Sallies out and sees

–I came across a quote of Teddy Roosevelt, US President: “In this life we get nothing save by effort; far better it is to dare mighty things; to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the great twilight that knows neither victor nor defeat.”

Surely that paraphrases John Milton’s Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat”?

Why paraphrase, though? Just look at Milton’s verbs and adjectives: praise, fugitive, cloistered, unexercised, and those sallies and slinks. They’re descriptive and evaluative at the same time by way of provoking the reader.

–When it comes to social experiments, surely we experiment after having seen to it that others haven’t already developed better practices. As if it were unethical not to experiment in the face of urgency, when experimenting without having searched for better practices is itself unethical—and urgently so.

–In the mid-1970s a group of physicists and political scientists met at MIT and “arrived at the conclusion that if a World Government was not implemented soon, the probability of a nuclear war before the year 2000 would be close to 100 percent” But what were their nuclear war scenarios? Without details against which to evaluate, the experts are like the early astrologer who cast Christ’s horoscope and found the end of Christianity within sight.

–In the early years of World War I, Rainer Marie Rilke wrote that “the misery in which mankind has lived daily since the beginning of time cannot really be increased by any contingency. . . Always the whole of misery has been in use among men, as much as there is, a constant, just as there is a constant of happiness; only its distribution alters.” Here too is Jean-Paul Sartre, “essentially, there is not much difference between a catastrophe where 300 or 3000 die and one where ten or fifteen die. There is a difference in numbers of course, but in a sense, with each person who dies, so also does a world. The scandal is the same.”

Rilke and Sartre avoid a major point. The numbers do matter in determining whether or not misery is a constant in aggregate or individually. “From a statistical point of view, which is that of social and political life and of history, there is an enormous difference,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty said of Sartre’s remark. We know from survey research that conclusions are drawn much more confidently from structured surveys and samples consisting of 3000 people than, say, 30 persons. I may be misremembering, but I think it was Kenneth Boulding, the heterodox economist, who felt that the greatest contribution of the social sciences to humankind was the notion of the sample survey, as imperfect as it is.

–Voltaire, along with other Enlighteners, thought Christianity a useful distraction for the masses who could not cope with the rigors of reason. If I am right, the rigors of reason were just as useful for the Enlighteners in distracting them from the nonconscious origins of the superstitions they revolted against. The Enlightenment didn’t provoke the Counter-Enlightenment; the latter has been there throughout the evolution of the human brain’s more automatic and stereotypic thinking. “Being off track” may be “on track” in more complex ways than supposed.

–Stanley Cavell, a philosopher, wrote that “there is always a camera left out of the picture,” by which I take him to mean that were we able to bring the camera into its picture a very different picture results. So too for policy issues: The analyst who looks at an issue from a perspective late in his or her career is likely to see it differently than others earlier on.

A wonderful story of the poet, Donald Hall, illuminates how bringing the camera into its picture changes it. Archibald MacLeish told him about the actor, Richard Burton, and a brother of his:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

–I for one hope they throw wads of money at geo-engineering modelers, keeping them in front of their computer screens so as never to see the light of day. About as likely, though, as seeing a blue rose in the Sahara.

— Consider a passage from Virginia Woolf: 

Let us begin by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatever between the two. A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart.  If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers.  A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.

While claiming no connection whatever between learning and reading, her prose enables us to see one such connection, and an emphatically inverse one. 

–Start with T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land, “I can connect/nothing with nothing.” Note the ambiguity between “I can’t connect anything” and “What I can connect is nothing to nothing.” Now compare his lines to those of A.R. Ammons from his “Center:”

the noon sun casts
mesh refractions
on the stream's amber
bottom
and nothing at all gets,
nothing gets caught at all.

But you are caught up in reading this poem. Also, isn’t the shared “eye” of different readers meshed in there somewhere?

–Say you are on one of the upper floors of a skyscraper, looking out on the morning. That is Reality I: You are the observing subject looking out at reality. After a point, you realize that spot in the distance is actually a plane headed toward you, this morning in the World Trade Center. That is Reality II: You become the object of reality, in that grip of the real, and no longer just observer.

There is, however, Reality III. This is of the air traffic controllers during 9/11. Neither the observer of the first reality nor the object of second, these professionals achieved the unprecedented without incident that day. They were instructed to land all commercial and general aviation aircraft in the United States—some 4,500 aircraft—and did so. Without overdrawing the point, so too do we demand seeing that professionals land those water, electricity, transportation, telecommunications, and many more critical services every day without major incident.

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