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May 9, 2017 / Congau

Dissatisfied Acceptance

The social order should always be questioned, but not necessarily challenged.

There is something wrong with any society; there has to be for the simple reason that perfection is unattainable among fallible human beings. But there is more to it than that. The rational animal is not at all rational. Self-interest makes us act contrary to our own interests and greed makes us lose what we have.

It may look like some simple adjustments in social structure and attitude would make things so much better and eager social reformers never run out of suggestions for improvement. Sometimes their advice is tried. Sometimes full-fledged revolutions have been carried out and promised a complete overhaul of the existing order. They invariably failed. Even mild reformers fail when trying to transfer their ideas from the drawing board and into physical reality. What comes out is always different from what was imagined.

Then some conclude that whatever we have is always better. The world may not be perfect, they admit, but it’s the best of all possible worlds. The present is the best that has ever been, they think, not because they are particularly happy, but because they cannot imagine things being different. Their habits have frozen their ability to do that.

These two basic attitudes, the dissatisfied reformer/revolutionary and the satisfied safe player, are not the only possibilities. The satisfied revolutionary would be a hypocrite and an opportunist and should not be taken seriously (although he can cause a lot of damage), but the fourth brand, the dissatisfied safe player is worth a look.

It is perfectly possible to recognize that society is full of irrationality and injustice without advocating any specific program for reform. You know what you have and you realize that it’s not good enough, but you are aware of the risks of change and are resigned to accept whatever you have. In personal life that attitude is a recipe for apathy and maybe also depression, but as a social attitude it keeps you safe while still refusing to submit to the powers.

Questioning the social order without actually challenging it is a way to keep your personal integrity. You can’t beat them, but you don’t have to join them.

May 8, 2017 / Congau

Freedom and Real Freedom

Real freedom should never be restricted. Vulgar freedom needs restriction. Real freedom is doing what you really want. Vulgar freedom is doing what you think you want.

Who is to say which is which? You don’t know yourself and other people are in no better position to know you. Yet there is often a difference between what we really want and what we think we want.

No one wants to hurt oneself and we all want what is best for ourselves. Still we often do what is unhealthy and act contrary to our best interests. So if there was a way to know in advance what is to our disadvantage, it would be meaningful to say that our actions could be restricted while still keeping our full freedom.

Well, there is no way to know anything with absolute certainty, but we do have clues as to what reality looks like. We can be quite sure that the Earth is round and that certain things are rather likely to cause damage. If someone insists on playing with explosives or jumping out of windows thinking they can fly, more sober minds may rightfully be able to correct their illusions and stop them from carrying out their intentions. In that case freedom is not really restricted for we assume that such madness is not what a person actually wants.

Now, once we allow for such a qualified interpretation of what it means to want something, this principle can be extended even to less obvious cases of illusion. We should not be allowed to do what we want when what we want is not what we want. Then it also makes sense to say that we can be forced to be free.

The practical problem is of course that no one is objectively placed to prove anything. No government can prove a superior knowledge of the real wants and needs of its citizens. But then neither can the citizens themselves.

Freedom, real freedom, remains an elusive quantity. It can’t be proved, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The only thing we can say for sure is that when there is an agreement between what a person seems to want and what he would have wanted if he had possessed all relevant knowledge, his action should not be restricted.

May 7, 2017 / Congau

Cultural Universality

Human beings are always the same, at all times and all places. Culture is a detail; interesting as a shade of a color, but insignificant for understanding what it means to be human.

History is also mere variations of scenes from the great human theater. Where and when the stage is set is of less importance, for the same tragedy or comedy is played over and over. To understand the contemporary world one might as well learn about the past and to grasp the mentality of the West one might as well look to the East.

Great literature, or any literature worthy of the name, is aware of that. The story takes place somewhere and sometimes, for reality needs a background to be real, but its significant elements are not dependant on those specific settings.

Therefore there is little need to worry about being exposed to a too one-sided cultural influence in literature. The basic themes of any story worth reading are always universal. The demand for cultural diversity often seems forgetful of this fact. Stressing the need for variety in areas of less importance may have a divisive effect instead of the unifying ideal that is intended by the messengers of multicultural understanding.

On the other hand, stories of a somewhat cheaper value, particularly what is mass produced by the movie industry from a particular part of the world, rarely provide much psychological insight and then those insignificant cultural details may reach the forefront of attention where they don’t really belong. One may call it the culture of globalism, but in reality it’s the culture of a very contemporary America which doesn’t actually exist; an artificial culture without depth.

This is the kind of cultural uniformity that should be avoided, but under the seemingly neutral globalist label it is spread to a world hungry for light entertainment. It’s not at all universal and therefore there isn’t much to be learned from it. One could get a better understanding of the contemporary world by reading a more than two millennia old Greek tragedy than when indulging in the latest box office hit from Hollywood.

When real human beings are portrayed, they happen to come from a particular culture, but it doesn’t matter which one. Any culture can represent any culture.

May 6, 2017 / Congau

Keeping up with the Times

The times are changing and demand our attention. We also have to change if we are to keep up with the world for who wants to fall behind?

Some of the requirements are quite harmless. We can adjust to new technologies and put up with new routines in our environment. That is just about how we practically do things and it changes little in our fundamental thinking.

The fashions are also constantly fluctuating of course and we may be excused to think that that is also something external and only touches us on the surface. After all, what does it matter what we wear and one style is as good as any other. But we may not be quite that indifferent. As style and vogue are altered, we actually modify our own personal taste. We seem to think that the latest mode is a real improvement and we are sometimes both amused and sorry when reflecting on our own lack of taste just a few years back. Our perception of beauty and ugliness is actually subject to change and thereby somewhat deeper traits of our personality are touched.

Our esthetic judgments are not at all as steady as we might like to think, but if that is a discouraging observation, it may be even more disheartening to recognize how our ethical sentiments are stirred by the passing of time. If what was once valuable to us loses its significance, it must cause serious doubts about the strength of our beliefs.

We should want our convictions to be based on a solid fundament, being a firm part of our personal character and not something that the winds of time can blow away. Yet we notice how even serious moralists may relax their attitude as the social norms are loosened.

There is something sad about such a development. Even if I personally thought that the moralist in question had been wrong in the beginning, I would regret to see that his change of heart was caused by something as irrelevant as time. Even if the majority of people moved from one persuasion to another and social customs and habits changed, that should have no bearing on your convictions. If something is wrong, it is always wrong (or if right always right). Only rational consideration should be relevant for the choice of values. Of course we know that everybody is not all that rational, but that is different from actually encouraging people always to keep up with the times.

The times may be wrong. In that case, don’t keep up with them.

May 5, 2017 / Congau

Intangible Art

Art is idea. Art is never physical. The volume of Shakespeare’s work that I have in my shelf is not Shakespeare’s work. I could burn that particular copy, but the ideas of the great bard would in no way be touched. Beethoven is not in the violins. Any movie may exist in thousands of copies and none of them is the real movie any more than any other.

A painting… well, this seems to be a special case. There are myriads of copies of Mona Lisa, but there appears to be only one that is the real thing: the one that hangs in Louvre in Paris. All reproductions of it, all photographs, even if they give an exact representation of the original, have not much value. They are printed on paper that can be torn up without any loss, but that original in Louvre is worth millions.

However, there is something potentially deceptive here. Is it really the artwork itself that is so incredibly valuable? That piece of canvas was once touched by the great artist Leonardo da Vinci and upon it he realized the idea of the woman with the mystic smile. Of course that physical object must be incredible valuable. It is one of the most famous cultural artifacts in the world, but it is as such that it is valuable, not as art. Suppose that painting in Louvre was severely damaged, the colors faded and the lines blurred. Then all the copies of it that already existed would give a better art experience than the original, but it would still be immensely valuable and the multiple copies would still be worth next to nothing.

Physical objects from the past are often worth a lot of money even if no one claims that it has artistic value. A laundry list written by da Vinci would for sure be sold for a high price at auctions. Historical museums are full of valuable objects that are not art and things that belonged to famous men or carry historical memory are often priced even higher than great art.

It confuses us that artworks become so valuable in terms of money, but that is as collectors’ pieces and not as art as such.

Great art doesn’t really exist in the object it was first attached to, so there can be no essential difference between art that occur in multiple instances and singular works of art. Art is not in the thing. Art is just idea.

May 4, 2017 / Congau

The Terror of Imagination

Freedom is also a feeling. Even if you could actually do whatever you wanted, you would not be free if your own thoughts constrained you.

A physical threat is a real limitation to what we can do. The man with the gun blocking the road is an obvious limit to free passage, but he doesn’t really have to be there to accomplish the threat. It’s enough that we imagine him to be there; he would still force us to take another way.

The imagination is powerful. It sees dangers where none is present. There are monsters in the closet, food drenched in poison and, yes, there are terrorists. We know those terrorists are there because we have heard the stories and we can feel them coming just like children who are aware of the clear and present danger of witches and dragons.

The news is not fake. The attacks have indeed happened, but the real threat to every one of us is quite fictitious. The number of victims of terrorism in Europe last year was a tiny fraction of those killed in road traffic accidents. That reminder, however, is too rational to be taken seriously. The horror has crept into our minds and stolen some of our freedom.

It is frequently said that we will let the terrorists win if too much social control is introduced in an effort to catch them, but they already achieved their purpose when we paid attention to them and when the story tellers of the media keep reminding us of their continuous presence. Every reminder is a threat to our freedom. When an armed guard is placed among the flowers in a local park, the terrorist work is effectively accomplished, for then we instantly remember our fear. When a “war on terror” is proclaimed with the sound of the trumpet, the terrorists have already won it.

What can be done against terrorism? Quiet intelligence work and subtle investigation. But that would never satisfy a public that feed on sensationalism and indulge in their own fear.

If we really wanted to be free, we would not let our imagination carry us into subjection. We cannot control our thoughts but at least we could try not to listen to those who want to scare us. If we didn’t listen to the media and the politicians, the terrorists could not be heard.

May 3, 2017 / Congau

The Uttered Meaning

Whatever is said has a meaning – if not, nothing is said. Whoever speaks has a message, we would think, but doesn’t always succeed in conveying it. The private thoughts are to be changed into public words and put together according to conventional grammar and the speaker may then lose control. Maybe he doesn’t say what he intended or maybe nothing at all.

A listener has more than words to rely on; intonation and gestures may ease the understanding, but a reader only has the words; put together by letters without feeling. Whatever is written is written.

What could the writer possibly have meant? Maybe he was confused and just rambled. Perhaps his words were related to a private experience inaccessible to the reader? Whatever the case, only the text is speaking. It is true that an objective context may sometimes help us understand, but the subjective origin remains subjective; inaccessible and therefore irrelevant.

The reader of course has no property right to the text. Whatever he understands, whether he catches some of the writer’s intention or misunderstands completely, that doesn’t change anything of what is written. The reader may let his private experiences start a train of associations, but that is not where the meaning of the text is found.

Art is expression of feeling, it is said. That may be the case, but the function and effect of art must be judged independently of its content. Literature does something to us, no doubt, and the poet lives his emotional life with his muse, but when the words have been released, they are independent of their creator.

Between the poet and the reader there may be an emotional connection or maybe there is none. The artist creates with feelings and the observer may also feel something; something similar or something completely different. But the poem or the painting is in the middle and it feels nothing. It has only a meaning and only in it is the meaning to be found.

One wants to be so subjective in our individualistic time. Anyone is to be flattered and told that they are right about their feelings and supposedly there’s no accounting for taste. Sure, we may feel whatever we want, but we must not forget to seek the objective meaning for that’s the only way to communicate. Literature creates feelings, but above all it has a message.