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- The Second Annual Howard Littlefield Boosterism Award for Economic Forecasting Awarded to Boozer Allan Hamilton by Pig Bodine, M.Sc., Ph.D., BM2, BEM, MAD, MDMA
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The Unexamined Life in Hell
Peregrinations Across The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman
I recently completed a read of The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman and wanted to share with anyone who might also bother to read my walkabout resulting therefrom.
First of all, this is a very funny book, sort of a Catch 22 of very late 20th century life in the US as written by a satire of Charles Dickens. I found myself laughing aloud.
Like all humor, it is sad at its core: truth lurks in farce. Here the farce is life for Bill Chalmers and his witless family. But then Bill is also witless, a witless man cast into a society run by and for the consuming witless.
Saddest part of all, Lightman preaches to the choir in the sense that anyone who will bother with a read of this book likely has moved already far beyond this issue. That those who need to read and grok it will not, indeed cannot, is reality. They are engulfed by the beast and worse, likely unable to read. It is no exaggeration that the US has among the members of the industrialized world the lowest effective literacy rate, ranking down with countries in equatorial Africa. Are US-people really stupider now? Maybe, since based on testing of reading comprehension of US college graduates it seems that though the "higher educational system" provides more official certificates of education than ever, the same absolute number of those with said sheepskins as in the 1970s are able to understand the intended significance of the words, sentences and paragraphs they peruse. Put in other terms, the number of sheepskin holders has swelled but the percentage of them with ability to understand what they read has decreased markedly.
But then the fact that people find television amusing or Steven King and J K Rowling et alia ad infinitum entertaining is a terrifying prospect. The idea that entertainment must be brainless is scarier. The very idea that one escapes through entertainment is ridiculous. Escapes what? One cannot escape oneself; hiding is for cowards in any case. Certainly thinking is eschewed in that place as I have witnessed on my countless visits, but even when not, things are not always what one ought hope for.
Consider, as an example, the Norman Mailer book jacket endorsement: "I know of no novel that captures the technological horror and pervasive spiritual poverty of our wildly prosperous land in so powerful a way as The Diagnosis."
Now there is a wildly meaningless statement. Technological horror? One wonders what the neighbors of the first human to be burned alive by accident with early humanity's technology of fire-starting thought. Don't forget that archeologists study garbage dumps. The artifacts of human technology are as old as humanity itself, be they pornographic earth goddesses or stone arrows or metal axes, the latter which destroyed at least one "stone-age" culture by importation. Confusion here of technology for something other than technology. Cell phones and computers are artifacts, not technology.
A clue to the confusion of Mr. Mailer's may be unearthed in the phrase "spiritual poverty." This word spiritual: it seems to have no meaning outside Mr. Mailer's own neural chemical process that we call thinking. No meaning in an invariant sense. This point, continually harangued by those of us who form a semblance of editorial staff on this quasi-literary site, seems not well taken by the public at large. But then likely the reason they cannot comprehend what they read is that they cannot think well enough to grasp the content of words, or even that words ought have some content. Perhaps the idea that the point of strings of words is to make for word count in a paper for a professor or in a meandering literary work with an enormous price tag is indelibly infixed.
Not to be unduly critical of Mr. Mailer, but how is one able to call the US non-spiritual? It seems from a recent poll that 91% claim to believe in God, 82% consider themselves Christian, and a significant ratio of those Christians believe that God created the earth within the last 10,000 years. Moreover, about a third of college graduates claim they believe the Biblical account of creation to be literally true. Is that not a spiritual nation? Pi is three and the sun revolves around the earth. What beliefs could be more spiritual?
Of course, there are always at least two sides to every story and there is another way to look at this one. Several, in fact. But perhaps the most interesting is what I would term the Thomas Paine viewpoint. He was the writer who spurred the Yanks on in their tax rebellion with more high-sounding rhetoric, later transported to the French Revolution where he nearly lost his head. For you Yanks who can read and have not heard anything of Mr. Paine except what the official school indoctrinators parrot, I suggest Howard Fast's little book Citizen Tom Paine. But I believe Paine's view might be summed up by saying that the spirituality of Christians and other Abrahamists is a form of materialism.
Here is the argument. Consider first of all the spirituality of those who created the grand marvels of medieval life, the art and the cathedrals and all that other matter lumped together in various agglomerations. I am quite familiar with it all, having spent much of my life trudging across this aging landscape. And I can attest that it is truly quite material. Notice also that the very idea of a soul that survives the human body at death is thoroughly materialistic. This soul is some kind of extra-material thing, dare we say meta-material? And quite obviously it springs from a desire to not give up life. Also that desire to placate a horrible creature to keep from being tortured for eternity is a materialistic goal, manifested in those lumpy buildings mentioned avove. In the final analysis, it is all for some material good, protecting and preserving an entity, the soul. The Catholic command to procreate like bunnies is also every bit as materialistic as Orelha e Rabo de Porco like my dear old grandmother used to make it. (Like the soul, it is also hard to find these days.)
So did our Protestant reformation make a whit of difference? (Certainly not in my country of origin.) Consider that now does the extra-material or meta-material or just plain material soul not only persist, but that indeed the boojum to be pacified both preserves from eternal torment in an afterlife and also in fact rewards in the here and now those who show themselves worthy, who do good deeds. Prosperous families are God-rewarded families, bestowed blissful, torture-free eternities and no hassles like tsunamis or fire-bombings; instead granted swimming pools and bestowed new BMWs. No need to be poor!
On a bit of a higher plane, what could be more materialistic than finding it necessary to posit a prime mover? That is as absurd and superstitious as positing demons for every phenomenon not understood or explained. Who calls a witch doctor when the car won't start (unless you have the bad luck of driving a SEAT)? Yet how many mere mortals understand the intricate workings of the feedback mechanism that is a modern ignition system in a fuel-injected automobile? In truth, the more "spiritual" attitude would be to deny the materialistic thingy of prime mover and accept that it all just happened. Not many can be so spiritual.
In the end, of course, Paine brutally painted a creature that this bunch superstitiously venerates as a malicious demon, and indeed does this by using their very same sacred writings. A mass murdering egomaniacal genocidal monster of Biblical proportion. Paine's attitude might seem that the correct spiritual path would be to tell this disgusting creature to shove it, taking hell or whatever as the price of right-headed rebellion. This cost Paine dearly in the good old early post-colonial US, a nasty sort of police state of its own styling. But then another irony is Mr. Fast's own persecution in this "bastion of freedom."
I personally think the best course to be that of ignoring The Holy Boojum.
At any rate, I submit that the ability to find that insane humor in Lightman's piece is inversely proportional to how much one has bought into this particular contemporary game (as used by the sociologist Bourdieu, not as in the famous work of von Neumann-Morgenstern). That is to say, how clear is one's vision of the lifestyle of the US, which is now the cornerstone of the economy of the US as fueled by infusion of government money via conduits in the name of defense and suchlike? Completely unproductive work in support of debt to things, that is as spiritual as any other Godly pursuit in placating the Grand Boojum. It is all to be found in this novel of Lightman's. What is not found is destruction of other peoples via the military state that must make use of its throwaway items designed and manufactured to keep the grease flowing into the game.
As for Mr. Mailer, I suppose one ought consider his personal evolution. Begin with The Naked and the Dead, a realistic war novel for its day. But such purely mawkish work as The Time of her Time, The Deer Park and The White Negro argue to his having bought the game lock, stock and barrel. His fictionalization of real life, supposedly an innovation, as in The Armies of the Night, argue the same thing. He is in the game. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or even Fado Alexandrino comes off better than any of this kind of work. His steady advance to blatant commercialism in the game may have peaked with Marilyn, but then this grand old man of US literature considers writing more akin to commercial pugilism than to intellectual activity. Perhaps we might be able to say that Mailer is the Madonna of the literary world. Certainly his pugilism metaphor begs that one consider his own work as that of a bantamweight caught in a fat man's body, thereby providing the illusion of a heavyweight.
In any case, his anti-intellectuality shows whenever he attempts to think. You can hear the gears creaking, the smell of frying circuits. His quote about spiritual poverty is ironic given his attitude toward writing, but then he might have retained a gram of integrity. It is possible that his work simply reflects having grown punch drunk from bashing his head against the idea of commercial literature. After selling his letters for a fortune to UT in Austin, Texas, he delivered a lecture in which he proclaimed that the only problem with Sartre was that he dropped God. There is not space here to go into the (also ironic) absurdity of existentialism as a meaningful philosophic system given that one can prove beyond any doubt that the number called pi is transcendental. But consider the aspect of Mailer trying to climb back into the ring in yet another attempted comeback in another division, now going on about God. Maybe that is why he wrote his take on the Gospels, a much worked theme where my vote goes to Saramago, though there was a Greek who I think did it better than Mailer some years back. One thing is certain. The word God has absolutely no meaning at all.
So, can one assume Sokrates to be a model for spirituality? Well, who can say? Did his family sue Anytus or the city-state of Athens for damages? The final irony is Bill Chalmers suing his company for the vicissitudes of life. For something in which they had no knowing hand. But then it as Bill tells his wife Melissa, sue everything. Not everyone, every thing.