American Ideas II

Given our military might and a widespread belief that our grandest actions are divinely sanctioned, we’re convinced that we can settle any argument by force. And when we resort to force, we expect our victories to be spectacular and absolute, even if the goal is vast and improbable, such has the utter annihilation of our enemies.

For decades we’ve boasted that we can bomb any land into a parking lot. And what is a parking lot? A featureless expanse that leaves nothing to doubt.

To any expect any other outcome to our actions—for example, to anticipate adaptations from our opponents, evolving circumstances, “quagmires,” and other undesirable outcomes—would be to adopt dialectical thinking, a mode favored during the Cold War by Marxists and Hegelians, a tribe over whom we claim yet another of those victories we consider absolute.

For too many Americans, complexity is error. We can blast the shit out of anything, and the next thing, and the next. Especially in the face of intractable problems, bludgeoning, alas, may be the true American argumentum.

“Something Artistic”

“The Courvoisiers were equally incapable of rising to the spirit of innovation which the Duchesse de Guermantes introduced into the life of society and which, by adapting it with an unerring instinct to the necessities of the moment, made it into something artistic, where the purely rational application of cut and dried rules would have produced results as unfortunate as would greet a man who, anxious to succeed in love or in politics, reproduced to the letter in his own life the exploits of Bussy d’Amboise.”
     —Proust, The Guermantes Way (p. 641)

Proust with Chainsaws


This was a quick improvisation that I wrote in a Facebook post. A friend of mine asked people to name that last book they read, appending “with a Chainsaw” to the title. This led to some amusing combinations: “History: A Very Short Introduction with a Chainsaw,” “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing With a Chainsaw,” and “It Can’t Happen Here with a Chainsaw.” I posted “The Guermantes Way with a Chainsaw,” and no sooner had I imagined Proust’s Duchess de Guermantes have a way with a chainsaw than the following scene occurred to me, transposing the social drama of a Parisian salon to a lumber camp in rural Maine.

In a dim corner of the camp’s dining hall, Mme de Villeparisis was seated at a low table, her hair tied back in a rustic bandana and a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles resting low on her sunburnt nose. Her neat gingham dressed was nearly entirely obscured by a small leather smock, now pale from a gentle snowfall of sawdust, and she “daubing away,” as she expressed it, with considerable skill as with a single, modestly bejeweled hand she wielded a 14″ Poulan chainsaw to carve in neat slices and angular cuts a block of burlwood, revealing through her industry a seagull, wing spread, flying low over a curled breaking wave.

The door by the stuffed bear creaked opened and a figure began creeping through the room, shuffling in the direction of our little group. It was Legrandin. He was wearing a pair of pressed Carhartt trousers and a Black Watch plaid shirt which revealed itself in the firelit gloom of the hall to be made not of traditional flannel but rather crushed velvet. I had heard from Swann that he still retained some mannerisms he had acquired working the high Sierras the previous summer, so it that it was not uncommon of him to quote John Muir and other ecstatic writers of that region, and to wear a forked beard and to extemporize at length of the marvelous yield potential of redwoods and black oak, which he compared favorably to our “paltry” and “womanish” white pine.

He scurried now to a position as close as possible to Mme de Villeparisis without placing himself within the arc of her dancing saw. He pulled off his knit cap and clutched it with both hands. “Yoiks, ma’am, I came scurrying once I smelled the flapjacks from across the valley.”

Mme de Villeparisis made no sign of acknowledging this remark. She merely frowned and glanced about her work table for her canister of bar and chain oil.

“Oh, are we in a valley?” said Bloch, loudly, waving his tin coffee cup as he spoke. “I had not interpreted that slight declension in the land to be a true valley.”

Across the room, M de Norpois’ brow furrowed and emitting the faintest sigh at what he took to be Bloch’s inanities, the type of speech one comes to expect of a city-dweller who spends six hours riding railway cars and perhaps a mule train and upon setting his shiny, uncreased, and unscuffed leather boots on pine-needle-laden floor of a gully declares himself a man of the country. And in order to draw attention away from Bloch’s uncouth, city-slicker ways, and with the gravity of a land manager who has negotiated with all manner of landholders and roughs over many decades working the forests from Rochester up to Calais, the elderly lumberman lifted a large, impeccable bowie knife close to his beard and set about picking his teeth.

After Tragedy

What a sad and horrible week.

Feeling at a loss, I find myself again turning to a phrase from a poem by Torei Enji, a student of the 18th century Zen master Hakuin, the Zen master famous for, among other things, offering the koan of the sound of one hand. In Torei Enji’s poem, he remarks (in my loose translation) that all things in the world cannot help but shine with their boundlessness and potential for compassion. Then he says, “Realizing this, our ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.”

The phrase I find myself returning to is “reverent care.” It seems like a good way to approach one’s fellow Americans this week. Someone is grieving? Show them reverent care. Someone is angry? Show them reverent care. Someone is espousing views I find hateful and bigoted? Show them reverent care, despite strong disagreement, which if it is expressed at all, should be carefully worded. Practice the compassion you wish were more prevalent in the world.

Reverent care is a higher standard than mere tolerance. Torei Enji isn’t suggesting that we merely tolerate the undesirable things in the world and the people we disagree with, as though grudgingly accepting the existence of others who are different from us would somehow lead to a more just and benevolent world, a world with less suffering. Rather, he’s suggesting that we revere everyone and everything, and find a way to live our lives with this compassion continually in our hearts.

Something I like about this approach is that it offers a small but readily available first step for moving forward after a week of gut-wrenching news. I can carry reverence in my heart now, and use it to guide my actions in every setting: at my desk, in the car, at the grocery store—everywhere. Anger can spur us on to effect change, but if we’re really going to solve the longstanding problems of race and violence in this country, we’re going to have to have something in our hearts besides anger. Perhaps reverence should be one of the things we always carry with us.

Be well.