Monday, June 18, 2018

Of Human Cruelty

"What a piece of work is man" says Shakespeare's Hamlet, in an extended fit of irony.  One can't help but agree...with the irony.

The image above is, of course, taken from The Twilight Zone of happy memory.  It occurs to me that American television hasn't done any better than this series, especially when it tries to imitate it.  The concept has been used since then often enough, but it's too familiar now to have any real effect.

Nonetheless, there's reason enough to believe that we earth creatures should be locked away for our own safety and that of others inhabiting this planet, and in fact for the safety of the planet itself.  We're a singularly destructive species and are far more destructive than any other animal.  Some of us are locked away, of course.  We do that to our own kind.  We do a great deal to our own kind.  Being so minded, we don't hesitate to inflict pain and confinement on the other miserable occupants of this world.

What distinguishes us from the other animals which kill, maim and destroy here is not merely our greater ability to do so, however.  It's the fact that unlike them, when we do harm we're not driven by instinct or hunger or the effort to survive in most cases.  We want to inflict harm and intentionally destroy others; we take pleasure in it or are indifferent to it.  We are, in a word, cruel.

Although Stoics have popularly been thought callous and indifferent, it should be clear that a true Stoic can't be cruel.  In order to be cruel, a person must be disturbed by or desire things outside/his her control.  In fact, just about every negative feeling or action has its basis in our attachment to such things.  We hate others for what they are or do or think or say, although they are not within our control.  We desire or fear things not in out control, and therefore steal or seek to possess them as most efficiently we can or avoid or destroy them.  We require that others do what we want them to do, despite the fact they're not in our control.  None of this would take place if we sought only to do the best we can with what is in our control.

We can concern ourselves unduly with things outside our control without being cruel, however.  Cruelty requires something more of us.  Not only do we want to control what isn't in our control, we want to do so in a way which we know will inflict unnecessary harm or pain because it pleases us or because we don't care that unnecessary harm and pain will occur as a result of our action.  The cruel person isn't just misguided.  The cruel person is evil.

Cruelty has always been a human trait, but there are times when we are, in general, more cruel than in others.  The Nazis are thought to have been impressively cruel, for example.  Were they cruel merely because they were evil?  It may be they were convinced they were part of a master race and that the elimination of undesirables was for the greater good, or that certain peoples were inherently evil.  Sometimes, the religious have acted cruelly.  People of other religions or having no religion were burned and tortured for that reason by those who thought it necessary or appropriate.  Does this mean they were evil?  Or is it better to say they did evil things?  Are people cruel if they believe the suffering of others is necessary in some peculiar sense?

Such fanaticism may be a cause of indifference to suffering imposed, but it doesn't follow that the suffering is pleasurable to those who impose it.  What would seem needed in addition for a person to be cruel is the knowledge that the suffering they cause others is not necessary.  The cruel person causes suffering for no reason but his/her own pleasure, or merely for the sake of causing others to suffer.

Is the apparent policy of the current government of our Glorious Republic to separate parents seeking to enter God's favorite county illegally from their children cruel?  It plainly isn't necessary to prevent them from doing so; there are other means to do that--the Great Wall of the U.S. has yet to be built, but it is presumably an option.   The separation obviously causes suffering.  The law already provides penalties.  This therefore is something more than imposing the penalties set out in the law for an illegal act.  This is a punishment we've decided to impose in addition to those penalties. 

These are questions which should be asked, issues which should be considered, by an honorable people.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

I Pardon Myself--Ego Absolvo

I've noted previously in this blog that I'm not a fan of the pardon power granted the president by the Constitution of this Great Republic.  It may be guessed, then, that I would find the thought of a president pardoning himself to be offensive, and I do.

There's something laughable about the idea of someone pardoning himself/herself, or perhaps a better word would be "incredible."  It makes no sense; or no common sense, in any case.  If I've done wrong, I generally have done wrong to someone other than myself.  If anyone has any business pardoning me in that case, it would be the person I've wronged.  It would be strikingly unjust if I could pardon myself.  It would be evidently unfair.

The pardon power isn't an exclusively American creation by any means.  Kings and Queens had that power for centuries.  It was apparently accepted that they had the authority to grant clemency or even wipe from the record of the law any crime committed by a subject.  I wonder if this power derived in some sense from the belief in the King's Touch.  It was thought that a king could cure someone of the skin disease called scrofula by laying his hands on the stricken.  Henry VIII, who certainly had the power to detach the heads of subjects if not by his own hands then by others, is shown using them (his hands, I mean, not the detached heads) to banish scrofula from some fortunate man above.  The King's Touch itself probably derived from the power of Jesus and the apostles, and even some saints, to heal by laying their hands on the stricken.

Catholic priests, of course, have--or at least had (it's been some time)--the power to absolve, pardon that is to say, some sins by virtue of the Sacrament of Penance or Confession.  They possessed the power because they were in effect the authorized representatives of Christ.  The Catholic Church believes itself to be in direct succession the heir of the apostles.  It is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, after all.  Thus, its agents may forgive certain sins as it's thought the apostles did.

A King, Queen and I suppose some would say a president is in some sense treated, at least, as sacrosanct.  There's something about their person while they hold their office that renders them untouchable, incapable of interference.  There's a hint of mysticism in this.  Our current president's lawyers have opined that a president as the chief officer and representative  of the law of the land cannot obstruct the law, as the president is, in a way, the law as much as a person can be.  The president thus becomes the law incarnate.  The president cannot obstruct himself, right?

In any case, I think it's fair to say that for quite some time, and perhaps ever since we've had Kings and Queens or their equivalent, or priests or their equivalents, it's been accepted that certain persons, because of their special status or capacity, have the authority--the power--to pardon or absolve others of their crimes or sins, and even to cure them of certain diseases.  But I don't think it's been accepted that certain persons have the authority to pardon or absolve themselves.  Ego te absolvo was the formula used by priests, in nomine patri, fili et spiritus sancti.  "I absolve you in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit."  Never, as far as I know, has anyone ever said "ego absolvo", i.e. "I absolve myself."

Our current president may be the first (and one can hope last) troll president, in the sense of an Internet troll.  He seems to delight in antagonizing, offending, disrupting discourse, specific people or groups of people through the use of inflammatory, disturbing and even ridiculous statements.  So there are those who think he's made the claim he can pardon himself merely to provoke.  I hope that's the case and that he's merely intent on being annoying, as is his wont, or merely engaged in the kind of tactical display the more brutish of those in power sometimes practice.  But he may in fact mean it.

While the president is in office, he/she is immune from prosecution.  That seems to have been determined by the bulk of legal authorities; that the president is merely subject to impeachment if the designated crimes are committed while in office.  Once out of office, the president is subject to prosecution, however.  So, the concern would be that a president would pardon himself of crimes committed by him/her while in office.  In that case those crimes, having been pardoned, could not be the basis for prosecution even after the president leaves office. The courts haven't weighed in on the idea of self-pardoning.  Perhaps they'll have a chance to do so soon.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tom Wolfe: An Appreciation

I was always a fan of what was called the "New Journalism" as practiced by Tom Wolfe and a few others.  I particularly liked his Radical Chic which so devastatingly mocked the propensity of rich, intellectually-inclined white who hosted events for such as the Black Panthers, and mocked Leonard Bernstein in particular,.  "New Journalists" as I understood them included Norman Mailer, whose Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago were personal favorites.  Then of course there was Hunter S. Thompson, though he I think was referred to as  Gonzo Journalist, perhaps because his new journalism was associated with the intake of drugs.

It's odd, then, that Mailer was among those who criticized Wolfe for not really being an artist or novelist, despite the fact or perhaps because he wrote so well.  John Updike was a critic as well.  I've never had enough interest in Updike to read any of his work.  Mailer interested me, though I thought his writing would become grotesque now and then, particularly when the subject being addressed was sex.

Wolfe's journalism was very good indeed.  The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House are impressive.  But I find it hard to understand why his novels failed to pass muster with some; why they're considered somewhat lacking by other novelists.  I suspect, though, that this is the case merely because they tell interesting stories and tell them well, and also sell well.

Wolfe's novels are picaresque, in the sense I think that the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter and The Golden Ass of Apuleius are as well.  They're adventures involving protagonists who are recognizable who encounter ordinary and extraordinary circumstances and react to them in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  Most of all, they're enjoyable.

It may be that art has come to mean that which cannot be enjoyed, that which is not entertaining.  Art is supposed to inspire in us some feeling which isn't associated with pleasure, being too profound.  It can be disturbing, grim.  It must cause us to think--never a pleasant experience for most of us.  It may move us to tears or anger.  It is supposed to evoke some strong emotion.

That may be so, but if so is dispiriting, I think, for the artist and those who patronize the artist or his/her work.  What we experience in life can be dreary enough.  Why seek to create dreariness, or seek out such creations, when we're exposed to it in "real life" and allow it to disturb us from moment to moment?

In dark times, entertainments are few and become coarse.  Those who can tell good stories and tell them well, with wit, imagination and intelligence, should be honored as much as any; perhaps even more.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Vulgar Time

"Vulgar" is a word with a very broad meaning.  It has Latin origins, and in those origins denotes a mob or common folk.  It can mean unsophisticated, crude, offensive, undeveloped, ostentatious, excessive, and ordinary.  A most useful adjective..

Thucydides complains that "so little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand."  The word "vulgar" as it appears in that complaint has several of the meanings noted, and the complaint itself seems particularly apt to our time.

The picture above is of a part of the Las Vegas strip, and was taken by your charming and delightful old Uncle Ciceronianus during a visit to that ridiculous but amusing place into which have been dumped absurd facsimiles of an Egyptian pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, a Roman arena, a statute of the Emperor Augustus and much more.  Personally, I can't think of it as offensive though I'm sure some do.  But it's certainly vulgar in various ways and so graces this post.  Its vulgarity is of a piece with our time, as excess and ostentation abound among those who've made vast sums of money, from the commonest entertainer to sport stars (also entertainers, when you think of it) and those who manipulate our politics or are politicians, most especially our supremely vulgar president.

As for offensiveness and crudity, they're clearly on display everywhere.  Those characteristics are typical of what passes as public debate in our Great Republic.  We seem eager to offend when offering an opinion or responding to one, or to a person or event.  We even find it offensive to have to do so.  We're particularly incensed by anyone who thinks differently than we do or looks different from us, and feel free if not compelled to say so.  We resent the very idea that we should not speak our mind in the most offensive manner possible.  Thus the current contempt for "political correctness."

Thucydides' complaint is strikingly applicable to our time, I would say.  There is no effort to investigate whether something is or is not true, and acceptance of the first thing we hear, or read, is commonplace among us--provided, of course, that it's agreeable to us.  How else would it be possible for people to believe what they believe, for people to do what they do, here in God's favorite country?

But our time is vastly different from that of Thucydides in that what comes to hand, for us, is so much, and comes to all of us so easily and constantly due to our technology.  We've begun to learn that there are those who take advantage of that technology to provide us with falsities which appeal to us and by which we're manipulated, but being vulgar may take no real notice this is the case in so many instances.  We think what we think and why shouldn't we?  What right has anyone to tell us otherwise?

Those who are offensive readily take offense, and when offended they're crude in their response.  So we revile those we disagree with rather than respond to them.  Our response to those we disagree with consist of ad hominems and nothing more.

What comes after vulgarity?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Homage to W. Somerset Maugham

I wonder whether an artist of any kind can be said to long for success.  Success is something it would seem great artists would wish to avoid, as their greatness to many is defined--if not measured--at least in part by their lack of success.  Great artists are not successful; their work isn't admired during their lifetimes, or sought, and most of all not bought.  This appears to be a condition precedent to greatness in an artist.

I refer to artists of all kinds, to painters, writers, composers, musicians.  The quality of art is thought to increase with failure in life.  Those unfortunate artists who succeed must do so because they appeal to those having money and willing to spend it, i.e. to Philistines.  Philistines necessarily are without the ability to discern great art and are instead attracted to the banal, the clichéd, the sentimental and, worse yet, the bourgeois.

So at least is the conceit of many an unsuccessful artist, I would guess, and of those who discover them after they've suffered through life in poverty or enslaved by drugs or as misunderstood genius-deviants-criminals.  It's curious that the tortured artist has become something of a cliché.  Perhaps the successful artist will come to be lauded and his/her work sought after, and will even be considered great when the artist has passed beyond the allure of genius.  There are examples in history.  Michelangelo, painter and sculptor, who seems at times to have thought of men and God as being as preposterously muscled as modern superheroes, was a successful artist of his time and is nonetheless considered a great one.

W. Somerset Maugham became extremely successful as a novelist, playwright and writer of short stories.  He was a screenwriter too, I suppose.  At least, several of his books were made into movies.  He was also a success as a public figure, that figure being himself as a well-read, knowledgeable, witty and world-weary literary master, of sorts.

Of sorts, I say.  He hasn't been granted iconic status, and has been considered less a writer than the other standouts of the 20th century, such as his contemporaries Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald.  Even Anthony Burgess, who apparently admired his work, poked fun at him in his Earthly Powers.  Maugham himself pretended (or perhaps even felt) modesty about his work, declaring himself to be in the first rank of second rank writers, or words to that effect.  Orwell thought well of him and admired his storytelling and simplicity of style.

So do I.  Perhaps he was a good storyteller because he was very well-traveled as well as well-read, listened and observed.  He experienced much, and was even for a time with British intelligence, working in Switzerland and Russia after the downfall of the Czar but before the Bolshevik revolution.
He wrote a series of stories about being a spy, naming the protagonist Ashenden.  Supposedly, Ian Fleming was inspired by his work to write his James Bond stories.

He has never been considered a great writer.  I'm sure there's a reason why that's the case.  But I re-read recently his novel The Moon and Sixpence and found myself impressed by the story told if not by the writing.  His style of narration is cool, dry and simple, which I find admirable, but the story is a good one as well, although it grows tedious sometimes as he describes the life of an artist apparently based on Gaugin, as related by those who encountered him.  What makes the artist remarkable is the fact that he is what would now be called a sociopath or one with a similar personality disorder.  He's entirely indifferent to other people, without conscience, interested only in painting.  He destroys lives, without any real intent to do so but for merely selfish reasons and is untouched by consequences to others.

Of course, his art isn't appreciated during his life, but he's considered a genius after his death.  He destroys his greatest work, apparently content to have done it but not wanting it to be seen by others.  I wonder if Maugham was having a bit of fun with the idea of what it means to be a great artist, portraying him as a kind of seductive monster, as inhuman, and telling his reader that he's happy not to be a great artist himself, and the reader should be happy for it as well.  Telling his reader that great artists are not admirable, but merely sick.  They're not content to be tortured themselves by life, but wish also to torture those they know.  Perhaps one doesn't have to be tortured to be a great artist.  Instead, one must torture.

I think of Maugham as being similar to Graham Greene.  They have the same interest in far away places and in the grotesque aspects of human nature.  They both tell a good story.  Somehow it's enough, for me.  To what extent is it reasonable to expect more?  Why be disappointed if an interesting story is told and told well? 

Maugham put a symbol on all his books, and that's what is shown above.  It's supposed to be of Moorish origin, a charm against the evil eye and talisman of good luck.  It brought him luck.  I know nothing of the evil eye.