Loss and Gain
Black Sun, Deep End Symposium
Loss and Gain is, of course, the title of the interesting little novel John Henry Newman published in 1848, about the shift in a young man’s thinking and feeling, from that of a Protestant Christian to that of a Roman Catholic Christian. The differences between 19th century Protestantism and Catholicism are fascinating, and worth anyone’s attention. But they don’t compose my topic here. I mention Newman and his novel simply to introduce the same point he made: that no matter how bright and intelligent the promises of the future may be, in moving to accept them we are deprived of something. We give up, to a certain extent, who we were, and that person now removed, that person who thought and felt in the past, is a person who must always remain a source of grief, though we would do well to remind ourselves that it is a grief not of loss but of separation.
The great curiosity about relationships among persons past, present, and future is how one version becomes the other. How does a mind that thought and felt in one fashion transform itself into a mind that thinks and feels quite differently? If this is a mystery about a single person, it is a mystery multiplied when we turn to the minds of different eras. The movement of human thought over time is more puzzling than the interior of the atom. Though physicists are progressively mapping the components of the atom, no one has knowledge of the fundamental stuff of thought. We don’t know where it comes from, we don’t know how it moves, we don’t know how it forms itself into the configurations we speak of loosely as concepts or ideas.
All we know is that ideas appear in the human mindscape, have their moments of celebrity--some longer than others--and, then, slip into the obscurity of quaintness.
There are people who label themselves intellectual historians, or sociologists, or psychologists, or anthropologists who make insubstantial claims about the causation of ideas, but they are engaged in a complicated dance of pretense. We have no more reason to place our trust in them than in a man on the internet who promises to make us rich if we will send him fourteen dollars and ninety-five cents. This is not, by the way, to say that they are useless. They provide a certain low-grade entertainment which can be attested to by any reader of the New York Times.
Though we cannot know about the causation of ideas, or understand much about how they interact with one another, we can chart their rising and falling, and we can grasp that each one is laden with a certain sort of pleasure for certain sorts of persons. As we move from what we call one millennium to another, we can see that some pleasures are fading from human experience whereas others are waxing in such manner and with such force as to suggest they will influence human happiness for decades to come.
Years ago I wrote a newspaper column titled “An Idea of Freedom.” One of the first pieces I included in that series had to do with the differences between men of my father’s generation and my own set of friends and colleagues. Since it was short, and introduces several of the ideas I want to mention today, I’ll give it to you in its entirety. Here it is as it appeared in the Huntsville, Alabama Times, on December 8, 1978.
A friend and I sat an hour talking about our fathers. We are both in our early forties, our fathers about forty years older. Both of them have begun to show characteristics of old age. His rambles, telling the same stories over again. Mine is moderately eccentric and doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks of him. They both grew up in the rural South and made their livings in big organizations, filling positions somewhere between high-class clerks and middle-level administrators. Both were honest, steady men who provided for their families.
Our thoughts about them are a mixture of amusement, affection, and frustration, all tinged with a whiff of sadness. We both think life should be more than theirs has been. We both tell ourselves--perhaps in delusion--that ours are more meaningful than theirs, and we mean by that, that ours have had to benefit of sharper intellectual training. We both believe that sound thinking leads to worthy things.
I am genuinely perplexed as to whether their way brings a better world than ours does. They have, I think, a more deeply ingrained wisdom, or shrewdness, about how to get on. They both did things that we will not do. Our refusal comes not as much from greater courage as it does from the offense we take at absurdities they never stopped to consider. They were organization men, and they took the orders that came down from above without pausing to criticize the intelligence of the men who delivered them. My friend and I would never do that. We are “independent” thinkers, and if we have one unfailing characteristic, it is that we always ask why.
What is the end of a world where everyone asks why, where everyone decides for himself what’s sensible and what’s absurd? Ideally, the cessation of absurdity. But that’s assuming everyone thinks well and targets absurdity rightly.
My friend and I know that everyone does not think well. We know that everyone’s trying to think for himself leads, in the short run, to a babble of contending foolishness, which seems to be the greatest absurdity of all. Our fathers, though they lived in worlds that would stifle us, at least had Sunday afternoons with ice cream, and weekend fishing trips, where the only thoughts were of ice cream and fish. They lived a life free of ideology, and we in our exhaustion think sometimes that ideology is a ten-times worst tyrant than absurdity, no matter how galling.
We cannot, of course, turn back. The very difficulty of imagining it is evidence against the possibility. To live in their world would be as estranging for us as would be their attempt to live in ours. Yet, we carry that world with us, and I, for one, am glad that we do. Without its reality I don’t think I could imagine genuine freedom, and I go along my course with the sense that anything I accomplish is as much a debt paid to my father as a gift bequeathed to the future.
The ability I wrote of twenty-one years ago, the ability to take life directly, without tangling it in a web of assessment and critique, is one of the pleasures that seem to be waning at the end of the century. Its fading is linked intricately with another diminishment that was also brought to my attention by personal experience.
When I first moved to New England from the South, I encountered a set of attitudes which functioned for me not just as a puzzle but as a mysterium. I couldn’t get inside them. Despite repeated attempts, I don’t think I have yet effected penetration. My efforts have, though, delivered a shadowy outline which affords some sense of the moral region these cerebrations occupy.
The closest I can come to describing how New England thought struck me is to say it appeared to be based on doing good for the sake of nothing. As a Southerner, my entire moral code was grounded in doing good for the people I loved. New Englanders, by contrast, seemed bent on doing good even if it made everybody miserable--which, often, it did.
I have since come to understand that I was experiencing one of the signal transitions of modernity, the movement from substantive good to procedural good. It’s a process that has been spelled out in great detail by Charles Taylor in what I think is one of the truly fine books of our generation, titled Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. There, Taylor makes the case that though we have gained something, we have lost a great deal in setting right over good, to the degree that we have. The result has been an intellectual conflict which Taylor describes in these words:
This is what has been suppressed by these strange cramped theories of modern moral philosophy, which have the paradoxical effect of making us inarticulate on some of the most important issues of morality. Impelled by the strongest metaphysical, epistemological, and moral ideas of the modern age, these theories narrow our focus to the determinants of action, and then restrict our understanding of these determinants still further by defining practical reason as exclusively procedural. They utterly mystify the priority of the moral by identifying it not with substance but with a form of reasoning, around which they draw a firm boundary. They then are led to defend this boundary all the more fiercely in that it is their only way of doing justice to the hypergoods which move them although they cannot acknowledge them.
The hypergoods to which Taylor refers are abstract ideals, such as freedom, justice, equality, and opportunity, which flow easily out of the mouths of modern leaders, but which are seldom linked to anything you can get your teeth into.
One of the standing clichés about modern scholarship is that it involves knowing more and more about less and less. We might paraphrase the cliché to say that modern morality has driven us to be exquisitely right about matters that don’t have, and by their nature can’t have, much to do with the satisfactions of living. I realize, of course, that this is a backward attitude, progress being one of the hallmarks of modern thought. Even so, it may be a backwardness that by a circuitous route leads to the future. Of all the losses I’ll mention today, the shrinkage of substantive good in moral discourse is one that I think we must partially reclaim if humanity is to avoid a monstrous, collective nervous breakdown.
The notion that procedure should rule over results, despite the inherent illogic of the idea, has implications that stretch far beyond the formalities of practical reason. Beyond doubt, over the course of my lifetime, its most dramatic effect can be seen in the way people share their lives with one another.
The term we now use most often to speak of the sharing of lives is “relationship.” It has become so common I suspect most of us don’t think about how new it is. When I was a child, there were no relationships. There were marriages, and friendships, and brotherhoods, and various other manifestations of loyalty, but no relationships. I’m sure I never heard the word “relationship” uttered until I was well past the age of maturity.
A relationship is by its nature a procedural deal. It is made up of various relations, and from the habit of dualistic thinking we tend to designate them as being either right or wrong. In truth, about the only thing that matters about a relationship is whether the relations that compose it are right or wrong. If they turn out to be wrong, clearly, they shouldn’t be. So either they must be put right or they must be dissolved. From the perspective of a relationship, it would be insane to maintain wrong relations. The concept of a perpetual relationship, right or wrong, or, as we might say, for better or for worse, is nutty.
Obviously, there’s a good deal of sense in the perspective. It frees one to have only good relations, and to get out of the ones that aren’t good.
If I may again refer to the experience of moving from the South to the North--and it may be pertinent to mention that this occurred in the 1960s--another of the surprises I encountered was to hear people speaking of their exhilaration in escaping from family. I heard people in their twenties and thirties bragging about how they had not seen their parents in years, and how nothing could drag them back to the towns where they had grown up. And all this was accompanied by vehement expression of dislike for the lives they had known as children. There seemed to be a belief that, in a psychological sense, they could separate themselves from those lives, and issue forth as self-born, and often renamed, people who had been created in their third or fourth decades.
Coming in touch with all this caused me to reflect that it hadn’t occurred to me to rate my childhood, or my parents. That’s not to say that I hadn’t at times been angry about things that happened. Yet, my anger never took the form of rejection. My experiences, my life, my parents, my family were just as much part of inescapable reality as gravity. To go away from any of them because my relationships with them had not been right made no more sense than turning against nature because I got hurt when I fell down and bumped my head.
Again, this was laughably backward. Chance had deposited me in a space/time globule that was disappearing from modern life, or, at least from the lives of educated, sophisticated people who had mastered the procedural rules of modern psychology.
Gradually, I came to grasp that the hegemony of right relations was banishing considerable misery. People were emancipated from the iron bonds of necessity, and had been opened to the joys of spontaneity and exploration. Discovery and creativity became the watchwords of their existence.
Even so, what they were discovering appeared, much of the time, not to add up to a hell of a lot. Women were fleeing the age-old bondage of family to achieve the grandeur of immersion in the managerial chain at K-Mart. Men were escaping from the life-sentence of marriage to realize that the next women down the line could be just as mean and controlling as the ones they had got away from. It was as though John Fowles’s warning, that human life over time is in all essential respects horizontal, was being crammed down their throats.
There was, of course, a kind of learning that took place from the richness and variety of experience. But there was with it the fear that learning of this kind was projecting one into a void. To be connected is worth something, even when the connection is not entirely pleasant.
I have no expectation that the world will return to the unconscious loyalties of the past. Nor, would I be pleased if it did. But, the essential something that is at the core of loyalty, I suspect, will continue to lure us, because without it, life, even when it is pleasant and unencumbered, begins to feel a little stale. Connections and loyalties are stories that tell us that life is about something. And when we fall into stories that say that life is about nothing, we start to worrying that we won’t know what to do when we get to the end of them.
Mentioning how it’s all going to turn out directs one’s mind to the vehicles that will bear us to our final destinations. Every life, I suppose, has to ride on something, and if it’s true, as people are fond of saying, that the journey is as important as the goal, the choice of vehicle is a matter of some significance. We have so many make and models available to us that saying anything about them, generally, becomes problematic. Yet, I think we can say that at given times some models are more popular than others. And I must say that the popular model that has most drawn my attention over the last quarter of this century has been professionalism.
I have to admit at the start of this portion of my discourse that, just as I have never bought a Cadillac, I have never bought a profession. I’ve been pretty far down the path of purchase, but for some reason I always turned aside before signing the final papers. Consequently, I don’t know what I’m talking about here. But, though I am ignorant, I am intrigued, and maybe there’s something to be made out of the intensity of curiosity.
It’s clear to me that professionalism has become an ever more important conveyor of life over the course of my years. When I was a child, all the men I knew had jobs, and all the women I knew stayed home and looked after their kids and their houses. A job, of course, is not a profession. It’s an attachment to life, or a tool of life, more or less important. But, it is not the vehicle that carries life down the road. People have jobs so they can do some of the things they want to do, outside of the jobs. That’s not to say that jobs have no pleasures associated with them, but they do not conduct us to the meaning of life. A guy with a job has to get to his meaning in some other way.
Gradually, the idea has grown that it’s a shame to have a job and a glory to have a profession. As the prestige of the latter has swelled, many activities that formerly were jobs have, through the process of self-designation, become professions. A person who sells houses is now in the profession of real estate. Even more absurdly, a person who sells stocks, is now in the profession of finance. A curious aspect of this flowering is that the concept of professionalism has flown free of any particular activity and has assumed an independent position in the realm of virtue.
I recall that many years ago, when I was the dean of a program at my college, I received a phone call from a man who had graduated from the program before I joined it. He had subsequently earned graduate degrees and was now, he said firmly, a Ph. D. in psychology and a clinical therapist. I congratulated him on his good fortune, and asked what I could do for him. It turned out that during the fourth semester of his undergraduate work, he had received an evaluation which cast doubts on his mastery of the mysteries of grammar. He now wanted the record of that semester changed, so that anyone who looked at his transcript would not suspect that he had trouble matching pronouns correctly with their antecedents.
I explained to him that I couldn’t change the evaluations rendered by earlier faculty members, and I reminded him that education was generally viewed as a process of learning and development of skills. Just because someone had problems with grammar as an undergraduate didn’t mean that he was still having them, and particularly not if he had gone on to more advanced degrees.
He was not placated. Someone looking at this record might hold his grammatical deficiencies against him. And it was not fair because he was now a Ph. D. We went round and round. I tried to put my position in as reasonable, and as soothing, terms as I could muster. Yet, nothing I said diminished his sense of injury. He was a Ph. D. And here was a record that said his grammar might not be up to snuff. Finally, out of frustration, I suggested that for a man of his position to be worrying about a minor criticism in his undergraduate record was a bit obsessive. To this he replied, with deep indignation, “That’s the most unprofessional thing I ever heard anyone say!”
I sat for a moment, perplexed. Then I asked, “What profession are you speaking of?”
“What do you mean?” he shouted back.
“Well, you said I was unprofessional. So, what profession am I being unprofessional in?”
“You’re impossible!” he screamed and slammed down the phone.
I’ve thought of him often as I’ve watched professionalism gobble up more and more areas of life. You’ll recall that on Sunday evening Alan Bleakley reminded us that anxiety has now become a commodity, a thing to be bought, sold, and serviced. Why should this be, we ask?
It seems that professionalism offers a portion of the answer. When we move from having the activities of life done by ordinary men and women to having them done by professionals, the energy expended increases exponentially. I wrote a column once where I showed, I think beyond doubt, that it costs at least ten times as much to have a baby’s diaper changed in a day-care center as it does to have it done by a mother at home. For one thing, the mother has no need for the profession of insurance to protect her against damages for an errant safety-pin. But woe to the child care worker not covered by a comprehensive casualty package in that area.
Not only does professionalism ratchet life to a level where we’re all driven nearly crazy trying to pay for it, it takes away many simple pleasures that used to be free to everyone. The deep pleasure that once was had by anyone who loved his mother tongue and reveled in placing its words in seemly order on paper--the pleasure that we can see shining from the pages left to us by Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, and Emily Dickinson--must now, for many people, be acquired by buying something called an MFA in Writing. I’m not sure how much one of these costs, but the price is probably at least ten thousand dollars, each one of which must be earned by activity that holds one away from pen and paper. One is reminded of the man living in a simple cottage in Scotland who went to India and labored for forty years so he could return to a simple cottage in Scotland to write poems. If one were to list all the things that once could be done simply by doing them but now must be done primarily through licensure, he would have a scroll long enough to paper a good-sized room.
When I reflect, I see that all these things I’ve talked about--approaching life indirectly, a morality of procedure, relationships rather than loyalties, and professionalism--have won for us a great gain in sensitivity as they have turned us into nervous wrecks.
The challenge of the century coming upon us in another four and a half months will be to hold onto the sensitivities and subtleties of what we have been wont to call the modern age while we attempt to regain the exuberance, directness, and toughness of the people who brought us to the point where sensitivity could be taken seriously.
In our fastidiousness, we have become largely alienated from the brawling, bawling legions who created this thing we call humanity. It’s a messy, nasty creature, but we need to reflect now and then that it’s all we’ve got. It will be a grand thing if we can move away from the brutalities that marked the past, but not if in escaping them we seal ourselves in a sterile vacuum where there is nothing to hold our attention except the consternation of self. By ridding ourselves of bad behavior we do not necessarily leave the ground open to good behavior. We may do no more than create a region of emptiness leading only to death.
The story in the past has had its bad chapters. One might say, in fact, that most of them have been bad. Still, I would like it to go on, and thwart the prediction of T. S. Eliot, which lately has seemed so prescient:
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.