March 19, 2014

A Collection of Degraded Buffoons

A few years ago I read a monograph by Sara Maitland called A Book of Silence. Lately, I’ve been thinking how precious silence is, how little of it exists in the U.S., and how I now have an abundance of it in my own life; so I decided to reread the book. Here’s a bit of text worth thinking about:

“In the Middle Ages Christian scholastics argued that the devil’s basic strategy was to bring human beings to a point where they are never alone with their God, nor ever attentively face to face with another human being….The mobile phone, then, seems to me to represent a major breakthrough for the powers of hell—it is a new thing, which allows the devil to take a significant step forward in her [sic] grand design. With a mobile, a person is never alone and is never entirely attentive to someone else. What is entirely brilliant about it from the demonic perspective is that so many people have been persuaded that this is not something pleasurable (a free choice) but something necessary.”

Everywhere you go in the U.S., you see Degraded Buffoons on phones. People talk on them while driving cars (resulting in lots of accidents, including fatalities), or while running down the street. You go into a café, and half the clientele are either on phones or on laptops, distorting what used to be a social experience, or a private creative experience (reading, writing), into a hustling experience—a rude hustling experience. The issue of people never being attentive to another person is so obvious: I’ll be talking with someone, their phone rings, and they completely forget that they are having a conversation with me and immediately go off on some diatribe with someone a thousand miles away. There is not even the faintest awareness that this is rude beyond belief. Indeed, it’s a good example of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to call “defining deviancy down”—that over time, what used to be regarded as vulgar becomes the norm. We’re pretty much at rock bottom by now.

I remember, a number of years ago, having a leisurely lunch with my then girlfriend at an outdoor café in Philadelphia. We were the only customers, and it was a nice balmy afternoon. Suddenly, some bozo runs up to the café, his cell phone rings, and he yells: “This is Joe Blow! What can I do for you?” This is what I mean by a Degraded Buffoon—a man reduced to nothing but hustling. He doesn’t say, “Hi, this is Joe Blow, how are you? What’s happening in your life?” No, it’s “Let’s do business!” Nor does it bother him to be disturbing a couple having a quiet lunch six feet away from him—fuck everybody else, I’m Joe Blow! Hard to describe how stupid he looked: crew cut, hatchet face, a bundle of tension. And I thought: yes, this is America, my friends; this rude, stupid piece of trash is who we really are.

Shortly after her cell phone discussion, Ms. Maitland takes up the topic of how (quoting Ernest Gellner) “Our environment is now made up basically of our relationships with others.” Not our relationship with a larger spiritual reality, or with nature, or with ourselves. No, it’s always with others, as though this were the only source of happiness. Kind of sad, when you consider how thin those relationships typically prove to be. She continues:

“This idea, that we feel ourselves to be happy and fulfilled only when we are interacting with other people, creates a dissonance with the equally popular mythology that stresses individual autonomy and personal ‘rights’. If I need interpersonal relationships and I have a right to what I need, it is obviously very difficult to have relationships of genuine self-giving or even of equality. However, this problem is not addressed, is indeed concealed, within popular culture. The consequence of this, almost inevitably, is the creation of an increasing number of lightweight relationships—relationships that appear to connect people, but are not vulnerable to the requirements of love, and therefore tend to lack endurance and discipline.”

This is an interesting observation: that friendship requires love and—horror of horrors!—staying power, discipline. When I left the U.S. (thank god), I think I had a total of three or four genuine friendships, after all of those decades of living there. One thing I discovered about Americans was that they have no idea of what friendship really is, and that it does take love, endurance, and discipline (effort, in short). These are alien concepts to Degraded Buffoons. “Lightweight” is precisely the right word here. Over the years, I noticed that it was not uncommon for people to disappear from my life, and the lives of others, overnight, and without so much as a word of explanation. In a few cases this even happened after a year or two of knowing someone, having had dinners together, having had (I thought) meaningful discussions. And then: poof! They’re gone, and apparently could care less. If you live in a world of noise, cell phones, and hustling, why would any one person mean anything to you? And this is the norm, in the U.S., my friends; what I’m describing—you all recognize this—is hardly aberrant.

What kind of lives are these? What kind of empty, stupid lives? People in a rush, people blabbing inanities on cell phones, people who have no idea what silence is and who probably fear it; people who can’t begin to imagine what love, endurance, and discipline consist of. These are what we call Degraded Buffoons.