“Humanity must seek what is NOT simple and obvious using the simple and obvious.”
― Gaius Musonius Rufus
“The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.”
– William Osler
Forgive me, dear reader and indulge me if you so chose. I cannot help being naive, it’s in my wide-eyed DNA; better to be burnt (only a little!) than to come at the world with a torch, I think. And so the deceleration concomitant with corona, I would hope, will give us the time and distance to reflect on our consumerist lifestyle [city trips en masse, fossil-fueled vehicles, clothes-shopping for…fun?, etcetera] and if we seriously want to carry on in this way. That is, riding the planet to death in a jet-powered handbasket.
Markus Greif has the following to say about our quixotic quest for happiness.
As concerns the flying handbasket, I can try to put it in funny terms all I want, the reality of it is not: millions dying around the world [extreme weather events, droughts, air pollution induced respiratory diseases, violent resource conflicts, global pandemics, etc.] and future generations inheriting a hot, nasty ball of dirt. So to say reflect is really the wrong expression, the pandemic gives us the time to REALIZE we are heading in the wrong direction, or as is put so interestingly in German, that we are on the wooden track. [Why the wooden track is a mistake is anybody’s guess.]
End of moralist not-quite-rant.
I always try to remind myself: Il faut cultiver son jardin. I must look to my own mistakes and correct those. And, with Rufus Musonius, if there are obstacles in the way [which always there are] then the obstacles become the way [much tougher act to follow]. But what if the garden is collective and endless? What if the garden is a precarious biotic envelope?
A most common complaint these distanced days is that “Covid is genuinely beginning to suck, to stink”, which I think is intended to mean: I suffer from C19 fatigue. It interferes with my habitual way of life in a way that I am not much longer willing to put up with. Corona is the convenience killer. These vaccines must save us from omni-stagnation and restore dealings to the status quo ex ante. Or as a philosopher on SRF [swiss public tv] put it the other day: It is the first time since WWII that the West is experiencing such a profound disruption of every single pan-quotidian aspect of living. You cannot even BREATHE the way you used to, [which is still much better than the horror that was visited on Floyd George, may he rest in peace and may his murderer spend life in a small cell].
Well, obviously I am far from alone as concerns the sore point of reevaluating consumption patterns. Which not many genuinely believe in to begin with, a clear-eyed self-reckoning in these doldrums, considering humanity’s historically very flat learning curve.
Item, continuing my read of Greif’s retinapathically brilliant “Against Everything”, I’ve been fortunate to see that there is a very different way to criticize our North Atlantic lifestyle other than only in terms of either material metabolism, our hypocritical fantasies of democracy or even our rampant, off- but much more often on-line ego-mania, self-glorification, etcetera. An economist might say, yes, haha, we’re not only a goods but also a service economy, a financial and speculative economy if you consider the high end of cosmopolitan citizenry. That is not Greif’s take.
So he generalizes from or abstracts what all these modalities of the economy and our lifestyles afford us and which, ultimately, most of us are chasing after: experiences. If I understand Mark Greif 2005 correctly what he means by experiences are in fact heightened states of experiencing such as buying an expensive good, going on vacation to a culturally acclaimed site, engaging in crypto-or-straight-up competitive athletics, hipster-certified wining and dining, etcetera. And we pursue these in a logic of breathless accumulation, all the while they brutally remind us of the very limitations of the human forms we are trying to escape: finitude, mortality, conceivably bad taste.
There are extended stretches of all around brilliancy which made me stop reading and blankly stare at the wall in disbelief, trying to digest the meaning of the argument. To be fair, I’m not sure that I caught all of it but this different take from the angle of experience was/is fascinating. I’ve always thought that a critique purely in terms of consumption is unsatisfactory; it suggests that you simply chew up the thing in question and shit it out on the other side. It doesn’t take into account one of the most important aspects which Greif does: the experience of it, the qualia. You can’t eat six seasons of Game of Thrones but you can watch it….and be baffled by how it deals with mortality.
The title of this non-fiction book suggests a very pessimistic, defeatist, possibly even nihilist take on the human endeavour but in my reading there are certainly rays of hope glinting through this black-smoke diamond. To only critique experience, such an utterly integral dimension of existing, would be crass. Instead Greif flips the script and gives his own….methodology of how the impasse of us modern people can be overcome: his flavor of aestheticism and perfectionism. Which you will have to read for yourself. Basically, as best I can condense: Still use experience but deepen it, make it everyday, let every hour be like an hour at the art museum, apply experience all over the spectrum, be a modern Flaubert or Thoreau [a rather constricted choice, I think]. As Greif puts it more succinctly himself:…
My ultra-brief point of critique would be that his aestheticism strangely comes off as a sort of Buddhism that has to pass through the filter of everyday objects [especially ugly ones; an object-centered meditative practice] and his perfectionism, no matter how often I read it, seems a vague practice in concentration that would likely melt away the moment he would try to explain it in terms of a concrete practice. Meaning it is rather useless to the degree that it cannot replace cumulative, repetitive experience seeking in the form of human action. Still, Greif’s version of aestheticism is well worth the try.
And then there are of course also very other modus vivendi to overcome or even by-pass the covid-induced poverty of experiential opportunities. A very popular presently is Stoicism, the Stoics, the Ryan Holiday concentrate. Fascinating to imagine that a media quack became the foremost champion of Rufus Musonius; still, this is hardly the time to shoot messengers of good practices, especially if they have metamorphosed into entirely new beasts. But that’s another story, for another day.