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I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

I recently wrote about the Bible as part of our cultural heritage, along with Ovid, and the importance for our younger readers to be familiar with both of them, since they provide such an important resonance for so much of our art and literature. Not simply as footnotes to explain some obscure allusion in some poem you are studying, but as a kind of foundation layer — a diapason for everything that has followed and sounding deeply underneath it.

I received one rather snarky comment complaining that my piece was characteristically over-weighted with Western culture, and that I should have also mentioned non-Western writings.

My reader, I think, had rather missed the point. I was talking about the Western culture we were born into. I was not making a value judgement that ours is necessarily better or more important than others. But I was not born into the Chinese, Indian, African or Native American cultures.

I have always encouraged the widest possible exposure to the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely in other cultures, and to familiarize myself with the art and music of other peoples.

But there are two problems inherent in the criticism my misguided reader has leveled at me. This is not to exculpate myself — I do sometimes overvalue my own culture — but rather to point out some serious problems with trying to be too cosmopolitan. I wish I could embrace all times and all cultures, and god knows, I have tried my best. I read widely, whether the Mahabharata or the Tao Te Ching; I have studied the development of Chinese landscape painting and the impenetrable glyphs of Mesoamerica; I have attended Chinese opera; I watch the new cinema of Iran. I traveled to South Africa to study contemporary art there.

One should be familiar with the Popol Vuh, with the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh.

One should also read more recent things by Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, R.K. Narayan, Kobo Abe, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are hardly less essential than Leo Tolstoy or William Faulkner.

Still, there are insurmountable problems with the whole idea.

The first is that no matter how much I study, how much I learn — even if I were to get my Ph.D. in the Fu poets of China and were able to read them in their original language — Chinese culture would never be native to me. Culture, like language, is acquired, not learned. And just as it is impossible after the teen years to acquire a new language as a native tongue, no matter how well you learn that new language, you can never fully absorb a non-native culture. You will always know it from the outside.  Its idioms are elusive.

So, the sort of resonance I wrote about — the unconscious undertones you pick up when reading in your own lingua that deepen your emotional understanding of your text — you can never fully acquire in a culture you study later in life. Deep as you penetrate, you cannot soak it in the same way a Chinese child, or an Indian child soaks in his own.

Related to this is the second problem.

The pretense of assuming a non-native culture is almost always a form of Orientalizing. That is, there is a kind of romanticized sheen that is cast over the other culture. And that other culture is often used as a flail to scourge one’s native culture.

Lord knows, Europe has a lot to answer for historically. And those who bemoan Western culture use the counter-example from some other culture to make the point. The problem with this kind of cultural self-loathing is that it ignores the simple fact that it is not Western culture that creates the evil, it is human beings that do so. Every culture has its evils to answer for. Europe may, in the past 500 years been dominant, and have a list of sins more immediate in our cultural memory, but we should never forget that all cultures are made up of humans, and humans do and have always done reprehensible things.

I once made a study of genocides, and which religions have been responsible for the largest portion of them. Turns out they all have their murders. The religion least likely to turn on others is Buddhism. Yet, even they have their share; not the least is the current situation with the Rohingya in Burma. So, historically speaking, no one escapes blame. Before Columbus, Native Americans were not living in peace and amity: They were killing each other. China had Mao; Cambodia had Pol Pot; Rwanda had its Tutsis and Hutus. Humans red in tooth and claw.

The romanticization of other cultures leads to some utter silliness. I never cease to be stunned by all the “harmony with nature” blather about American Indians, as if they, as a group (and not a hundred different languages and cultures), had some magic relationship with the natural world that Europeans do not. You look at European painting or read Western poetry and practically all you see or hear is nature, finely seen and deeply felt.

And conversely, you travel through the Navajo reservation in Arizona and see the profound overgrazing that has devastated grasslands. Or visit First Mesa on the Hopi reservation (one of the places I most love in the world), and peek over the edge of the precipice and see the trash and old mattress springs tossed down the cliff as a trash dump. Talk to me then about how Native Americans live in harmony with nature.

No, I don’t mean to imply that Europeans are better than Native Americans, nor do I mean that some Native Americans don’t have a specific cultural relationship with the natural world. What I mean to state is that Native Americans are people too, and are just as capable of being less than their best selves.

These two problems together mean that when we leave our own milieu, we are always tourists — or at best, travelers — strangers in a strange land, fascinated by this bauble or that, able to learn lessons and pick up fresh ways of understanding existence, but these are always souvenirs, the benefits of travel that broaden our horizons.

When we Orientalize — idealize the foreignness of others — we can easily toss away the pith and suck on the bark. There is much value, say, in Buddhism. And if one is to have a religion, it is certainly the least offensive, with the least blood on its hands. But if you want to be one, be a Buddhist in a jacket and tie; don’t shave your head and wear yellow robes. If you were born in Indiana or West Anglia, these Volkgedanken externals miss the elemental meaning and turn profound ideas into cosplay.

So, be aware of the rest of the world. Read widely and deeply. But also, drink deeply from the culture that gave you birth. You may understand other places and other peoples in your head, but you feel your own in your belly. If you are Chinese, dive into Chinese culture; if Mexican, soak in your history, literature and art; if you are born into the culture of Chaucer and King James, imbibe deeply of the Pierian Spring. Learning from other cultures broadens you, but your mother culture nourishes you.

Charleston

Stuart came back through town again. This time, with his theory of “Three and One.”

My old friend has a job now, working in an office. He’s been there for almost a year now.

“I’m in a pod,” he explains. “The whole office is organized into pods of four desks, like lily pads in a pond spread out across the tenth floor.”

His three podmates are all women, he tells me. “One is married and has two kids, but the others are always talking about their dates. I ask them questions. We spend more time chatting than we do working. I’m told this is normal for the American business world.”

As I think back over Stuart’s worklife, I realize this may be the first time he’s ever had a regular job in an office. He’s been a teacher and a writer, and he’s had lots of odd jobs working on road crews or clerking in stores. Now, he’s in one of one of the taller buildings in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, looking out on the Kanawha River and the gold dome of the state capitol. I’m a little fuzzy about what he does there, but with Stuart, that’s not unusual. It may be advertising, it may be insurance. If I can get him to slow down, sometime, I’ll try to ask him.

“I listen to them talking about their love lives. That’s mostly what occupies them. And I ask them questions. To them, I’m just an old geezer. They don’t see me as a fount of experience and wisdom, for some reason. But I listen to them talk. And I’ve come to this conclusion, that for a relationship to develop, there must be three things that register. That is, out of 20 or so characteristics you might use to describe a guy on early acquaintance — or a woman, if you are looking for that — it works both ways — I’m sure it must be something of the same for gay men or lesbians — anyway, there must be a quotient of three to make a relationship click.

“I’m not talking about sex here, but about a relationship, a second or third date or more. A guy looks to a potential date and adds them up: She speaks well, she has a sense of humor … And … the third thing: She has a frontispiece that would make St. Anthony sing falsetto.”

Yes, Stuart means her chest.

“Or perhaps she has long legs, blue eyes, and can do double-entry bookkeeping. Or maybe it’s a she and she sees in him strong shoulders, the ability to listen and a sense of humor. Anyway, out of all the possible traits, there must be at least three that draw her in. More than that is better, but two isn’t enough. Two means only she looks at him across the bar and thinks, ‘Interesting,’ but not enough to go over there. Three, though, and we’re in.

Stuart always has some new theory when we talk.

“It’s funny,” he said, “but it would seem like you’d need more than three things to sustain a bond, but maybe that comes later, when you know each other better. But going in, I’ve discovered, there must be a list and three items need checks beside them. More than three and maybe the lights start flashing, but three is the threshold.grey eyes

“I remember going out with Irma. God, she was gorgeous. The name was a little recherche, but she was funny — check number one — and she had grey eyes. Ever see grey eyes? Really grey, almost charcoal. Her irises were colorless and that provided a contrast to the warm skin of her eyelids and cheeks, almost like in the movies when the director has drained the color out of his filmstock, but left one item glowing with red or blue. The contrast raises a kind of ambiguity that I have always found sexy.”

“And the third thing?”mahabharata

“Yes, and she had read the Mahabharata. The whole thing. And she could talk about the Hindu mythology without ever sounding like one of those guys at the airports asking for money in their shaved heads and yellow sheets. She didn’t use it as a religious text, but as literature. We talked for hours about Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Taking sides. It was great. Three check marks. Oh, there were more, but I’m a gentleman.”

“What did she see in you?”

“Unfair question. Ruled out of bounds.”

“OK,” I tell him, “That’s the Three part of the theory, but what’s the One?”

“That’s the converse. Although it takes three things to make the magnet stick to the metal, it only takes one to break the connection permanently. And if that one thing is present, it doesn’t matter about the Three or however many more items you might ink into the credit column. One debit entry puts the kibosh on the deal.”

Double-entry bookkeeping? Credit and debit? I’m wondering what kind of job has Stuart gotten himself into? Are these clues?princess bride

“I mean,” he continued, “suppose you’re on a date with a guy who adds up just fine. Shined shoes, steady job, strong hands. You think you’ve got the requisite three things, but then, while you’re together on the couch in his living room and he’s willing to watch your favorite movie without complaining, even seeming to enjoy it. And then… And then, he picks his nose. The buzzer goes off; contestant number one has just disqualified himself.

“This actually happened. It’s one of the things Julie told us about. She admitted that surreptitious nose-picking is only human, but that on an early round of dates he digs in with an index finger, or worse, a pinky, that is the kiss of death, as far as she is concerned.

“Anne had another one — she’s the other single woman on the pod. She went out with a guy and they were at a restaurant and he got soup on his mustache, a bisque she said it was, and it hung there like wallpaper paste on a brush.

“You know how when someone has spinach on his teeth and you point to your own teeth to sort of indicate to the other one that there is something and the other person will naturally suck his teeth or use a finger to rub the spinach off? Well if she doesn’t have a mustache, how can she politely tell him that he’s wearing a badge of schmutz?

“That killed it for her, she said.

“What’s interesting is that Penny laughed and said that her husband had a habit while watching TV of leaning just a few degrees off plumb and letting loose the gas pressure, and while once she might have ruled him out over it, she now just ignored it.

“‘But you’re married,’ Anne said. ‘That’s different.’ And I take her point. When you’re married, you put up with a lot, because by then, you’ve already put in your commitment papers, you’ve decided there are enough on the Three side — and hopefully a good deal more than just three things — and you’ve besides agreed for better or for worse, and after all, a little atmospheric disturbance while watching the telly isn’t such a great sin.

“The thing is, that it is that first circling around each other when it counts. If Penny’s husband had leaned and dealt while they were dating, she might well have called it all off right then. But he had the decency to keep it bottled up till after the wedding. No doubt, Penny had her own secrets kept until the vows were stated.

“I knew a woman once who had lived with a man for several months, but when he finally popped the question, she realized she could never marry him because his legs were too skinny. It was the One thing.

“Another woman, divorced for several years, found a guy with a tool belt. He was tall, handsome and considerate and could fix anything around the house. He could change the oil in his car. Hell, he could rewire the rec room if he’d wanted. He actually did hook up her surround sound. And he adored her, loved her to distraction, and he was a great listener, truly interested in her. But then…”

“Yes, what?”

“But then, he turned out to be a Christian. There she was, torn. He was the perfect mate except for the fact that he said evolution was just a theory, homosexuals caused Hurricane Katrina, abortionists should be bombed and infidels were going to suffer eternity in Hell. Now, there are lots of kinds of Christians and not all of them are bad, but he was the kind who believed that Methodists were really just communists and that even Baptists were too liberal. Turned the poor girl off any Christians of any stripe forever.”

“That seems like more than just one thing,” I said. “It seems like a whole slew of attitudes that could well give one pause.”

“Well, she saw it as one thing. She summed it up with a kind of sneer: ‘He turned out to be (shudder) Christian.’ And it meant the end.

“These are not things universal,” Stuart said. “They are all idiosyncratic. In other words, someone else might find snorting when you laugh to be cute, or a wandering eye attractive, or even bigotry to be a harmless little tic. Surely many bigots find bigettes to marry. I went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting once, did I ever tell you? Plenty of bigettes there. They even had a bake sale. I wonder what were the three check marks they had found. Being Christian was probably one of them — as long as they weren’t Catholic.”offisa pup

“What about you?” I asked. “Who are you seeing now? What are her three positive checks?”

“I’m unattached at the moment,” he said. “I was going out with a little filly who was doing graduate work in anthropology. She had a lot of check marks, but the first three were her long, frizzy hair, her long fingers and a tendency to quote George Herriman. She called me Offisa Pup; I called her Krazy. We were together for all of last winter. Stayed warm together.”

“What happened?”

“She said I talked too much.”