Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Diary

One phenomenon that occurs with me and seems to be less common in others is the periodic complete loss of interest in an activity that I had previously found interesting. This first occurred when I was an undergraduate student majoring in philosophy. I somehow managed to define myself as someone to whom philosophy was important, even when I didn't like most of the classes I took. I didn't realize then as I do now that academic philosophy for the most part is not inherently interesting, and that the people who taught it, at least at my college, tended to be slightly incompetent or stuck in a particular kind of rut. The same phenomenon occurred in other subjects that I studied, and by the time I was a senior it became difficult for me to find any courses that I wanted to take. Looking back, there was only one class that I took in four years as an undergraduate which I enjoyed thoroughly, and that had nothing to do with philosophy. This may seem like bad judgment, depression or some other psychiatric disorder, but I don't think that it is. The fact is that the more familiar I become with a subject, the more likely I am to think that it isn't particularly fascinating, and that the people who are fascinated by it are deluding themselves.

That same pattern has occurred with respect to some of the books I've discussed on this blog. I may start out liking a particular writer, and then, once I reach a saturation level, I begin to think that the writer isn't as good as I had thought initially. In extreme cases I may even come to believe that a writer is a fraud. Since starting this blog, I have partially solved this kind of problem by alternating between literary works and scientific works. You can't go completely wrong with scientific works, because they are usually informative. If something is wrong with a scientific book, it may be a poor writing style or a less-than-satisfactory exposition on the subject, but you still come away learning something from it, and the author generally has no pretenses about his or her literary skills. My problem with fiction is that it frequently fails to deliver in a manner that I find acceptable. Over time, this puts me in a quandary, and I begin to wonder whether I should even have been interested in fiction in the first place.

There is a flow of popular scientific or nonfiction books that makes it easier to find something to read that won't end up annoying me. That has been a saving grace for me, because if all I ever wrote about was fiction, I probably would have given up writing by now. Compass was one of those books that periodically prompt be to rethink why I am reading it in the first place. At the moment I am inclined to put a hold on my quest for good new fiction and concentrate temporarily on authors whom I know are good. I've ordered a book of essays by Czeslaw Milosz and the novel Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, because I'm confident that I will like both.

With respect to fiction, part of my malaise seems to come from not identifying with my own generation, the baby boomers. They and their literary successors have produced what I think of as substandard literature right up to the present. If you want to look for parallels in fields outside fiction, the U.S. presidents come to mind. The four baby boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump, seem frivolous compared to Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. If you contrast photographs of Roosevelt with those of, say, Obama, there is no question that Roosevelt quite literally felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, whereas Obama was merely posing for a photograph in which it appeared that the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Roosevelt died in office protecting the world from Nazi Germany, and Obama left office looking forward to lucrative book deals and high speech fees. The difference is that Roosevelt wanted to make an important contribution to mankind, whereas Obama made a lifestyle choice in order to gain high social prestige and an affluent lifestyle. If Obama often seemed as if he were missing in action, that's because he was. His legacy, like those of Clinton and Bush, already looks shaky. Trump's was dead on arrival.

My thesis is that affluence has in this instance increased mediocrity, because there is nothing serious at stake, and seriousness itself becomes devalued when a society experiences no grave threat. A lack of gravitas came to pervade all aspects of American life, from politics to the arts. Writers such as Milosz and McCarthy represent alternatives because they were informed by World War II. In Miloz's case, he spent his early life facing it directly. McCarthy, though not old enough to have done that, is more akin to Ernest Hemingway, a war writer. In their writings, the specter of darkness never disappears entirely.

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I continue to adapt to the arrival of spring. The grass is tall enough now that I had better cut it soon. I have planned to move my large telescope onto the rear deck for the summer and to protect it with a new weather-resistant cover. I purchased a wheelchair ramp in order to simplify moving it onto the deck. The deck is the only place on the property with good views to the south, where all of the planets and many deep sky objects are located. The smaller telescope currently on the deck has only about a quarter the aperture and captures far less detail.

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