Vassal has been a longtime observer of politics and governance—since junior high school, he tells me—as well as a sometime participant. Thanks to his education, his experience working on government contracts, his dealings with the government about his invention, and his involvement as a taxpayer and citizen, he knows a good deal about them. He has kept himself well informed. Since college, where he minored in political science, he has read several national and local newspapers a day and kept up with related journals, periodicals, blogs, news feeds, and discussion groups.
“What politics accomplishes, and what government does, influences our lives,” he says. “Most of what matters to us in that regard concerns our economy, schools, military, police, courts, entitlement programs, disaster relief, highways, and so on—infrastructure of various kinds. All of that is helpful to us and often necessary. Also, news about those things informs us about human nature and the state of our world, and entertains us. And knowing enough to talk about them with other people is part of being sociable. They’re a shared interest and concern.
“But usually, for most of us—except when politicians are sending large numbers of us off to war, which these days they know better than to try, or when they’re doing what they can to correct a major economic downturn—those things aren’t of primary importance in our lives. They’re much less important than our politicians, teachers, mass media, and others would have us believe. For most of us, many other topics are of greater moment, including our families and friends, work, schools, sports news, restaurant reviews, what’s playing at the movies, what’s interesting online, local business news, and the like. For the most part, the role of politics and government is to support those; in effect, to make sure that the potholes in our roads get filled, the garbage trucks come around on schedule to pick up our garbage, and other services. As I say, those are helpful and often essential to us, but they are rarely what matters most.”
* * *
One result of Vassal’s views and experiences is that he has not only refused to give the government any access to his invention, he has also refrained from participating in civic affairs. Except once, years ago, he has not voted or supported candidates, or involved himself in lobbying or other advocacy. He has abstained from that.
When I started working with him he was angry about our system of government. He felt that it did not adequately address a broad range of issues concerning health care, poverty, inequalities of means and opportunity, unemployment and job training, tax and criminal codes, bank regulation, consumer protection, money and special interests in politics, civil liberties, racial and gender bias, education, and other aspects of social justice. Nor did it take on—as in his opinion it should—our thriving arms trade, supersized armed forces, and other components of our country’s arrogant militarism and exceptionalism in international affairs. He spoke to me quite often about all that.
Once back then, he said to me, “Our elected officials talk about significant matters, but not often, and always superficially. They fail to think about, much less attempt and accomplish, what they could and should do. They keep government running, but also do a lot that’s harmful. For instance, for the sake of our military-industrial complex they spend trillions of taxpayer dollars preparing for and fighting unnecessary wars in which we commit major crimes against humanity. And here at home they support all kinds of inequities, mostly for the benefit of the wealthy. It’s disgusting.”
He declared that any of us who support our system—as voters, taxpayers, and compliant citizens, or as employees, contractors, elected representatives, lobbyists, and other self-interested participants—make matters worse.
“All of us, unless we’re doing something to subvert the system, are either warriors in a bad cause or camp followers who service those warriors. We contribute to the problem, not the solution. The system is fraudulent, and it’s too well established to correct itself. Working within it, as many people do, is immoral and irresponsible. They’re complicit in everything from gross unfairness and corruption to atrocity.”
In his view back then, the unspoken and largely unwitting agendas of our two major political parties were nearly identical, and so were their accomplishments. They persuaded the public that there were major differences between them, even as they wholeheartedly supported the noxious status quo. Invoking established prejudices, dogmas, and rationales, appealing to voters’ basest instincts, they cultivated divergent party lines, which they peddled to the electorate using overheated, demotic language. The divergences they presented seemed meaningful and dramatic, but in fact were disingenuous and merely rhetorical. Politicians and their supporters expressed them sincerely, but the sincerity was theatrical, self-deluding, and usually hypocritical. Differences between our parties boiled down to almost none.
“Our two major political parties are effectively one party,” Vassal said to me. “I call both of them Republocrats. Look what happens when they get elected. Their powers are much more limited than they lead voters to believe. So are their leadership skills, aspirations, and moral courage. What they end up doing falls within a pathetically narrow range. They claim that we have a democracy, and that they deliver what our citizens want and need, but they don’t. Whether they know it or not—and often they do—they serve the interests of a small group of the wealthy and privileged, not the general public. Most of them, no surprise, are members of that group.”
He despised the U.S.’s plutocracy. (A kleptocracy, he called it, in his less generous moments.) He liked Gore Vidal’s crack that “. . . the United States has only one political party—the Property Party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.”
Vassal regarded politics as a mean-spirited charade, an extravaganza of public posturing and backroom dealing. It was performed in the name of high principles, of how things should be but were not, but that was phony. Its actors—our politicians and their prosperous supporters and associates—wore mantles of truthfulness, generosity, and dignity. But those were costuming, for show to themselves, hypocrites that they were, so that they could look at themselves in the mirror; and for show to their constituents and colleagues. They pretended, and persuaded themselves, that they were decent and other-directed, but their professed virtues and good intentions were bogus. Their careers were exercises in power-mongering, status-seeking, social climbing, and greed.
Theirs was “. . . petty ego engaged in selfish battles,” said Vassal. “Most of them are inadequately educated, ignorant of history and government beyond the usual simplistic understandings, and indifferent to the larger possibilities of the institutions they work within. Many of them are bull-headed by temperament, and lack compassion as well as knowledge. They regard their fellow citizens as either cronies or enemies, either help or hindrance to their ambitions. They tend to be too small-minded to imagine having, much less honoring and supporting, opinions and beliefs much different from their own.
“The game they play is adversarial. When they seek money from donors, when they campaign, and when they debate issues, they misrepresent their opponents. They exaggerate superficial differences and create false dichotomies—straw dogs. When they enact legislation, they work it out in clumsy compromise with those same opponents, like a den of thieves dividing up stolen goods. They’re also like lions feeding on a kill, ceding the most and the choicest to whoever among them has the ferocity and muscle to prevail.
“The process is pitiful, like the results. And it’s entrenched, laden with custom and tradition, and enforced by armies of enablers, including our politicians and their staffs, lobbyists, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the press, educators, entertainers, contributors, and voters—we, the people. And that’s not going to change. I don’t know why I bother getting mad about it.”
* * *
Mark Twain once remarked, “I don’t vote for politicians. It only encourages them.” When I started working with Vassal, he would have agreed. He would also have agreed with someone’s remark, perhaps Twain’s, that all that politicians can do is decide which side of the street to put sidewalks on—nothing more high-minded.
Back then, Vassal believed that voting was not only irresponsible, a support to our debased political system, it was also absurd.
“It’s a waste of time,” he said to me. “The results don’t count for much, despite what people like to think. For one thing, has there ever been an election of any size in which one vote determined the outcome? It can make the difference in committee and board meetings, courts of law, and sometimes in town meetings in small towns, but that’s about all.”
He compared voting to pushing buttons that don’t work.
“It’s like close door buttons in elevators and walk buttons at pedestrian crossings. Often when we push them, we’re not making anything happen. They’re dummies, placebos. All they trigger is people’s illusions of progress.
“Same with elections. What we pretend they’re about, and are told they’re about by our teachers, politicians, and media, are not what they’re about. That’s one reason why when Election Day comes around I do other things than vote.
“I voted once, though, right after I reached voting age. Getting that old is supposed to be an achievement, and a milestone, like getting old enough to buy liquor or get your driver’s license. Voting is supposed to be an honor and a privilege, and a right that’s important to exercise. I wanted to experience that and feel more like a grownup.
“I was just out of college, full of myself. Like a lot of people that age, I thought I was some kind of independent-minded outsider. But I wasn’t. I was young and naïve. Civics-lesson brainwash still had a hold on me. It was a national election, which I thought was a big deal. I threw myself into it. I got deep into the issues. I found them fascinating and inspiring. I considered them important. I read books about them, followed news about them, and talked about them for hours, mostly with people my age who agreed with me about them.
“The issues seemed clear cut and dramatic. I felt righteous and courageous about them. I wanted to fight for what I thought was right. Every day there were skirmishes and battles for me to participate in. It was thrilling. I thought I was engaged in meaningful cultural conflict. I took all the ups and downs and back-and-forth to heart. I watched the score, the polls, the body count. I hoped my side would win, and did everything I could to bring that about.
“I developed strong convictions and I advocated them forcefully. I learned the lingo, and I mastered what I thought was a persuasive style of presenting it. Along with other people my age, I walked through neighborhoods working for candidates I believed in. I went door-to-door talking to people and handing out campaign literature, buttons, and signs. When I met people who said they weren’t going to vote, or who were going to vote for the wrong candidates, I tried to change their minds. I did that day after day for weeks. It felt great.
“Then, when voting day came, I walked to my neighborhood polling place. I felt excited, proud of what I’d done during the preceding weeks, and proud of what I was about to do in the voting booth. I was being an upstanding citizen—involved, active, helping my community. Voting would be a grand culmination.
“But when I stepped into the booth and began to pull the levers for my candidates, a funny thing happened: I felt doubt. I wondered what I was accomplishing. Nasty questions arose in me: Was I wasting my time? Was I merely changing the final vote count by one? With so many people out there voting, how could my vote make a difference? Worse, it occurred to me that no matter how I voted, I might be giving cover to a government that inevitably fell far short of achieving what it could, and far short of what most voters wanted, even contrary to what most voters wanted. Those thoughts had occurred to me before but had always seemed silly. I’d never dwelt on them. Suddenly, they were looming large.
“I pulled the levers anyway, the ones I’d planned to pull. I wanted to see how that felt. It didn’t feel good. My doubts were dragging me down. I walked out of the booth feeling my youthful idealism melting away. Before I’d gone inside the polling place to vote, I’d stood outside with friends, holding signs for voters to see, to remind them who to vote for. I was supposed to rejoin my friends after I voted, but I didn’t. I walked past them and went home.”
* * *
By the time Vassal and I started working together, his voting experience was well behind him. Notwithstanding a few rants to me about politics, politicians, and our system of government, which I quoted a few pages ago, he was largely past his disillusionment. He had begun to conclude that what he had found offensive about politics and government was not offensive at all.
Recently, he said to me, “That was a phase of mine that I got stuck in for a while. Then I realized that you can’t expect too much of our elected representatives and others in government. They’re like anyone. They aren’t miracle workers. They can’t wave magic wands and fulfill citizens’ fantasies. From presidents and governors and high court judges on down to the humblest of bureaucrats, they have to do things within their limited capabilities. They have to deal with reality, same as we all do. They’re us, no worse and no better. They’re all any of us can be in those positions.
“Our ideals and high-flown talk help government provide services. They’re part of the process. They aren’t always a pretty part, but they work. They can flow trippingly and shine wonderfully in our speeches, articles, editorials, political ads, and so on. They seem pure and simple, and can make us feel very good. They serve necessary purposes like rallying the faithful, raising campaign funds, stirring up the electorate, and influencing opinion polls and lobbying efforts. But when the people who govern us have to get results, when they collaborate with each other to do their work—hammer out rules, regulations, and legislation, and apply them in the real world—our ideals and fancy talk become much less relevant. That’s what happens and that’s what has to happen. There’s always a gap between what’s ideal and what’s workable. Politics is the art of the possible, and so is government. People who govern learn that through experience.
“Some voters know that, too, but often they don’t. To satisfy them, they have to be fed the high-flown talk, the fairy tales that politicians, ad agencies, journalists, commentators, and other professional mouthpieces provide. That, too, is part of the process. You could say that our ideals get corrupted, but I wouldn’t put it that way. What happens is necessary and appropriate. It can seem crass and deceitful, but it’s like fighting wars or managing any large enterprise. That is, it’s not all pretty. Far from it. We do our best, and that’s the result.
“Everyone involved in government makes decent efforts: voters, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists—people I used to criticize. I used to think that respecting them was like kissing the rings of mobsters. They’re mobsters all right, toadies of the ruling class and all that, but so are we all. They are we. They have good intentions, and in their various ways they’re intelligent, compassionate, and ethical in how they apply them. They do their jobs and fulfill their roles as well as any of us do anything. What they can get done tends to be far less significant than what they talk about, but that’s what works. That no longer disappoints me. Our system doesn’t work ideally, but no system can. It works well enough, and that’s good enough.”
* * *
His thinking about politics and government had evolved beyond his prior disillusionment, but he did not consider that to be progress on his part.
“When my opinions changed, they were no better than they had been when I was a hotheaded young activist. It was no more practical, fair-minded, reasonable, or correct. I’m sure there are people now who believe what I used to believe and who do what I used to do, either as participants in the process or as critics. They do it just as fervently as I did, and in just as good faith. Just because I went through that and moved past that doesn’t mean I advanced in any sense. Those people are where they are about those things the same as all of us are where we are about anything, the same as I am now and was then.”
He had mostly ceased finding fault. He was arriving at his present equanimity.
* * *
Regarding voting, he now says, “I still think that large-scale democracy, like we have in this country, is a game of little choice. But that’s fine. The system couldn’t be better. It works. Enough of us walk into the voting booth and pull the levers, enough of us give money to support our representatives, enough of us advocate for various positions, and so on. That gets the necessary rituals performed. Government services get provided, and public resources get shared, about as well as possible. We can’t improve that system in any major way. It certainly doesn’t demand much of us. Most of us don’t have to get very involved. We just have to do our parts as taxpayers and as consumers of public services.
“I still don’t vote. I might if it mattered, but it doesn’t, so I don’t. Not that I fault people who do. If too many of them didn’t, others of us would have to, and we would, to keep things going. I’m sure I’d step up.
“As it is, I can stay outside it and get a different view of the forces at work, the ends they support, and the outcomes. I can observe to what extent the process reinforces the status quo, how it deals with change, and how it affects all kinds of people. I enjoy doing that.
“As for the fairy tales that people who vote and so on buy into, we all buy into fairy tales about what we do. There’s nothing wrong with some of us thinking that by voting, lobbying, contributing money, volunteering to work on campaigns, running for office, spending our careers in government, and so on we’re doing something good and important—being heard, making a positive difference, improving the world for ourselves and others, or at least helping to maintain a tolerable status quo and stave off worse. We all believe in some things, feel committed to them, and act accordingly. Those people’s pursuits are as good as anyone else’s, including mine.
“A few years ago, after my voting booth episode, I still believed in truth, and I thought that I knew what was true. I thought people would benefit from seeing what, according to me, voting really was. I thought they should understand how ineffective they were, how weak their reasons were, and who was really benefitting from their choices. Some of those people felt superior to people like me who didn’t vote. Truth-teller that I thought I was, I found that aggravating and wanted to respond. But that was just my ego acting up, defending my opinions. As I say, I realize now that my opinions are just mine, same as anyone’s are anyone’s. There was no use in anyone else knowing them or agreeing with them. But I didn’t think that then.
“If people disapprove of me now for my not voting, or for my saying what they think are mean things about their sacred cows, or for anything else that I say or do—giving everybody my invention, for instance—that’s okay with me. It’s no worse than if they approved of me. I know I’m no more right than they are. If they think they’re right and that I’m not, no problem. They’re right if they think they are. I’m not fighting them, not trying to persuade them of something or lead them anywhere. I’ve nothing to persuade them of and nowhere to lead them. Besides, there’s no persuading people of anything, or leading them anywhere, unless they’re already inclined in that direction.”
* * *
“Now that my bug is coming out, some people will disagree with me about all kinds of things that I’ve done or that they think are my attitudes or opinions. We all have our perspectives. Our attitudes and opinions and biases give us a sense of our importance. They let us think we can understand things and control them. We need that. It helps us live our lives.
“We’re all set in our ways, more than we realize. We adopt points of view when we’re children and young adults, when we’re relatively uneducated and inexperienced. They feel right to us, and make sense to us. By the end of our twenties, we’ve arrived at most of our convictions. After that, for the rest of our lives, we tend to cherry-pick evidence that supports those convictions, and to interpret our experiences in ways that reinforce them. At most, we develop minor variations, and change our minds within narrow limits. We’re no more changeable or perfectible than that. That’s the kind of bigots we are. Which is wonderful, or might as well be.”
That view of Vassal’s enjoys some scientific support. Studies using imaging of human brains and nervous systems, and various biochemical and behavioral metrics, suggest that preconscious forces rule us. Our conscious awareness and reason arise in the wake of those forces, milliseconds or seconds later, providing us with after-the-fact rationalization. We proceed from there, exercising our illusions of understanding and control. As we attempt to manage the present, prepare for the future, and fashion histories of the past, we proceed mostly unwittingly. No matter how we try, we cannot master ourselves and our fates. Such is the beast that we are and the bestiary that is ours.
* * *
Recently, Vassal said to me, “Usually, changes that we think should happen after our favorite candidates get elected, or after legislation we like gets passed or executive directives we like get issued, don’t fulfill our hopes and expectations. They may appear to for a while, and our politicians often tell us that they do or will, but they don’t. The changes turn out to be incremental, and are often so compromised in the making and so fraught with unintended consequences in practice that we might as well have opposed them. In government, as in most things, we can’t come close to controlling what we think we can control. I used to think we humans could accomplish more than that and better than that, but it turns out that we can’t. Fortunately, usually, we don’t need to.
“That’s another reason I still don’t vote, donate, volunteer, and so on. Not that I need reasons. Other people can of course do those things if they want. That’s decent of them. But our electoral system does fine without me, just as it does fine without anyone. In this country, as people know, only a minority of eligible voters votes. Less than twenty percent choose our president, senators, and other representatives, and determine the outcomes of referendums. Some people think that’s a problem. Not me. If more people voted, or all people voted, or if those of us who voted were better informed, better educated, or more reasonable in how we voted, we’d be no better off than we are now, and government would be no better than it already is.
“That’s contrary to what some people like to think, who often believe that they’re better informed, better educated, and more reasonable than others of us. That’s fine, too. We should all think what we think, and vote and participate however we want, including not at all. It’s a great system.
“Anyway, on Election Day I do other things than vote. There’s our creative project, for one thing, and now there’s this new venture, turning my invention loose. I suppose that in a sense, by doing those things, I’m performing a civic duty. It’s not civic in its intent, but it will be civic in its effect. In fact, from some standpoints, it might have more civic consequence than almost anything else: any election, legislation, court decision, policy initiative, or royal or dictatorial decree; or any military attack, propaganda blitz, or diplomatic effort. And I’m just one measly guy, doing his teeny bit with no result in mind.”
He laughed when he said that, then settled into his half-smile. Funny guy. Obviously, what he is doing will be of tremendous civic consequence. The government will recognize that and, most likely, disturbed though it will be by what he has done, continue its protection of us. Particularly now that the world will be watching, it will not want to see him kidnapped or killed by any outsider; it will not want to suffer the embarrassment. Nor will it want to lose any chance, however slight, that one day he might help its scientists and engineers develop more sophisticated versions of his device. Those should be sufficient reasons.
Each of us acquires a sense of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times in which we live. We attune to tides of sentiment and opinion, to worlds near and far, influences of every kind and magnitude. Their flux can seem indeterminate, like the swing of a pendulum whose direction we cannot ascertain; or amorphous, like the shape of a cloud spreading across the sky. Our times immerse us, delivering floods of information that suggest intelligible form and movement but defy our efforts to comprehend and manage them.
We seek a sense of our times in order to assess ourselves and our worlds. We hope to optimize the present day and to lay groundwork for the best possible future. But we seek largely in vain. Because we cannot take the measure of the forces that shape and move us, much less control them, we must turn to compass that we know. Thus, we believe that time passes and things change, that we have reason to hope, and that progress is possible.
* * *
During Vassal’s hypercritical, disillusioned phase, when he blamed the wealthy and power-hungry among us for many social ills, he believed that our parents and other authorities—teachers, civic and religious leaders, media mouthpieces, et al.—supported an oppressive order that unfairly benefited that undeserving elite. They did so, often without knowing, by instructing us in the time-honored stories that fill our bibles both religious and secular, and by representing them as true.
In his view, those fictions included our usual misrepresentations about our nations, religions, ethnic groups, political and social movements, businesses, and other institutions; also about our free-market capitalism, democratic and representative governance, and other comity; as well as assorted scientifically discredited notions about race, gender, sexuality, free will, and the origin and nature of our universe and species. Also, a pet peeve of his in those days, albeit minor: people’s common belief that our species is superior to others.
Do words say more than
a bull’s bellow
a cricket’s chirp
or a robin’s morning song
His opinion of those errant teachings has changed, but only partially. He said to me recently, “I still think we’re taught loads of bullshit, but I now see that we all teach it. We spread it everywhere. And we should. Though it’s stinky, it helps our gardens grow.”
In his view now, that bullshit comes at us and from us not just in our schools, news and entertainment media, political speeches, sermons, and other such institutionalized founts, but in all of our daily interactions, both within ourselves and with each other.
“We devise and promote stories that we can understand easily and that flatter us. Look at the praise we direct at each other at award ceremonies and at sporting, artistic, political, philanthropic, and other events. Look at the sweet blarney that fills our obituaries. All that stuff glorifies us, which is to say we glorify ourselves. We love fictions that do that.
“I used to think there was something wrong with that. I thought it was something we should change. I don’t think that any more. We need those tales to be much as they are, regardless of the ways in which they’re false. They’re part of how we dream our lives. Producing and spreading that bullshit as we do is as natural and healthy as producing the real stuff is for bulls. You can’t criticize either them or us for that. It helps us both as individual beasts and as members of our herds. It helps get us from barn to pasture and back again, helps us be contented bovines. Mooooooawww!
“I produce it the same as everyone, and I have for as long as I’ve been alive. My crap, of which everything I say and do is an example, is like everyone’s, no better or worse. Of course, in the opinions of people who don’t agree with me about one thing or another, mine stinks worse and is ickier. To them, I’m wrong about whatever; or I’m evil, insufficiently devoted to what they think is right and true. That’s standard intolerance, the kind we all exhibit. At times, we all feel that we’re right and other people are wrong. That’s normal. Usually when we feel that way we’re right, too—right for ourselves. We see things our way, which is the only way we can see.”
* * *
According to Vassal’s assessment, our species changes but does not progress. To him, nothing in our nature, history, or prospects indicates otherwise. The idea that we progress appeals to him, however, and proves helpful, as it does to all of us. He calls it one of our useful fictions.
“Progress is an idea, and useful as such. The fact that what it’s about is unattainable, a fantasy, never more than possible, is its strength and virtue. That’s what makes it useful to us.”
In his view, progress is a ripe object of our desire, a spur to action. As we all do, he imagines that it can happen and he hopes that it will. But he understands that imagination and hope are all that it is or can be.
Regarding progress in politics and government, he says similar: “What if all of us could actually make the differences we want to make? What if we could do more than help get our favorite candidates elected and our favorite policies enacted? What if we could see our hopes for those candidates and policies fulfilled, to the benefit of all? That fantasy attracts us and engages us. It can’t come true, but that doesn’t matter. The fantasy is enough for us, or it might as well be, which is the same thing.”
There’s that dialectic of his once again, wherein—
The one abides with the same
the equal with the opposite
as the yin with the yang
* * *
Unlike Vassal, I vote. I always have, at least in major elections. It is something I like to do. I believe in it, and I do it dutifully, as an act of community and fellowship with other people. I do not disagree with him about how ineffective it is, or how illusory my beliefs about it—and everyone’s—are. But I retain a hope, however futile, that even a single vote or other individual involvement can be a force for good.
When he first described to me his views about voting and participating in government, and described how progress was impossible, I did not argue with him. But he can tell when I am not persuaded of something. He does not take offense or try to sway me. As I have described, he considers other people’s convictions as worthy as his own and often more interesting. He notices them, and likes to consider them. And he likes to talk about them. Often he does that in ways that enlarge them.
Most of us have issues we care about. We study them, follow news about them, debate them in various forums, and discuss them with each other. He, too, cares about certain issues. Like everyone, he has opinions and preferences, and if he chose to could stand at a podium and present them, or enter a voting booth and vote in accord with them.
As I have said, however, he no longer asserts his positions. Without discounting them, he handles them in a spirit of play. He sees many sides of issues, and enjoys looking for more. Robert Frost’s remark pertains: “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” Vassal is more liberal than that. To him there are no sides and there is no quarrel. He is too doubtful and uncertain for that, and joyfully so. He would endorse only the second half of Voltaire’s maxim that “. . . uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd one.” He likes questioning ideas and assumptions, his own and anyone’s.
“I have my beliefs, as everyone does,” he says. “They’re ego-twitch, like any thought and sensation any of us has, like any move we make. But as I say, they’re just mine. Except to me, they’re no big deal. And except for a minute or two now and then, when I get carried away with them, they’re no big deal to me, either. Usually, they’re no deal to me at all.
“Not that I can’t be as biased and dogmatic as anyone else. In those big-deal moments of mine I can be as pigheaded as any hypereducated, hyperinformed, self-righteously condescending rationalist; or any faith-besotted, self-righteously condescending, ignorant-and-proud-of-it know-nothing. We all can. Such is the beast.”
In the past, as I have described, he was judgmental much more often than now, often bitterly so. Nowadays, on the rare occasions when he flares up and adopts a strong attitude, he almost immediately finds his behavior a bit funny. He hears in it echoes of his indignant young adulthood. He experiences in it memories of his old unshakeable convictions, and feels relieved that he is no longer as angry and inflexible as he was.
Not that he dislikes holding opinions, or avoids doing so, or thinks it better to express them mildly, as he does now, rather than vehemently, as he once did and as many people do.
“Each of us has points of view,” he says. “They’re natural to our unavoidably selfish selves. We tend to feel that ours are at least a little better than other people’s, sometimes a lot better. To us, the truest faith is our own. That’s natural. It’s a survival instinct we’ve evolved, embedded in us, part of our biology. Holding strong opinions, acting self-righteous, fighting for our beliefs—sometimes those are essential to us, and they seem essential more often than that. When we think we have to protect ourselves about something important, we can be snarly creatures. At times like that, we’ve all gotta growl.”
These days, as he says, any anger that arises in him passes quickly. And usually when he expresses opinions, it is without even a trace of anger. He just puts them out there and lets them go, much as tonight he is releasing his device. He does not promote or defend them. If other people express opinions that differ from his, he gives them equal weight; he knows that in other circumstances they would be his. He still growls now and then, but he does so less often and with less force than anyone I have ever known.
* * *
Often when we look ahead, we think we would be better off with one outcome rather than another—with a particular relationship, job, possession, entertainment, opportunity, etc. But often, Vassal observes, what comes to us is not what we prefer. Then we feel disappointment, regret, or anger about what has happened. Soon, however, we feel as content as we would have felt with the outcome we wanted. He expects people to experience that concerning his invention.
A few weeks ago he said to me, “Whatever their hopes and fears, people will settle down and live with it, as we all do with whatever comes our way.” I am not so sure. To some of us, his invention will be a miracle device for everyone to share and do great things with. Others of us, however, will consider it problematic, in the short run at least. Either way, for all of us, what we observe with it will often contradict—sometimes dramatically, even brutally—some of our prior knowledge, understandings, and expectations. Our use of it will undermine some of our pet beliefs, opinions, preferences, and prejudices. That will change who we and other people are to us, and what we think of our world.
Will those repercussions constitute a mere bump in the road? Will people move beyond them easily? Except in my optimistic moments, I do not share Vassal’s certainty about that, and I almost never share his serenity, about that or anything. As I have described, my concerns ebb and flow, to anxiety and back. I do not know what will happen once Vassal’s invention is everyone’s. Nor, despite my studious anticipation, can I make a good guess. I find the possibilities too many and various, and so complex as to preclude probability.
As all of us integrate his invention into our lives, we may be able to advance our interests without difficulty. But it will not simply enable us to see more. It will enable us to see more and more—always more. More than ever, we will see through and beyond everything. We will imagine many more possibilities. We will forever be thinking about what we have seen with it, and what to explore next with it. We may explore with it restlessly, compulsively. Using it may unsettle us, not just for a while but for as long as we live, perhaps for as long as our species survives. Our kind may never “settle down and live with it,” as Vassal has said we will. Living with it may turn out to be more than we can bear.
Worry like mine is an obsessive act of perseveration that can lead one to fear the worst, and to fear that the worst has begun to arrive. I imagine the death of all humanity, and fear that a beast that may bring that about is now upon us. Oh, dear.
Vassal’s views give me some idea why he is releasing his invention. I cannot wholeheartedly adopt them, however. Except at moments, I do not find them sufficiently affirmed either within me or in the world around me. Not that I disapprove of them. After the years I have spent writing them down, sometimes framed within my own views, and notwithstanding my occasional panic, I do not consider them unduly dangerous. But I have not made them my own, not entirely.
Not that I feel obliged to adopt them, or that he has suggested in any way that I should. He takes his views lightly. He attaches neither certainty nor the curse of hope to them. (Curse of hope? From the musical, South Pacific: “I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and I can’t get it out of my heart.” More later about that.) He communicates them to me as well as he can, then accepts whatever I make of them. Devoted though he is to our project, he is content with whatever I create. He gives me free rein.
Often, because I do not fully understand them, I cannot describe his views as well as I would like. That frustrates me, but does not bother him. He never feels that I am missing anything important. He reads what I write, and he looks at the images I create, but he suggests no changes to them aside from minor corrections and additions. That acceptance has helped keep things easy between us and, as much as possible, within me.
He finds doubt rewarding. I, on the other hand, wrestle with it and feel anxious about it. That is who I am and the kind of reverend professor I am. I read into everything that I notice. I study realities that underlie, find them wanting, and think about ways to improve them. If I could, I would fix them all. I work toward that end and of course do not reach it. Perhaps, as Vassal says, no such end exists, but I remain unconvinced. I am never wholly satisfied.
Like me, he possesses great curiosity, and looks as deep as he can into things. But his curiosity, unlike mine, does not stem from discontent. It is at least as energetic and relentless as mine, but also self-fulfilling, without need or objective. The world is his. Whatever he finds there satisfies him. He does not seek either to build upon or to escape what has gone before; he seeks neither improvement nor relief. He delights in every stage of his journey, and feels no wish to approach, much less arrive at, any place more ideal than the place he and all creation already occupy.
* * *
A year ago, when he realized how his invention was gestating within him, he decided to let it come. Since then, my sense of its rebirth has alarmed me at times, culminating minutes ago in my vision of his explosion. Now, here he and I stand, in predawn darkness, beside each other in his boat, sliding from the river’s mouth, toward the sea. His invention is about to transform people’s lives. As its influence spreads, it will propel the two of us, along with everyone else, from this moment to something else, something we do not know. We are making a final passage, approaching a brink. I worry that what we are doing is too dangerous and too crazy. Part of me wants to jump out of my self, out of my skin, out of this boat, out of being alive, or part way out—just far enough.
I would transcend my mortal frame and become the Ba of ancient Egyptian belief, the self’s immortal aspect, which travels back and forth between the world of the living and the afterlife. Is such death-in-life and life-in-death possible? Is Vassal right about how joined together those are, like motion and stillness, sound and silence, something and nothing? I do not know. At the moment, I do not know anything. I feel that I am as much an exploding bomb as he is, but I have no understanding of what is happening, and no mastery. I fear that by exploding as we are doing, we will trigger a greater detonation, perhaps greater than even he can accept. Might his invention subvert or destroy human civilization, as I sometimes fear? Will there be too much unhappiness, suffering, anger, and other injury? I find all of that too conceivable.
As I stand here, what little I see around us is silent and peaceful, but I anticipate chaos. I imagine a roar and a rending apart, a cataclysm: the beast (“It springs once again . . .”). In some parts of the world, where the sun is already up, that may already be occurring, or it may soon. It may? Isn’t that cataclysm sure to happen? Might it occur only to me—in my mind and on these pages, which are so much a part of me? No, too late for only that. It is everywhere now. What do I want, then? I want to create words and images that will mitigate the coming emergency; I would transform it into lucid and liberating art. That is impossible, of course, but . . .
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Thus said Theseus, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. If I could give even a semblance of such shape to what is happening, that would be a start, however futile.
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