Morals, morals, everywhere

I was mostly joking when I asked some friends a few months ago if they thought that flowers have morals.  Humor's good, no question, therefore long may the jokes continue, but in any case, the idea seems worth pursuing.  Seems to me a case can be made for the great role of morals in the lives of lots of us, not just humans.

Morality: a sense of good and bad that's shared by a group.  "Food! Good! Go there!" "Attackers! Bad! Run away!" I'd call these moral messages. Wouldn't you?  And closer to flowers, "Water here!" Maybe without any exhortation, maybe little more than a simple statement, but with some plus or minus to it, some electrical charge, however subtle, that carries a message, or maybe is itself the message, of good or bad, yes or no. 

Listening to monkeys up in a tree, researchers have isolated the call that alerts the group to attack from the air (maybe a hawk), another call that says something's coming up from the ground (maybe a snake), and a third distinct call about some predator already in the branches.  No question about it, monkeys got morals.

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Here and There

The sixth "Rule for Being Human" sounds a lot like the old saying about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, like so:

"There is no better than Here. But when your There has become a Here, you will simply get another There and it will, once again, look better than Here."

So I'm looking at people looking at their phones and I think, yes indeed. Rule #6 is alive and well.  We're awfully busy checking out a new There, aren't we.

Love and Literature

Do you look for yourself in the books you read?  I'm not sure I do.  When Harold Bloom tells us that he wants "to aid other readers in their own personal quests to find themselves more truly through the reading of superb imaginative literature," I figure he's talking to someone else.  I suspect that I'm looking in books not for knowledge but for love. I want to be told how infinite I am.

That line's Emily Dickinson's, from her poem about how she reads a letter.  She finds a very private place, locks the door, checks that even a mouse doesn't share the solitude, and then, finally, comes the perusal of those pages, to see "how infinite I am."  She must be talking about a love letter, I thought for years --- and as many commentators have suggested.  But she didn't say that: "The way I read a letter's this. . . ." (My italic.)  Any letter to her will do, apparently. 

Makes sense to me.  I look for myself pretty much everywhere, in those books that Mr. Bloom most enjoys, in food and booze, in the wilderness and in city streets, and most of all in people.  They seem to do the best job at telling me how infinite I am. 

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Ayn Rand Triumphant?

When dour about the rise of individualism, I will often go back to Ayn Rand's declaration that "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy." I sure hope she got it wrong.

The rest of that quote is equally scary to me. "The savage's whole existence is public," she wrote, "ruled by the laws of his tribe.  Civilization is the process of setting men free from men."  There's some truth to this, unfortunately, and I like to hold literacy responsible, if only to dramatize its great part in the process.  Reading and writing have done so much to replace familial and tribal identity with our current sense of ourselves as individuals, first and foremost. Nothing else matters as much, not tribe or nation, religion or football team. And though it comes the closest, not even family.   


George Howe Colt wrote a book by that name, about the ways his own life was affected by his relationships with three brothers, and also about the lives of various famous men and their brothers.  I was drawn especially to his account of Henry Thoreau nursing his older brother John in the days before John's dreadful death from lockjaw. They had together established a school for young men and were its only teachers.  They had both fallen in love with a woman and both had proposed to her — with a year or so interval between the two offers.  And after John died, Henry developed the exact same symptoms: the arched back, the muscle spasms, the clenched jaw that would not open, leaving the doctor convinced that Henry too had gotten the tetanus, even though no infection could be found.

Twenty-four years old at the time, Henry recovered, and a few years later he took up life on Walden Pond, where he wrote a lot of silly things about the glory of the solitary soul unconstrained by any ties to other people.  His brother's death, I'm guessing, put him up to this.  Not having any more of that kind of pain, thank you very much.

Just today I found out that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, lost his oldest brother in a similarly awful death, this one an accidental poisoning.  Joseph was eighteen.  His work, The Book of Mormon, would arrive half a dozen years later — about the same interval as Henry's Walden after his brother's death. 

To Reason Is To Moralize?

When  we use our brains to justify ourselves to other people, we're moralizing, right?  I think we do this a lot, so much so that it's worth considering this equation.

Consider Ben Franklin's wonderful comment about rationality when he tells us--- well, he was presumably talking to his son when he wrote his Autobiography, but I don't think he minded at all that we other readers would be looking over his shoulder at these pages-- when he tells about the time he ran out of food on a boat trip and then cast aside his previously steadfast vegetarianism to share in the fish his friends were catching.

"So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature," Franklin wrote, (with his italics on those last two words), "since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Amen, Ben.  I believe that's what we most use our brains for, to moralize our desires.

Is Language Inherently Invidious?

Robert Wright's book "The Moral Animal" got me thinking about this question.  This has been a very provocative book for me, though I tend to give it a slightly different title in order to convey what I take to be its main contention, calling it "The Moralizing Animal."  

But maybe I'm scrambling in E.O. Wilson's views with Wright's.  "Ants, like humans, succeed," wrote Wilson, "because they talk so well."  If we succeed in groups, as members of a group, thanks to our talking, then the talking itself follows the lines of evolutionary development.  The talking that tends to survive, in other words, would be the group-building kind, that which helps individuals support the group, as in setting up a moral distinction between an Us and a Them.  Someone reviewing one of Wilson's books on ants made this point explicit in his comment on the dust-jacket, writing that Wilson shows how "intragroup cohesion depends on intergroup competition. You cannot have one without the other."

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The Holy or the Broken

I'm enjoying Alan Light's book about "Hallelujah," the song by Leonard Cohen that went from several years of obscurity to worldwide recognition and seemingly endless covers on UTube.  What a treat to hear about all the different interpretations. The song really has become  an international anthem.

Given how much I enjoy this book, take this one little criticism with salt when I point out a very curious comment Alan Light makes about one of the song's interpretations. He didn't care for what Susan Boyle did, "cutting a verse in half for no discernible reason, so that the final line she sings before the concluding chorus is 'I used to live alone before I knew you,'  which makes no sense at all."

I'm not a Christian believer and I haven't heard Susan Boyle's recording. But  her last line strikes me as one that a Christian would find very powerful and making perfect sense.  "Let Christ into your life and never again feel alone": isn't that what you hear so often from Christians seeking your conversion?  

Thoreau, Dylan, Moonlight, Abbey, Rand,& Clint

Thoreau's got me going again because of his silly insistence upon solitude. One review of recent books about his mentions the limits of his celebrity, how he's lionized here in the States but ignored in other countries. He benefits in his after-life here, I think, because of our infatuation with the individual.  So when he tells us that he went to live in the woods "because I wished . . . to front only the essential facts of life," we nod our amens and sing our hallelujahs, not hearing the silliness that any outsider can hear. 

The essential facts of life do not include other people? Bedrock reality involves only oneself alone?  Really, Henry.  This is beyond silly, verging on the fatuous, and yet here in America it slides right by. 

My guess is that Thoreau at this point was still basking in denial of an otherwise unendurable grief for his brother, who died from lockjaw two or three years before Henry took up his life in the woods of Walden . He had nursed his brother John through the awful final stages of a tetanus infection, and in the days that followed John's death Henry developed the exact same symptoms. The arched back, the clenched jaw, the lungs shutting down for lack of air: Henry picked up these symptoms from nowhere, everywhere, from his great longing to join his brother.

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The announcement by the Swedish Academy for this year's Nobel Prize in literature refers to an abyss that's presumably beneath us all. The prize was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro, "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Any connection at all? It's all just an illusion? This is somber indeed, reminding me of those Puritan preachers who spoke of hell-fire and damnation for everyone. And for many of them, to be sure, any connection to this world couldn't help but be illusory since this world was apart from God, a place where our souls did not truly belong. That the Swedish Academy would craft a line like this suggests to me a kind of latter-day puritanism.

A few weeks ago I encountered another reference to the abyss, this one in a blurb from the NY Times about "Book For Living," the title of a new book by Will Schwalbe. This author believes that books "are our last great hope to keep us from spiraling into the abyss." As with the Nobel Prize announcement, we've got "the abyss," flat out -- I'm trying for something American in place of tout court -- with no ifs, ands or buts, as if we all take this for granted. It's underneath us all, folks. Don't be fooled by any connections you might feel to this world.