Ethics and Melodrama 2: The Last Stand

Happy Thanksgiving! I am full of foods which you might already be able to guess (except for the pomegranate seeds), and am seriously considering, partly on the basis of today and partly on the basis of the weekend, starting a blog which would be not so much about cooking food as about the experience of eating it, bad food included. I would have a wonderful literary precedent in the novel Dead Souls, which (I’ll save you the trouble) defaults to descriptions of fine eatin’ whenever Gogol runs out of plot.

However, unlike Nikolai Gogol, we here at the Kugelmass Episodes have plenty to chew on: namely, the responses to my earlier post, entitled “Ethics and Melodrama.” You may wonder, since the very question of ethics amidst modernity has clearly been raised, whether it is worthwhile to begin this post by talking about food. I apologize for having digression on my mind; you see, I’ve just finished watching the soggy movie version of Tristram Shandy, and it’s reminding me that, in addition to the talent for digression which old writers like Sterne possessed, they had a talent for the easy admission that where art is, life is elsewhere; in Sterne, as in Montaigne, we hear a constant refrain that the soberest and most admirable product of inductive reasoning, the ethical absolute, looks wonderful on the page but does little in real life.

Therefore I will try to expose the places where my reasoning is in tension. These tensions — perhaps “attempts at balance” is a more cheerful description — seem like a productive alternative to absolutes.

Miso writes that the anxiety expressed in the epigraph (from My Dinner with Andre) is something that she “happen(s) to find every cute, in that miserable existential way reminiscent of ‘cute’ misanthropes. I don’t know what context it was in though. You have to admit that these sorts of characters are ripe for poking fun at. It’s also a luxury. A damn luxury to fucking worry about whether you’re a sham.”

I disagree with this, although I share miso’s affection for thoughtful misanthropes. Art is indispensable; the questions that haunt an examined life are indispensable. First of all, you cannot find a culture anywhere that exists without the superfluities of culture; it is provably a mistake to believe that poorer people do not have pieces of music and sculpture that seem transcendent to them, or that they never stop to ask themselves questions about the relation of their life to their values.

The reason we gravitate towards this belief — in the luxury of fundamental questions — is our dim, uneasy awareness of life as it is lived by the poor, particularly in third world countries where there is practically no exception to poverty. I have seen a slideshow, courtesy of the New York Times, where I saw people in Haiti making tortillas out of inedible clay, and digging through enormous piles of garbage for food. I have read in various places about the conditions in maquiladoras and in the slave-labor factories in China (where, presumably, most of my clothing is made). I cannot get these things out of my mind.

That is why one must possess the acuity to see that by making of this wretchedness a peculiar sort of injunction to view our own misery as superficial, we are actually giving in to the work ethic, and accepting, in our heart of hearts, making their 14-hour work day our own. In fact, we do need to do this, but not by merely taking on greater labors and luxuriating in sadness from time to time. The effect is inevitably to, first, conclude that luxury is an essential part of life, and then, to feel oneself moving in imperceptible steps away from the real core of the problem (which contains both our doubts and their privation) towards a completely arbitrary “middle ground” between opposites: work and play; public and private; family, versus those others who benefit from one’s labor.

By contrast to the genial, but not serene, bourgeois lives of Montaigne and Sterne, consider Simone Weil, who I have recently been discussing with JuniperJune. Weil believed it was her duty not only to embrace sacrifice on religious grounds, but to recreate in her unjustly privileged person the conditions that others had to undergo (such as those living on meager rations in occupied France). She killed herself this way, and I mean that quite literally: she ruined her health and died early, without causing any serious damage to the capitalist and militarist superstructures that offended her so greatly, except perhaps through the small body of writings she produced and which we have inherited.

I am thinking of this, from the beginning of Middlemarch:

Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

The phrases “meanness of opportunity” and “no coherent social faith and order” stand out boldly here. Weil did what she was able, but her opportunities were too often meager, and, in the absence of a common social faith, her sacrifice was not easily interpreted by those few who even heard of it. Therefore the questions we have for ourselves about the meaning of our lives, and the authenticity of our efforts, cannot be extinguished in our obligations to others; rather, we cannot fulfill those obligations without answering those questions.

I am currently reading Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, in which he concludes that even though professors in the humanities have less job security than ever, and are particularly sensitive to the demands of (even unreasonable) students, they have been successfully demonized by David Horowitz and others as agents of leftist indoctrination. So, there is plenty of reason to wonder, at least in the United States, what more than one’s patent duty one can do to avoid being blackballed or just buried by indifference.

Those are the most visible effects of this creeping helplessness to me, but that’s nothing like the full extent of the problem. Two important, recent political films, Clooney’s Syriana and the just-released Fast Food Nation, share the assumption that there is basically nothing one can do to reverse global trends towards exploitation and environmental disaster. (Thanks to the Punk Ass Blog for a fine exposition of Fast Food Nation.) I am not persuaded by this kind of resignation, but I was affected by the stories of single individuals (like the well-meaning executive in Fast Food Nation, or the prince and the intelligence agent in Syriana) struggling with intelligence and passion, but without ingenuity, and getting nowhere.

This is, then, the best response I can give to Matt and to the final part of Miso’s comment. Matt’s comments (see comment thread linked above) eventually seem to make the following argument: heroism and ethics are both at their most real when they emphasize the effort towards attainable goals, according to one’s talents, and through a relinquishing of the self (particularly the egoistic fantasies of the self) in favor of the needs of others. Miso might add that the dramatic presentation of those needs, through rarified ethical exercises, enables us to clarify our beliefs and attitudes.

I owe both of them thanks for making my own thinking clearer, and for expressing so much of worth. I am equally indebted to petitpoussin for her fierce reply, because (to return to where we started) I suspect we will find the answer to the claustrophobic feeling of helplessness in the tension between the self and the other, and not in an absorption in one or the other — nor in a “resolution” between the exceptional circumstances that prove the ethical, and the everyday.

It is an awareness of others, including a political awareness, that preserves us from the insufferable phenomenon of celebrity, and its games of mirrored desire (which is really the kind of “iconicity” I’m critiquing in the posts Matt mentions). But it is the awareness of self that preserves us from lying down and being snowed under like Weil, like Clooney’s renegade agent, like the well-meaning people in Fast Food Nation. It is self that keeps every blog from turning into a re-tread of the same YouTube videos and linked updates in the name of liberal politics.

In short, it is at the intersection of self and other that the problem of tactics truly arises in the consideration of ethics and politics. The motif of the unwilling hero, in Spider-Man and other films, is actually another way of avoiding the problem of sublating the distance between what has already been assimilated (everyday life) and ethics-as-entertainment (melodrama). Peter Parker is simply kidnapped out of one into the other, and then returns to the idiocy of the everyday when heroism turns out to be his inescapable job. I have been so interested recently in “I Blame The Patriarchy” (for which I beg your patience) because Twisty takes impossible, despairing positions, and her readers (in the comments’ section) quickly convert these into the ordinary obligation to fight the good fight every single day.

In vain. Such fights aren’t anywhere near the front lines, which is why one can’t return from the rarified to the ordinary with merely a clearer understanding of one’s own values. Today the ethical task, not for one person but for every person who can, is to create the moment of opportunity, and through nihilating personal doubts about ordinary dutifulness, to begin to re-weave a coherent social faith that will give our actions meaning.