Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America

"The denial of moral absolutism leads not to relativism, but to nihilism."

Paul Boghossian, "The Maze of Moral Relativism"

I never thought I'd see a decent Captain America film in my lifetime, but this time Marvel has managed brio without ponderousness. When I was into comics in the 1980's, Cap was, it must be said, my favorite. While I enjoyed a number of titles, he eschewed the smart-alecky goofiness of Spider-Man, the self-involvement of the X-Men, and the contrived contortions of the Fantastic Four; sober but spirited, he was neither the hipster Batman nor the staid Superman (that George Washington of superheroes).

In the 1980's, shrouded by the forgetfulness of his reading public, Captain America bore little resemblance to the "old-growth superhero" (in A. O. Scott's memorable phrase) of the 1940's. Making up in steadfastness for what he lacked in flamboyance, he merely did his workaday thing month after obdurate month. In the new movie he reclaims a bit of the Nazi-slugging romance (Red Skull always was the villain par excellence, implacable and inscrutable without being ridiculous, compared to which Darth Vader was a clown).

Needless to say, Cap also embodies American exceptionalism as well as the absolute injunction to act morally. As Boghossian compellingly argues in his piece, if one wishes to avoid believing in nothing, it is logically necessary to believe in something. For the non-psychopath there is no evading moral dialogue (or in the case of comic book films, moral combat).

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic is the rare prophet with subtlety, arguing with great ingenuity but always in opposition, whether to thoughtlessness, smug certitude, or superficial sociability. He is the rare intellectual insider who dares to be deeply and skeptically unfashionable; as such, he steers a tight course between the curmudgeonly, the lugubrious, and the devastating.

In his most recent piece (not available online except to TNR subscribers), he uses the metaphor of birds that sing at night (because they can't get a tune in edgewise in the growing cacophony of the urban day) to lament his growing disconnection with the insulted and humiliated of the world:

"Not long ago I surprised myself with the embarrassing thought that I no longer know any lonely people...But I am cut off from the ones who are cut off, from the disconnected and the un-networked (our technology of communications is supposed to have made such marginalizations obsolete, but I do not believe it: our culture is filling up with evidence of the lonely digital crowd), the ones who lead lives of radical solitariness, of aloneness without appeal, with no bonds to console them and no prospects to divert them, who struggle for stimulation and expression, whose beds are deserts, whose phones almost never ring, who march through their difficulties without any expectation of serendipity or transcendence. Their absence from my experience makes me feel disgracefully narrow."

This is a brave admission, and an acknowledgement by Wieseltier that he is, despite himself, one of the elite. But as one who gets to know many such people (as many physicians and most social workers do), I see a risk in extolling the lives of the disaffected and alienated. There seems to be romanticizing here, as of the overlooked poet scribbling in his garret, the anchorite glorying in his desert cave, or the oppressed dissident in the labor camp. Wieseltier seems to be claiming the inherent dignity of suffering, and while there is that, does this mean we should be any less assiduous in our struggle to alleviate distress? Suffering has the potential to lead to wisdom, but arguably in actuality it most commonly does not.

The prophet (whether secular or religious) is always positioned somewhere between the eccentric and the crank. The eccentric lingers "away from the center" of human experience, but can still engage in dialogue with a significant part of his fellows, whereas the crank has been cut off, as when a man goes into the desert for transcendence but never makes it back to relate the tale.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Elegaic Mode

For W. G. Sebald, the modern world, a composite of contemporary detritus and forlorn nature, is a kind of forme fruste of the historical human condition. Sebald was a past-intoxicated writer, and in The Rings of Saturn a ramble through southeastern England yields disquisitions on Joseph Conrad, herring fisheries, imperial decline, and the silkworm industry. The entropy is inescapable. Here are a few choice quotes:

(On fishermen): "I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the time when the whiting pass, the flounder rise or the cod come in to the shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness."

(On the writer Michael Hamburger): "Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life."

(On Thomas Abrams, who devoted his life to a minute reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem): "In the final analysis, our entire work is based on nothing but ideas, ideas which change over the years and which time and again cause one to tear down what one had thought to be finished, and begin again from scratch."

(On the melancholy of medieval weavers): "It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread."

(On the destructiveness of civilization): "Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away."

If as many say, we now live in the Anthropocene era, in which the activities of Homo sapiens directly affect planet-wide processes, why can't we regard humanity with kindness, as we might regard any natural force? Just as a levee is meant to withstand the flood, one's mourning, indignation, and even resentment are meant to withstand and, if possible, to divert the human flood from that which one holds dear.