In The Comedy of Survival, Joseph Meeker argues that much of Western civilization is modeled after the “tragic mode.” You’ll recognize that mode from the Greek and Renaissance tragedies you read in primary school. In the tragic mode, a larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image. He succeeds, in part, by mutilating and murdering and generally dragging a swath of blood behind him. But his success is also his undoing, and at the end of the play, his head is carried off the stage. A eulogy praises his bravery while also issuing a caution against those who would follow in his path.
But Meeker proposes an alternative: the comic mode. As you might suspect, the comic mode takes its cues not from the great tragedies but from comedies. Whereas tragedies follow men who are determined to remake the world to suit them, comic characters remake themselves to fit the world.”
Mandy Brown, on adopting a comic approach to life (which I can absolutely get behind).
“It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all. This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved. Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.”
We are led, on the one hand, to deny the fact of death and to run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication and the mindless accumulation of money and possessions. On the other hand, the terror of annihilation leads us blindly into a belief in the magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality offered by certain varieties of traditional religion and many New Age (and some rather older age) sophistries. What we seem to seek is either the transitory consolation of momentary oblivion or a miraculous redemption in the afterlife.
It is in stark contrast to our drunken desire for evasion and escape that the ideal of the philosophical death has such sobering power.”
“When we mythologize ourselves, we tend to amplify the things that turned out okay and try to turn the failures or lack of success into something we learned from. You can do anything to make your life look really grand. It’s a shame that so many people find it difficult to do the things they’d like to do because they feel cowed by seemingly successful people who appear to never do anything wrong, or always learn from their mistakes. That just rings as a lot of B.S. and self-mythology to me.”
“A “hodgepodge,” indeed. But as the reader acclimates to the Zibaldone, it becomes clear that Leopardi’s concerns are far less miscellaneous than they might first appear. The poet and the philosopher, Leopardi writes elsewhere in the notebook, are not as different as we think they are; both types of genius depend on the ability to see connections between unlike things. “In different circumstances,” he insists, “the great poet could have been a great philosopher…. All faculties of a great poet [are] contained in and deriving from the ability to discover relations between things, even the most minimal, and distant, even between things that appear the least analogous, etc. Now this is the philosopher through and through: the faculty of discovering and recognizing relations, of binding particulars together, and of generalizing.””
Giacomo Leopardis is apparently largely unknown to the English-speaking world, thanks to his work having never been translated. That changed with the recent publication of his masterwork Zibaldone, which is a whopping 4,000 pages (and a whopping $47 on Amazon).
He seems a bit too like Rousseau for my tastes, but his is a fascinating mind nonetheless, and the book is written mostly as a journal, which makes for some candid insights.
“But our new model also hacked away at the requirement of the huge knowledgebase and skillset a true gentleman needed to deserve his title. The resulting gentleman is far more holographic, an image of refined man, without the required substance: He can own a handgun but need not know how to hunt; he should read a book for a dinner party but knows no more Greek than a few letters; he buys expensive paintings but can’t paint; he reads a list of to-do items in Esquire and does none of them. He probably can’t mount a horse at full gallop, lift a battle axe, or quote the Bible. He just plays the role convincingly.”
This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately: what it means to be a man (or, in this case, a gentleman) in the modern age, and I’m not alone, judging by the flood of similar pieces I’ve seen strewn about the net over the past year or so. One particular definition in this piece struck me, though: to be a gentleman is simply to mature.
“My other caveat about this time of abundance is that while it’s great for a foreign-news junkie, I’m not sure how well it serves the passive reader. The profusion of unfiltered information can overwhelm without informing. So while it is true that the outside world learned almost instantaneously of the horrific August chemical attack in Syria, the flood of social media was contaminated by misinformation (some of it deliberate) and filled with contradictions — enough to let the regime and its supporters blame the massacre on the rebels with an almost straight face. Even after United Nations inspectors had visited the site and filed a report, they did not resolve the question of culpability. It took an experienced reporter familiar with Syria’s civil war, my colleague C. J. Chivers, to dig into the technical information in the U.N. report and spot the evidence — compass bearings for two chemical rockets — that established the attack was launched from a Damascus redoubt of Assad’s military. “Social media isn’t journalism,” Chivers told the Boston conference. “It’s information. Journalism is what you do with it.””
(Source: The New York Times)