Against My Ruin

27 February 2011


——————I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
———-Shantih shantih shantih

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said”

The moral innocence of youth is understood to reflect the inexperience of youth, and as time passes and experience accumulates, youth passes and is replaced by the person shaped by the experiences that have robbed that person of youth. Yet we can think of experience in two senses which could be called experiences of agency and experiences of sufferancy (following the distinction I drew between agents — those who act — and sufferants — those who suffer the actions of others — in Agents and Sufferants). Most experiences involve both acting and suffering, but many experiences are predominantly one or the other. When we consider the life experiences that bring us from youth to maturity, we can make a rough distinction between those experiences we initiated and therefore, in a sense, “did” to ourselves, and those experiences that befell us, sometimes the result of what others “did” to us, and sometimes simply the result of what happened to us quite apart from any intentional agency.

One thing that I have learned from middle age is how losses accumulate in life: we suffer more losses the longer we live — losses of all kinds. Now that I understand a little better the reality of loss, I look to those older people that I know (like my parents) and I find myself asking how people can continue to go on as the losses mount. The answer, of course, is that some individuals do not go on. Some among us are overwhelmed by losses and are broken by them, in some sense or other of “break.” Just as there are many senses of loss, so too there are many ways of being broken. (I previously wrote about what it means to be broken in Broken Lives.)

Most of us are not broken. Even those who suffer repeated catastrophic losses may not be catastrophically broken, although the experience of loss certainly changes us even if it does not break us. The little losses the mount over time, like the mass wasting that silently, incrementally levels mountains, break us in small ways, a little bit at a time. We become broken in a thousand minor ways. That is to say, we become damaged. Most of us are damaged, even if we are not broken.

T. S. Eliot, in his repudiated book, After Strange Gods, wrote that “…the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born in an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” I came upon this quote in Walter Kaufmann at a time when Eliot’s book was virtually unobtainable. (Now the whole book can be read by all, for free, on the internet.) Kaufmann took this as a sign of Eliot feeling sorry for himself, though with the full text available we can consider a longer quote that doesn’t sound quite so self-pitying:

“No sensible author, in the midst of something that he is trying to write, can stop to consider whether it is going to be romantic or the opposite. At the moment when one writes, one is what one is, and the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born into an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition. The danger of using terms like ‘romantic’ and ‘classic’ — this does not however give us permission to avoid them altogether — does not spring so much from the confusion caused by those who use these terms about their own work, as from inevitable shifts of meaning in context.”

T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods, p. 26

This is the recognizable voice of Eliot the critic. But Eliot the poet also recognized the toll of loss, and the predictable human reaction to loss, in the final lines of The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” While as a critic Eliot had his splenetic moments, Eliot the poet — whether the early poet of The Waste Land or the late poet of the Four Quartets — was much too much the artist to give vent to mere sentimentality. Eliot as a poet is a witness to a moral truth, and not a self-pitying scold.

While even the most passive among us will inevitably suffer losses, merely as a sufferant, one may also suffer losses as a result of taking action and placing oneself in a position of agency. Indeed, failed action is often a pretext for a defeated individual to renounce his agency and profess a cataclysmic or eschatological conception of history in which human beings are understood to suffer only and be almost without ability to act. In this way a Weltanschauung may embody the self-pity of those broken by loss, and a loss can become a pretext for the denial of human agency.

More interesting than a conversion attributable to loss are those losses knowingly suffered as a consequence of agency. One can become broken, damaged, and imperfect even while striving toward the attainment of greater perfection — or especially because of such striving. To pursue a momentous undertaking is to consciously take risk, and to consciously take risk is to be aware of the ever-present possibility of failure. And even if one is successful in one’s momentous undertaking, there will almost certainly be casualties, even if one is not oneself broken. Being the cause of another’s suffering is, in turn, its own particular species of suffering.

At this point we may wish to appeal to what can be called the principle of inoculation, most famously expressed in an aphorism of Nietzsche: “That which does not destroy me makes be stronger.” I do not wish to deny this outright, but it is a principle that admits of qualifications. Often one is stronger in one sense from having suffered adversity, even while in another sense one is damaged.

From a naturalistic perspective, the one observation that can be made here (i.e., the one naturalistic observation that is not merely a reiteration of the brutal facts of life) is that every loss is a selection event, and that those that remain have been selected for. This may be cold comfort with the memory of those selected against still fresh in the mind, but it remains true and can be accepted on some level as a naturalistic form of hope. When we are ready for it. This day may not yet have dawned.

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Folded, Spindled, Mutilated

22 November 2010


In the early stages of the Computer Age there were punched paper cards that held data, and in order for the data to be correctly read by the machine the punched cards needed to be kept flat and in good shape. It came to be the custom to print on these punched cards “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” In an early protest against the growing anonymity, depersonalization, and dehumanization of the Machine Age, a slogan began making the rounds — rapidly co-opted for commercial purposes and printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers — that played upon this: “I am a Human Being: Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” One must be of a certain age to remember this.

All of us are folded, spindled, and mutilated to a greater or lesser degree — we live blighted lives. Some of us do it to ourselves through self-destructive behavior, and some of us have it visited upon us by the unwanted attentions of a hostile world. It is natural to look for someone to blame so that we have on object — a scapegoat — upon which we can unleash our anger and indignation, our resentment at having been thwarted in life. It is natural, but it is also dishonest. Most of the forces that fold, spindle, and mutilate our lives are embodied not in an individual but in what Braudel called the structures of everyday life. That is to say, our lives are mutilated by forces that are much larger than any individual, and which cannot be changed by even the most heroic efforts of an individual.

Steven Lubar of the Smithsonian Institution has an interesting essay available online on the topic of early punch cards: “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate: A cultural history of the punch card.” In this essay Lubar writes:

“In the 1930s the University of Iowa used cards for student registration; on each card was printed “Do not fold or bend this card.” Cards reproduced in an IBM sales brochure of the 1930s read “Do not fold, tear, or mutilate this card” and “Do not fold tear or destroy.” I’m not sure when the canonical “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” first appeared; it’s one of those traditions whose author and origin is lost in the mists of time.”

There are also apparently at least a couple of books devoted to the topic.

In her famous essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf discusses how the life of the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is stunted and deformed because of the social circumstances of the time in which the novel was written. That is to say, the structures of everyday life were, for Charlotte Brontë, oppressive. Woolf made a comparison between Tolstoy and Brontë (as well as George Eliot):

“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoi lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world,’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”

Of Brontë herself Woolf wrote:

“…one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”

And who is not at war with their lot? How many of us are satisfied with our lot, or accept it peacefully? Who can accept with equanimity the outrages and injustices of the world? And if someone could simply accept this without rebelling, would we suppose that this was for the better, or that such an one lacked some essential human spark? The condition of which Woolf writes is not only the condition of female novelists of the nineteenth century; it is also the human condition.

Few if any of us express our genius (if we possess any) whole and entire. T. S. Eliot wrote in his repudiated book, After Strange Gods, “…the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born in an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” (I quoted this previously in Microcosm/Macrocosm.)

As the life of Brontë was “deformed and twisted,” “cramped and thwarted,” so are many if not most lives. The theme has inspired some of the greatest poetry in the English language. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” is a meditation upon thwarted lives:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Gray even conscientiously recognizes both the possibilities of fame and ignominy:

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.

Gray tells the story of those lives that were folded, spindled, and mutilated long before there were such things as computer punch cards. Indeed, the lives that Gray celebrates in his poetry were lived under the agricultural paradigm, so we see that deformed and thwarted lives are not unique to industrialized civilization. Industrialization may accelerate and exacerbate the deformation of lives, but the problem does not originate with industrialization.

It is relatively easy to think of examples of lives thwarted by spectacular episodes in history, like war or terrorism, but by far the most pervasive forces that thwart lives are those rooted in the Braudelian formulation I used above, the structures of everyday life. As implied by Gray’s Elegy, poverty and rural isolation once thwarted a great many lives. Rural isolation is less of a concern now, and is diminishing over time, but poverty, and the fear of poverty, continues to mark lives the world over.

Most of all, fear in its many forms deforms, twists, and cramps our lives. Economic fear is for the industrial paradigm the equivalent to the pervasive fear of hunger under the agricultural paradigm. When almost everyone worked on the land, and the land was only marginally productive, a bad harvest meant hunger or starvation in the coming winter. This was true from the advent of the neolithic agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. Now almost everyone works at a job instead of working on the land, and a bad economic harvest — a recession or other economic dislocation — means hardship and possibly also financial ruin and penury.

One thing that European observers of the US often get wrong is in not understanding the role of fear in the US economy. The social safety net in Europe is relatively generous. Go to a large European city, even a large city of the former Eastern Bloc, and you will see almost no street people. I know whereof I speak; I have been to almost every major city in Europe. As fellow industrialized peoples, the Europeans ought to understand the Americans if anyone does (perhaps also the Japanese), but in fact they do not — and Americans similarly misunderstand the Europeans.

In the US, fear of loss of one’s job, fear of poverty, fear of homelessness, is real and palpable. Talk to people and you will hear it in their voices and see it in their faces. It is one of the things that makes life in the US a little bit weird at times, as when you see people spiraling out of control over little things (like the current tempest in a teapot over TSA screeners) and it becomes all-too-apparent from a studied distance that this is misplaced anxiety, according to a classic psychodynamic model, that is being expressed in a safe way, because one cannot express one’s fear directly because that would call into question the foundations upon which one has constructed one’s life.

There are also many more subtle forces that thwart lives, and the more subtle they become, the more pervasively they are inter-woven into our lives, the more difficult it is to be objective and honest about what is thwarting us. Let me put myself out on a limb and give a specific example: a great many people (especially those of the working class) marry young and have children very young, without thinking about it. Some are impelled by biology, and some by cultural context, but whatever the motivation (or, more likely, lack of motivation, so that it is mere inertia that creates one’s situation), the result is the same, and that result, more often than not, is feeling trapped by circumstances. In middle age I have come to see how many people are tolerating rather than enjoying their lives, often resentful of their situation, feeling trapped in their marriages and trapped by their obligations to children. Sometimes these obligations are spelled out in legal proceedings, but most of the time it is a moral obligation that is felt, staying together “for the children” and not wanting to “rock the boat.”

Ultimately we fold, spindle, and mutilate ourselves. There is no other to blame (and no anonymous, faceless machine to blame), though we may grasp at straws and blame scapegoats for our situation. In our honest moments, we know this. Much of the time if not most of the time, our unhappiness follows almost inevitably from the choices we have made. But we should not be too hard on ourselves for having disappointed ourselves, as we are all of us working from imperfect information (to borrow a term from economics).

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