The Problem With Parables

“How many people of this senior living facility would you say are visited less than once a year by a close relative?”

The problem with parables is that crafting one requires a kind of condescension, which, in turn, requires arrogance, i.e., I will deign to be teacher to coevals and equals, nay, even intellectual superiors. One must train the reader to interpret the parable, that is to say, you have to reveal a key for interpretation that is accessible to the reader so that interpretation runs along certain lines. Thus, one must write obliquely enough to be engaging at a parabolic level, but also straightforward enough that the parable functions. If one tips the hand too quickly, e.g., “once upon a time,” or “there once was a boy from Nantucket,” the parable fails because the reader will inevitably throw up a wall, objectifying the parable rather than participating in it. Too obliquely, and the parable fails because there’s no way to unlock the thing, and it becomes a difficult and obscure tale with no meaningfulness, even if the reader participates. There I failed.

My second mistake was egregious: do not obfuscate the point with a contentious tangential point. I should have known better than, in a blog that is read by many who are well-versed in econometrics, to make an empirical claim that government policy of the Depression Era affected the behavior and work ethic of an entire generation. First of all, I didn’t actually make that claim, but the way I wrote it implied as much. Second of all, I was repeating what I hear over and over again, from their lips. Third of all, that’s not the point. This was such an egregious error of writing on my part that, when I realized I had grievously committed it, I found a quiet place and flagellated myself without mercy for several minutes.

The point is that you can fill in the blank with any larger-than-life institution which collects for itself and can make promises about the future: the government, the church, the union, the manufacturing plant, the lodge, alcohol, savings, and even family, if you understand family as a similar construct, not as flesh-and-bone. As loath as I am to tip my hand and actually explain the parable, which is like Da Vinci explaining the Mona Lisa (cf. arrogance, above), the parable is about achieving self-actualization, or the lack thereof. Many people live a life of accumulation, thinking they can annuitize in relative ease and comfort. The problems of annuitization, unfortunately, are created in the accumulation phase, namely that they give themselves over to a construct, that the government will love, that the church will love, that the lodge, and so forth, will love and care for them, so that flesh-and-bone family and friends become tools whereby to accumulate. In so doing, they–no, wait–I do believe here I will leave space so that I might stretch a yarn or two at some date in the future to illustrate what I mean.

childlolly

However, when I say I hear it from “their” lips, much consternation arises concerning the referent. Surely not representative!

Senior living centers are those places where people transition from being retirement age to elderly, still able to care for themselves, but not in the environment of a home with, say, maintenance needs or many stairs.  I had twelve residents in a group, chatting it up as we usually do, and I asked them point-blank, as bluntly as I could muster courage to do (these are my friends): “How many people of this senior living facility would you say are visited less than once a year by a close relative?”

Without hesitation, I heard a voice say, “Oh, lots.” It was a woman’s voice. I do not know if that’s significant. There are 48 residents in this particular apartment complex, so I had one quarter of them before me. I looked: one never married, no family nearby; a second married, divorced young, never remarried, no children, sister is too elderly to visit; two live across the continent from their children; two alienated their family with personality disorders; one has outlived anyone near her. What is that? Seven of twelve? But we were talking about the people who had not joined us, of course. “Oh, lots.” What’s the number?

“Well, you have to understand that kids these days are so busy.” We’re talking about grown people who are in their 50s and 60s. We’re calling them kids; that may be significant, but who knows? That’s why we put it in parables: what do you think? Is this representative? As if on cue, while I was thinking this very thought, another lady began to speak:

“We never thought we would have to move here. We worked our whole lives so that we could live in a comfortable house and not move here, but one thing led to another, and here we are. We had no choice. And, as for us, we’re lucky–” That’s right: she invoked Luck, “–we’re lucky that our children live nearby and visit us.”

See, a parable is, at the very least, about the teller: this parable is about me. Not them: me. The parable craftsman tries to envelop you with his own existential question: is it not also about you? Are you not a coeval? What, exactly, did they do to alienate themselves from their families? Did they actually do anything wrong or un-virtuous? Am I living in the same un-virtue as they are? I may die alone, as I think all are destined to do, but I do not want to live alone, live lonely, live loneliness. Is loneliness in the winter of life avoidable only by luck?

Once upon a time, luck sent an old man/lady to a nursing home, bound to a wheelchair with a belt, suffering from mild dementia, in Nantucket…

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Rock Bottom

Redemption is a subject near and dear to my heart, for personal reasons. I was never an addict, mind you, but (alarmingly long ago now) I experienced my own rock bottom.

Most people who talk seriously about hitting rock bottom know that by using the term they’re participating in a bit of lousy and misleading rhetoric. There is no “bottom” but the bottom of a grave. So long as you live, rock bottom is a state of mind, a series of events that precipitate an awakening, however brief.

The “rock” is right on the money, however. One minute you’re sleepwalking, unaware of the fog, and all of a sudden you smack face-first into something. The fog lifts as soon as you become aware of it, and you see that you weren’t sleepwalking at all, but rather sinking in quicksand.

The “bottom” is also dubious because of how radically different—even seemingly trivial from the outside—the “rock” can be. Some people undergo the worst pitfalls of addiction, suffer the worst bodily harm and emotional loss and alienation, but never hit rock bottom. Others encounter some minor setback, or not even that, and hit rock bottom and bounce hard. My own “rock” would no doubt seem similarly insignificant to most. I simply saw, at a moment when someone trusted me, a reflection in myself of someone I truly hated. It was jarring, and a jarring is what a sleeper requires to awaken, though they as often as not go right back to sleep.

johnbaptist

Along with redemption, I am interested in redeemers.

Redeemers are rather more valuable than those in need of redemption, in spite of how attitudes have changed about such people. When I think of redeemers, I think of John the Baptist. He lived in the wild, he ate grasshoppers, he was kind of an emaciated raving wacko, but he was unflinching in his righteousness and generous in his forgiveness, for those who asked of it. Or so the stories go!

I’m no biblical scholar, but to my amateur eyes old John seems to form a type, existing in storytelling well before the Bible, of the man who has found wisdom in madness. I can already hear the protests that John was not in fact supposed to be mad, and I’m sure that’s right, though he looked the part. No, John was much more like Diogenes the Cynic, who scorned human artifice and found wisdom in his poverty (we will not say “humble conditions” for humility was not a Greek virtue and certainly not one of his).

The great redeemer of Christian culture is, of course, Jesus Christ himself. What Christ shared with Diogenes and John the Baptist was a connection with some source of wisdom. For Christ it was his divine nature. For John it was divinity as discovered in the life of the ascetic; for Diogenes it was in nature itself.

Unfortunately these days we tend to think it is the redeemed who have brought back the most. Most of the newer (fictional) stories of redemption that I know of involve a redeemer who was also once redeemed. In the stories, the addict or the fallen are deaf to the exhortations of their loved ones and the people who seem pure and true. “You don’t know, you don’t understand!” They cry, like a teenager confronted by their parents.

“Oh, but I do,” the redeemer whispers, “for I, too, was once an alcoholic/cokehead/abuser/killer, and I found my way back to the light. You can, too—I will show you the way.”

Where once knowledge was found in divinity or madness or nature, today it is found in vice itself; in the vice experienced by those who have managed to summon the strength to tear themselves away after prolonged exposure.

And you do bring something with you, when you come back from the dreaming. But it carries a price. And it is not nearly so valuable as the knowledge, the virtue, of those who have simply lived a good life, being good people, and found the strength not to find themselves among the ranks of the fallen, no matter what the bitch Fortuna threw in their way. If you invest your time in honing the skill of living well, you will have made progress on the road to wisdom, while the sleepers were busy struggling in the quicksand.

Tell Us, O Tell Us of Your Telos

See, this is just the kind of thing to get Heraclitus foaming at the mouth so that we think of him as irascible, melancholy, misanthropic and altogether grumpy, along with being a warmonger, this thing from Adam Gurri. How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust. There’s yer telos, right there.

This, I submit in behalf of Heraclitus, is the great genius of the Declaration of Independence (despite its revolutionary fomentation, pace Adam Blackstone): the Americans stood astride the Enlightenment, shouting “Stop!”, inscribing their property, their lives, and their John Hancocks on those three concepts, the most debatable of which is the last, that is, and the pursuit of happiness. I do believe that this revolutionary idea, coupled with life and liberty, was a fundamental moment, a convergence of history, perhaps the telos of history, in the sense that they rejected the common notion of telos (qualified here as knowable, and therefore pliable) and set the world free to pursue happiness.

You would take up arms to pursue happiness?

Come to think of it, this most ethereal (ephemeral?) of concepts is the least abstract of the three. We can’t concretize life nor liberty to the same extent nor with the same categories as we can the pursuit of happiness. “The pursuing of happiness.” It is the story of a mother running after her toddler while grandma and grandpa gander at the image of their own tender youth, when they were pursuing. It is the story of a driven businessman raising up corporation after corporation for sale to the public. It is the story of [you fill in this space].

This is why the American experiment is mostly a story, a collection of stories, of episodes, whereas other experiments are epochs, eras, and dynasties. Heraclitus would approve. Even our wars (until the middle of the 20th Century) were Heraclitian in their character, the American people demurring on things such as revolution, slavery, European misery, fascism and Communism, until they couldn’t stand no more (again, pace Adam Blackstone), and then a wrath unleashing, which, among all its debatable effects, brought a fire upon the earth, which, in and of itself, is the telos of war, of existence.*

Being caught up in war, of course gives one a sense of personal telos, but not without the lingering doubt that the battle, even for the victorious soldier, is for nothing, considering the grand sweep of history, that great abstraction. Many WWII veterans died in their old age bitter towards their own children for a betrayal of all the things they fought and were wounded for and their closest comrades died for. “Of course it’s for nothing!” Heraclitus the Wise exclaims.

Other wise people nod their heads in agreement. It is enough, they say, to have at the end of the day someone to talk to and the knowledge that at least you had something to do while the sun traversed the sky from horizon to horizon.


*I contend that Heraclitus would have approved most heartily of the practical American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. I agree with some of his reasoning, but not entirely with his moral outlook.

Bayesian Inference atop the Cliffs of Insanity

It appears I haven’t updated my priors since 1987. When Vizzini, Inigo, and Andre the Giant stand at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity and see the Man in Black below them slowly ascending, Vizzini claims against the evidence of his own senses that such effort is “inconceivable.” In one of the more oft-quoted lines of the film, Inigo retorts “you keep using that word–I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When I first watched the film as, gosh, I guess I was 13 at the time, I interpreted it as a dig at Inigo’s lack of sophistication. To me, it was a simple pun: “inconceivable” can also mean “unable to conceive [a child].” Ha ha, snare drum, cue curtain, and scene.

The more apt interpretation wouldn’t have occurred to a 13 year old me: Inigo was criticizing Vizzini’s Bayesian processing. “Inconceivable” means that the mind is incapable of imagining the outcome. Well, clearly the evidence presented refutes Vizzini’s prior beliefs about the Man in Black’s abilities. It’s not “inconceivable” unless Vizzini is unwilling or unable to update his beliefs given the currently available evidence. To Inigo, “inconceivable” means that the posterior probability is 0. To Vizzini, “inconceivable” means that the prior probability is 0. The difference in opinion over the use of the word contrasts the simple (Hayekian) humility portrayed beautifully by Mandy Patinkin against the technocratic arrogance portrayed (again, beautifully) by Wallace Shawn.

And a few scenes later [spoiler alert], Vizzini’s hubris leads to his untimely demise. Is The Princess Bride a paean to libertarianism? Eh, probably not. But the political intrigue is catnip for public choice scholars, for sure.

Why is this relevant to Sweet Talk? Well, the unfortunate truth about people is that they tend to be pretty awful Bayesians. In some circumstances, they have resolutely, irrationally immobile priors. In others, they update too much based on weak or misleading evidence. This intemperate tendency should favor biasing institutions towards robustness against the vagaries of popular opinion. Presume Chestertonian fences.

And never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

HA HA. HA HA. HA…

War is Good for Me

An application of the teachings of heraclitus

The Centennial Celebration of the commencement of WWI has brought out more than the usual decrying of the Great War and all its benefits, merely because a handful of people died in an untimely manner, the culture of Europe was mildly affected, and the seeds were sown for another cleansing in the near future. Here at Chez Duke, on the other hand, we exult in the little snot who pulled off the assassination of whatshisname, not because we have an affinity with turn-of-the-century anarchism, nor because we have a bœuf bourguignon with the Kaiser’s domestic policies, sacre bleu! No, we are popping the corks of many champagne bottles because the scouring of Europe sucked my grandfather from his idyllic childhood into a world of pain.

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He was married, so that means he was born somewhere in the early 1890s, and off he went, to participate in the chain of familial military service unbroken since the beginning of time, even resuming in the War Against That Protestant Usurper, a.k.a. the American Revolutionary War, under the flag of the French King (Jacobin, Jacobite, Jacobik: tomato, tomahto; let’s hear it for Bonapartite hegemony!), where he was shot in the back by the Bosch in a terribly unfair ambush and left for dead beneath a pile of corpses. After some time (a day? two days?) he was found, alive, indeed, but gravely wounded in his man parts. He would live, but he would never, but never, beget a child, so the doctors told him. His wife heard of it and took the liberty of remarrying.

He sat down to a delicious homecoming meal with his wife, who received him with joy and thanksgiving, preparing a menu complete from soup to nuts. She developed a neat culinary shortcut, making the soup to be also the nuts, including in it a healthy dose of arsenic, which he somehow detected before he ingested a lethal dose, and he began to yell. The yelling attracted the more recent husband, who appeared in the dining room in a rather animated state, and, weakened by a morphine addiction, my grandfather departed hastily.

My great-grandmother, against her husband’s wishes, counseled her son to pursue a career as a Methodist Preacher, bundling him off to Southern Methodist University, where he found atheism, which caused him to be bundled back east, but only so far as Memphis, where he became a trolley-car driver. By some cruel twist of fate, he accidentally ran over a negro child’s head, killing him instantly before my grandfather’s eyes. He again found himself departing with haste, disappearing from the knowledge of all who knew him and loved him. Was he dead?

No, he was married. In Tupelo, Mississippi, near the birthplace of Elvis Presley (my grandmother says she knew him when he was a wee lad), Uncle Joe, as my grandfather’s moniker came to be, found an Indian woman–Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, or Creek; we don’t know–to be his wife. We do know that the Great Depression forced him out of hiding in Mississippi back to the bustling little railroad town of Cullman, Alabama, back home to his mama, hauling himself upon the veranda with his dark-skinned wife and his five children. “You have more black brothers and sisters than you do white,” he’d say when his mixed-race white children would utter unspeakable racist epithets under his shanty roof (“The Old Homeplace,” they called it. Thankfully, it burned to the ground during the night a few days after he died. My grandmother was outside with the twelfth child in her arms before the alarm was raised).

It is said that when his mother, who carried all the names of all the women in her family stretching back to the Mayflower, saw her beloved Messiah-son with that Indian woman and those half-breed children, all thirteen names screamed at once. She fainted. Son-no-longer-Messiah was dismissed, sent away to fend for himself. He did so, fathering seven more legitimate children by the railroad tracks, the ninth of whom was my father, born in 1941, when my grandfather was fifty years old.

In those intervening years, Uncle Joe had thought it wise to begin treating the morphine addiction he had acquired in France in the Army hospital. Self-medication was all he could afford in those heady days of Depression, so he developed an appreciation for something called Wildcat Whiskey. I don’t know if that was a brand-name moonshine or just a northern Alabama variety of distilled corn mash, but it burned hot, chasing away every Baptist preacher who came to condemn him for his wicked ways. The Lutheran preacher, on the other hand, found that Wildcat Whiskey reminded him of the wild winters of his childhood in Wisconsin, so he had the currency to talk Uncle Joe into allowing him to proselytize the Indian woman and the younger five children of the brood. Indeed, Dad was baptized a Lutheran–a Lutheran!–in Alabama, 1946. Are you doing the math? Lutherans and Catholics were on the same low rung in that heavily stratified society, but still one rung up above the Jews, who were just one rung off the ground, and above–you know. Ugh. A half-breed Lutheran in north central Alabama.

Wildcat Whiskey, such as it is, burns in all directions, and Uncle Joe meted out all his wrath on everyone around him, beginning with his family. To escape this horrible, sick, existence, my dad (may he rest in peace) married a pretty little German girl who was visiting her Aunt who had married a G.I. from Cullman, Alabama during the second, and lesser, world war. He rode her wings out of that life, eventually begetting me in 1973. My mother’s story is far more complex and layered than my dad’s (hint: her parents were true Aryans, even after the very end); I don’t understand it nearly as well yet.

In the meantime, I raise another glass of champagne to you, you millions who perished in the trenches, to the institutions which were utterly shattered, to World War One, without which I would not exist, and that is unthinkable.

 

Ivanhoe, Israel, Virtue, and Vanity

It’s been several years since I’ve read clear through Sir Walter Scott’s subversive little ode to Medieval fantasy, Ivanhoe. I seem to recall as I worked my way through the glad-of-met hail-fair-warrior celebration of Armored Manliness that it had much more of a Dungeons and Dragons flavor to it than the libra verite sensation I suspect it engendered. Bold knights were bold, delicate damsels were delicate.

Cunning Jews were cunning.

What I didn’t do was think about how the novel fit in against its natural backdrop of Enlightenment virtues. By the time 1820 rolls around, the civilizing effects of doux commerce have tamed the savage English countryside, and the Glorious Revolution have long since made the British Parliament one of the most powerful organizations in Europe, if not on Earth. By 1820, Bentham had made his mark—prudence was ascendant, and though it’s hard to gauge from here, I’ve a suspicion that readers may have felt a twang of nostalgia for (relatively) ignored courage, or for self-satisfying myths of martial honor. 

I think I read it wrong. I think the characters were meant to be allegorical. And the character of Isaac of York was meant to represent the ascendant bourgeois affection towards commerce. 

There are a couple of ways to go with this interpretation, depending on how generous you want to be towards Scott. The portrayal of Isaac isn’t entirely unsympathetic. He has his moments of courage and honor, just like the Saxon characters have their moments of disrepute and cowardice. But the question of what Scott intended is less interesting to me than what his contemporary audience might have interpreted. Is it plausible that a typical reader might have gotten through the tale and said “hey! I have Saxon blood, and these dudes are pretty cool” while at the same time thinking, “golly, that Isaac sure is a calculating mercenary, what with hiring help to get his daughter back instead of strapping on a sword and doing it himself—what a coward.”

Tropes feed prejudices feed tropes. More viciously (or virtuously if we’re lucky enough, I guess) if the trope ends up embedded in a popular work. And Ivanhoe was (and is) popular, make no mistake. I’m comfortable claiming without citation that Soctt’s work probably bears the lion’s share of credit for propagating the myth of the noble knight and for the dreary longevity of the weird, sanitized version of the chivalric code that still plagues ordinary folks’ misunderstanding of Medieval society even unto this very day. Dragged along with that, digging its heels in the mud is the transplanted, fish-out-of-water, Merchant-of-Venice (and yes, the trope, like so many others, is hardly original to The Bard) depiction of the Craven Jew. Even though it was probably just for literary purposes, consider the possibility that real flesh-and-blood Jews suffered for it.

Tragically, this was at a time when the historically Jewish virtues of thrift, euvoluntary exchange, merchant honor, and prudence were now becoming commonplace. It’s understandable (if still unforgivable) that pre-Enlightenment folks could have heaped scorn upon the virtues displayed by career merchants (read: Jews), but for folks that have already begun to adopt those very virtues? That’s savage tragedy right there, people. Life exceeds art.

And we’re still paying the price. It has come to my attention recently that here and now, in 20-frigging-14 there are still people out there citing shit from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and making blood libel claims and spewing other bewilderingly benighted anti-Semitic rubbish. Surely Scott isn’t all to blame for this, not by a long shot, but this is strong—nay—very strong evidence in support of the claim that rhetoric matters… a whole lot.

Wisdom, Cynicism, Glamour, and Wit: Wouldn’t You Like a Bit of it?

Oh, Adam. How you wound me so.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

Okay, so I admit that I may not have gotten straight to the point. Let me try to remedy that.

Consider three people. Art, Betty, and Carl (to pick three names at not-random). Art is the naif, Betty is the unreflective cynic, and Carl is the pomo age-of-irony post-introspection petit sage. In Postrel’s terms I categorize each as follows:

  1. Art is gormless. He believes what politicians say (or if not all politicians, at least the ones on his team). He is ensorcelled, perhaps unwillingly. He has yet to acquire the talent of second-guessing the elites, be they political, religious, commercial, what-have-you.
  2. Betty is Holden Caulfield, less naive than Art, but more naive than Carl. She’s recently recognized the insincerity that pervades and in Humean fashion has begun to catalog her observations and register her disgust. “The whole world is a lie” she cries.
  3. Carl rejoins: “no shit, Sherlock.” You see, Carl knows what Betty knows, and he’s reconciled it. He’s come not merely to passively, placidly accept the mere existence of mundane human hypocrisy, but to recognize that as in all human endeavors, it is strewn with trade-offs. A culture suffused with glimmering lies, ponderous kayfabe, and tightly-bound hypocrisy comes with costs, but it’s almost certainly better than an alternative world with nothing but pure brutal sincerity. Likewise, he recognizes the dire need for temperance, that a world full of rib-prodding insincerity is probably just as intolerable. He knows that navigating the world of half-truths we inhabit is challenging and that he’ll occasionally be wrong from time to time, but that his life and his society are enriched by the sweet little lies we whisper each other.

I implore you to believe me when I write that I wasn’t landing on Betty as the paradigm for maturity. I was pointing you at the dull-as-dishwater observation that one player won’t have any more than an infinitesimal influence over the general equilibrium, and that between the three rough options of a) naively believing everything everyone tells you b) sullenly rejecting any utterance as worthless insincerity and c) coming to grips with the duplicity of humans and using this secret knowledge to help you flourish (though not, of course, at the expense of others); the third option is quite clearly the best. Joyce’s Mulligan wasn’t a heretic—he was a placid apostate. 

I invite you, my dear friends, to untelescope your morality. You’ve no more hope of eliminating insincerity than an ant does of redirecting the Nile. The low-cost, high-margin project lies in learning how to best navigate a world where irony and insincerity are treated as exogenous.

To be sure, it’s difficult to precisely place where any of this fits into a serious project of eudaimonia. I think (though I admit that it’s only via introspection) that it’s eminently possible to be a good, useful, productive, moral member of society and to have also relinquished any pretext of sincere belief (I will say that I’m still occasionally taken aback by the sheer quantity of clergy I personally know who’ve confided in me their atheism). I have a suspicion, hard to test empirically, that the tripartite sincerity spectrum is orthogonal to good livin’, even if it correlates strongly with #phronesis. But I don’t think I want to go too far down this road, as yonder lies the realm of navel-fluff picking.