Saturday, July 29, 2017


I am unable to wean myself completely from literary writing, and, since I find most of it unsatisfactory, I have been looking into new areas and am venturing into literary correspondences as a possibility. This may not be promising, because letter-writing is dead, and if you want to delve into it you have to read the letters of long-deceased people. Thus, whether you like it or not, you may end up as an escapist who idealizes the past. I have started a volume of letters by D.H. Lawrence and hope that it will meet my expectations. Although I try not to be a sentimentalist, it is difficult for me not to think that the environment for educated people in the West was far better from about 1880 to 1914 than it is today. In 1880, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy were still alive, Impressionism had just emerged, and Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and D.H. Lawrence were either young or about to be born. I don't deny that the social changes that have occurred since then have made it impossible to maintain the earlier conditions, but it is difficult for me not to think that there has been a decline in the quality of writers, artists, thinkers and politicians since then. If the ten people whom I just mentioned were alive now, they would, through no fault of their own, most likely not become prominent in the ways that they did then. From my perspective, economic, social and political evolution since 1880 have produced an environment in which it is much harder for those kinds of talents to flourish. While these are highly complex situations which can't be summed up easily, they are probably related to population growth and economic competition, with the former producing an increase in survival-based human migrations and the latter producing a widespread acceptance of lower quality, with price dictating which products sell in mass markets. Thus, while the standard of living has been going up globally, the richness of culture at the high end has deteriorated; people such as Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks came to dominate the arts, Donald Trump became president, and thinkers and scientists have more or less vanished from the public imagination.

The thought occurred to me that an alternative to seeking order in the world by escaping to the past is to become a complete fatalist. This may be less implausible than it seems. If Sean Carroll, the physicist, is right, and we live in a deterministic universe, we could interpret that as a kind of assurance. In this view, everything that has occurred in the last 13.8 billion years – or perhaps much longer – resembles a movie script, with no editing possible and the casting completed: we may even be living in a rerun. The worst thing that can happen is that you are stuck in a role or scene that you dislike, but, since you could never have done anything different, there isn't much reason to get upset. Tolstoy, Churchill and Einstein got the good parts, and you didn't, and nothing could change that. There is no possible outcome within the universe in which I am not typing this sentence now. Of course, this raises a number of questions. If you have no control over your mental processes, why worry about them? While some might argue that such thoughts could lead to amorality, immorality, irresponsibility or laziness, the reality is that we are hard-wired and socialized not to engage in most negative behaviors without even thinking about them: it is more difficult to choose to act badly than you may think. For that matter, philosophers could stop wasting their time pondering free will, consciousness and ethics, and libertarians could calmly be told to grow up. It is true that we have evolved to adopt certain illusions, but we have also evolved to recognize how we delude ourselves. Thus, the idea of fatalism is not self-contradictory or untenable.

On my next post I will have something to say about D.H. Lawrence.

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