Friday, April 20, 2012

Pretty Is What Pretty Looks Like

My great niece (grand niece?--I'm never sure which term is correct) has a favorite word--in fact, it's nearly the only word she utters comprehensibly with a discernibly consistent meaning (c'mon, she's only 15 months old):  "pretty."

Red Easter eggs are "pretty."  Cookies of any kind are "pretty."  Ribbons, scarves and stuffed monkeys are "pretty."   Likewise, the edifices that she constructs with colored blocks, the squiggly lines she draws with crayons, the patterns she assembles with scraps of torn paper toweling. Whatever she approves of, wants to play with, or wishes to eat is pronounced,  equally and adamantly, "pretty."

She is thus well on her way to becoming a real human being, equating anything attractive or desirable with beauty--and anything "beautiful" with  goodness.  But is she also, thereby, falling victim to what Tolstoy denounced as a serious "delusion":  the notion that the terms beauty and goodness are somehow synonymous and denotatively congruent?

It is easy to see that the satisfaction of our appetites is the source of this conflation, since that which gives us pleasure appears, at least on the face of it, both attractive (beautiful) and valuable (good).  Only upon reflection (something we often resist) do we realize that our brain could be playing tricks on us, establishing an exact equivalency where only a partial coincidence can be legitimately deduced.

Take, for example, this syllogism--which, if we accept the validity of the initial premise, is sound:   All pleasurable things are good; Beautiful things are pleasurable.  Therefore, beautiful things are good.  

But tinker a bit with the distribution of terms, and we render the syllogism invalid--and silly:  All good things are pleasurable; Beautiful things are pleasurable; Therefore beautiful things are good.  

Or this syllogism, equally invalid because of the "somes" and "alls":    All beautiful things are good.  Some good things are not pleasurable. Therefore some beautiful things are not pleasurable.

We could go on and on, rearranging the premises, distributing, not distributing, or restricting the terms "pleasure," "goodness," "beauty." Ultimately, though, we must conclude that yes, beautiful things are pleasurable and yes, beautiful things are good.  But not ALL good things are pleasurable and, perhaps, not ALL beautiful things are good.  Partial coincidence, not exact equivalency.

Interestingly, despite her obsession with prettiness, my little niece herself must possess a vague awareness of this truth.  Though I have never heard her declare her mashed carrots to be "pretty," she seems nonetheless quite willing to consume them, thereby tacitly acknowledging that they possess some measure of "goodness."

Isn't it fascinating, then, how desperately we cling to our delusion of absolute equivalency and congruence?  I know that people sometimes say, "Pretty is as pretty does" (a dictum which rather too elliptically suggests an awareness that goodness transcends mere beauty).  But in our daily lives, we seldom behave in accordance with that soggy platitude.  Rather the opposite is true.  In fact, we just don't care whether there exists a moral dimension beyond beauty.  As Keats said, for us, "beauty is truth, truth beauty."

I suppose that this is the delusion that Tolstoy was speaking of: yes, we dimly sense that there might be something else, just as Lyla (my niece) dimly senses that her mashed carrots, though not pretty, might still be somehow good.  But how are we to know that good--if it gives us no pleasure--and satisfies no appetite either physical or intellectual? The quest is frustrating and, well, exhausting.  Ergo, most of us (I'm "pretty" sure) will simply read our People Magazines or collect our Grecian Urns, not worrying about what pretty does, but contenting ourselves with what pretty looks like.

So perhaps Keats was right again:  "That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Starbucks Reality

In a coffeehouse

I cyber



excitement near

almost here



then not

(triple shot)

nearly real

feeling so





Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New Commandment

It's Maundy Thursday, 2012.  Odd that, until today, I had never really wondered about the origin of that strange name.

Most of the online sources I consulted agree that the term "Maundy" derives from the Latin mandatum via the Old French mandé (commandment) and refers to the "new"commandment ("Love one another, as I have loved you") which Jesus pronounced just after washing his disciples' feet on the evening before his death (interestingly, the only gospel to mention the foot-washing, John, almost completely neglects the iconic Last Supper).

Over my many flip-flopping years, I have attended sundry Maundy Thursday services--in my various religious avatars: Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopalian.  And I was invariably deeply moved--whatever catechism I had most recently espoused--especially by the ceremonial foot-washing and the solemn stripping of the altar, in preparation for the bleak mourning of Good Friday. This is an intensely beautiful liturgy celebrating friendship, love, and self-sacrifice in the face of inevitable--and impending--death.

Sadly, I no longer participate, since I no longer find it possible to believe in the Christian "big picture"--those fundamentally cruel dogmas about an angry God demanding a blood atonement which he, himself (suddenly "loving") provides, but only for right believers.  On the other hand, humble, self-sacrificing love between humans, as a sustainer and comforter in the face of ineluctable, incomprehensible death--that I DO believe and embrace.

To put it another way, I feel that the Maundy Thursday ritual--taken alone and out of context--accords quite nicely with my current (rather melancholy) agnostic humanism.  Much more nicely than, say, the liturgies of Christmas or Good Friday or Easter--all of which emphasize Jesus' supposed divinity (a notion I cannot reconcile with what I actually know) rather than his humanity (a notion with which I can easily identify and sympathize).

Jesus was a good man.  And he died for no good reason.  People, powerful people, people in authority, were afraid of him, probably because he seemed to be able to influence UNpowerful people with ideas that were often unorthodox, inconsistent with received thinking.  He had the potential, at least, to be a trouble-maker, an agent provocateur.

But I doubt that such was his intent. I suspect, rather, that he simply got carried away--that one idea led to another and that, with the growing success of his preaching, he simply lost the freedom to control his destiny--he began to feel obliged to conform to the "self" that his vision--as interpreted by other people--dictated.  A carpenter from Nazareth brought to trial--for treason--before the Roman procurator?  It seems entirely preposterous.  Yet history is sprinkled, here and there, with similar tales--tales of free-thinkers and luminaries who, ultimately, became victims of the "legend" that they themselves had created:  Alexander, Caesar, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Martin Luther King, Gandhi.

So, on this Maundy Thursday, I mourn the loss of such a good man.  He faced death bravely, but with totally human awe and apprehension--while urging his friends to abjure hate and embrace love.  If his "new" commandment (mandatum) were the sole creed of Christianity, I could undoubtedly still call myself a Christian.  Hold that thought.  And as John Lennon sang, "Imagine..."

John 13:34.  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Foolish Consistency and Inconsistency

I maintain that both consistency and inconsistency can be equally "foolish."

When Emerson observed that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," he meant only that the genuinely wise person will not cling obstinately to an opinion which reason and evidence have proven faulty or false--such consistency, such conformity to outworn doctrines, would indeed be "foolish."  But he was NOT advocating INconsistency--for its own sake--or capriciousness--for the sake of social expediency--as an intellectual ideal.  Change your mind when you are convinced, by facts and common sense, that your previous position was wrong--that is moral honesty.  But remain true to yourself, reliant on your SELF and on the truth as you experience it, at a given time and in a given situation.

Thus, we can easily distinguish between a "wise" consistency--faithfulness to an abiding SELF--to one's reason, one's values, one's very identity as a person and a "foolish" consistency--blind allegiance to a superficial self--"what one has always said, what one has always done".

In the current political arena, such a foolish consistency is best personified by Rick Santorum--who, in his reflexive conformity to hoary, inherited dogma (both political and religious)--almost exactly fits Emerson's profile of a "little mind."

But what about Mitt Romney, you ask?  Surely, no one can accuse him of consistency, foolish or otherwise!  True. Neither, however, can we conclude that Mr. Romney's inconsistency is of the type that Emerson would have admired.

Because I am quite sure that, in Emerson's view, inconsistency, too, is frequently foolish and small-minded.  After all, if one cannot maintain a "wise" consistency in trusting one's own nature, one's own reason, one's own deepest values, then the resulting inconsistency can only be seen as vicious rather than virtuous:  as a very "foolish INconsistency."  Accordingly, Mr. Romney, who seems to adjust his views on a daily basis--in order to conform--not with any profound sense of SELF--but only with prevailing or politically-useful opinion--amounts to little more than chaff in the wind, foolishly inconsistent and, therefore, without significant weight or worth.

To summarize:

Santorum is conformist and small-minded in his foolish consistency.  Romney is conformist and small-minded in his foolish inconsistency.

Obviously, then, despite their loudly-proclaimed differences, the two candidates find themselves united not only in their Republicanism, but in a common bond of foolishness--a trait which, as Socrates noted (and Emerson would agree) is--alas--the sister of wickedness.