Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More on the Chabon Quote

I'm going to write more about the Chabon quote, mostly because I want to avoid proofreading.

(It's 10:00 in the morning local time, and I need to finish proofing a short story collection today. I'm going to have to ask for changes in the typeset version, due to errors of mine I did not catch before, and I have reached the point where I don't like what I've written. This usually happens. The feeling passes, but it is not enjoyable while it lasts.)

I don't know enough about Chabon to write intelligently about him, so I will simply write about my response to the quote. What it triggers in me.

Chabon includes entropy and mortality in the list of things that suggest the world is broken or fallen. The first is the second law of thermodynamics. The second is a fact of multicellular life on this planet. I do think both are qualitatively different from problems such as human violence. In the end, he is going back the question of why do we suffer, why do we die, why is the world not made for our personal comfort? These are pre-modern questions. The question of why humans often act badly is still worth asking, but it has to be pulled away from the pre-modern questions.

In Ring of Swords I have Anna say that people who talk about personal honor do so to avoid behaving as decent human beings. This is not merely Anna -- and me -- being flip. There are moral and philosophic ideas that can be used to avoid decent behavior. A belief that personal morality matters more than being part of a community and working to make the community better. A belief that the world is unfixable, so why bother? The first focuses on the personal, the second on the universal. Both avoid the communal, which is where morality belongs.

It is possible to sound very thoughtful and intelligent and philosophic, while saying this kind of thing. But in the end it's a way of avoiding action, especially humane action.

Chabon writes very well, but what he has given us is an extended metaphor, the broken world, which tells us nothing useful about the universe and does not tell us much about human experience. There are cultures that don't see the world as fallen or broken. The Chinese built an entire, gigantic, long-lasting civilization by focusing on political and social questions. What is a good society like? How do we build one? How should humans behave toward one another?

One of the comments to my previous post said that Chabon is addressing the problem comfortable suburban Americans have with the idea that the world is not -- in the end -- entirely safe. I suspect this is correct. Middle class Americans do have pretty comfortable lives, compared with much of the rest of humanity.

At the same time, their lives have become far more stressful in a number of ways. Wages have not gone up for most Americans in the past 30 years. Unemployment remains high. Good union jobs have vanished. Health care and higher education are increasingly unaffordable. Private pension plans are mostly gone. 401(k) plans have not worked as an alternative. The collapse of the housing market has meant that many Americans have lost the one thing they had left to support them in old age: a house they could sell for a good price. As a result of this, the mostly white members of the middle class have no reason to believe they will remain middle class. They may well slip down into the lower middle class or into poverty, and their kids are even more likely to sink.

Finally, Americans do not have a sense that they can change their lives. The traditional ways of coping through political and social organization don't seem to be working. All of these are social problems. They do not tell us the world is broken. They tell us our society is breaking.

There is a certain comfort in being told the world is broken and unfixable, because then you don't have to do anything. Instead, you can cling to whatever comfort remains. Change is hard and risky.

But especially now, faced by Global Warming, we have to change. Writers who wax philosophic about the fallen world are not doing the rest of us any favors at all.

P.S. This post is me in a dead-horse-beating mode.


Blogger Therem said...

There is a certain comfort in being told the world is broken and unfixable, because then you don't have to do anything. Instead, you can cling to whatever comfort remains. Change is hard and risky.

I disagree about this. It is not comforting at all to an idealistic person to realize that the problems of the world are completely beyond their ability to fix them. It's infuriating, frustrating to such a degree that it can lead to utter despair. However... it's absolutely true. I can't fix global warming; you can't fix global warming; even if the United States came up with intelligent policies to address the country's contributions to global warming, it alone cannot solve the problem. When faced with a challenge like this, which requires an almost incomprehensible and unprecedented amount of cooperation and commitment of the world's citizens, it's hard to believe that it will end well.

HOWEVER, the psychological difficulty of staying motivated in the face of impossible odds is by no means a new one for the human race. People have struggled with this question a lot. One tactic is to limit the scope of the problem mentally so as not to become overwhelmed. (Alcoholics Anonymous - "One day at a time" - for example.) I think the concept of "tikkun olam" is getting at something similar. The point is to NOT become disaffected or uncaring about the bigger problems, to NOT lose hope and a constructive mindset. It's a bit of a psychological trick to focus on the smaller scale with the greater assumption that big shifts happen as a result of a whole lot of smaller ones coming together.

I may be giving him too much credit (I really hated a recent piece he wrote about dreams in The New York Review of Books), but I think this is what Chabon was trying to get at when he wrote, "The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?" It's a choice each person faces when they really start to understand the scale of the world's problems. Are they going to give up? Or are they going to try to do something, anything, even if they know they can't possibly solve the bigger problem?

3:40 PM  

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