Monday, January 6, 2014

In Praise of Silence, the Hermit's Lament

Part 1: Maximalism and Empathy 
A friend once summed up a view of Hannah Arendt's for me. If it didn't happen in public then it didn't happen. I have not been able to track back where precisely Hannah Arendt stated that view, but the idea disturbed me enough to stick with me.  It ran counter to something I was taught early on: God knows everything. Now, no longer being a child in Catholic school, I can see Arendt's point. If there's no God, there's no witness to the ineffable stuff of being.  Further, from a humanist point of view, what good is thought that does not lead to action? But still, the notion is disquieting, unless you can resolve yourself to the merits of oblivion. We can ask King Lear about the value of demonstrable affection or Forrest Gump about what stupid is, but one of the hallmarks of a pragmatic meritocracy is the ability to rate people based on demonstrated abilities. The student that answers all the questions correctly gets an A. The applicant with the most experience gets the job. This is in part an extension of the scientific method in which a problem can be isolated and a remedy can be discovered.  Given alternatives of nepotism, favortism or lottery, it seems fair that merit be the means of selection. When it comes to measuring something like intelligence what comprises adequate proof?  We all walk around with our private notions of our own superiority or inferiority, but as long as the content of intelligence is the capacity to understand, there's no inherent product of intelligence outside of thought.

One of the hallmarks of the post-millennial USA is publicity: everything is done in public. We have a culture of demonstration. Aspects of the culture of guilt and culture of shame dimmed to a culture of approval. The central aesthetic is the trade show: every good is tabled, exhibited to sell, differentiated but not enough to counter the flattening effect of the high ceilings and florescent lights. This is how a Kardashian lives.  This is how to debunk a myth.  This is my body. This is the best way to peel a potato and save time. While reality TV doesn't generally transact in intelligence, it does speak to a wide-spread human yearning for self-exploitation, if not self-expression, an unconscious drive to be seen. For the majority of reality stars, that is the prime benefit: they are seen by many people at the same time.  The likelihood that they will be recognized and remembered is that much higher, but there's more (to speculate on things in which I have no personal experience) in the moment in which they are seen I find the hope that their unspoken parts, latent as an un-captioned image, will somehow be communicated, that in being alive in front of a camera the work of the quiet self is completed.    

Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, reconstructs from memory in minute detail the Paris of his youth. Each thought is turned slowly, worked by a lathe then reworked.  Each perspective is drawn and pulled apart into atoms. While reading, I wondered why or from where Proust felt the need to provide such details.  I assume that in part, he did it because he could, because no one else could reconstruct the society in which he was a part that was decimated by WWI. As I've progressed through the volumes and the salons are described in greater detail and the callousness of the ruling families comes to light, I now wonder if Proust's superfluidity of detail isn't the product of that imagined callousness.  I have always had some squabbles with maximalism as an aesthetic.  When it is done wrong, the author takes the breath from his or her reader.  Infinite Jest plays with this relationship.  DFW writes so precisely, in such high definition that little is left to the reader to imagine or to put together, until he withholds the last act. In this he summarily shuts off the tap and leaves it to the reader to complete the story based on the few clues he's placed in the beginning of the story, creating a flurry of conflicts and effecting a mirror for the reader of the dependencies at the heart of the story.  Proust, on the other hand, exhausts his every thought, but leaves gaps to allow for the reader to piece the work together and room for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.  It is his maximalism which is meant to defend against a reader assumed to be too like the author, and to defend against the callousness of time.  Within this maximalism, as within Buckminster Fuller's Everything I Know, there is the proof of the author's intelligence. What was in their head is now out there, expressed with assiduous details and what one can presume is a high level of fidelity to the original. At the same time, this kind of maximalism risks obscurity by its sheer size.

Next- Part 2: Minimalism and Presumption

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