Thursday, January 24, 2008

Saudade, Punctum, and Shifts in Generational Values

With my Internet connection down and out for a couple days, I took advantage of the time to work through some old media--namely, books. One of the books I plowed through was Michael Perry's Truck, a nonfiction account of a year-plus of the author's life. I usually don't read book jackets, but for some reason I happened to read this one prior to finishing the book. On the one hand, this proved to be regrettable since it spoiled a key development in the author's life. On the other hand, I did find it interesting that the jacket proclaimed the book as similar to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I'm not sure I would have picked up on this comparison on my own, even though both books combine vehicular repair with philosophy, and both books use pictures of wrenches to separate chapters. Both authors were originally Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent. Pirsig is 40 in his narrative, while Perry is 38 in his chronicle. Their names even have similar resonance off the tongue.

What these similarities serve to do, though, is to better accentuate the differences. And I think the differences can be used to exemplify large generational shifts. Pirsig was born in 1928. He probably sold more books to the baby boom generation than to his own, perhaps because the former teacher takes on an instructive tone. And though the Boomers were famous for the "never trust anyone over 30" edict, it should be noted that the Maharishi was born in 1918. By positioning himself as a bit of a counter-cultural figure, Pirsig was able to portray himself as a trustworthy mentor figure. Perry, born in 1966, takes a different approach in appealing to youth. On his website homepage, there is a childhood picture of him picking his nose.

The first notable difference is stylistic. While Pirsig uses a single motorcycle journey as a launching pad for a number of digressions and flashbacks to earlier instances in his life, these transitions are meticulously planned to be a seamless as possible (in fact, he spent years on the manuscript). Perry, on the other hand, uses the months of the year as an organizing principle, but the events depicted are strikingly disconnected. Whereas you could follow Pirsig's stream of consciousness, Perry simply divides his chapters with disjointed section breaks. That's not to say that Perry's narrative is boring. Quite the opposite, actually, as his music video pacing makes sure that you are onto the next thing before you have had a chance to get bogged down (except in the case of his long-winded descriptions of gardening, though I'm guessing these sections are interesting for gardeners).

Pirisg makes a point, early in the narrative, of acclimating readers to a leisurely pace:

"We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on 'good' rather than 'time' and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don't get swung from side to side in any compartment."

This can be contrasted with Perry's descriptions of wild rides, such as reminisces in which his brother rode along under the hood of his truck in order to diagnose a problem that occurred only at 50 miles per hour, and the time he drove on for a couple miles without realizing that a girlfriend had fallen off his snowmobile. Of course, I'm more interested in the metaphorical significance of these descriptions than these particular individuals' driving habits.

Also notable is the difference in the author's personal lives. Both men are in a state of becoming, still striving to better themselves and still working toward discovering self-identity. The main difference is that Pirsig brings his family along for the ride, quite literally. He is married with a son, who makes the journey through the book with him. The knowledge of his responsibility as a father is always either central or subtextual to his philosophical musings. If Pirsig had been single at the time of the book's composition, he most likely would have had to give his audience an explanation as to why. Perry, as a 38-year-old single man, feels no compulsion to make apologies for his status as a bachelor. He does reveal that he's had failed relationships in the past, and he happens to strike up a romance with a single mother in the course of the narrative, but there is always a sense that the journey of discovery he is making starts with himself, and he has to figure out if others fit the identity he is constructing, rather than the other way around.

The most striking point to compare and contrast is the way that each author approaches the past. Pirsig by turns dwells on the past and seeks to escape from it. He romanticizes the past, and posits that modern society has forgotten time-honored values. For all that, though, the past is only of interest to Pirsig in the way that it can be channeled into the future. Optimism for humanity and its future informs his philosophy (and perhaps this optimism helped account for some of the book's popularity, as it came out just as Watergate was blowing up people's confidence in their government). Perry's book has many feel-good elements, and it celebrates the decency of that cliche of the "common man" so skillfully that it makes you forget that it is a cliche, yet when the author looks at macro-issues, he can't help but be pessimistic, even as he tries to soften it with humor:

Perhaps the clones of our toenail clippings will view grainy holographs composed of images from Gulf War III: Google Invaders...The nation is daily at at an accelerated rate devouring its own tail. Derrida is dead and we're all deconstructionists now. In further troubling news, Spam is lately available in a single-serving pouch. In the saddlebags of the four horsemen of the apocalypse are sandwiches made of this.

And it seems that the root of Perry's pessimism is his inability to apply the past to the future. Although he doesn't go into detail, he hints that one of the biggest obstacles in his ability to form relationships is his ever present past. But this concept takes on more abstraction and more power when he describes his visit to an art museum in New York and his visceral reaction to an Edward Hopper painting called 7 A.M. It depicts a small-town diner at that time of day. He searches for foreign words to describe his reaction to the painting. He throws out the Portuguese word "saudade," which he defines as "beyond nostalgia...a sense of life irretrievably lost." He uses the French words "punctum" to describe how the painting completely captures life, but that we are cruelly barred from entering the world depicted therein.

I wonder if this sentiment is felt by some people who pick up Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

How many types of people? (Or, delusions of an amateur philosopher)

Back when I was in college, a friend and I were walking past an unattended custodian's cart. My friend grabbed a roll of toilet paper and kept walking. Apparently, he was out of tissues (at least that's what I hope was his motivation). "You really oughtn't to do that," I said. "By that act you are sanctioning a world where anyone can take any toilet paper roll they please, and do you really want to live in such a world?" I was rather pleased with discovering a profound new moral law, before realizing a few months later that Kant's categorical imperative was a few centuries old.

A few months after that I thought that I hatched an even more profound discovery. I sketched out a four-page paper with the thesis that humans would be psychologically healthier if they would, in addition to speaking an everyday language necessary to conduct business, also speak a secondary language of surrealistic insignificance. In other words, instead of saying "hello" to others, we would speak in zen koans. Sample conversation upon encountering an acquaintance:

"The hawk soars at midnight."

"Yes, but does his beak revert to a secondary peak?"

"Aye, my child. The chimney is warm."

It was with some disappointment that I realized several years later that my theory was simply watered down psychoanalytic French post-structuralism. Ah well, at least I covered several hundred years of philosophic progression in a few months. How odd that my next great discovery would be a regression back to Aristotle. I set about to categorize all humanity. I decided for the sake of pithiness that all my categories must be alliterative, and since pithy starts with "p," what better letter to use? I decided that everyone on Earth is either a proletarian, a politician, a poet, or a philosopher. I extended the definition of proletarian beyond simply blue-collar worker, and assigned the definition to anyone content to accept life on its own terms, without a strong desire to either question or change anything. Politicians I decided were those who didn't question, but tried to change things anyway. Poets were those who asked questions but didn't try to change anything, and philosophers both questioned things and tried to change the world around them.

I still think this was rather clever of me, but even aside from the fact that "philosopher" isn't technically alliterative with the rest, it is more an exercise in cleverness than an exercise in finding truth (I suppose this would make me a poet). Still, I think this still puts me ahead of bad philosophers, such as Aristotle, who using the ideas of Hippocrates (famous for writing oaths), posited that all humans fall into one of four personality types. This idea has proved remarkably resilient (certainly more so than many of Aristotle's other ideas), as we have a whole slew of modern day variations, which simply use colors, shapes, animals, or business terms as substitutes for the original Greek designations.

Aside from this prevailing theory, though, there is a tremendous Aristotelian impulse to categorize people. A google search on the term "types of people" yields 1.23 million hits. These range from the absurd (28 types of people you meet in the men's room), to the hilarious (there are 10 types of people in the world-those who understand binary and those who don't), to the semi-profound (there are two types of people-those who enter a room and say 'here I am' and those who enter a room and say 'there you are').

Still, through it all, I can't help but think of an exchange in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem tells Scout there are four kinds of folks: "the ordinary kind like us and our neighbors, the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes." After thinking about it for awhile, Scout says "Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks." For a seven-year-old, she makes a pretty good philosopher.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

How to Become President

As a rule, I am cynical about the importance of presidential elections. I don't think that the everyday life of an average citizen (not that there is such a thing) changes much depending on who is in office. Most historians today shy away from the traditional "great man" philosophy: the idea that the decisions of key individuals affect the lives of multitudes. Perhaps starting with Tolstoy, there has been a move toward believing that those in positions of power are more acted upon than acting on. Therefore, I don't get all that invested emotionally in these things that come around every four years.

That said, I still love to follow electoral campaigns. If it were up to me, all media coverage of the presidential race would involve reporting on what candidates are saying. But since it is not, I sit back and enjoy the "horse race" coverage, and the analysis about how and why candidates are connecting with voters. I certainly lack expertise in political science, but one can't help these days but to make armchair judgements about the choices being made by the prominent candidates, and that only leads to further cogitations about universal appeals. What does it take to get elected president?

I've been particularly interested in what the media calls "energized" voters. Apparently, the reason that John Kerry lost in 2004 is because even the Democrats weren't "energized" enough to support him (and the same was said about Gore in 2000). This time around, we are being told that Democratic voters are "energized," while the Republican voters lack energized support for their candidates.

So what does it take to get voters "energized?" My hypothesis is that candidates who are "avatars" inspire energy. It doesn't seem to matter how effective a candidate's past achievements might be, how smart they are, or even how charismatic they are. If they don't embody some kind of ideal, they don't inspire enthusiasm. Taking a look at the Democratic field, it becomes obvious why that electorate is "energized." You have an avatar of youth and optimism, an avatar of 1990s peace and prosperity, and an avatar of the pugnacious "little guy." The fact that I don't have to identify which candidates I'm referring to speaks to the effectiveness with which these candidates embody these ideals.

On the Republican side, the national polls were dominated early on by the avatar of post-9/11 resiliency. Unfortunately for said candidate, 9/11 was a (relatively) long time ago. In Iowa, we saw the stunning rise of the avatar of "God's candidate." The explanation for Huckabee's ascendancy is the same explanation for Bush's rather counterintuitive victory over Kerry in '04. The "avatar" theory can also explain the enthusiasm generated for Ron Paul, who embodies the spirit of '76 better than any other candidate. The theory does not bode well for the likes of Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson (an avatar of indolence and ennui--too bad he didn't run for president in '96).

I didn't mention John McCain yet, who I believe has a chance to still generate momentum and enthusiasm, based on his ability to embody American ideals like justice, self-reliance, and defiance. If he gets the nomination, I see him as a palpable threat to win the White House.

Is my theory a gross oversimplification of a complicated process? Most likely. Then again, I can't help but think it doesn't really matter anyway.