Saturday, April 16, 2011

Crimes Against Humanities

"By means of beauty all beautiful things become beautiful." - Socrates
In my mid-20s, I had a nervous breakdown.  It came as I was suffering the birth-pangs from the womb of higher education into adulthood, but also as my entire plan for that adult life, which I had been working toward for years, were shattered when the woman I planned to marry dumped me to join a Buddhist meditation community and immediately start seeing someone else.  I went a little cra-cra after that.

At the time I was seeing a psychiatrist-in-training from a local university.  There are clinics that exist in some universities where one can receive analysis, therapy, treatment, the whole she-bang, for a supremely diminished fee.  Personally I feel that, unlike a barber's college, the less experienced may be an asset in this case as the psychiatrist is closer to their education and, more importantly, possibly more current in their understanding of the understanding of workings of the human mind.

The experience helped me through that difficult time and, I think, equipped me for the transition into adulthood in a lot of ways.  It was very helpful and I still highly recommend "#1 on the Stanislavski chart" to everyone.  But a lot of the harder, more existential wrestling matches in my life have been resolved or, at least, ameliorated in some less conventional outlets.  As many of you know, religion has been more of a battlefield than a refuge for me.  So much of my therapy has come from other places.

I was listening to All Things Considered the other day when, to my great surprise, a story came on which struck me rather across the face as being intensely classist.  The story was about the disturbing trend in America of defunding public libraries (as though those were a huge economic drain in the first place.  But I'm already getting ahead of myself.)  The story, however, did not focus on that trend being disturbing.  Instead the story focused on eBooks, specifically the scramble to optimize profits in that industry and the burden that free lending libraries place on that goal.  One solution seems to be the trend toward limiting the amounts of times one can "check out" the virtual intellectual property before the customer (in this case the library) is forced to re-purchase the book.

But hiding in the periphery of the story was the point that has been like a stone in my shoe for the past week.  The person interviewed and the interviewer both suggested that brick and mortar libraries with brick and mortar books are becoming archaic in the digital age.  I felt they even went so far as to suggest that this was common knowledge and a point not open for debate.  I've stated my position on eBooks before.  First of all, I don't have an eBook reader because I never have a disposable income of $100+ to spend on one and most of the books I stuff into my brain through my eyes come into my hands gratis, either by parties who support my decidedly bohemian path, or by the very public libraries that, paradoxically, the public radio program was denigrating.  I am not against eBooks.  In fact, I'm very excited by the world of possibilities they afford, perhaps undermining the Boy's Club publishing industry just as the internet undermined the Boy's Club music industry about a decade ago, and opening the doors for authors who may not have otherwise "made it."  I also think the readers, specifically the Kindle and the Nook, are aesthetically pleasing.  They look like things I would enjoy carrying around.  They also get internet access anywhere, for those times when you're walking down the street thinking "What was the name of that Weimar era cabaret performance artist who staged psycho-sexual nightmares and was fired for breaking a champagne bottle over the head of a patron?"

I live in a poor neighborhood and we have ongoing issues with people who have chosen "substance abuser" as the key selling point on their curriculum vitae.  We live directly in the path between the soup kitchen and the shelter, which occasions all manner of behavior outside of the realm of accepted legal social behavior taking place in and around our front yard.  It also occasions the people who, for any number of reasons, have been thrown out of said soup kitchen or shelter to camp in or around my front yard.  There is a specific older gentleman I'm thinking of who lives in a 1970s one-person sleeper RV filled with detritus which spills out when the door is open, making him into an unwitting Hansel, who camps, lets his dog run free, sells and indulges in what I assume to be methamphetamines, and whose key personality hook, in my experience, seems to be belligerence. The function of the lending library will not be obsolete until that man has unlimited and free access to an eBook reader.  I am not saying that their existence will effect this outcome, but their existence ensures that at any time he can go into that building and learn just about anything.

I have another facet of the argument to illustrate, exiting the tenuous realm of the hypothetical and entering the privileged position of personal testimony.  In a lot of ways, I was a version of the man in that story once.  I was once a drunkard, and I spent a lot of time in front of the television, filling my brain with mediocre crap.  At one point, I had a major health scare that gave occasion for me to reevaluate what I was doing with my life.  The library is where I then went and largely where I have stayed.  I remember one startling realization I had, which is a microcosm of what I am talking about.  Laying on my bed, staring at the cottage cheese ceiling after brushing with mortality,  the scales fell away from my eyes, and I awakened to the knowledge that I'd never at that point heard one of Beethoven's symphonies all the way through, but that I had probably watched days worth of Gilligan's Island.  And I didn't even like Gilligan's Island.

I have a virtual friend, Maura Lafferty, who recently said, "There isn't much in life that can't be solved by Beethoven's 7th." There is a great truth to that statement.

In college, I largely studied the works of, and how to produce productions of, the works of William Shakespeare.   I took a Shakespeare Intensive course through Shakespeare & Company.  We chose a passage from Shakespeare to work on.  The first few days we worked on establishing the emotional connection to the piece.  The latter few we worked on text work (scoring the trochees, spondees, and dactyls, and that sort of thing.)  I chose a short passage from the beginning of The Winter's Tale when Leontes is waxing soliloquific about his nascent suspicion of his wife's infidelity.  I was walked through a series of questions which left me a wailing mass of tears on the floor, what is referred to in psychological circles as "a breakthrough."  I was wailing uncontrollably on the floor like a child having an enraged tantrum being ignored and feeling entirely powerless in a savage, predatory world.  I was unable to stop it and I remember several people coming and holding me down at one point.  Much later I was able to articulate that it was as if I had previously thought I had a well within me, but I then discovered that I had a dormant volcano that extended down to the Earth's molten core.

Later, I had a friend who directed me in a directing-class project of the "wooing of Lady Anne" scene from Richard III.  I played Richard and I obsessively threw myself into the part and the study of the work.  I remember having a moment, and it still haunts me a little, where I became hyper-aware that I, Paul Mathers, could, under the right circumstances, given certain external stimuli, be Richard III.  I could kill.  So could anyone else.  We all have within us the potential for the greatest good and the starkest evil, or anything in-between.  This realization walks around with me.  Sometimes it is supremely encouraging.  Sometimes it is terrifying.

So often I have worked through a problem with the aid of the humanities.  When Rob died last year, as I've so often mentioned, I found no comfort in the places one is commonly sent for comfort in times of grief by well meaning parties.  Much to my surprise, I found so much comfort in what I happened to be reading at the time, which was Plato's accounts of the death of Socrates.  I have had occasion to recommend the same in the past year to a few people who have been struggling in similar ways in their own lives.  

There have been many who have articulated the argument for the humanities far better than I.  It is an age old and, I dare say, aphoristic problem that arts and education tend to take the first and harshest cuts whenever budgets are tightened in a society.  There are even highly insulting terms often employed like "entitlements" or "unmonetizable knowledge" that inevitably rear their ugly heads.  At the risk of being crass, one can imagine the social puppeteers or lunatics who, as the adage would have it, have appropriated the office of the Psychiatric hospital's chief doctor, fully realizing the profit loss of touching the war machine, protecting, creating, and imperializing their financial interests and certainly not touching their own pay rate.  Defunding Crackhead Jim's access to beauty and truth seems a much easier pill to swallow.  It is a reptilian mindset that suggests parents who give their child a dollar instead of a hug every time the child cries out for love.

Although I will tarry a moment longer in the domain of polemic to point out the key flaw in the "unmonetizable" argument.  It can be illustrated by this formula:

The level of focus on The Profit Margin is in direct proportion to the output of crap.

You want a better profit margin, you use cheaper ingredients, you fire the experienced workers and hire cheaper, less experienced employees, you cut corners, you save time.  This is why a 30 year old vacuum cleaner is better than a new one.  This is the slippery slope of attention to wealth.

Example: 1995- "Let's reclaim the invention of the television for education!  Let's make a television station called The Wonder Channel, funded both by subscription AND advertisers, and create content based on learning, exploring, wonder, creativity, truth, and beauty!"
2011- "Next up on '-Der': Barbecue Pit Bosses.  Join Cleavus and Lil' Vinton as they build backyard barbecue pits.  You will learn neither how to make a barbecue pit nor how to barbecue from watching this program.  Mainly you will watch the two leads yell bleeped out swears at each other.  Brought to you by Tadalafil."

Eventually the series is canceled when a video from the cutting room floor is leaked to YouTube in which Cleavus gives a profanity-laden rant against one of the credit card companies that finance the show.  The entire story is sad and makes the world seem slightly lonelier and life seem slightly more fleeting in the collective unconscious until the only flaccid pleasure people can derive from interacting with the world at large is mock and scoff, guffawing at the very Hellbound handbasket in which they are firmly tucked.

Although a Theater major, I am able to readily identify the unsustainabilty of a system where the bulk of the wealth is funneling to an increasingly smaller percentage of the population and that increasingly smaller percentage is paying increasingly less into the system.  The three card monte game of the Right is to fool the working class, through appeals to down-hominess, old fashioned values and so forth, into thinking that they, the Proles, can one day, through hard work and enterprising, become one of them, the Cake-Eaters.  This is false.

So, the news is full of talk about defunding the arts and education.  As I said before, it's an easy place to cut when you're holding the cutting device and when you interests lay elsewhere.  It's way easier to fund and maintain a prison-industrial complex than a flourishing public education system.  And, if you don't do the latter, you're going to have to do the former, so I guess they go for what's cheaper and easier.  But once again I think of society as something we will to make.  The world is what we make of it.  What if we had a population who were consumed with truth, beauty, love, equality, and unity?  Let's not even go that far though.  What if we just had a society where humankind's expressions of and arguments for those highest of virtues were accessible to every citizen?  How much better would that be?

And I'm not necessarily making the argument for government funding of the humanities exclusively.  As with any other source of funding, there is always the problem of "biting the hand that feeds" the arts, much like poor Cleavus.  I am in favor of heavy government funding of the sciences and the humanities.  But more to the point, I am for accessibility to the sciences and humanities for everyone.  There are many admirable attempts at putting the cookies on lower shelves within the humanities.  There are "rush" seatings at most live concert and theater venues in which one can go to the ticket booth within the last 30 minutes before a performance and get severely discounted seats.  Many theaters have "pay what thou wilt" nights.  The internet has an embarrassment of riches of free resources of lectures, classes, and readings, free for the taking.  The doors to the libraries are still open.

I think that the humanities have so much to offer a society.  If we must talk about the monetizable aspects (and, unfortunately, there exists the type of philistine tromping around the offices of elected officials who will demand the monetizable aspects) I would bring up health care.  Foresight dictates that the future of health care demands preventative health measures.  However, the prevailing philosophy of modern western medicine trends exclusively toward the palliative.  George Bernard Shaw wrote a brilliant foreword to his play The Doctor's Dilemma in which he makes the point that the paradox of the medical field is that if it ever reached a point of ultimate efficacy, it would put itself out of business.

The Humanities are good for the future health of a society.  They allow so many avenues for growth, education, and progress.  A civilization filled with growing, educated, and progressing individuals has a more optimistic future than one filled with demotivated, ignorant, cynics.  So, investing in the Humanities as a society is much like putting aside money into a long term IRA or Keogh plan.

The Humanities offer so much in the way of mental and physical health to the individual as well.  They are a conduit for the highest aspirations of humankind.  The Humanities are indicative of a good life, which is something that no one should be denied access to.  I would hasten to add that anyone who has studied the great civilizations of old knows that so often the great civilizations fall at the hands of utter brutes.  As Dystopian authors or social commentators know, there is a great danger in hiding the light under bushels of reaching the point where "We have seen the brutes who will fell our civilization, and they are us."


  1. Paul, I personally think that this is one of the best things you've written. Maybe it's just that it touches me more closely than other posts.

    My own attitude toward libraries is rather cynical. I'm glad they are there. I believe in the ideals which started them. But every time I am in one I notice that the bulk of people are in the DVD section picking over big name Hollywood movies and television shows. The next most populated sections are the teenie-bopper section, dominated by manga and Twilight, and the periodicals. People are getting for free the same consumerism-oriented gristle as other, presumably wealthier, are paying for.

    The potential is there, of course. But when you look at the collection of classics, you'll often find in our libraries that it is the outdated public domain translations which fill the shelves. Our libraries are run not so differently from businesses which keep on supply that which will be most desired.

    I think it's fair to ask what purpose the libraries are serving these days. In the land of Netflix Instant Watch are libraries just a type of Blockbuster rental store which happens to be tax-funded?

    There is one huge difference which is the thing that gives me hope. Every time I have requested the purchase of a book, the library has procured it. Of course they do the same for everyone, regardless of content.

    Implicit within my thoughts here is the idea that some books and digital media are valuable and others are not. And, of course, I think this is true, and that Herodotus is more worthy of tax dollars than Twilight. But it's a sticky thing to put someone or some group in charge of determining what's worthwhile and therefore funded. Because of this stickiness our libraries operate on an agnostic basis. What's the solution?

  2. Thank you.

    I've made similar observations at my local library. They do have a selection (albeit a rather bare-bones one) of great films. I can get Truffaut, Godard, Welles, etc. there and, yes, usually there is no competition to get them save having to elbow past the crowd clamoring for whatever new release inanity. I also know, and thought of this after finishing this post, that at least three of my favorite blogs are written by people in public libraries who have no other means by which to get online. So there is that great service as well.

    As far as I can tell, any Guardians of Splendor model in a society oft go aglay pretty doggone quick. While I am, apparently, trying to slide a "slippery slope" argument under the radar here, the asinine is nothing new, nor is it even peculiar to our culture. I imagine the luminaries of the past all had similar reactions to the tripe that their contemporaries lined up to ingest.

    But those luminaries did still exist under those circumstances. It's doubtful that a young person who reads and loves Twilight will go back to the library for anything other than more Twilight. "Gee, Twilight was so good, I think I'll go read Anna Karenina!" But it could happen. More to the point though and more toward the reality in which we live, yes, I agree to some extent that it rankles a bit to see so much of the library's energy focused on pop trifles. However, I imagine that may be one of the ways in which they keep their doors open. And if the maddening crowds calling for said trifles in any way give me access to the free 5 foot shelf of Harvard Classics, I think it's what my brain feels most comfortable filing under "necessary evil."

    I'm not sure I have a watertight solution to the devolving culture, except to be a loud vote against it. At the risk of sounding completely snobbish, sort of a "trickle-down theory" of intellectualism.