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Cheer the Fail
We know from our whizbang science that light travels 186,000 miles a second. If we multiply that number by four for a rough estimate, we have the distance to the nearest star, as our science knows it. Outside of that star cluster, the next is a multiple of five, then seven, then nine, then eleven, and then numbers so big we don't normally consider them.
Just as our bodies are mostly water, our universe is mostly space. Quantum physics tells us this space (and time, related to space by the change of events) bends with the objects in it, but the physical realities indicated by this patterning remain. If life is mostly emptiness, on an existential level, it is only an echo of a cosmic consideration, where so much is left uncreated as we see it in this moment -- and for the purpose of the cosmos, our species' endurance so far has been a moment.
As individuals we wander through space and time combined. The blue eyes of an old man light up when he realizes that, under all the new concrete and those trendy internet cafes his confounded grandson frequents, the intersection at which he sits is where he saw first a lady with peacock feathers in her hat. Peacock feathers -- he thinks of a dance when he was a young man -- a war passed -- then he was married, and time folded up quickly as he busied himself with earning a living, getting the kids through school, then burying his wife. Now there is only time, a memory of then as real as now, and his eyes cloud again.
Almost three days ago I descended into a bookstore. Two generations ago it was a thriving practice; now, in a battered house in a neighborhood that will in five years be a rocket of gentrification soaring to the upper echelons of income, it is haphazardly administered by a granddaughter who spends most of the day clicking. Click to ship. Click to sell. Click to buy. Click to file taxes. The innards of the house predeceased the forward arc of the business, and now it is ceiling high rough bookshelves piled with books from antiquity to yesterday, decorated in mouse droppings and the reflexive pulsing of roaches dying in the heat.
Light creates triangular shadows from each book cover across its compressed pages. You can run your hand over the spines as you step over the artifacts of disorganization caused by time -- not enough minutes today to alphabetize, so the box plops down, or a sheaf of magazines laid across the tops of books -- and marvel at the human race. The conquerors of the universe, with their many volumes of wisdom. But this facade, too, collapses as you spend minutes marveling. What seemed like innocent science fiction is a second-rate Crichton imitation; that book about submarine warfare, as you read the precis on the back, is actually a Clancy clone, overboiled.
Even others shock with their flat-earthy misdirection. Books pop off the shelves with theories that are not so much outdated as always a stab in the wrong direction, hyped with religious fervor by someone who saw this idea as their path to the salvation of publication, a mutual fund and press currency to the brand that is their name. Authors whose names remain unknown are there with their mediocrity in plain sight: a grand unification theory that turned out to be a math error, a historical re-narration of humanity that ended up being unpopular, a series of essays in an old school format no one reads (and shouldn't, if the content is any indication).
What made this place spectacular was its failures, because it is an eddy pool of them. In come books from estate sales as the older generation gasp out finality in hospital beds and at the eighteenth whole; onto eBay and Amazon go the databases; out via express mail go the few hits, the 1-5% of each collection that has real value because it's still relevant (a stab at defining that vital but slippery term: connected via chains of causal interpretation through a knowledge of repeated, originless patterns). And the rest stay behind, in faint air conditioning bleating over warping plywood.
The place literally rang with the drama of individuals, each struggling to be heard in a crowd that babbles like drunk people herded into lifeboats near a vortex of black water, or maybe of time. Each voice calls a name that rings out for a moment and then is subsumed into the whirlpool of names, as you read sequentially down each row. Here are those Victorian novels that during May of 1968 seemed to be the next big thing, or that promising science fiction author who died of cocaine overdoses, or any number of important scholarly academic intellectual analyses that now no one has heard of, since the same climate of desperate trends that produced them buried them under more of the same.
It is a graveyard -- with longer epitaphs -- of human ambitions based on a delusion, which is that one can create eternity out of the current. The idea that you can summarize a trend, or even worse make another instance of it that has a catchy line here or two, and in doing so connect to the time that flows past like water or air, as a motivation, fueled the creation of these many books. And how many do we need now? Out of 90,000 books on the premises, perhaps one or two thousand are of any use -- any relevance.
It is an epitaph for human failure: the drama of individuals culminating in a flood of opinions that cannot distinguish themselves, so each becomes as likely as any other. Heat death results: we cannot choose because there is too much to choose from and because of the chaos, each seems as likely as any other. Like cancer cells, the individuals that choose to make themselves the focus instead of the body or civilization multiply and demand attention, but they are not self-sustaining. Because seeing themselves as what they are would invalidate them, they instead deny reality, and cheer the failure around them because it obscures their crime.
If we read carefully, we will see we are repeating a pattern slashed out in these very books. We found we could make ourselves sound knowledgeable by mastering the symbols of our time, deconstructing them and cutting them loose from meaning, so we can re-arrange them and can give them that gravitas of not relevance but something like it, perhaps currency with a deep and abiding knowledge of the patois of scientific and cultural concepts in which we construe our micro-era.
The 1970s colored jacket encloses a book about the greatest moment in sports of that decade, and now, why would we care; same with the 1980s cocaine-fueled CEO who promises a grand theory of everything business. We can't even find him in the digital card catalog at our local business library. Lest we thought we were immune, there's that book from the late 1990s about how the internet will be expressed in sound and smell, and just coming in the door, a book from last week that was read and discarded immediately, covering how the Wikipedia model applies to small arms.
A walk through the halls of failure and irrelevance in a used bookstore like this helps us rediscover our cynicism. Although most people use the word to mean pessimism regarding our future, it has a simpler definition: belief that human individuals are self-serving, and that this is what defeats us as a species. The opposite of cynicism is not positivity, in the bizarre ways of the winding logical chain of justification, but self-hatred.
Humanity is probably the most self-hating species in the universe because its members recognize how far it falls short of its promise, and rather than becoming cynical, they write themselves and their species off with self-hatred: "oh well, we're a failure anyway" with the implication of there's nothing we can do, we're deterministically verified as a failure.
When we declare our species a failure, we're giving up on the whole thing including all individuals. Paradoxically, maybe, it is egalitarian, because everyone is treated exactly the same way, and since we're a mixed bag, that requires us to descend to the lowest common denominator and declare ourselves a failed species because most of us are unexceptional, and so have no positive ethics (I construct things) but cleave quickly to negative ethics (I fight against inequality). Cynicism allows us to keep the ability to act.
Cynicism lets us look at most people and separate the good from the mediocre and/or bad, which causes panic among those who have committed no positive ethical acts because such acts are inconvenient if you're busy pleasing yourself. Most humans would rather that we each write our own mediocre books, than that a few rise above the rest, because that is least harmful to that vector of human knowledge, the individual, through which we experience reality. Are we a means to the end of life, or vice-versa, that life is a means to us as an end?
Unlike cynicism, self-hatred does not disrupt The Big Illusion: we aren't in control, history doesn't repeat itself, we cannot control our future, we cannot look at the patterns of reality and find a way to make them work for us, it's not may fault, i'm not selfish, etc. This big illusion is a smokescreen for the unpleasant reality that the root of our problem is a repeated pattern in which individuals demand exclusion from judgment, and in doing so, obliterate our chance of having a goal or a consensus, because either one of those can be compared to individual actions and show the individual is coming up short.
The root of this human desire to protect the individual at all costs from judgment -- a sociopathic tendency, because it demands absolute withdrawl from any desire to cooperate on collective acts, which leaves society stranded in an entropy of being unable to make vital decisions, and thus incurring massive social costs for its intransigence -- originates in the low self-esteem that causes individuals to be afraid of coming up short. If we are judged, goes the thought, maybe I will be insufficient, so I will strike back against all judgment, and if I have to destroy society by destroying consensus to do it, oh well; at least I am not threatened, or rather, at least my self-image is not threatened.
The essence of being cynical, instead of self-hating, is to realize that if we see our only method of self-governance as our institutions and external categorical groupings (like government, Blacks, Whites, Christians) we will never solve our problems, which deepens the whole of self-hatred. Cynicism allows us to see that the root of most problems is the behavior of individuals, and that when enough of them misbehave, they force others to compete by indulging in similar behavior (think kids cheating on a hard test; if enough kids cheat and raise the curve, you need to cheat to get that A you deserve) and so society unravels.
Cynicism allows us to see that the predominance of human political thought is argument for a lack of personal accountability and, as a side effect, a desire to make institutions and other external, symbolic representations of humanity accountable while the bad behavior of individuals is excused. If we excuse bad behavior in others, we can expect the same treatment ourselves. Since people fear screwing up more than they anticipate success, this rewards the low self-esteem and flies under the radar of the high self-esteem, whose only interest in error is brushing past it.
In this time of self-hatred, cynicism allows us to get our sanity back. We can look at each new book that comes out and squint, frown and put it down. All of its drama and theatrical self-importance can be seen for what it is, irrelevant, and we can gauge its actual worth through its actual relevance to truth, something we can only derive from observing reality. In other words: does this book pass on wisdom? If not, no point paying it attention, because it is a small blip on the radar before disappearing into dusty, roach-strewn stores that peddle failed books.
Rejecting the blanket absolute of self-hatred lets us hope again to fix the problem. It helps us get outside the ultimate baffler of the human intellect, which is that all we know is relative to our own perspective, and as a result we transcend ourselves and through the nihilism that negates the self, see the world as it is, a vast grandeur in which our part is insignificant. We can then look at human not as a moral construct, but an aesthetic one, and ask ourselves what might make it more beautiful, as if we were pruning a garden. And then we realize: we are the pruners of the garden, because most sleep, and would prefer to let it grow wild because they are afraid that their one weed is not the whole of the garden.
Our cynicism helps us throw out that which has lost relevance. The past; the human condition; all the excuses made by others to justify their own failure and so the ongoing failure of our species; the fond illusions that are used to manipulate the masses -- these are all dead books on a shelf of obscurity. In each book we can see the same error, which is a fixation on a part and not the whole, and as a result, a desire to promote the self that overtook sense and so produced more transient non-ideas to toss in the landfill with humanity's other justifications, deceptions and fond illusions. We can throw that out, too.
When we step back and gain this perspective, we are finally free from the fear and paranoia of the self, because we have given up on controlling our destiny by recognizing our tiny place in the world. Looking at the garden that is humanity we see no reason to give up in self-hatred; rather, we see what fits in with a vision of where in the future we'd like that garden to be, and what needs to be trimmed and in some cases, what needs to be dug up and have something else planted in its place. Our inner monkey squeals at first at this idea, because we're not emotional about it, nor are we looking out for ourselves. That's right -- we have surpassed our fear of death with a positive, forward-thinking desire to make the beautiful instead of fixating on the fearsome end which inevitably awaits us all.
Our selves, through which we know the world, can only make sense to us if we recognize them as the messengers and not the reality they describe. Our most outraged "activists" complain that dictators use humanity as a means to an end but they readily defend ourselves using life itself as a means to an end of its smallest part, which is our individual selves. Our fear that somewhere, someone else is getting away with something we don't have, as an extension of this grasping self, motivates us to act in ways that tear down the whole so no one has a privilege we do not. Self-hatred of our species is part of this.
If the camera pans backward, and we see ourselves as each one plant in a garden that as a whole forms a beauty we find transcendental, we can free ourselves from the racheting fear that comes with each fluctutation in the sun or rain. We can see how the legumes feed the daisies, and the cycling of the seasons, and of death, keeps the garden strong. We can see how coming over a hill on a misty morning the garden must appear to be alive with beauty itself, and we can also see how it is pretty in each season, and a slate on which to carve for the next.
August 26, 2008