Donald Gardner Stacy's Blog

Thoughts on Literature, Philosophy, Politics, & Society

Donald Gardner Stacy

Donald Gardner Stacy
Spokane, Washington, United States
August 11
Yunnan Einsun Software College
Emigrated to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China at the age of 56. My life was quickly restored. Literature, philosophy, politics, & social criticism all interest me, in that order.


MARCH 8, 2009 3:09AM

The Obsession with Consistency

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       Consistency among logicians and mathematicians is paramount; and even among con-men a consistent character is rather essential to assure trouble-free business transactions, if nothing else.  Lies have been committed unwittingly—or oftentimes intentionally—for the sake of Business, merely to insure quick profits; also for the sake of Science, beginning from the time of its infancy and magical years when astrology and alchemy were still much in vogue.  And lies have been committed in the name of Jurisprudence over and over again for political reasons, when the enforcement of all laws should remain forever free of politics, just as Science should remain free of politics.  And most of all, lies have been committed in the name of Religion, in this Present Day a competitive brew of hostile ideologies and codes of morality.  What one religion deems permitted in the conduct of men towards women,  the moral perspective buttressed by the opposing religion views as reprehensible and, in some cases, a heinous crime.

       The most judicious course which I can follow must reject both Islam and Christianity as a set of unwieldy mythologies, and at the same time lay claim to Atheism as the most rational approach to the question of faith possible.  But, atheists who live in contemporary civilizations and societies have a bad reputation; in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries many of the anarchists and forerunners or would-be members of the Communist Party were heralded in the United States and England as dangerous criminals, and they were nearly to a man, atheists. 

       Even though the Soviet Union, and the Russian Communist Party along with it, fell into first a stagnation of corruption and later bankruptcy; another far more vibrant strand of that same ideology still exists today in the form of the Chinese Communist Party. 

       Let me say that Jean-Paul Sartre was once a great admirer of Mao Zedong, and this is not an exaggeration.  Sartre, the man who refused to accept the Nobel Prize for literature since he disdained it as bourgeois, had adopted a very stringent form of communism as his political orientation.  What his motives were in doing so, I’ve never known nor have I read any secondary offerings as to why; but I am certain that Sartre himself had various philosophical as well as personal reasons.  But this very same form of communism has long since been, if not repudiated, then superseded by an economic theory which permits trade with capitalist countries.  This should only be said with the acknowledgement that the very word “capitalist” itself is awkward and imprecise at best.  It has long been clear that the “free market” is an outright illusion, particularly on the world stage; and it is the world stage of economics which holds the key to the general relief from suffering among the many peoples who compose the human species.

       That China and the United State are intertwined economically has now become a platitude.  The “home office” of a massive corporation has become meaningless in most respects, except in the payment of quarterly taxes.  These enormous corporations and their board of directors, whose intentions oftentimes can easily change the course of a local history with their decision to build a new factory or shut an old one down, have been determining the shape of the world for decades.

       Workers have known ever since the Industrial Revolution in England that a company’s account books and profits are slowly etched onto their backs, just as surely as heavy loads have bent those same backs throughout the course of their daily labors.  But the cry of equal pay for equal work now will be heard across the entire world, not just to the other side of a noisy factory room or commodious suite of offices.

       Some people like to say that the Internet has already had innumerable unforeseen effects upon civilization.  The critics will point toward spam and pornography and the deterioration of language, and the giddy proponents will gesticulate toward the new online economy and instant world-wide communication which have become available.  To ignore all this would be to join the ranks of those who stopped learning during the eighth decade of the previous century.  Politicians and businesspeople disregard the Internet at their peril.  The business of journalism is particularly suffering today on the sharp cusp of History as many newspapers go bankrupt, fold, and sell off their equipment to the highest bidder.  Even publishing houses are nervous, certainly because of the world-wide economic catastrophe, but also because of the Internet and the matter of copyright during an age in which the duplication of digitized material requires no effort at all.

       Piracy of this same material is rampant around the world.  That is why the software engineers of computer programs have designated their code as either public or private; the latter then being irreversibly reduced to binary code, beyond any possibility of regeneration into the understandable and useful and instantly reproducible.  Only a license fee can provide access.

       So consider now any business or even artistic endeavor which at a glance would seem devoid of all usefulness and understandability.  That art in particular should lack utility might be defended; but that a narrative or painting or film can be incomprehensible and yet still be called art has thrown down a gauntlet in the face of Reason.  But, at the same time, there are occasions or events which defy the Understanding and manage to elicit a great deal of interest.  Natural phenomena comes easiest to mind, in this case.  The number of interpenetrating forces at work in the natural world can hardly be calculated, let alone grasped and understood without minutely-confined examinations, which in and of themselves involve presuppositions and expectations which in some sense can mould subsequent perceptions. How wrong we would be if we thought a scientist conducted his or her work without expectations and the prior restraint of accepted theories!  Only by a judicious forbearance toward old ideas can new thoughts come into being; and ideas cannot be tested until they have been conceived.

       I should think that Literature is the most staid of all the Fine Arts, since much if not all of its subject matter deals with human psychology, the study of what a person does and thinks.  The metaphysical poets of the Seventeenth Century were very much concerned with personal life within a religious world; and perhaps that is one of the main reasons why Eliot, our principal Twentieth Century bard and a very religious-minded gentleman, thought such a great deal of them.  But he also had to deal with the effects of mechanization and the minimalizing of importance of a single individual.  Most of the poets since his time also have striven for the deeply personal to combat these same influences.

       A novelist or a playwright has far greater difficulty here.  The accepted psychologies available are not innumerable by any means.  The general audience will usually insist upon the believability of character; and if they are ever presented with inscrutable or bizarre psychologies of human character, they will very often wince and step back figuratively and gape with either disgust, bafflement, or at best sheer unadorned wonder.  Take a few examples:  from popular film, the quintessentially amoral figure of the one-time psychiatrist with a ghoulish taste for human flesh, Hannibal Lecter, immortalized by Anthony Hopkins; a notch down from this horror you can find figures like Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, a felonious man of evil moods and unforgiving temper;  and then you have an odd assortment of characters for whom the word ‘marginal’ would be a compliment, such as Sartre’s Roquentin, Beckett’s pair of tramps, or perhaps even Bellow’s Herzog who insists that existentialists are pipsqueaks, or Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  The point is that all these characters are interesting but hardly lovable.  Not the sort that most of us would care to feel ‘concern’ toward; certainly not the sort whom we’d want to invite out for a drink or home to a dinner party.

       How often have works of contemporary literature won the hearts of readers with characters such as these?  Very rarely among the more typical book lovers.  There is no doubt a good reason for this, the notion that the reader wants above all else to ‘identify’ with one or more of the principal characters, and then follow the narrative from a subjective point of view.  Novels and films will tend to affect the more careless reader or viewer in this way, which is one of the chief motives for taking up a book or film in the first place, to be entertained.  Conrad once remarked that, “We are more the creatures of our popular literature than we can ever know.”

       These isolated or marginal characters who skirt the boundaries of both sanity and morality can have an eerie fascination, and we can follow them up to a point; but when they either willfully or inadvertently step beyond these limits, we then suddenly draw back from them in disgust, perplexity, or horror; yet we continue to imagine or watch them on their spiraling path through zones of inconsistency and the irrational.  We continue to gape and shudder at a safe distance.

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Hi Donald. Hope you don't mind my rambling a bit here...

I think you're right to identify the free market as (me paraphrasing here, tell me if I get this wrong) a kind of theatre that gives an overall public plausibility to a texture that underlies the system and is of a different nature. It seems to me clear that there will always be those who have power, perhaps unfairly (if there can be said to be any usefully objective notion of fairness anyway), and even in the best circumstances the notion that we're all equals will be imperfect.

You point to consistency in your title and then don't quite focus on it in as much textual detail in the writing as I'd like in order to really see why you think consistency is central to some of these, so I have to intersperse thoughts of my own again, but I'll infer two issues that lead the same place: in our choice of allies to survive in the world, we sometimes cannot rely on philosophical alignment, so we need other measures for judging who we will do business with and who we will not. Consistency is a meta-tool that allows us to know whether it's worth engaging people who differ in detailed philosophy. The maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” would not be possible to evaluate without meta-theories like consistency that allow us to judge as acceptable some things that others do that we ourselves would not. Call it layers of acceptable if you like. If you're a computer programmer, call it an “interface protocol” rather than “class inheritance,” but it amounts to the same.

Even ignoring our allies and examining our enemies, we prefer our enemies orderly. I recommend to anyone who hasn't seen The Last Samurai that this movie is both a satisfying story and an illustration of my point here about what it is to have an honorable enemy. It's like being lost in the jungle and coming to understand that even the jungle has rules, and that if you understand them, it gives you more ability to navigate it. You simply can't afford to have every moment be a scary one. There's only so much adrenaline the body can pump, and the rest has to be called routine.

In the jungle that is life, once we can characterize the evil beasts' behavior in any way, we can at least find the occasional cave into which we can crawl to sleep in safety while we rest to do battle another day. So I guess I wouldn't call it obsession so much as prudence or necessity. Then again, I don't know whether those are the names of axes or endpoints in Aristotle's algebra of virtue ethics; perhaps if they are endpoints, and if you construe endpoints as obsessions, there's a happy mean .. I'd just have to think harder than I have the time for this Sunday morning to figure out what the counterbalancing extreme is.
My head hurts...

Your thoughts are most welcome, rambling or otherwise. True, the title turned out to be misleading, since I didn't adhere to the theme at all rigorously. Ah, a method of thought and writing that I apparently have fallen into over the years might be seen as a kind circling inward to the point.

A while back Grif had posted a piece about the borderline personality, and described in ample detail the exasperations that someone with this sort of character can stir up in others, since this type of person tends to react unpredictably to a given situation. I had some of this in mind when I set off on this rambling discourse.

But I also had in mind the influence of writers' workshops nowadays, an institution which hardly existed before World War II, baring Roosevelt's program, perhaps. And these groups do wield a good deal of power and influence over literary style. Any serious new fiction that has barest hope of being published would need some connection to one of these groups, it would seem.

Consistency will be found toward the center of the extremes which Aristotle would have forsworn. Fortunately, I have a fair amount of light in my cave, and whenever I venture out from it I do not feel instantly shaken from a sense of danger. By definition, the familiar bears within itself a certain consistency. But whatever is new and unseen before, that I cannot judge to be either consistent or inconsistent at first glance. In such a case, I do what I've often done in the past, take up a hopefully steady and untrouble gaze, and watch what happens.