Monthly Archives: June 2012

This is just a game.

A word game.

Do not take it too seriously; it is not profound.

But it hinges on a pattern I have noticed in the way we think about things.

It has long been noted that humans have a tendency to create pairs of things: We tend to understand the world in opposites — up, down; good, evil; male, female. Asian philosophies talk about yin and yang arising from the void.

And our sense of this is so strong that we actually think of a number of casual pairs as opposites, especially when we are children. It seems oddly appropriate that chocolate and vanilla are understood as opposites, or salt and pepper.

It is a tenet of many of those Eastern philosophies that the dualities are merely illusion. And some Western philosophers have recognized that most, if not all the opposites we commonly accept are merely linguistic tricks.

After all, one end of the cigar is lit, the other is where we draw smoke. We call the two ends opposites, but there is only one cigar.

Pairs, dualities, opposites. They are natural pathways through the neurons of our brains, the binary system of computers, the underpinnings of our mythologies.

But then, there’s the “third thing.”

That is, as the pairs of opposites arise from the void, they are often accompanied by a third thing, lesser and not thought of as participating in the dualities, but naturally occurring with them nevertheless.

So that, if we think of General Motors and Ford as being in opposition, Chrysler sits next to them as the “third thing.”

When we oppose Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as almost all boys did when they both had television shows in the ’50s — choosing to prefer Roy to Gene or vice versa — there was always Hopalong Cassidy as the third thing.

Even with vanilla and chocolate: You cannot make a Neapolitan without the third thing: Strawberry.

Or salt and pepper, which share their table space with the sugar bowl.

The pairs must feel like they are complete in themselves, and then the third thing must appear as naturally as a baby nine months after a wedding.

The third thing has to have a “bingo” feeling when you think of it.

Like when we oppose Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and then, bingo, we remember Harold Lloyd.

Or when we think of wines divided into red and white, but then bingo, recall the rose, or what is now called a “blush” wine.

It has to seem natural.

Sometimes, a pair doesn’t have a clear third thing. We pair off hamburgers and hot dogs, for instance, but what is the single third thing? Pizza? Tacos? There are too many contenders.

The game is to find your own pairs of opposites, and their “third thing.”

Play it on long drives instead of counting cows or linking geographical names by their first and last letters.

Want to play? It’s easy. Think of something we often cast as “opposites” – dog and cat, win and lose, North Pole and South Pole – and then search for the “bingo” your brain kicks out as the tagalong third: mouse, tie, the Equator.

I’d be interested in your discoveries. Send your pairs of opposites and your “third thing” to

Here are some of the trios that come to mind:

Coke – Pepsi – RC Cola

The Beatles – The Rolling Stones – The Who

Ketchup – Mustard – Mayonnaise

Tea – Coffee – Hot Chocolate

Freud – Jung – Adler

Superman – Batman – Spiderman

Hitler – Mussolini – Franco

New York – LA – Chicago

Haydn – Mozart – Boccherini

Harvard – Yale – Princeton

Theravada – Mahayana – Zen

AP – UPI – Reuters

Frankenstein – Dracula – Wolfman

“Time” – “Newsweek” – “US News and World Report”

Lions – Tigers – Bears

Old Testament – New Testament – Apocrypha

The Sun – The Moon – The Stars

McDonald’s – Burger King – Hardees

Confucius – Lao Tse – Mencius

The Good – The Bad – The Ugly

What you know prevents learning. It’s a simple fact of life.

Those who “know” a lot of stuff, whether it is the batting averages of every Yankee from 1929 to now, or whether it is the history of the Civil War or the lexicon of art history, are all more or less comfortable in their comfort zones and if you ask them a question, they will answer from their store of knowledge. Hence, new knowledge is short-circuited.

If you want to be really smart, you have to learn to be stupid.

Now, I don’t consider myself to be particularly intelligent, but I have noticed when other people are, there are a few things they have in common. One of them is the ability to be blunt pig-iron stupid when they need to be.

What I mean is that intelligence can best be found in what I call “volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know.

People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate.

If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. More commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew.

But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact.

Science is very good at this and the history of science is filled with people, like Einstein, willing to be completely ignorant. To start from zero and begin counting all over again.

And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by “volitional ignorance.” It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels.

It means that you accept the experience fresh and start for your self rather than relying on the culturally accepted model.

I was talking of this with someone recently and he said, “You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and because I am not particularly quick of mind, I agreed.

This worried me later.

For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all.

When he said that, he was in fact squeezing my square peg into his mental round hole, translating what I was saying into something he  already understood.

We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing him for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast.

But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance “volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who have no choice and are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains.

Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine.

Coloring  outside  the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear.

There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related.

First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork.  It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories “mammal” and “silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category “tool.”

Or we might compare four legs with four tines.

I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, “Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong.

In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is different because it is inorganic; the pear is different because it is not round; the apple is different because it is not red; the tomato is different because it is soft.

The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence is not afraid of ambiguity.

And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally.

Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first.

Speaking of one thing  while meaning another is the heart of intelligence. This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is “like.”

If we are awake in the world, we are constantly thinking, feeling and experiencing new things. If we speak of them in conventional language, they not only lose their newness, they become defanged.

In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the  banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language and we can only reach it through inexactness. Metaphor is the means of doing it.

All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary.

The more precise a word is, the less it describes. Meaning depends on ambiguity.

Intelligence is the lightning bolt that arcs from one thought to another, fusing them together like glass.

All intelligence is a form of recognition.


I stood in the class like William Yeats among school children, old and grey-headed among all that well-scrubbed freshness. I had been asked to come and speak.

It was a history class and the bright young men and women in their seats were talking about American government and the genius of the American constitution for providing practical compromises for knotty problems.

I was gratified by the intelligence and interest of the students, but what struck me the most was the palpable glow of their idealism. It radiated from their faces like heat; it broke my heart.

That sort of idealism — the concern for justice and fairness in the world, and the belief in the ability of government to ameliorate wrongs, and in the essential goodness of humankind — is essential to have at that age, just as it is essential to cast it off as you grow older.

It doesn’t take too much living to wear the luster off that kind of naïve idealism. The more you are exposed to the world, the more cynicism seems like a measured response. Certainly the self-righteousness of both sides in the current presidential debacle draws from the world-weary a sigh of recognition.

Yet, it isn’t just experience that sandpapers away that shine from their faces.

As they get older, they will come — if they have brains — to mistrust that idealism for other reasons, too.

For idealism in adults is a dangerous thing. It leads to a great deal of blood and human suffering. It is Robespierre ordering those who did not measure up, to the guillotine and it is Robespierre in the tumbrel himself.

When people are motivated by ideas rather than things, by their idea of how the world should be instead of how it is, they do reprehensible things.

In fact, most of the misery humankind has inflicted on itself, from slavery through the Inquisition were driven by ideals. McCarthyism — though not Joe McCarthy — was idealism in action. Jingoistic nationalism, colonial imperialism, wars and starvation have been fueled by self-righteous idealism.

There has been no segment of the American population so idealistic as the Southern White slaveholder. Read what they wrote: They were proud of their idealism and their civilization. They really and truly thought of themselves as good, moral people.

Let us not forget that both sides in the abortion debate are driven by ideals.

The acrimony is intense, and compromise is impossible. It always is with committed idealists.

And let us not forget that Hitler was an idealist. It may be odd to think of him that way, but that is what drove him: wretched, perverted and seriously misinformed ideals.

Any thoughtful, observant adult must be suspicious of idealism carried into adulthood.

I am reminded of Jons, the squire, in Ingmar Bergman’s film, “The Seventh Seal,” who comes back to Europe with his knight from the crusades, having wasted 20 years of their lives.

“The crusades were so stupid and wasteful, only an idealist could have invented it,” he says.

Yet, my heart breaks when I see such students, because it is my own idealism I mourn for. Without ideals, you no longer have anything to strive for. You give up. That is not good.

Ultimately, you have to come to a compromise, just like our founding fathers.

Idealism turned outward upon the world is a horror. It must be blocked by reasonable people if we are to avoid throwing people into dungeons, chopping their heads off or gassing them.

But idealism turned inwards on ourselves — forgetting the world, but holding ourselves to the highest possible standards — is as necessary as air. Anything less is an abdication.

I don’t like Bill Bennett. I think he is a very unpleasant man. In fact, every time I saw the former education secretary and ”drug czar” on “Face the Nation” or “Larry King Live,” his smug, unctuous face made my blood boil. It still does

There are few faces that scream out louder: sanctimonious prig.

He makes his pronouncements about cultural values with an insulting certainty, speaking as if he had personally been up on Mount Sinai getting the tablets from Jehovah. His dictums are as irritating as those of any name dropper. And if the name he drops belongs to God, it is all the more obnoxious.

It is his certainty that bugs me more than anything else. It is a quality that inhabits a certain kind of male: A certainty that whatever position he takes is the true one, simply by virtue of his taking it. It is a very male thing, and it reminds me once again that testosterone is a hallucinogen.

One of the reasons he makes me so angry is that the cause he has latched onto is an important one. Our values need to be discussed.

But his version of them is deeply distorted by that inflexible certainty.

Bennett knows what the virtues are that we should maintain: He has made a list. In his “Book of Virtues,” he includes self discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

It seems a measure of Bennett that humility is not among these virtues.

Some of these seem obvious and inarguable. Others less so. And in reality, such categorical expectations cannot be convincingly maintained. There are times when loyalty conflicts with honesty, times when faith conflicts with compassion. If you are a Sufi mystic, self discipline may be just the opposite of what you require. Perseverance is sometimes merely stupidity. Sometimes diplomacy outranks honesty, for the good of all.

And work, as Bennett outlines it, smells suspiciously of the Victorian principle espoused by such moralists as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, who made millions because other people worked long, virtuous hours.

Perhaps the opposite is truly the virtue. At least Henry Thoreau made a convincing case in “Walden.”

”We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do,” he wrote. ”But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.”

Americans already work like dogs. It is the quality of their leisure that needs improving.

But it is not the individual virtues on Bennett’s list that I take exception to, but the list itself.

For too often, we think of virtues as being something as simple as a list: A series of words.

Virtue, for Bennett in his book, ”involves rules and precepts – the do’s and don’ts of life with others.” In other words, we are good because we do what we are told.

He reiterates his position in his follow-up book, “The Moral Compass,” by asserting, ”Moral education must involve following rules of good behavior.”

In other words, virtue is etiquette.

Personally, I find this view trivializing, and worse, I suspect it is propounded merely to perpetuate an economic and governing system that makes it possible for Bennett and people of his economic and educational advantage to live comfortable lives.

There are other possible lists of virtues.

The Roman Catholic Church lists the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude; and the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

I doubt Bennett considers poverty a virtue.

But whichever list we observe is ultimately forced upon our lives in the style of Procrustes. We are not meant to think about them, but to obey them.

Yet, rules are always insufficient. There are always circumstances that require our disobeying.

William Blake, for instance, wrote in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” how Jesus of Nazareth broke each of the 10 Commandments, enumerating them, one by one. Jesus was good, Blake says, because ”Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The meaning of the word ”virtue” has changed over time. If it now means righteous behavior, it once meant something less rigid.

For the Greeks, and later the Romans – who gave us the word – virtue meant to be yourself in the utmost. ”Virtue” didn’t take on its acrid sanctimoniousness until the Victorian age, when it was used to approve of behavior that furthered the goals of colonialism and jingoism.

For the Victorians, virtue meant not having sex.

The word ”values” that is bandied about so glibly by politicians now has also undergone such a change.

Our values are those things we take as the rock-bottom basic truths that experience gives us, that we can count on and therefore can act in the world with the expectancy that particular behaviors will result in particular outcomes.

In other words, our values are not written down on paper somewhere, but found in the world around us, the world we experience, the lives we live. And instead of turning out to be as vaporous as the words of a list, values are as solid as the oak tree that grows in the yard. Indeed, they may be the oak tree. Or the birds roosting in it.

If a so-called value handed down to us is proven false by experience, we must either forsake the value or live an inauthentic life. Many of the values Bennett would foist on us no longer ring true. Perhaps some still do. But we must find them out for ourselves. It is one of our life’s tasks.

It is a commonplace that America is materialistic, that it grasps after money and wealth and lacks the spiritual values it used to have.
Of course, that nostalgic view ignores that Americans have always chased wealth: It’s built into the Constitution.
But more importantly, it ignores the fact that America isn’t really materialistic at all, and in fact, is largely indifferent to the material world.
If we were really materialistic, we would never tolerate walnut-woodgrain plastic.
No, the physical composition of their existence is simply not a high priority for most Americans. Yes, they are after wealth, but wealth isn’t a material value, but a spiritual one.
When we say Americans “worship the almighty dollar,” we aren’t saying that they value material objects over spiritual ones, but rather that they place worth on one set of spiritual values instead of another, more worthy set.
Money, after all, isn’t a physical object. It isn’t material. It is no more physical than an inch or a pound. It is a measuring item, to measure wealth.
Real wealth is the possession of useful or meaningful things. To own land, or to grow 40 acres of artichokes is to possess wealth. You can eat artichokes; you can’t eat money.
Money cannot be worn, it cannot be used to build with. It must be translated back from its symbolic existence to a material existence by spending it.
I’m not saying that money isn’t nice to have around. But that it is a mental construct, not a physical reality. If we want money, it isn’t because sewn together, dollar bills make a nice quilt.
Even the things Americans spend their money on tend to be owned for spiritual rather than physical reasons. If we want to own a BMW or a Lexus, it isn’t because these are better cars than a Honda or an Ford — though they may be (I’m not convinced) — but because they are status symbols that let other Americans know where we rank on the totem pole. Armani suits and Gucci bags are not something most Americans really enjoy on a physical level. They are the civilized equivalent of the eagle feathers the chief wears, or the lion-ruff anklets worn by the Zulu leader: They confer prestige and denote status.
These are spiritual values.

As a matter of fact, America would be a whole lot better off if it were more materialistic. The planet is bursting with stuff: It all has a texture, a feel, a smell, a taste, a sound. If we were materialistic, we would be aware of how much richness the material existence affords, and we would revel in it. We would be mad — as Walt Whitman says — for us to be in contact with it.
And what is more, the deeper we involve ourselves in the physical world, the more spiritualized we will become — that worthy spirituality. It is because we are so unmaterialistic that our environment suffers so. We don’t value the physical world we live in. It doesn’t bother us that there are fewer birds singing in the morning, or that codfish are disappearing.
In part, this is a remnant of the contempus mundi that was fostered under Medieval Christianity. It is that suspicion of the physical world that the Old World monks felt would seduce them from the righteousness of prayer and ritual.
We have inherited the contempt, but without the prayer. It leaves us in a hollow place.
As an adult I have come not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the physical world.
I don’t trust him to make policy choices about oil drilling or lawn seeding. I cannot imagine how it is possible not to fall in love with the things of this world, but I see just that happening all the time.
I pick up the lump of spring earth and squeeze it in my fist to judge whether it is time to plant my potatoes. I listen for the birds globing and twisting as they rise from the trees in the morning. I look for the light caught in the cholla spines and the twill in my gabardine. There is velvet in heavy cream and scratchiness in wool blankets.
The physical sensations make us more aware, more awake. The love of the physical world keeps us from becoming dullards. Living in a world of symbol and status dulls us. At its worst, it leads to ideology.
Would that America really were a materialistic society.


Vulgarity is everywhere these days, from T-shirts to dinner conversation. This is a vulgar society we live in, one that supports a Howard Stern and a Rush Limbaugh: vulgar brothers under the skin, although the one has more skin than the other.

But conversely, vulgarity is also undervalued.

I recognized that at a concert recently, listening to the wonderful Ying String Quartet, which played Mozart, Bartok and Debussy with taste and refinement. But I knew that, as good as they were, they lacked that last touch of vulgarity that all really great art has access to.

I have heard the Guarneri and the Budapest quartets and they were both capable of making vulgar sounds — the buzzing tone of playing by the bridge, the taffy-pull of tempo, sudden shift from aggressive to sweet. It gave life to the music.

There are those who hold that the fine arts are supposed to be a safe haven from the vulgarity of daily life, that they should offer only the highest, finest and most elevated thoughts and emotions. To them, it is a way of insulating us from the barbarians we see on television each night.

But I’m afraid that is the very definition of snobbery, and misunderstands the nature of art.

Yes, fine art is more elevated than Two and a Half Men, yet it also embraces the possibility of such slapstick: Art is large, it contains multitudes.

First, what is vulgarity?

It is the awareness of the animal side of humanity — the body processes and appetites; and it is the trivial in an otherwise important context. It is the introduction of the quotidian into the ceremonial; it is farting in church.

It is also the reaquaintance of mind with body and it is vitality giving breath to the spirit.

It is found in all the greatest, most profound and elevated works of art.

Think of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for instance. What could be less vulgar? Yet, there is that cherub with his cheeks pooched out, like Dizzy Gillespie, blowing the sea wind that animates Venus’ hair. His expression is close to grotesque.

And, more subtly, although her nudity is certainly not vulgar, the goddess’ attempts to cover that nudity is. It is bourgeois propriety.

Or, at the height of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a hymn to universal love and brotherhood, the music stops for the belch of a double bassoon and a Hogan’s Heroes march.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that vulgarity is fine art, but that the greatest art of our culture does not ignore vulgarity, but includes it in the mix.

It is the bumptious Minuet in the Classical symphony, the seemingly-naive tone-painting in a Schubert song accompaniment, the exaggerated muscles in a Michelangelo nude.

It is the Miller’s Tale in Chaucer, the porter’s scene in Macbeth, it is the cacophany of marching bands in Charles Ives and the Jewish wedding in Mahler.

Even Josquin, that most angelic of Renaissance voices, whose music for the Catholic Mass defined for centuries what religious music should be — at other times, he can also have his singers chirp like crickets.

Sometimes vulgarity is expressed by choice, sometimes by miscalculation, as when Keats writes, “She heaved her precious dainties meant to still an infant’s cry.” But no first-rank artist has any fear of the vulgar.

It is Ray Nanton’s growling trombone in Duke Ellington’s impressionism.

It is Pablo Neruda calling for the impure in poetry.

It is the ornament reaquainted with architecture in Postmodernism, a reaction to the dull inhuman “purity” of the International style.

And when you think of the greatest musicians, you recognize Horowitz, Kreisler, Casals, each capable of the most obvious vulgarity — the gauche portamento, the foot-stomping downbeat. Compare Leonard Rose with Mstislav Rostropovich and you will understand why the Russian is considered the greater cellist: He is unafraid of the peasant in him.

Art is not about being bloodless and noble, but about being human.

Hence the Hungarian peasant dances in Bartok’s Modernism, the Austrian folksongs and dancing bears in Haydn.

“Nothing that is human is alien to me,” said Cicero.

And being human begins — although it doesn’t end — with the body.

That is why Ezra Pound said that poetry atrophies the further it gets from music, and that music atrophies removed from dance. Dance is the body in motion, the foot — bunions and all — hitting the floor. (Someone once defined a ballerina as “a beautiful woman with ugly feet”).

There is a separation in Western culture between body and spirit. Art can reconnect them. And the pinch of vulgarity thrown into the mix act as an anchor, firmly keeping the more ethereal impulses in art from floating away on the ether of their own enthusiasms.

That art is greatest, not that hits the greatest heights alone, but that has the greatest reach: Homer, Michelangelo, Cervantes.

They reacquaint me with my own life and make it possible to aspire, not by setting the stars beyond human grasp, but by teaching me my connection with them: The dirt I stand on and the constellations over my head are of a piece.