Graduation: How I Found My Way Back to School and Realized I Was There for the First Time

When I was young I thought reading the right authors and listening to Beethoven and Mozart might make everyone a better person. No longer young, I realize being “good” isn’t so simple. But, even if education is insufficient by itself, I still believe in the effort to ennoble oneself, to try hard to be guided by virtue. Socrates provided instruction: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

All this sounds like a frightful amount of work and who has the time? Actually, I do. Thus, after retirement, one of the first things my wife and I did was to enroll in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the Graham School of the University of Chicago.

It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Now I realize you might find this incredible. Moreover, if you’d asked me when I was 18 to predict whether I’d do such a thing voluntarily, I’d have said, “More school? No way!”

What happened between then and now?

I dutifully plowed through college and graduate school. True, I enjoyed many of my classes, but I always had the sense of “having to” more than “wanting to.” I needed to learn, not for its own sake, but for the sake of getting somewhere: namely, achieving the credentials and knowledge required to make a decent and interesting living — the letters after my name needed to do some good in the world. The shadow of the Great Depression my parents barely survived compelled my work ethic and success.

Then, of course, there were tests to take, papers to write, presentations to give (which I hated until, much later, I decided to master the art of public speaking), and oral exams for my advanced degrees. ACTs, SATs, and GREs, too. Obligation and pressure were what I experienced, what I lived. Looking back, I was a prisoner of my goals and the joy of learning was not even on the list of priorities. School was a grind. I made school into a grind.

Now, 50 years on, I’m a different man on a different mission. Over the past half-century I learned the process is sometimes as important as the product. I learned that when the instructor calls my name I will benefit more if the question is difficult than if it is easy. I am therefore grateful for such questions. I learned that all those old white European males like Socrates, Lucretius, and Kant (and ladies like Jane Austen and Virginia Wolff) knew more about my 18-year-old life than I did when I was 18.

Above all, I learned that learning can be stimulating, thought provoking and exciting. I learned to learn for the love of it.

We live in a time when, more than ever, students are encouraged to be practical and attend university to be trained in technique as a means to a material end. They try to imagine their entire employment future (an impossible task), take classes designed to match their vocational choice, and hope society will be willing to pay them if they guess right. Some people sneer at the idea of taking liberal arts courses, and universities are purging them. Recently, for example, Western Illinois University decided to eliminate four degree programs, including Philosophy and Religion. Poor enrollment and low graduation rates were blamed — saving money, in other words.

With reasoning like this we will be left with a population of people who know how to make a living, but don’t know how to live.

I’ve had the good luck to be able to attend the only program of adult classical education of its kind in the country. The “Basic Program” offers many texts someone like Thomas Jefferson would have read and owned in a library he eventually sold to the Library of Congress, to make up for those burned in the War of 1812. Other “lifelong learning” or senior education programs exist, but none aim to teach those already well-educated to practice a new way to read and reason, based on an integrated program of classics designed to “speak to each other:” to look at the big questions found in life, philosophy, and magnificent fiction, providing a set of different perspectives on the same important issues. Should you be interested, the four-year reading list is here: Basic Program Curriculum. There are no lectures, only the Socratic Method of the instructors — exploring questions by asking questions — and the author’s voice to guide us.

I must explain, too, the Basic Program requires no papers to be written, no speeches to be given, no exams to be taken. Yet, as some of our instructors note, we students devour the material and come prepared to class, often more thoroughly than those who are 50 years our juniors in degree programs around the city. No disrespect is meant to our younger counterparts. Perhaps another half-century of life is sometimes required to prepare the human soil for the seeds of lofty thoughts, to approach the writing with respect, to set aside preconceived notions and be open to the enlightenment a careful reading provides. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I was honored to be asked to give a speech at the June 4th commencement held at the Graham School. The video is posted above. Please turn up the volume and watch. The view you will see from the Gleacher Center is southeast across the Chicago River. Thanks go to the university, my classmates, and the gifted group of instructors who led us into the joyful intellectual thicket of “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it: a journey without end.

Defining Yourself by What You Hate

51aMIhAjeWL

Personality tests put us into categories: introversion/extroversion, thinking vs. feeling, etc. Today I’ll suggest a different method of evaluating yourself: what do you hate? And, by the way, what is the value of hatred?

Dating sites ask you to list your interests, loves, and desires: the types of music, activities, and vacation locations you favor. But wouldn’t you want to know what your prospective lover dislikes? Especially those things that make him red in the face when he speaks of them? What might be on such a list if he were honest?

  • People who are “over-emotional.”
  • Those of a different political party.
  • Humanoids of another religion, or particular ethnic or national group.
  • Children or pets.
  • Fans of a rival sports team (or the team itself).
  • The rich or the poor.
  • The homeless, the elderly, the infirm.
  • Elitists or populists.
  • New York, the West Coast, Texas, etc.

There are two qualities we should consider for each item on the “hate” list:

  1. What is the rationale given for the intense enmity? Does it seem reasonable to you? Is the person open to new information and reconsideration of his opinions or is he closed off?
  2. What is the degree of intensity to his emotion? Sure, most of us possess pet peeves, favor the home team, and wish a particular political party behaved itself. But some people hold such strong dislikes that any mention of the object of their distemper risks causing their heads to explode. Why? More worrisome, what might that tendency predict when they find something troublesome in you?

As Jonathan Haidt notes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we tend to form opinions and beliefs intuitively — that is, before we evaluate the facts. Our reasoning brain is not only a step behind our intuitions, but inclined to act as a defense attorney or public relations specialist to justify the instinctive stance.

Haidt likens us to riders and elephants, both within the same person. You might believe your rider is in charge, directing the elephant. On the contrary, Haidt says the elephant — the intuitive and quick acting part of our emotional/intellectual being — is the one who determines beliefs for us most of the time. Only then does the rider get engaged and try to rationalize our convictions. To Haidt, we are 90% elephant-like and 10% rider-like regarding the extent to which our instincts or our capacity for thoughtful analysis, respectively, are in charge.

Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, and other social scientists point to the historical survival value of being able to come to quick decisions, decide who is a friend and who is a foe, etc. Moreover, strong dislikes and hatreds have been a necessary part of staying alive since the dawn of man. Even today, a too-rational soldier might question why he is about to kill another man who, in the abstract, deserves to live just as much as he does. The propagation of our species demands the capacities to love and to hate — the latter, at least, in extreme circumstances.

Now I’m going to throw you a curve. I will offer a thought experiment, meaning a hypothetical scenario, to help us understand the “role” of hatred. What would happen if we erased every dislike in the world and any recollection of those dislikes? How would we be different? Would we all live in peace?

Sticker-WipeOutOnlineHate13WWW-213x300

Well, to some extent we can already observe a variation of that thought experiment in the USA and other so-called “civilized” countries: political correctness (PC), an idea not yet in the culture in the 1950s. Back then it was not difficult to find people who were proud of stating their bigoted convictions about various racial, religious, and national groups. I’m not suggesting folks like those disappeared, but public discourse is more careful to avoid frank prejudice. Even some of the most intolerant main stage figures attempt to deny their bigotry, however obvious to the rest of us.

How successful has the PC movement been at tamping down outrage? While there are fewer cross burnings and lynchings, I imagine you’d agree we haven’t wiped out indignation and those who feed on it. Moreover, I believe a real life version of my thought experiment would reveal the invention of new hatreds to fill the role of those eliminated. Kind of like a spring-loaded Pez candy dispenser, once you remove the top object, an ill-willed person will find something else popping up to chomp on.

Those of you old enough to remember the ’90s will recall that once the USSR fell, US religious fundamentalists who could no longer rail against godless communism changed their focus to homosexuality. Their hell-fire and brimstone sermons were directed at “those people.”

Some of our fellow humans — not a small number — are better described by what they hate than what they love. Indeed, one might argue that in the absence of the hated “other,” the angry ones wouldn’t know who they are. Without “sinners” who must go to hell, there can be no humans who are given a heavenly reward because of their goodness — the opposite of whatever they deem bad and deserving of harsh judgment.

Anger is part of our nature; something too handy (necessary?) to completely discard. We bind ourselves together as much by the things we hate (such as, the Chicago White Sox) as the things we love (the Chicago Cubs). Not every sports fan is a maniac, but if even athletic teams can trigger out-of-control partisan riots, as sometimes happens in European style football (soccer), no wonder we are prone to other corrosive divisions: people of color vs. whites, Democrats vs. Republicans, Turks vs. Greeks, etc.

The human race turns with ease into good guys and bad guys, as demonstrated by psychologists like Stanley Milgram in his work on obedience to authority, and Philip Zimbardo in his prison experiment.

For a fictional view of whether hatred would be suppressed by my memory-wiping fantasy, I urge you to read Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel, J, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. J presents us with a world without recollection, where history books and mementos are absent and one’s lineage is almost impossible to trace. Ancient enmities and prejudices are forgotten. Proper etiquette requires regular apologies to others in the face of even the small possibility of offense.

This sounds serene, but J describes a world inhabited by metaphorical ghosts who reside in a past never fully described. The negative afterimage of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is always in the background — a distant, dark event so terrible (if it occurred, since no one is sure) discussion is discouraged. The book suggests our animal nature is not easily suppressed by laws or political correctness.

Who will win? Our better angels or those creatures who fit a Hobbesian vision where “the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” I am rooting for love, but I think our best chance of self-correction is first to look at the human condition in all its imperfection. Jacobson’s J gives us an opportunity to do this. The novel is also LOL funny (at times) and beautifully written throughout.

Nonetheless, the author offers us a cautionary tale of what it means to be different in a civilization full of grievances an inch under the surface. It implicitly asks the reader whether love can triumph over the dark side of human nature — the worm at the heart of the rose.  J will get you thinking about who you are and who we are. The greatest books do.

On Reading and Writing: Motives Behind the Words

sc0171ffe4

My books are patient. The wait for me to read them. They can’t be aware I take them seriously, but I do.  They are “the chosen,” whether purchased or on loan. I imagine you might hold the same attitude toward reading. You are reading at this moment. Finer things to read exist, but since I tend to write about serious matters, I’m guessing you must be a person of substance who, at least some of the time, reads books worthy of being read.

What I said is presumptuous. By “worthy of being read,” I mean they offer value ranging from amusement to knowledge to a different slant on life to a profound emotional experience. A book not worthy of reading, from my perspective, would teach you to fashion a homemade nuke or corrode your soul or quickly be forgotten.

The book obviously doesn’t care how fast you read. The author is grateful regardless of how much time you take. Nor must you absorb many books to be a “serious” reader. Rather, you approach the task of reading with a sense of responsibility to the author and yourself. He or she took time and you give yours. You suspend uncertainty whether the work will reward your effort. Indeed, many serious readers turn the pages more slowly than those who are less attentive to the words, their subtleties of expression and meaning; the way the syllables lead from one to the next, how they sound spoken aloud, their cleverness and beauty or blunt force.

I have read a few books more than once, both close in time and decades apart. The truth of the saying, “Too many books, too little time,” begs the question, why might I repeat myself? Sometimes I’ve done so to master a difficult text or to remind myself of important ideas, often to learn more deeply. The latter statement refers to non-fiction and fiction, prose and poetry. I was on my third time through The Iliad and The Odyssey when these poems opened themselves to me (and me to them) thanks to wonderful teachers leading discussions with intelligent classmates.

Books are dangerous. People ban them or burn them. German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in 1821, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people,” as they did in his homeland over a century later. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, takes place in a society in which books have been forbidden and “firemen” search them out and set them aflame. The title refers to the approximate auto-ignition point of paper. Until the mid-twentieth century the Catholic Church discouraged independent Bible reading by congregants. The Scripture was interpreted for them by clerics. Free thinking (and reading) is not encouraged by any group authorizing only a single understanding of a text, whether religious or secular. In parts of today’s USA, some look at you askance if you peruse the The New York Times.

Books can change the past, quite a neat trick. By saying so, I mean our personal past or the historical past can be reinterpreted because of a book. Psychotherapy is often about reframing the past and then changing oneself in the present due to a new perspective. Indeed, your interpretation of your personal history ought to shift in any life, partly because of a changing vantage point as you age and life experiences that alter you. You are no longer the same individual. A book alone can be enough. As Kafka wrote, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

Writing and reading are friendly enemies. To write well you must read good writing. But you must also do the writing. The two activities compete for your time.

Conventional wisdom tells us we write out of inner necessity. This is not always true. University professors are expected to write to win tenure and spread their work within the community of scholars. They, in turn, are expected to immerse themselves in the important contributions to the field. Thus, in the domain of scholarship, any worthy writing also creates an external necessity for other scholars, who are soon required to read the essential thought of colleagues.

Numerous serious wordsmiths try to prove something, to draw attention and approbation for their point of view. This can be simple grandiosity, but not when the author is motivated by the search for truth or a wish to improve the world. Most write for today, a few for an imagined posterity.

640px-Fotothek_df_ps_0000370_002_Kinder_^_Kinderbeschäftigungen_^_lesend

Reading has multiple motivations, as well. The classics must be read if you wish to be an “educated person,” at least in the classical sense. Thus, Plato, for example, can’t be ignored. We were all required to read in school, often things we found distasteful or difficult. All of us read as part of making our living, even if it is a book of instructions on how to run a machine. And there are readers who read out of inner necessity, as was the case of a friend whose father died early, and promised himself to become a physician so that he might prevent deaths in others.

Writing and reading can be both compelling and compelled, driven — as if time is running out — which, of course, is always true. Paging our way through a volume can also be a distraction, a way to get lost or sheltered from the outside world. Reading is a simple pleasure, too, or a method of transporting yourself to another place and time without moving from your chair. In this sense it is akin to travel and can open new worlds to inspection.

Essays and short stories, but more often books, can feel quite personal. The author seems to have written for you in particular, not you as a random, unknown bookworm. Of course, rarely is a title inscribed with you as an identified target. Readers are usually wanted, but, unless you are a scholar or, say, a music critic, you don’t always aim at a particular audience. You are grateful for any audience at all.

Once you put ink to paper, however, things can change. If a line of followers forms, even a short one, a fractional part will communicate with you. You acquire a bit of knowledge of a few such people by virtue of their comments as well as the way they turn a phrase. If you give public readings or friends read your words, you also get to hear some of their reactions. Inevitably, your writing becomes more personal (assuming it is not scholarly work) and you begin to scribble with a particular, less anonymous group in mind. So, in a sense, dear readers, I am writing for some of you, not just a generalized you.

One exception to this is the diarist, who writes things designed never to be read by anyone other than himself or herself. The page becomes not only the surface upon which an individual places the words, but the only external “audience” for the words (if one can say that about paper).

In any writing worth doing, you are going to read and reread so many times in the process of composing and editing that you are a more attentive audience than almost anyone else who encounters your creation.

380px-Gandhi_writing_1942

I am always a little mystified when people finish books about truth and beauty, find them engaging, and go forth living their lives as if unaware of either one. Put differently, books can be transformative and enlightening, but come with no guarantee. The old joke about therapy applies here:

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. But the light bulb has to want to be changed.

The creation of a book takes a lot of work, something of an understatement. By comparison, generating these blog posts is easy. People can spend a decade or more writing a single book. Their dedication, obligation, or compulsivity is quite extraordinary. I wrote a novel (unpublished) 34 years ago. I finished the same night my first child was born. Two births within 24 hours, the human one by far the more rewarding and wonderful. That said, the novel proved a therapeutic task, working out some remaining issues from my childhood, so it was not in vain. I can tell you, however, that sending chapters around (ultimately) to be rejected by all who took a look was a punishing task. After a year of this I rendered my own verdict on the process and the product and decided I wasn’t the author of the “Great American Novel.”

I once thought of compiling the dozens of oral histories I’ve completed of Chicago Symphony members into a book. The then-President of the CSO was on board with the project. I found, however, I took more joy in doing the interviews than in the idea of transcribing and editing them. Nor did I want the obligation of having to create the work, which I would have acquired if a publisher gave advanced approval. Once you must do a thing, it can turn an action done for pleasure into an oppressive weight on part of your body. For myself at least, weight-lifting is exercise I do twice a week in my basement with barbells and dumbbells, not the heavy effort of fashioning a scripted tome. Thus, the recorded oral histories live in the CSO Archives, and on occasion are excerpted in the books of others. You can find a few quotes from them in my essays.

I began writing these posts for two reasons. The foremost was to offer something of myself to my children, something they could choose to consult either while I was around or at some future time when I wouldn’t be around. And, as you probably guessed, I wrote out of inner necessity, as I did in other formats at earlier times in my life (especially for publication, about music and baseball). Ironically, I did more composing of psychological reports than any other type, but while this was satisfying it was also part of my vocation as a psychologist. Therefore, much was done out of external necessity, as well as the gratification obtained in the act of understand and communicating the results of my psychological examinations. Now, however, I write for a larger audience, some of whom I’ve come to know a little or a lot. I am happy to hear, from time to time, that the blog does good for people who read my words and spread my scribbles.

Finally, a couple of good quotes about books:

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” (Oscar Wilde)

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

The first photo is my wife, Aleta, taken in college by an anonymous admirer. It arrived in her mail box without identification. A Child Reading by Candlelight is the work of Richard Peter for Deutsche Fotothek. Ghandi Writing (1942) comes from Ghandiserv.org/ The last two images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Are We There Yet? The Problem of Boredom

Bored

The closest I ever came to murder (don’t worry, not close) was on a visit to Cambridge, MA. I’d posted an ad in Harvard Yard, searching for a companion to share the expense of my car ride back to Evanston, IL. Within a few days a pleasant-enough young woman and I set out for the Midwest. The plan required us to stop at the University of Michigan, where she was to begin grad school. I would then continue to Northwestern University on my own.

The 750 mile trip from the Boston area to Michigan takes about 13 hours, plus stops along the way, and more time if you decide to break it up over two days, as we did. It is not an interesting ride. After you get out of Pennsylvania, long stretches of flat ground and bland horizons dull your senses and stretch the time. The conversation didn’t enliven things unless you count the growing disquiet inside of me. A disquieting disquiet: rage.

Indeed, whatever my companion said or didn’t say (I can no longer remember any details) I became ever more irritated with her. As we closed in on her campus, I couldn’t bear being with her for five more minutes. Had Ann Arbor been just a few extra miles, I’d be doing hard time in a Michigan prison for murder. My imaginary plea to the judge? “The car ride, sir, was the cause. The boredom just got to me.”

Irritability and anger, not to mention disgust, are among the characteristics of boredom described in Peter Toohey’s excellent book, Boredom: A Lively History. The book is an easy read and relatively brief — the better, I assume, to avoid boring the reader.

Toohey tells us boredom is adaptive: it signals that we need to get out of the situation we are in and on to something less “toxic.” I’m sure you can create your own list of boring situations, probably not so different from those identified by the rest of us: watching someone else’s home movies, waiting in line, monotonous lectures and sermons, repetitive work, and the like.

I can actually identify the most boring day of my life. I was a college student, just having finished my junior year. The place was a non-air conditioned metal-stamping factory, the site of my summer job. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do them you never got better and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing interminably: for eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by clocking-in at 7 a.m., which meant I had to awaken at 5 a.m. If I stayed out late the night before, I paid for it with the extra-strenuous effort alertness required. You know the sensation — each eye lid seems to weigh 600 pounds and even Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have the muscle to keep one open.

The summer was hot and the factory absorbed everything the sun could give it. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Nonetheless, it was peculiar to be drenched in perspiration at 7 a.m. even in a building where the thermometer registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best to keep from buckling. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the wall clock. Seven-fifteen a.m.! It seemed impossible.

Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity was nearer than the end of the work day. A second look at the clock revealed it was actually 7:14 a.m. and two muscular-looking gremlins were working to push the minute hand back.

256px-Bored_girl

What produces boredom? Peter Toohey points to predictability, monotony, and confinement. He cites research suggesting low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine can make one “boredom-prone,” needing to stir up excitement and break some rules in order to escape the internal torpor. Unmedicated children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are thought to be short on this substance. Consequently, they are at risk of misbehavior, alcohol or drug dependency, and criminal conduct. Extroverts are more boredom-prone than introverts, needing the external stimulus of an eventful environment to avoid the stolid state of stupefaction.

Even so, everyday boredom is something all of us encounter. A 2009 on-line survey sponsored by the website http://www.triviala.com/ found Britons complaining of six hours per week spent bored. But Toohey suggests another kind of boredom, an “existential” condition. This has variously been called ennui, world-weariness, and spiritual despair, and can spill into frank depression.

The existential variety of boredom is present in those who find life empty and meaningless, usually accompanied by a lack of close community or social connections. If you are familiar with French existentialist writers you’ve encountered Sartre, who even wrote a book called Nausea, a fictional riff on the condition. Toohey’s tome argues several historical factors have led to this. He cites the breakdown of religion as a source of life’s meaning and organization, the rise of individualism, and the way in which large cities inhibit the possibility of intimate human contact while shrinking the average man’s sense of importance (the last is my idea, not Toohey’s).

I’d add materialism to the list. We spend far too much time shopping for “things” with the expectation of receiving satisfaction in the package. Habituation happens as often for adults as for a child on Christmas day: having waited all year for a special toy, he (and we) discover that having it doesn’t deliver all that wanting and waiting promised us. Bored, the toy is shelved, while the adult version (say, a new car) loses its new car smell and the first-drive thrill.

Another thought: “wage-slavery” of most modern work may rob us of the sense of pride and control, while reinforcing the notion of being small, disposable people who hardly matter. Contrast this to the old days, when a free man worked on a project he fashioned from start to finish. The act of total responsibility for creation or completion of a job contributed to a meaningful, engaged, and less alienated life, especially when others in his small community depended on his labor and his presence.

Of course, as Toohey is careful to point out, for much of human history the danger of daily existence and the work required to make a living left little room for leisure; and the sheer hardness of life offered minimal amounts of the idle time during which boredom and unsettling self-reflection might metastasize.

Contemporary living presents more entertainment, activity, and distraction than ever, without having eradicated boredom. TV channels and websites beyond numbering, exercise programs and classes — none of these seem capable of erasing the experience or the word from our day and vocabulary.

256px-Souvenir_Seller_-_Moscow_-_Russia

Historically, many have looked to travel, sex, and alcohol as solutions to everyday boredom, not to mention getting back to work. Changing one’s routine and reorganizing one’s life can also help. Learning new things, exercise, and performing music are recommended. Communities of friends or association with like-minded people within social organizations provide prophylaxis against invasion by the B word: the sense of time stretching into an empty, endless void. Meditation can be helpful and keep each moment alive. TV doesn’t, by the way. Channel changing should tip you off.

How is it possible that we get bored with a plethora of internet sites to visit, criss crossing tweets, and movies to watch? We have plays to attend, games to play, and great books to read. Still we are bored.

Perhaps an evolutionary psychologist might point at those early humans who sat around and were entertained simply by twiddling their opposable thumbs. They weren’t interesting, didn’t attract mates, and failed to notice the hungry animal about to make them into a meal. In other words, we are not the descendants of early men and women who effortlessly defeated boredom.

Thomas Carlyle, the famous Scottish philosopher and writer, said, “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”

I lean toward Carlyle’s view, but suspect I am already too tired to make his goal my own. Exhausted first and bored soon after, the sound you just heard was me yawning.

Top image: A Bored Person by GRPH3B18. Below that is a photo of a Bored Young Girl by Greg Westfall. Finally, the Souvenir Seller, Moscow by Adam63. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Why Do We Collect Things?

vinyl

A nineteenth-century man tried to collect every book ever written. No joke.

He came closer than you might think. His name was Sir Thomas Phillipps and I’ll tell you about his quest in a bit.

Possible reasons behind his mission are interesting. Evolutionary psychology suggests early humans — “hunter-gatherers” — “collected” food and eventually those substances required to make and use fire. This increased their chance of survival and the opportunity to create the next generation. Primitive weapons* to fight off animal or human attacks also improved the odds of passing on one’s genes, whether those implements were found or fashioned.

Tools became less crude as some men learned more sophisticated uses of fire, beyond its ability to keep the small community warm at night. It would have been important to safeguard any useful object from loss, theft, or breakage. Those who invented or possessed these items might even have benefited by a boost to status, making them more desirable mates.

Yes, today is very different, but perhaps some of us are still left with the “collecting bug” inherited from distant ancestors.

Our long-deceased relatives were doubtless uncomfortable or anxious without storing food or weapons, nervous about a bare cupboard or the next attack. Thus, perhaps they passed on an unconscious desire to “collect oneself” — to deal with the anxiety over life’s uncertainties by hunting for things to be saved for the inevitable “rainy day.”

Life comes with no guarantees of its length or quality. You and I, therefore, develop ways of dealing with our fears about its impermanence and unpredictability. Often this is the job of instinct, the unconscious, and maybe a genetic predisposition developed long ago — not a careful review of a menu of possible maneuvers to quell our disquiet.

Stashing stockpiles of money might be thought of as a kind of substitute for early human activities aimed at ensuring future survival and relieving worry. Belief in an afterlife serves the purpose, too, whether the result of faith or the psychological need I’ve just described. Creating a book or painting for the ages has a transcendent quality, as well, to the extent that it looks past our lives to something more lasting. So does producing children.

For some, however, the act of collecting objects of no survival benefit appears to be only a pleasant and innocent distraction from routine. Unless, that is, you read a book by the late Dr. Werner Muensterberger.

The author, a psychiatrist, aptly titled his tome, Collecting: An Unruly Passion.

The type of collecting he is talking about is akin to a child’s use of a security blanket — holding a “transitional object” to sooth oneself.

In the course of writing the book, Muensterberger investigated some major collectors. Take the previously mentioned bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) who set himself the goal of obtaining “one copy of every book in the world.”

Phillipps fell short, but did amass about 40,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts (as many as 40 or 50 per week), requiring over 100 years to disperse after his death.

Of course, this obsession took lots of money.

Left a fortune by his father, he managed to reduce himself to a debtor in order to keep buying. Sir Thomas even cut a portion of his mother’s living stipend to pursue additional purchases. Phillipps’ craze drove his wife and daughters crazy, and put some of his creditors out of business, as well.

When his wife died he sought a wealthy replacement — any wealthy replacement — the better to fund his book hunts. He asked an acquaintance, “Do you know of any Lady with 50,000£ (British currency) who wants a husband? I am for sale at that price.”

Sir Thomas went off the rails, but are there advantages to a less consuming hobby of acquisition?

Sure.

Franciscus_Gysbrechts_-_Vanitas_-_WGA11012

Collectors functioned to safeguard precious objects, especially before the widespread existence of museums and public libraries, ensuring the survival of masterpieces of the visual and literary arts. Moreover, those collectors who enjoy a work of art or a beautiful book for its own sake (not just its rarity), take pleasure in admiring it. For the collector of recorded music, there is the delight obtained in listening.

One can achieve a pleasant sense of “living in the moment” while pursuing the desired objects — quite “alive” and focused. Collectors and non-collectors alike appreciate the fun of a “treasure hunt,” even if rare baseball cards might not be your idea of treasure. Since men are more often hunters due to the historical differentiation of sex roles, they seem more likely than women to take part.

What’s more, collectors learn a good deal while enjoying their hobby: about the time and manner of creation of objects (like stamps or coins) or the history surrounding them. In other words, a collector can satisfy his curiosity and become better educated.

For some of these individuals, the material articles (properly arranged) display a kind of personal style or taste — a distinctiveness achieved for most of the rest of humanity by the cut of their hair or the decoration of their residence, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear.

Then there are investors who only resemble collectors. Unlike Sir Thomas Phillipps, they sell or trade their acquisitions for profit.

Of course, there can be a downside to collecting without limits, as Phillipps’ mother, wife, kids, and creditors could report, if only they were around to do so.

The potentially addictive quality of acquisition should be apparent, with the desired object being like a drug, providing a temporary elation which subsides rather quickly after the “loot” is obtained. The chronic restlessness of a Phillipps-like personality needs to speed back to the hunt.

The covetousness of this sort of person — for whom too much is never enough — cannot be calmed for long. The objects are not valued as works of art to be enjoyed (even if you call the beer can in the hobbyist’s beer can trove a thing of beauty); rather, they are pursued in order to “have them.”

Psychologically, Muensterberger might say, the “thing” functions like a cell phone carried by an anxious person for the purpose of providing reassurance or control in case of an acute anxiety attack; or like an amulet or rabbit’s foot thought to guarantee magical protection from injury.

Often, he believes, the collection becomes a substitute for relationships, at least the potentially intimate kind. For Muensterberger, the pathological collector finds relationships too unreliable, unpredictable, and precarious.

In stark contrast, material items are more controllable and permanent. They will never let him down, move away, reject him, or die. In an uncertain world, the collector achieves a sense of mastery by his success in accumulating objects, even if the domain of his mastery may be trivial (as in match books or bottle caps).

I’m reminded of an old acquaintance, a fellow phonograph record collector who focused on a limited number of classical instrumental artists. But unlike the other hobbyists I have known, this man continued to buy LPs (long-playing records) in spite of staggering family medical bills, his wife’s distress over the expense of his avocation, and their mounting debt.

She rationalized this by saying, “Well, I suppose it is better than if he had a mistress or was alcoholic.” The spouse did not know, however, that her husband craftily arranged new purchases to be mailed to the homes of some of his friends, and paid in cash or untraceable money orders to prevent his wife from finding out. Later the discs were smuggled into their abode when his mate was away.

Those of you who are fans of Harrison Ford might remember the beautiful German archeologist pursuing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The wooden cup of Christ falls into a crevasse during an earthquake, triggering the damsel’s attempt to retrieve it. Indiana Jones warns her that she is about to lose her life by reaching for the cup, frustrating his ability to hold on to her.

Sometimes, I suppose, the saying, “I can’t live without it,” is true. And live she did not. The gorgeous blond stretched for the Holy Grail until she slipped from the hero’s grasp.

The next time you find yourself at a garage sale, an estate sale, or an antique shop, stop for a moment. Where did these things come from? The same thought might occur to you as you visit the vanishing world of used book and CD stores, or their virtual replacements on Amazon and eBay. There are only two answers:

  1. People bought them and the same people have decided they want to sell them. Some might be collectors whose interests have changed, others simply in the business of making a living or clearing space.
  2. The children or heirs of the collectors are doing their best to get rid of the burden of “stuff” left to them.

With regard to the second answer, unless we are talking about fine art, those objects probably aren’t the inheritance the kids were hoping for.

*If you are old enough, you might remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Parents of my folk’s generation encouraged their children to say this in response to name calling.

The top image is a photo of vinyl phonograph records by Burn the Asylum.

The second image is the Vanitas painting by Franciscus Gysbrechts (1672-1676). Such paintings were particularly common among artists doing “still life” in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were symbolic, in that the items depicted generally were reminders of the brevity of life. Musical instruments, for example, signaled that the sound was made and quickly left “not a trace behind.” The globe was also a reminder of the human condition and the skull of one’s mortality. Watches, smoke, hour glasses, and the like served the same symbolic purpose, suggesting the passage of time. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Important is “A Room of One’s Own?”

poor schools

How many of you, I wonder, have a room of your own? Most, I would guess, but that doesn’t mean that everyone does; certainly not in the current economy. And what is life like if you don’t have such a place where you can retreat from the world, be silent, think, read, write, watch TV, go on the computer, or do whatever you want?

Virginia Woolf, the great English author, presumably thought it desperately important, especially for women. I will take only a moment of your time to think about a few of the ideas she expresses in her short fictionalized essay/novel, A Room of One’s Own, published in 1928. Her book was written nine years after English women won the right to vote.

The essentials that the book’s narrator believes to be required for the life of a writer are a room of one’s own (with a lock that you control) and the equivalent of $33,283 dollars per year. The actual amount she names is 500 pounds in UK currency, but I’ve converted it to 2014 U.S. dollars. That precise number isn’t crucial. She — Woolf’s character — is trying to name a figure that will make you sufficiently independent to have the intellectual freedom to do some serious writing.

Woolf anticipated some criticism of these ideas. Here is one that might have occurred to you already:

…I think you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men.

Woolf then looks to a man to defend her position, one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a famed literary critic of the day and the author of On the Art of Writing (1916). He begins by naming 12 famous English poets of the last 100 years. He continues:

Of these, all but Keats, Browning (and) Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do. It may be a brutal thing to say and a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius (is to be found) equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those 12 were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. As a matter of hard fact, of the remaining three you know that Browning was well to do, and I challenge you that, if he had not been well to do, he would (not have succeeded as a writer)…

Quiller-Couch goes on to describe poor, but talented writers who became psychologically troubled out of their frustration or committed suicide. Then comes his powerhouse conclusion:

…It is — however dishonoring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for 200 years, a dog’s chance. Believe me — and I have spent a great part of 10 years in watching some 320 elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

Money = intellectual freedom. Usually only with enough money do you automatically have the time and space and opportunity to “think” about something other than how you will receive your next meal and who you must answer to in order to earn it. That is the belief both of Woolf and Quiller-Couch. Woolf also confronts the historical “belief” that women were incapable of serious thought and inferior to men in almost every other important way.

Yet we live in a more liberated time you might say. My answer to that would be to ask you to realize that Quiller-Couch is referring only to men. Moreover, I have seen yearly one such school of the kind I believe he is describing, although it is not an elementary school. Chicago’s Mather Public High School is my alma mater, much changed from 1964 when I graduated. The poverty induced stress in the homes of many of Mather’s students is heartbreaking.

We know this from talking to these kids, reading their personal essays, conversations with their teachers, and reading the letters of recommendation written by those instructors. We know that by age 16, at least for some of them, they have already been so discouraged by their circumstances that they believe the “American Dream” does not apply to their lives. Indeed, we know that many of the friends of the best students tell them that their academic hopes and career ambitions are unrealistic.

As some of you have read on my blog, my graduating class created and has supported the Zeolite Scholarship Fund for 15 years, to give some of these poor kids better than “a dog’s chance” to receive an education and make a good living sufficient to the intellectual freedom that has been described here — the education needed to get a job that allows you to rent or buy the room and the lock and create an atmosphere conducive to serious thought.

As Quiller-Couch said of the England he knew, it is “dishonoring to us as a nation,” in the USA, that his words apply to our time and place as they did in his. I know there are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean one should wait for someone else to do something. It could be tutoring, mentoring, donating money for books or scholarships, or becoming a teacher yourself. It could mean voting for those who have some good ideas about how to change the situation or running for office yourself. Many other actions — governmental, social, educational, and nutritional — are possible.

Nor is this simply a matter of dishonor or unfairness. It is a waste of young lives, plain and simple, some of whom would benefit the world given the right conditions.

My suggestion? Start by visiting a public school in a poor neighborhood. Unfortunately, they are very easy to find.

The “Real” Frankenstein: How Abusers are Created

Frankenstein

This post is not about the movie you saw starring Boris Karloff or Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle. Somehow Hollywood made conventional monster movies from something very different and infinitely more touching.

Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel is the story of a man-created creature who is abandoned by his “parent” and is so badly treated by others that he becomes something that he himself hates: a murderer. It is also a tale nearly 200 years old that has a great many contemporary implications, but two in particular that came to my mind: will man and his science be our saviour or our destroyer? Will we manufacture our own death through scientific advances or control the secrets that have thus far led to both medical miracles and misery?

And I’ll add two more which are not a great leap from Shelly’s story: shall we keep destroying or polluting nature by chopping and digging and drilling and fouling the air, simultaneously making it less beautiful by the very act of trying to perfect our lives? Finally, will the increasing abandonment of the impoverished, eventually cause them to rise up in revolution (like Frankenstein’s monster) and create their own wanton destruction? If you wish, you can attach almost any of Shelley’s ideas to war, plastic surgery, the efforts to extend human life, global warming, the growing underclass, etc. All of these are wrapped in a ball of intolerance, ambition, and man’s ability to justify his worst behavior, all themes that are central to this work of art.

The creature is not even given the dignity of a name. His master — the man named Viktor Frankenstein who made him — cannot bear the sight of his own “child” (an eight-feet-tall male) of massive strength, great intellect, and astonishing agility, so the “monster” enters the world by himself, without yet understanding it or knowing how to speak.

He learns the terrible lessons that experience with mankind will teach him: that those who are different or ugly are ridiculed or physically attacked. That he alone in all the world has no playmate, soul mate, parent, or companion. And, without my giving away precisely how it happens, he does learn to read the loftiest books and speak eloquently, not the grunts of the character Karloff created for film in the 1930s (pictured below). Science has gone awry and the scientist Frankenstein has abandoned his creation, hoping he will just go away and be forgotten.

Frankenstein Karloff

But the monster is touched by the beauty of nature, the song of the birds, and the warmth of the people who inhabit a country home he comes to live nearby; especially moved by the human relationships he has not achieved himself. Further efforts to find a social place in the world fail utterly. The unfairness overwhelms him. The artificial man finally begins to resemble in personality what he looks like in physique and physiognomy. He does some terrible things out of frustration, unfairness, anger and imitating the mistreatment he regularly receives even when he tries to do good, like saving a young girl from drowning.

The man-monster tracks down his creator and attempts to make a bargain: create me a mate, someone as outcast as I am, so that at least the two of us can have a life with each other. If you don’t, I will track you wherever you go and make your life some version of the misery that is mine. Viktor Frankenstein has grave doubts about the wisdom of this arrangement and fears that two such creatures will do more destruction than the one he has already created. For the rest of the story, you will have to do the reading of this brief but compelling book (I read a free download from Amazon).

When does man’s ambition and arrogance take him too far? Human cloning? Weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction? Intolerance of those who are different, not just in looks but in habits, religion, and values? Why isn’t the beauty of nature enough? Why must we have more and do more and control more of the things that people used to give over to gods and goddesses?

In the end there are two monsters. The nameless one created by the hands and machinery of Viktor Frankenstein whose real malevolence was unleashed by the unkind world that had no place for him. The other, Viktor Frankenstein himself, who becomes appalled by the “thing” and so obsessed with what his creation had done to him and those he loved that he too seeks vengeance. And, in the end, we are sympathetic to both and touched by both. We have witnessed how abuse can produce abusers even among the most sensitive, high-minded, and intelligent among us. The abused are at risk of becoming the thing that they hate.

The monster knows that the evil he performed has not just been to others, but to the best in himself.

No sympathy (shall) I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to (participate in). But now the virtue has become to me a shadow and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair. (Where) should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone while my (life) shall endure; when I die I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, or enjoyment. Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honor and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation (in hell); I am alone.

For those who prefer movies, the National Theatre Live performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the lead roles can still be seen here and there in encore presentations. They are based on a two-hour adaptation of Shelley’s work by Nick Dear. I saw the one with Cumberbatch as the monster. I’m told the other one, where the main players switched roles, is equally good. Here is the site for these films, if you wish to act while they are still being shown: “http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/16546-frankenstein/”