Panaceas and Toxins (and Their Discontents)

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Throughout my adult life (and some of my childhood as well), I have objected to the worship of panaceas and toxins, which now has reached screeching peaks in private, social, and political life. There’s a human temptation to swoon before all-encompassing solutions and all-destroying poisons, or things that claim such status. In reality, grand solutions and grand destructors are rare; most things fall short of such extremes.

I have known people who believed in a single answer to all of life, be it Amway, herbal medicine, or a political stance. Similarly, I have seen national leaders blame a single enemy (say, George Soros or the media) for many if not all of the country’s ills. I have seen self-help books by the dozens that claim to help you get rid of toxic people, find your true fulfillment in six steps, and so forth.

It is easy to see how sweeping solutions can do more damage than good. It’s more difficult to figure out why they have such wide and profound appeal. Part of the reason is obvious: people want answers for the difficulties they encounter in life. Big answers seem to promise big relief. But there’s a more fundamental reason: such solutions offer their believers an identity. If you believe in a panacea, then you automatically become part of the in-group, not part of the problem. Likewise, if you call out a “toxic” person or thing, then you are one of the non-toxic, one of the worthy members of humanity. In both cases, you get to identify with a group of “acceptables” and to join with them against the enemy. Such group membership, whether subtle or overt, offers definition and comfort.

No one escapes this entirely. Probably everyone, at some point, has subscribed to some solution or pinpointed some enemy. Nor is this always wrong; such clarity and simplicity can allow for important action. The danger, or part of it, lies in doing this for the sake of an identity rush or a sense of vindication. Identity does not come from here, and vindication can bring new grief.

Worldviews that depend on panaceas and toxins leave no room for “discontents”–that is, those who object and those who fail to be contained. Throughout history, the dissident who has said “I am not contained, and I refuse to be contained, in this plan of yours” has revealed an ideology’s narrowness and insistence on conformity. There are dissidents today whom few recognize as such; they speak courageously against false formulas. (I do not herald myself as one of these; to be a dissident, I would need to speak up a bit more.)

A few of the essays in Mind over Memes–“Take Away the Takeaway,” “Social and Unsocial Justice,” “The Toxicity of ‘Toxic'” (also the title of a blog post), “In Praise of Mixed Mindsets,” and “A Good Misfit”–challenge our penchant for big solutions and ostracisms. I take it up elsewhere as well: for instance, in “The Folly of the Big Idea.”

Yet my contributions are minuscule compared to what has been done; literature, by its nature, resists reduction, whether subtly or explicitly, whether thematically or through its syntactic turns. I think of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Here Hardy does much more than to say that “people can find sustained happiness in adulthood, even after unhappy childhoods.” He takes the reader through subtlety after subtlety: Elizabeth-Jane recognizes her good fortune but is not demonstrably thankful; her life experience does not call for effusiveness, yet she also realizes that others have deserved far more than they received. She is thus “forced to class herself among the fortunate,” but even within this stricture, she wonders “at the persistence of the unforeseen.” Even this tracing of the paragraph does little justice to it; the phrase “Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself” must be understood in light of the previous paragraph, which in turn reflects on what comes before.

I think of many other stories, poems, songs–Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” comes to mind now–that in some way break out of their summaries. When you read them,  you break out of your own, “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

I took the photo yesterday.  Please click on it for the full-size image; if you zoom in, you can see the stork in flight. At least one stork frequents the Zagyva these days; he (or she) pecks at things in the water and grass, struts around, and soars over the water.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

“I Want to Starve Them of This Credit”

School is closed until next week, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and rereading David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I will be posting some commentary as I go along. I will be sparing, as my commentary cannot and should not stand in for the book. If you intend to read the book, please do so before reading these posts.

The book argues that and that both the right and the left (I’m simplifying here) have subordinated independent thought to group thinking in the name of “culture.” It proceeds to defend this thesis in a beautiful and uncompromising way.

I don’t always know why a book affects me. Here, I can see several reasons and something beyond them. First, the author has a refreshingly fierce (and humane) understanding of solitude. This book is closer to my Republic of Noise than any of the contemporary books I read for research. I am not boasting of any equality here; to the contrary, I know that Bromwich’s book would have informed and sharpened mine, had I read it a few years ago or earlier.

That leads to the second point: this book was published when I was a graduate student at Yale and in some ways unhappy. My unhappiness had various sources, one of which was the “professionalism” I saw around me, the kind that Bromwich lambastes in this book. People latched onto the latest theory as though it were their ticket to a career. I’d bring up a literary work, and the response would often be, “Have you read so-and-so’s article?” A young professor told me once, with a slight hint of condescension, that “close textual analysis” was my forte, as though that were quaint or narrow. (In his preface, Bromwich writes, “By 1990, it was possible for a senior editor of an established journal of literary history to admonish a young scholar who had submitted an article for publication: ‘You stick too close to the text.'”) I rebelled against these trends but didn’t fully understand them. This book would have helped me understand, and it would have given me hope.

There’s much more. The book calls me to hone my thinking, to use words more precisely, and to trust myself to stand alone. I say this not in self-disparagement. To some degree, these are already my strengths. But it’s easy to take one’s own strengths for granted instead of developing them to the fullest. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book led me to something like the final words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo“: “you must change your life.” Now, life has plenty of “archaic torso” mirages: often, things that seem life-changing do not prove so. Or rather, it is the will that fails, not the work of art. Can I live up to what I am learning here? We shall see.

So, on to the preface. The more Bromwich thought about his topic, and the more comments and criticisms he received from others, the stauncher he became. This passage is wonderful: “I have been told often by members of both camps [roughly, of the static right and insular left–DS] that my reactions are too negative. Calm reflection has made them more so. Both cultures are deeply sick, and it would be a good thing to rid ourselves of both.” Yes, indeed.

Such ridding must start with a resuscitation of language, which requires some initial asphyxiation. Bromwich points to the corruption of three concepts: culture, community, and professionalism. Each one can be used in an honorable or perverted sense–but the perverted sense, having won for now, flashes booty of the honorable sense just for prestige. Bromwich writes:

The reader is well warned concerning my prejudices, for, in the course of this book, they oblige me to use in a pejorative sense certain words that need not be pejorative. Culture is one of these. A great confusion now prevails between culture as social identity and culture as tacit knowledge acquired by choice and affinity. If I could use the word and be sure that people would understand the second meaning, it would appear in the following chapters frequently and without blame. At present, however, most people have in view the first meaning of culture; they use the word in the hope of borrowing a reflected prestige from the second. I want to starve them of this credit. I therefore write against the idea of culture and speak of it, in its likely current meaning, as an institutional lie.

If one could starve careless or corrupt word-users of the credit they have borrowed, and starve the corrupted words themselves, it would be like feeding on death, that feeds on men. It’s as worthy a deed as slaying Eurymachus and all of Penelope’s suitors. I’m all for it–until a part of me gets slain or at least badly stung in the bargain. That happens right after the preface, in the book’s epigraph:

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.”

–Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Wait, I used “we” carefully! I even brought up its problems, on the fourth page of my book, and got slammed by a reader for doing so! Doesn’t that exculpate me?

My impulse is to justify my “we.” But I know that the impulse is wrong. It’s impossible, when writing about a societal tendency, to avoid all “we”–even Bromwich uses it–but if I were to write the book again, I’d starve “we” (and myself) of its credit.

This is invigorating, not disheartening. More soon.

Note: I made a few edits after the initial posting. For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.