Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gore Vidal on the basic absurdity

More Gore Vidal (he wrote this half a century ago):

Millions of men, women, and children are financially exploited in order to support one per cent of the population in opulence and the rest in sufficient discomfort to keep them working at jobs that they dislike in order to buy things that they do not need in order to create jobs to make money to be able to buy, etc. This is not a just society. It may not last much longer. But for the present, the children of the rich are as carefully conditioned to the world as it is as are those of the poor.

What response is there but "pretty much." Not to mention even the wealthy people aren't happy. What is progress, anyway? Human culture gets richer or at least more complicated over time ... our knowledge base or at least the amount of information increases ... but suffering is a constant. Who's to say which is worse, getting eaten by tigers or suicidal depression? I used to think we were moving toward some Kurzweilian tipping point wherein centuries of gradual progress would suddenly culminate in an unforeseen scientific enlightenment. Lately I'm less optimistic. Scientific progress continues but is less and less applicable to actual life, to improving our daily lives (especially the lives of the poor). The mind-blowing shit we expected to see on the street is restricted to the military. Most art, culture as a whole, is advanced product placement. I guess it's an exciting time to be alive. We're either going to live forever or witness the collapse of civilization. Where's your money?

18 comments:

  1. I'm naturally a skeptic about Progress. Further "pessimistic" remarks outsourced to G.K. Chesterton (I am not sure I agree with this but it's worth putting out there):

    "From the height of eight hundred years ago, or of eight hundred years hence, our age must look incredibly odd. We call the twelfth century ascetic. We call our own time hedonist and full of praise and pleasure. But in the ascetic age the love of life was evident and enormous, so that it had to be restrained. In a hedonist age pleasure has always sunk low, so that it had to be encouraged. How high the sea of human happiness rose in the Middle Ages, we now only know by the colossal walls that that they built to keep it in bounds. How low human happiness sank in the twentieth century our children will only know by these extraordinary modern books, which tell people that it is a duty to be cheerful and that life is not so bad after all. Humanity never produces optimists till it has ceased to produce happy men. It is strange to be obliged to impose a holiday like a fast, and to drive men to a banquet with spears."

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    1. There's a bumper sticker in there somewhere. "I'd rather be driving men to a banquet with spears."

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  2. I grew up during the period in the twentieth century when the massive supplies of nuclear weapons (not to mention other nasty inventions) in the hands of three or four large countries/economies kept the world near the brink of blowing itself up for several decades. You walked around from day to day that if someone pressed the button, everything alive on earth would have about a half hour left to live.

    Someone could blow up a subway or pour deadly toxin into the water supply, but we're maybe a little further away from instant total destruction than we were 30 or 40 years ago. In that sense, I guess you could say the current state of things is a faint whisper of progress.

    A few years ago at the Albuquerque Cultural Conference, in a group talking about technology and the arts, we talked a little about the pluses and minuses of increasing technology, the effect it has on our perceptions of the world and quality of life, etc. Someone in the group (I think it was the artists Cecilia Rodriguez though I'm not positive) talked about the notion of "progress" from the standpoint of how modern "civilization" has affected the lives of indigenous people around the world.

    She used the Spanish form of the word, "progresar." Increasingly, she said, when many indigenous populations were faced with the encroachments of modern technological society, they were responding by saying, in effect, "No, we won't do this, we won't progresar, we won't budge. We won't let you turn our land into a real estate development or an oil field," or whatever the case may be.

    Which I felt was a very useful take on this whole bundle of questions.

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    1. Instant total destruction versus slow total destruction .. I don't know that I'd pick the latter.

      I guess from a genetic perspective, it's "progress" if there are more of us on the earth. It's just too bad that as a species we've evolved to the point where we can (and will) be miserable.

      Sorry to be such a downer, guys.

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  3. My money is mostly at the grocery store, gas station, the doc and the dentist, the DMV and the like. I've got a little at Edward Jones or somewhere, turning dollars into quarters.

    Don't know the answer to your big question - I'll leave that to others. One thing I'm pretty sure of is that suicidal depression is worse than being eaten by tigers, but I could probably be convinced otherwise.

    I'm no pessimist though. The glass of water/nitrates is half full, if you ask me. Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. I'm optimistic on the small scale, I think. It's the large scale I worry about. Thanks for coming by...

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  4. In situations like this I just ask myself what a Buddhist would say. Then I feel better. I don't really know what a Buddhist would say, but since I'm confident that anything a Buddhist would say would make me feel better, I can skip the middle-man and get straight to the feeling better.

    Kidding. But I think a Buddhist would say something about the impermanence of all things, and that humanity's eventual extinction is virtually certain. Whether it comes from climate change, an asteroid, a plague, or the death of the sun and subsequent obliteration of the Earth 5 billion years from now, who knows. But since we know it's going to happen one way or another, we might as well get used to the idea. I take some comfort in the multiverse idea--that there might be other Earths out there, or at least other universes. It's sad to think that our universe will eventually die. I can only hope that there are other universes, that there might be big bangs going on all the time, with new planets and races of intelligent beings evolving over and over again through eternity. Such fantastical ideas would gel pretty well with Buddhism, in fact (he said, as if he's a freaking expert).

    Or, as they say on Battlestar Galactica, "All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again..."

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    1. I am pretty convinced that there are other universes. (I swear I blogged about the Many Worlds Interpretation before, but I can't find it!) That doesn't make my life feel anymore meaningful though.

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    2. I can feel good enough about the meaningfulness of my life if I feel like I mean something to the people close to me. If I know I'm of some help or comfort to people I also rely on for help and comfort, I feel like that's all I really need, meaning-wise. (Trying to do art stuff and make something to be remembered by is nice too, but secondary.) I feel pretty good about life in the moments when I'm able to shed my attachment to the human concept of permanence.

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    3. Permanence isn't even something I worry about.

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    4. Your desire for meaning comes from somewhere else then? Any thoughts on what it might be?

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    5. I think a) humans naturally look for meaning and b) in the end (like, the WAY end) there isn't any. As I mentioned a few weeks back, it's an unresolved conflict that, nonetheless, I'm usually able to ignore. At this stage in my life it's a little harder to ignore. I think it's partly that I'm psychologically ready to take on some large-scale distractions (like, say, buying a house and having kids) but I'm not monetarily ready to do so, and it's unclear when I will be. So I feel a lot of the thing Vidal described -- that I spend all my time working (I quite like my job, but I don't love it so much that I go into a flow state or anything like that) in order to fund my "lifestyle," but my lifestyle is mostly working. See what I'm saying?

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    6. Yeah, I think I see what you mean. I also do my best to ignore the "what does it all mean" question. (Astronomy class in college always made me ask myself that question, which is why astronomy class ended up being rather depressing.) I'd like to "settle down" and (maybe) have kids someday, and do some other things that I'll only get one chance to do, seeing as how this is the only life I'll ever have...so I worry about not getting to experience certain things. (I'm not sure this is the feeling you're describing or not, but maybe it's close?)

      But as far as my daily life goes, I keep my nose to the ground and this keeps me happy somehow. I shut out thoughts of money and health insurance etc and I feel okay. Probably not wise in the long-term, I admit.

      Heh. You know, I think I'm much more vexed by mundane practical problems than I am by big existential questions...

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  5. I don't know if life or the universe or any of those things have any intrinsic meaning or purpose or value, and I'm not sure what I think about this (what my best guess or opinion is) apart from what I know or don't know. -- Talking here about intrinsic meaning.

    I decided many years ago that it's up to each of us to decide on the meaning and purpose of life for ourselves. That seems to me to be what we generally do anyway, however intentionally or consciously or otherwise.

    For me, one of the purposes of life is to take part in the forward movement of history. (This something I more or less settled on at a time when I was highly active in radical politics.) I still pretty much feel that way. I have many more questions than answers, and I've come to feel that the questions are enough, for now. "I don't know" is a satisfactory answer for me, because it's at least true.

    But that's not to say that I believe nothing. Politics continue to motivate me. I don't necessarily feel optimistic, I feel hopeful sometimes though not always, but I mostly keep at it because, well, what other choice is there?

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    1. "however intentionally or consciously or otherwise" -- yes, that rings true, I think 99% of the time I do create my own meaning. But sometimes it seems like I get a pass in life, that I am lucky compared to most people, I've never *really* suffered, and that is sad. It also makes one aware that you could fall through a hole at any time.

      Again, I feel kinda bad for talking about this...

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    2. did you happen to see this from mayhew? couldn't have said it better myself!

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    3. I didn't mean that I feel bad for feeling bad, to be clear. It's OK to feel bad. I guess I mean I don't want to come off as overdramatizing what is sort of idle suffering -- I am basically happy, whether or not I sometimes sense a gaping lack of meaning.

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  6. I tend to believe that we've already witnessed the collapse of civilization, or at least been taught it for several years in history class (I'd argue it fell somewhere between Ferdinand Franco and Richard Nixon, if I had to).

    Far as seeing the final day is concerned, certainly it's as much a possibility today as ever, probably moreso, given that humans are prone to making mistakes, and the consequential magnitude of making mistakes has been growing in some parts exponentially.

    Meaning, meaningfulness, is something I think most people in the world struggle with, from the depths of the heart of Bill Gates all the way up to sore feet of your prettiest pauper. Context matters, and so does content. Beyond that, I'm afraid the old cliche rings true. It's not so much the circumstance as the response.

    Make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven, and all that jazz.

    Suicidal depression versus being eaten by tigers? I'd still go with depression, if you ask me what's worse. But I really meant it when I said I could probably be convinced otherwise, especially so, I imagine, if the person doing the convincing was about to be eaten by tigers. Best,

    tpeterson

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