.

The driving motive of Mr. Trump’s presidency is to destroy the sense that his predecessor is a more elegant man than he is. And the more Trump tries, the more pathetically he fails. His unawareness is stupendous.

I wonder if Hester Thrale could imagine a prominent figure like Trump. Was there in the 18th century any political leader as vulgar as he? Maybe; but I can’t think of one.

Thoughts for August 26, 2017

It seems now that lots of people are not so much racists as people caught up in racial resentment. The actual distinction is not altogether clear, but quite a few commentators are making quite a point of it.  See, for example Timothy Egan in today’s New York Times: (Clink to read article)

He says, “It turns out that racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican.”

Egan is probably onto something, but I’m not sure that making use of it is as easy as he suggests. That’s what Hillary Clinton was trying to do, and it didn’t turn out well for her.

If “racists” can be rejected outright, but “racial resentment” can’t, then it’s going to take some new style rhetoric to cozy up to the latter. I suppose I ought to want to cozy up to it, but I confess that doing it is not greatly in my heart.

Thoughts for August 23, 2017

Two thoughts which fit together more tightly than you might at first suppose:

People think the basic conflict in society now is between liberals and conservatives.
It’s not. Rather it’s between the sane and the insane. It’s just that “conservative” has
transmogrified into a word designed to make lunatics feel respectable.

In capitalism, “intelligence” is defined as the ability to cheat people and get away
with it. As long as that’s the goal, cheating will be the norm.

Thoughts for August 22, 2017

I see that David Brooks has gone radically un-American in his column this morning. Just consider what he said:

Humility is the fundamental virtue. Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.

How does that fit with the pontification that America is the greatest country there has ever been, and Americans are the greatest people there have ever been? Isn’t that the message we demand from our politicians? If we don’t get it, we kick them out of political life.

If we’re not the greatest, then what are we? How do you suppose the average American would answer that question? We have told ourselves that we’re great for so long, we probably can’t imagine being anything else.

The thought of merely being decent is such a pitiful goal, isn’t it?

Who cares about kindness and mercy, when greatness is in the offing?

Thoughts for August 21, 2017

The events of the past ten days compelled me to jot the following thought into my notebook (and when I say “compelled” I mean that literally).

At any point in history the surrounding atmosphere of thought, belief, and conviction about good and evil will exert gigantic influence on people’s behavior. Most people will be controlled entirely by their intellectual environment. We can rightly celebrate those who manage to rise above the prejudices of their times. But should we condemn utterly those who don’t? We need to recall that such condemnation will apply to about 99% of the human race.

Who are we to issue such a judgment? The only way you can get away with it is to dismiss the tragic features of history and view it instead as pure melodrama. History is not, primarily, a tale of good struggling against evil. It is far more a story of stupid and limited people contending with other stupid and limited people.

Thoughts for August 11, 2017

Of all the curiosities the world presents to us the most perplexing, perhaps, is what matters to people. If you started making a list you could go on virtually forever. Think of it: what kind of car one drives, what kind of shoes one owns, the particular gourmet food one relishes, how many Twitter responses one gets, how well known one is, the prestige of the organizations one is a member of, who one has been photographed with -- as I say, the list could scarcely ever be brought to an end.

I suppose it’s a fairly common experience, as one ages, to have the number of things he or she genuinely cares about to decline dramatically. That has certainly been the case with me. In fact, it seems I’m down to only four, which can be covered by the simple headings: loving, learning, the fairness and justice of the social system, and health. Nothing else counts for me much anymore, and certainly not fame, riches, power, or what the masses consider success.

Part of this comes from the increasing recognition that time -- at least time as we conceive of it now -- obliterates all things. It may well be that time will do away with not only humanity but all record of humanity. There will be nothing in the universe to testify that humanity once was. What will a politician’s fame be worth then?

Somebody could come back at me and ask, “What will your learning and loving be worth then?” My only answer would have to be, “I don’t give a damn. That ‘then’ will be outside my human radius; it won’t contain anything I can touch, or feel, or care about.”

Am I curious about it? Sure. I agree with Samuel Johnson that “curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” But curiosity is an element of learning. I want to learn as much as I can, but I’m more than ready to admit that there is much that I cannot learn. And it doesn’t bother me, seriously, that I’m limited in that way. It’s just a feature of my being.

It’s one’s being that is defined by what matters, and I suspect that we would all enhance our beings by concentrating on the things that really matter to us, and not worrying much about the things the world tells us are super important.

Thoughts for August 9, 2017

When I reflect, I realize I have no hard evidence that Americans now believe any more crazy stuff than they ever did. It seems they do but that may be just that they now have greater opportunities to publicize their thoughts.

I’ve just read Kurt Andersen’s long article in the September Atlantic, titled “How America Lost Its Mind.” It’s a prelude to his new book, which will be released in about a month: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a Five Hundred Year History. You can see from the book title that he doesn’t see American irrationality as a new thing. It derives, he believes, from American religiosity, which has been intense since the first European settlements here. He doesn’t come right out and say so but the implication is that if one believes in God, he’s a candidate to believe in anything, no matter how nutty it is.

Though Andersen is onto a significant feature of the American psyche, I don’t think his thesis about it is sound. He blames -- far too much it seems to me --our current lack of reason on what he calls the “anything-goes sixties,” and scoops up much of the popular literature from five decades ago as evidence for the American rejection of reality. In the process he links unlikely combinations of people, such as Jimmy Carter, Michele Foucault, and Rush Limbaugh, as being engaged in the same process.

As I just said to one of my friends, I suspect his book will get some gratifying publicity but, over time, will fail be viewed as a serious explanation for the state of the American mind in the first decades of the 21st century. Analyzing the latter will require far more complex and subtle thought than Andersen seems to be bringing to the task. The only part of his thesis likely to hold up is not original with him. He is just one among many who think the American psyche has become diseased.

I doubt that Americans will be, primarily, the ones to sort this problem out. The United States has now become the world’s difficulty, and so the whole world is going to have to decide what to do about it. Donald Trump’s rant yesterday that he is going to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” ought to be a wakeup call to all human beings. Though America has created this derangement it is now a human problem and all humans consequently have some responsibility for addressing it.

Thoughts for August 5, 2017

One of Nietzsche’s more significant claims was that a philosopher’s theories were simply expressions of his temperament. In other words, his philosophy was a statement of who he was.

When one considers the plenitude of philosophical theories down the ages this would seem almost to be obvious. Hundreds of brilliant minds over at least twenty-five centuries struggling to define the nature of things ought to have moved towards some sort of unity. Yet they haven’t. Doesn’t that suggest there is no unity to be moved towards? There is no thing -- commonly called philosophical truth -- to be found.

What there is to be found is a multiplicity of temperaments seeking to find concurrence between themselves and the world, or the universe. Desiring to be right rather than to be oneself is probably the most disastrous mistake humanity has made.

This was the essence of Nietzsche’s message. This is what he meant by the will to power. One cannot build his power without knowing who he is and what he wants. That’s because absence of self-knowledge is sure to lead to wasted, futile efforts, chasing down some path that’s never going to lead anywhere for that particular person.

The question left hanging in this proposition is whether a temperament is given or constructed. It would seem there has to be some element of givenness in order to begin to build, something there from the start providing the means to take a first step. But if this givenness exists, then where it comes from I do not know. I hope there is no givenness that leads inevitably towards viciousness, but I suppose there could be. If there is, it makes me sad to think about it.

Thoughts for August 4, 2017

Amongst conservatives nowadays we see quite a few calls for return to traditional foundations. What we need, supposedly, is to get back to something we once had, and then stick by it. But what if the foundations of the past, though they may once have offered some utility, are worn out so far as the problems of our immediate future are concerned?

A world with no foundations calls for radically transformed goals. If there are groundings which can be discovered, then the basic purpose of life is to find them, and once they have been found, to remain faithfully dependent on them. But if there are no such foundations, if belief in them rises from fear rather than from evidence, if foundational mythology has functioned mainly as a tool to keep the majority in thrall to small power elites, then the first priority of life is to cast false foundations aside in order to build something personal, something one can count on because it was constructed from within, because a person can own it.

The idea of owning God is absurd but the idea of owning oneself opens possibilities, if one is strong enough to insist on them, if one can refuse to bow down.

The reason Friedrich Nietzsche concentrated on the life of the self-creating individual was that he knew any group mind had to be based on false abstractions, in effect, mere notions that didn’t offer genuine help to anyone.

The notion that Nietzsche’s will to power was addressed to the power of groups, that it was directed to the goals of nations or other self-promoting organizations, was a product of childish misreading. It was a refusal to see that Nietzsche’s perspective on power was personal power, the determination and the strength to insure that you maintain power over yourself, regardless of how social power clots intend to bring you under their control. If Nietzsche was a prophet of anything, he was a prophet of radical freedom. He envisioned a world made up of interactions among free people.

Thoughts for August 3, 2017

Last night I waked up in the wee hours and went into my reading room to see if I could find something that would put me back to sleep. I picked up a book I had intended to start reading the next day -- another attempt to analyze an aspect of Samuel Johnson -- and thumbed through it to try to get a sense of its scope, its bibliography, and so forth.

This book attempts to sketch out a shift in epistemology brought about by empiricism which is linked to “the rise in biography,” Damn, I said to myself, does that mean anything, or anything I can possibly care about? The rise in biography? Before biography was lower, and now it’s higher? What the hell does that mean?

You might think this would have been more than enough to put me to sleep again. But though it should have been, it wasn’t. Instead it got me to thinking about words, which led me to scribble the following thought onto a little slip of paper, which is the main thing I want to tell you about here.

Here’s what I wrote -- at about 3:00 A.M.: “People for the most part don’t know what they mean by the words they use. They do tremendous harm by throwing words around recklessly. Education might best be defined as an attempt to reduce that harm. I hope the future will come to see that the denizens of the early 21st Century scarcely spoke at all. They gasped; they mumbled; they sought advantage over clarity. They failed to perceive that language is what makes humanity worthwhile. They spat on our reason for being. Not all of them, but too many. Far too many.”

Having written, I sat and read the little passage over several times. Gradually, I began to feel a little sleepy, so I went back to bed.

I don’t know whether it’s a good thing to get up in the middle of the night, or not. 

©John R. Turner

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