When wallpaper dawns...

"Life," Emerson once wrote, "consists of what a man thinks about all day." Often, too, that thinking seems curiously thematic. Take yesterday, for example. I have been sitting in on a colleague's Roman history course this semester and really enjoying myself. It's been a long time since I read those primary source Roman historians. Anyway, a discussion arose in class yesterday about the difference between ancient and modern historians.

Indeed, many (but by no means all) ancient historians wrote to illustrate the exemplary traits of certain historical figures. Plutarch is the best example of this, but Livy's history of early Rome (the era we are currently discussing) features many heroic figures like Horatio and Cinncinnatus. These tales are more likely legends than factual history. They served as propaganda for the superiority of early Roman values and culture. But the Romans believed them and, more importantly, thought it necessary to set such examples before their young.

Later in the day another colleague gave me a copy Chris Hedges' latest book: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. I read the first half last night while my wife and Kovie, our Nigerian exchange-student (who is living with us while on break from her college), goofed on a two-hour special of The Bachelor. It was a strange kind of synchronicity.

In the pages of his book, Hedges was describing a culture besotted with the triumphs and humiliations of celebrities (Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan) or would-be celebrities (reality show contestants, balloon boy, et. al.). On the screen, when I looked up, were the machinations of fifteen or so 20-something swimsuit models conniving to win the heart of a bachelor (and by the way a lot of money and air time). Hedges' book is something of a screed, and his thesis about celebrity culture is not especially original, but it's no less accurate in its assessment of the current zeitgeist for that.

Anyway, sitting there last night reading Hedges, it occurred to me that, unlike the Romans, we no longer hold any notions of moral exempla in our common culture. People today seek visibility, not gravitas. Yesterday, of course, was also the day Mark McGwire admitted he used steroids during his record-setting baseball career. It came five years too late and he only did so as a condition of getting back into baseball as a hitting instructor for his old team. He gave up none of the millions he made and set up no outreach programs for kids to warn them of the dangers of performance enhancing drugs. He simply said he was sorry and then the commentators set about speculating whether his admission would now clear the way for his induction to the Hall of Fame.

Historians once looked for role models to hold up for emulation, but where is the contemporary analog? I realize that I sound like a harrumphing old fuddy-duddy here, but it is striking how trivial we've all become. It reminds me of a poem by the late Zbigniew Herbert, who was struck by the moral character of the ancient historian Thucydides. In his poem Why the Classics? Herbert seems to answer his own title question:


in the fourth book of the Pelopennesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition

among the speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigue of diplomatic endeavors
the episode is like a pin
in a forest

the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief

for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile

exiles of all times
know what price that is


generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happened to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence

they accuse their subordinates
envious colleagues
unfavourable winds

Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quick


if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers weeping
in a small dirty hotel room
when wallpaper dawns


Anti-Dada said…
Well, I still can't figure out how to leave a comment on my own site. Thanks for posting over there!

Anyway, I just wanted to comment here. Trivialization is a necessary component in consumerism. We can't think too critically or else we might wonder why we're working, why we're buying, or even why we exist. Come on, that's no way to increase production and consumption, man!

Fewer questions, professor. Well, unless they're trivial, of course.
Professor Quest said…
That's exactly what Hedges argues in his book. He also points out that it's a precursor to fascism.
Anti-Dada said…
It makes perfect sense (that trivialization is a precursor to fascism). I've been saying to a number of people that this country resembles early 30s Germany for quite a few years now.

There are a lot of parallels. Think of the business leaders who were pro-Nazi back in the 20s and 30s, the banking institutions, the financial institutions. Germany heavily builds up its defense infrastructure to the applause of business leaders around the world.

Marriages between business and militarized governments have a long history, but the people are the glue that make that marriage work or fail (and, for the record, I always want those marriages to fail).

I couldn't possibly list all of the ingredients, but here are a few: nationalism/patriotism; feverish faith in authority; lockstep belief in the narratives portrayed by media/communications distributors who manufacture grand stories of the state/business; apathy, nihilism, ignorance, uncomplicated thinking, inattentiveness, myopia, and narcissism.

It's difficult, at best, to live with awareness that the country is so far down this road. I've been aware of it every step of the way. If I had a fault it was that I had too much faith in humanity; I didn't believe that people--Americans!--could be quite as uninterested, selfish, and uncaring as they are.

There was the entirety of the 20th century history serving as a reminder to "Never Forget." There was the dawn of the Internet and a means to track war, violence, sex slavery, corruption, abuse, and every other type of atrocity or abuse imaginable anywhere in the world. None of that makes a difference.

The human brain functions the way it does and if not "exercised" with rigor and discipline it's ability to protect itself against manipulation and co-optation withers.

It's sad. Heartbreakingly sad. I thought I saw a little flicker of recognition growing and I thought Obama was evidence of a country waking up. It may have been. But waking up to heavy lifting isn't in the character of the country. People seemed to be waking up thinking it was going to be the 1990s all over again, and people actually thought the 1990s were good.

Well, they were good for many Americans. What was good, though, was built on slave labor from Asia, South America, and Latin America. What was good was built on the export of American jobs and the dismantling of the industrial productive base of the United States. What was good was based on legislation and policy that gutted labor rights, regulations, and oversight. What was good was a smokescreen.

I'm always preaching living in the moment, but there's a context I don't mention: live in the moment in order to process everything you think you know, everything you think you've learned, everything you think you understand. Because reality has a way of proving ideas and ideologies wrong. I can't just read a history of World War II, one source, and accept it as if it's Biblical Truth. I can't read the Bible, for that matter, and accept it as Biblical Truth. Whatever is read, whatever is thought, there still has to be some evidence in the real world in order to even be considered for belief.

But what's wrong with holding a great deal of information, processing it endlessly even as new information is discovered and considered? The need for cognitive closure is a curse. It serves a biological purpose, but it's imperative for individuals to periodically reconsider everything that "solidifies" in their minds as "reliable truth."

That requires lifelong vigilance. Your new post is good, too, Prof. My guess is that tweeting will be followed by a next generation of iPhones that simply emit an audible grunt to let others know they exist. "Hold on I have an incoming grunt. 'Guhhhhhh.' Hey, Tim says hi. He's eating Cheetos and taking a crap. Same ol, same ol."

Meanwhile tanks rumble down the street and no one pays attention. Same ol, same ol.

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