I’m holding the envelope in my hand, the envelope which says where I’m going to spend the next few years. It feels like I’m holding my future, that it’s fragile and if I look at it incorrectly it will spontaneously combust or dissolve into dust. I know this is not true. I know that it is just a few pieces of paper in a Fedex envelope, and that even the words on those pieces of paper will not materially change my manner of living in any immediate way when I read them. Nor really will the contents be a surprise – they will just fill in the blanks. I know my future (short-term, anyhow, and barring accident): in two months I will be going to, where I will receive training and begin learning the language. In five months I will transfer to ______________________ and begin teaching, which I will do for twenty-four months following. After that, __________________…
in the workplace
We bicycled four miles through the strange weather of a Portland spring (snow, hail, rain, and sunshine, all in the span of two or three blocks) to see a movie about torture.1 As a movie, I don’t have much to say about it; if the topic interests you, or if the current state of America interests you, then I suggest you see it, if you haven’t already, which you probably have. The most interesting part of the movie to me were the interviews with the servicemen who had been tried for misconduct and, mostly, convicted; these interviews interested me because these men work in my office.
Well. Not actually, of course, but it’s easy to recognize them, their frustration with lack of standards, the senseless things they are asked to do for too many hours in a row, the lack of opportunity to stand up to authority, and their ability to muddle through anyhow, trying to do their job without having much of an idea about what their job is beyond its irritations.2 If grand moral choices are made in such circumstances, the person who makes it will be out of a job before he or she is even aware that their choice has been made.
A modest example: I remember sitting in a meeting and listening to the manager say that ‘everyone was responsible for’ such and such a thing, which nobody liked to do and nobody, with the possible exception of the manager, cared about. When the manager asked if there were any questions, I asked how everyone could be responsible for the task: either everyone would run to do it (unlikely) or everyone would try to avoid it (the current behavior). I asked if some sort of hierarchy (arbitrary or not) of responsibility be drawn up, so it was clear who needed to do what when. The manager repeated that it was everyone’s responsibility that this thing be done, and there were no excuses. I rephrased my question, the manager evaded, and I got a talking to after the meeting about questioning his decisions.3
Please note, I do not think I was necessarily correct to question – in fact, I think it demonstrated my lack of understanding of corporate rituals; however, I do note that as a result of the incident, it was very difficult for me to care about the work I was doing or the ‘customers’ I was supposed to be helping – it cut the connection between the thoughtful, caring part of myself that had been showing up to work (foolishly, perhaps), and the mechanical part, which was really all that was wanted by my superiors. I was not paid to think, I was not encouraged to think and, ultimately, I decided not to think, not at that job, anyhow.
This is so far from being uncommon that you probably think it ridiculous to mention. I agree, I think it very common. I think it common where people are required to work in a system they do not understand, for goals they cannot achieve, in conditions they do not enjoy, for people they cannot respect. Of course I am not saying that actions of the soldiers interviewed in the documentary were correct or even defensible; but I think they were understandable, given the circumstances. It is a shame such circumstances exist, anywhere and everywhere.
Riding home on the bus from the beach, two men and a boy were talking about the army and the Iraq war. The men were Vietnam vets, weary, somewhat broken, and supporting the war because they saw there was a problem and felt that the military should be able to fix it. The boy was also a supporter of the war; he had just dropped out of the army (‘I ate free for a couple of months, so that’s good, right?’) to go back to school, join a frat, and spend the summer working for the forest service at $20/hour instead of $1000/month (and ‘you can’t drink in the army, and that sucks’). The veterans mumbled how military taught discipline and respect and that was good; the boy grunted, and said, ‘well, if you get money from it, that’s where I’m going to go.’
- There is some interesting audio on the web about this topic, e.g.: a philosophical look at torture and several episodes of This American Life, most notably: Audacity of Government & Habeas Schmabeas. [↩]
- Cf. the dehumanizing process of working in a slaughterhouse described at length in Gail Eisnitz’s Slaugherhouse, or more briefly in the rather more widely read Omnivore’s Dilemma:
After a while the rhythm of the work took over my misgivings, and I could kill without a thought to anything but my technique. I wasn’t at it long enough for slaughtering chickens to become routine, but the work did begin to feel mechanical, and that feeling, perhaps more than any other, was disconcerting: how quickly you can get used to anything, especially with people around you think nothing of it. In a way, the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling (232f.).[↩]
- Except of course that he hadn’t actually made a decision, but that’s another matter. [↩]
A view (21)
On the evening of my last day of work.
It was like trying to understand the constitutional history of the United States by reading about the Anasazi.
Ho yuss! Vurry true.
Properly, we shd. read for power. Man reading shd. be man intensely alive. The book shd. be a ball of light in one’s hand (55).1
Reading Pound’s Guide to Kulcher, I was perplexed; partially because it is an odd book, aimed at those who don’t mind attending the university of the brain of Ezra Pound (which is a strange place, of many prejudices). Mostly, though, I just wasn’t (and ain’t) sure what to make of it, how to reconcile those parts I can (reservedly) agree with and those which strike me as outcroppings of the fashion of the times or mere idiosyncrasies.2 It jumps here and there, following a logic which I don’t quite see (and am too lazy to look for),3 and digresses on subjects with a force not quite necessary to the task of guide – as though Virgil cracked wise at every opportunity, and made opportunities to do so where none were before.
When I can agree with him, though, I find that I can generally agree pretty whole-heartedly. Some notes:
I suspect that the error in educational systems has been the cutting off of learning from appetite […] Real knowledge goes into natural man in titbits. A scrap here, a scrap there; always pertinent, linked to safety, nutrition or pleasure (98f).
Then there is education as apart from learning. By learning I assume in some measure that he means learning how to think about things, rather than being educated into a brittle edifice of apparent understanding. It’s impossible to force-feed knowledge; one gets prescient indigestion.
About thirty years ago, seated on one of the very hard, very slippery, thoroughly uncomfortable chairs of the British Museum main reading room, with a pile of large books at my right hand and a pile of somewhat smaller ones at my left hand, I lifted my eyes to the tiers of volumes and false doors covered with imitation bookbacks which surround that focus of learning. Calculating the eye-strain and the number of pages per day that a man could read, with deduction for say at least 5% of one man’s time for reflection, I decided against it. There must be some other way for a human being to make use of that vast cultural heritage (53f.).
Also how ideas of things become mixed up with the things themselves. There is the vast cultural heritage as an idea and then there is the representation of it, locked behind imitation bookbacks. There is the thing that is and the thing that seems and, though it seems that one can grasp it by a diligence of buttocks, that is the idea of an ass.
If the affable reader (or a delegate to an international economic conference from the U.S. of A.) cannot distinguish between his armchair and a bailiff’s order, permitting the bailiff to sequester that armchair, life will offer him two alternatives: to be exploited or to be the more or less pampered pimp of exploiters until it becomes his turn to be bled. ¶ The bailiff’s order may be openly such, or it may be a bailiff’s order heavily camouflaged, but homo not completely sap-head will smell, divine or see clearly the difference between his roof and a mortgage (244).
The supreme evil committable by a critic is to turn men away from the bright and the living. The ignominious failure of ANY critic (however low) is to fail to find something to arouse the appetite of his audience, to read, to see, to experience (161).
- This and all other quotations are from Guide to Kulchur, New York: New Directions, 1970. [↩]
- My reservations and disagreements, however, might be due to my being one of the ‘over-fed’ at whom the book is definitely not aimed and my disagreements could, in Pound’s view, probably be ascribed to the fashions of my time and the timidities of my occupation and character. [↩]
- Damned thus. [↩]
In 1938 let us say, a bloke with small means wants the best of Europe. Once he cd. have done a great deal on foot. I dare say he still can. In 1911 there was an international currency (20 franc pieces) twenty such in jug-purse and no god-damned passports. (Hell rot Wilson AND the emperor, I think it was Decius.) If a man can’t afford to go by automobile, and if he is content with eating and architecture, the world’s best (as I have known it) is afoot from Poitiers, from Brives, from Périgord or Limoges. In every town a romanesque church or château. No place to stay for any time, but food every ten miles or fifteen or twenty. When I say food, I mean food. So, at any rate, was it. With fit track to walk on.
I do not say walk in Italy. The sane man will want his Italy by car. Even if it is public omnibus. The roads go over the Appenines, they go over the Bracca. They go over, where trains bore through. It is not a country to walk in because food is a FRENCH possession, when on foot one wants it. […] The dust on Italian roads, the geographic or geological formation of the peninsula all say go by car. Don’t try to walk it. You have enough foot work when you get to the towns. You have a concentration of treasures that will need all your calf muscles, all your ankle resistence.
– Ezra Pound,
Guide to Kulchur p. 111f.
A view (22)
This I will miss.
ἀρχαιολογία δέ τίς ἐστι περὶ τοῦ ἔθνους τοῦδε τοιαύτη· Ἄρμενος ἐξ Ἀρμενίου πόλεως Θετταλικῆς, ἣ κεῖται μεταξὺ Φερῶν καὶ Λαρίσης ἐπὶ τῇ Βοίβῃ, καθάπερ εἴρηται, συνεστράτευσεν Ἰάσονι εἰς τὴν Ἀρμενίαν· τούτου φασὶν ἐπώνυμον τὴν Ἀρμενίαν οἱ περὶ Κυρσίλον τὸν Φαρσάλιον καὶ Μήδιον τὸν Λαρισαῖον, ἄνδρες συνεστρατευκότες Ἀλεξάνδρῳ· τῶν δὲ μετὰ τοῦ Ἀρμένου τοὺς μὲν τὴν Ἀκιλισηνὴν οἰκῆσαι τὴν ὑπὸ τοῖς Σωφηνοῖς πρότερον οὖσαν, τοὺς δὲ ἐν τῇ Συσπιρίτιδι ἕως τῆς Καλαχηνῆς καὶ τῆς Ἀδιαβηνῆς ἔξω τῶν Ἀρμενιακῶν ὅρων. καὶ τὴν ἐσθῆτα δὲ τὴν Ἀρμενιακὴν Θετταλικήν φασιν, οἷον τοὺς βαθεῖς χιτῶνας οὓς καλοῦσιν Θετταλικοὺς ἐν ταῖς τραγῳδίαις, καὶ ζωννύουσι περὶ τὰ στήθη καὶ ἐφαπτίδας, ὡς καὶ τῶν τραγῳδῶν μιμησαμένων τοὺς Θετταλούς· ἔδει μὲν γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἐπιθέτου κόσμου τοιούτου τινός, οἱ δὲ Θετταλοὶ μάλιστα βαθυστολοῦντες, ὡς εἰκός, διὰ τὸ πάντων εἶναι Ἑλλήνων βορειοτάτους καὶ ψυχροτάτους νέμεσθαι τόπους ἐπιτηδειοτάτην παρέσχοντο μίμησιν τῇ τῶν ὑποκριτῶν διασκευῇ ἐν τοῖς ἀναπλάσμασιν· καὶ τὸν τῆς ἱππικῆς ζῆλόν φασιν εἶναι Θετταλικὸν καὶ τούτοις ὁμοίως καὶ Μήδοις. τὴν δὲ Ἰάσονος στρατείαν καὶ τὰ Ἰασόνια μαρτυρεῖ, ὧν τινα οἱ δυνάσται κατεσκεύασαν παραπλησίως ὥσπερ τὸν ἐν Ἀβδήροις νεὼν τοῦ Ἰάσονος Παρμενίων.
– Strabo, Geography, 11.14.121
- It was interesting looking over Strabo’s account of the Caucasus, where nothing seems to make much sense and everyone seems to have come from someplace else. This bit about the Iberians (Georgians) is typical: γλῶτται δ’ εἰσὶν ἓξ καὶ εἴκοσιν αὐτοῖς διὰ τὸ μὴ εὐεπίμικτον πρὸς ἀλλήλους. Φέρει δ’ ἡ γῆ καὶ τῶν ἑρπετῶν ἔνια τῶν θανασίμων καὶ σκορπίους καὶ φαλάγγια· τῶν δὲ φαλαγγίων τὰ μὲν ποιεῖ γελῶντας ἀποθνήσκειν, τὰ δὲ κλαίοντας πόθῳ τῶν οἰκείων (11.4.6): too many languages and poisonous creatures that cause you to die laughing, or sometimes crying. A weird place. [↩]
Looking out the window of the coffee shop onto the overcast concrete, it seemed to have already become a picture, flat and filtered and filmy and flimsy. The sense of proportion was unmarred, but judging depth was a matter of relative position rather than perception, and a careless move might have scratched the surface, leaving a white mark and a void where the meaning should have been.