A Limerick For the Beginning of August
I am a proponent of vice
whose house was invaded by mice
and nibbling moths, who dined on my cloths,
and resisted attempts to excise.
There you have it – combine that with a tragic encounter with a topiary (more on that later) and you have the latest installment the serial of my life. I did not anticipate the three-fold plague descending upon my household, and in my youthful optimism said, “Tune in next week!” Alas, ’twas not to be.
One positive of the week was that I experienced yet another instance of literary serendipity. I’m reading Schopenhauer’s The Art of Being Right, which would be more aptly called The Art of Being an A**hole. Here is the passage to which I refer:
“That a man shall attain inner unity is the impossible and inconsistent pretension put forward by almost all philosophers. For as a man it is natural to him to be at war with himself as long as he lives. While he can be only one thing thoroughly, he has the disposition to be everything else, and the inalienable possibility of being it. If he has made his choice of one thing, all the other possibilities are always open to him, and are constantly claiming to be realised; and he has therefore to be continuously keeping them back, and to be overpowering and killing them as long as he wants to be that one thing. For example, if he wants to think only, and not act and do business, the disposition to the latter is not thereby destroyed all at once; but as long as the thinker lives, he has every hour to keep on killing the acting and pushing man that is within him; always battling with himself, as though he were a monster whose head is no sooner struck off than it grows again.”
A happy thought, indeed. But is it true that a man can be only one thing thoroughly? Huxley would, I think, disagree. He evidently does not believe that a life spent thinking only, and continually lopping off the head of the part of your character that wants to cross the Alps with forty brave-trumpeting elephants, is a worthwhile one. He seems to suggest that it is this precise repression of one’s Alp-crossing instincts that stands in the way of integral living, stating,
“The intellectual life is child’s play; which is why intellectuals tend to become children – and then imbeciles, and finally…homicidal lunatics and wild beasts. The repressed functions don’t die; they deteriorate, they fester, they revert to primitiveness. But meanwhile it’s much easier to be an intellectual child or lunatic or beast than a harmonious adult man.”
What is this elusive creature, this ‘harmonious adult man’? We have seen endless iterations of cacophonous man, we recognize his tinny jangling in ourselves. The HAM, however, is not one to be seduced by the potent drug of self-serving intellectualism. He does not succumb to overindulgence in books, which ought to be regarded as being as likely to lead to delinquency as opium. Recent studies have touted reading literature as a way to increase our capacity for empathy, and while this word tends to conjure images of rosy-cheeked toddlers nursing sick sparrows, it is, in fact, defined only as “the ability to understand the feelings of another.” Not necessarily sympathize with them, just understand them. Think rosy-cheeked toddlers who find a sick sparrow and pull off its wings. Literature can increase one’s ability to understand others’ feelings, but one can use this newfound power to twist the knife. The other tempting misuse of a book is to read it, enjoy, and understand it, close it, and never think about it again – or, if you do, it is only to give yourself a heart-felt “Well done” for having thought about it. Aren’t we dazzlingly clever? We are not. We are being an a**hole, and should set down the Schopenhauer post haste. Reading in nihilo may also lead to a tumble down the rabbit hole of the postulatory, which may be innocent on the reader’s part, but will probably end in him being discovered, haggard and alone, surrounded by dogeared volumes of Kant and Hegel rather than empty bottles of malt liquor.
Who can maintain a book habit and still live integrally? The HAM can, ’cause he synthesizes knowledge practic-a-lly. He doesn’t use his mind like a Zoltar machine, ejecting profound but largely irrelevant aphorisms at twenty-five cents a piece. Rather, he applies what he gains from books to every aspect of his life, be it crossing Alps, minding flocks of geese, or separating lentils from beans for Baba Yaga.
One thing is certain – the HAM is humane towards all facets of himself, allowing them to flourish in hydra-like majesty. This ensures that no one instinct gets out of hand, or chokes out another. Society respects the man who is a battlefield, as Schopenhauer suggests. Society does not know what to do with a magnificent hydra-type person; HAMS are rarely found in pigeon-holes (an excellent aphorism, eh?). I, for one, would rather be a garden than a battlefield, spreading mulch on the aspects of myself that I wish to encourage, gently pruning others, and generally respecting the fact that nature has better aesthetic taste than we.
I propose that integral living should be taken to pertain to Self-integration, not to integrating into Society. Last week I postulated that the former would lead to the latter. Now I am more inclined to think that the two are mutually exclusive. Society is all that the HAM abhors – if the HAM is a comfortable scrubby garden, Society is a topiary. Pruned into an absurd and affected form, it has lost all integrity. Don’t be a topiary. Be a shrubbery. Huxley expresses my noble sentiment admirably:
“If I’m no real good, I prefer to be just frankly no good. I don’t want to disguise myself as a man of learning. I don’t want to be the representative of a hobby. I want to be what nature made me—no good.”
So to you, Schopenhauer, I say that a person can be one thing thoroughly without decapitating parts of his nature – himself.
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