Back Into the Belly of the Beast

I just returned from a quick trip to Washington, D.C., where I played tourist with my wife for a couple days. We caught sunrise from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the monument walk, visited the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, a few Smithsonian buildings, and the Washington National Cathedral. And we had a lovely dinner with two charming young women who met in a class I taught several years ago and who now find themselves living in the same city. We lived in the nation’s capital for a year, nearly a decade ago, so this was a return excursion.

It was quite the whirlwind tour. I visited old places I’ve toured many times, yet I saw many new things. And my increasingly cynical eye managed to put a different spin on the shit we’re in than ever before.

Consider, for example, the Library of Congress. It’s gorgeous, of course, due to a recent restoration. The art is spectacular, the quotations sublime. A superb painting of Minerva occupies the Great Hall of the Jefferson building. A close inspection of Minerva, Roman goddess of learning and wisdom (and occasionally peace), reveals the cost of civilization: Recognizing that civilization requires oppression, hence war, Minerva carries a spear and is accompanied by a shield.

For the most part, of course, we prefer to look the other way, rather than staring into the unflinching eyes of truth. Civilized people don’t want to know the consequences of our actions, which include oppression, murder, and extinction, among other uncomfortable costs.

En route to the city, I read Herman Hesse’s 1922 classic, Siddartha. This line, early in the novella, resonates with me: “Everything was a lie, everything stank, everything stank of lies, everything feigned meaning and happiness and beauty, and yet everything was decaying while nobody acknowledged the fact.” The follow-up line is perfect if Hesse (via the protagonist) is describing culture, and a complete misnomer if he is describing the world: “The world tasted bitter; life was agony.”

Later in the book, I am reminded of my own journey, even though it is only beginning: “He realized that one thing had left him, as a snake left its old skin; one thing which had accompanied him throughout his youth and used to be a part of him no longer existed inside him: the desire to have teachers and to listen to teachings.”

Back to the Great Hall, where the Olin L. Warner’s sculpture, The Students, represents the pursuit of knowledge. The left panel includes a young man pursuing knowledge through reading. But on the right an older man with a flowing beard is absorbed in meditation, no longer particularly concerned with the source of learning because he observes life and engages in original thought and reflection.

I haven’t had a beard, flowing or otherwise, since it all turned gray. That was a long time ago, about two years after I was mature enough to grow a beard that didn’t have unseemly gaps. But I’m not captivated with the pursuit of knowledge, as I once was, nearly as much as I am interested in integration and synthesis that contribute to understanding.

I don’t claim to know nearly as much as I used to, and I’m a long way from understanding. But I know enough about the costs of empire to know the world, and all future generations of humans, will benefit greatly when the renaissance — also known as collapse — is complete.

Comments 11

  • Here is a passage from my favorite columnist at the Daily Nebraskan, Noah Ballard. It helps me become more captivated by the pursuit of knowledge and an exceptional life.:
    “… As young people, we all have this ignorant ambition of being great at something. We’re going to write the great American novel. We’re going to direct the next Oscar-winning movie. Hell, we might even make it onto American Idol. Then, sometime after hitting the ground running into this “real world,” we’ll become willing to settle down – willing to give up. … Instead of searching for inspiration and expression and new ideas, we start to bow down to the things we have acquired and dig our feet into the dirt. We use the talents people tell us we have and start our careers. We find a nice house to store our nice things we can afford because of our nice job.
    And when we’ve reached the top, we reward ourselves with a European automobile.
    I want to live fast. I want to go to a city and hear noises all night and be inspired and wear expensive suits even when I’m gray. I want to write and tell stories and learn about people.
    I want to stay awake all night learning about something that I never knew existed … The ones who make it out alive, beyond the comatose of the suburbs, are the ones brave enough to let go of their safety for a moment. They explore the world and find out what this whole confusing situation has to offer. Then, when it’s time to reflect on those things and pass that inspiration on to the next generation, they can finally settle down.”
    Expensive suits and settling down may not be in our futures, but taking chances and seeking knowledge are. You’ve done that. I admire it. Conitinue to be excited about teaching and learning. Many of us are still listening.

  • Thanks for your kindness, Brady. I look forward to continuing the adventure, and blogging about it, for some time to come. And my commentary will extend to the local newspapers as long as they continue to publish my occasional commentary (but the local morning daily turned one down this morning — too gloomy for them to believe, even though the evidence came from the headlines of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, and so on).

  • Hmmm. Good quote, Brady. Check in with him when he’s, say, 33. See if he’s still walking the walk. Some do, but not very many.

  • This part calls to me, for obvious reasons: “The ones who make it out alive, beyond the comatose of the suburbs, are the ones brave enough to let go of their safety for a moment.” Goodbye, empire. Hello, mud hut.

  • or alternatively, you can live car free in a mud hut/adobe (literally)
    in the suburbs as I do and build yourself a chicken coop on the weekend
    (just finished one last weekend, 3 rhode island reds await)

  • Hi Guy —
    I am very happy to hear that your recent trip was not a solo venture :)
    As a hawk and a justice lover I have a quote to share by my personal hero, Aldo Leopold. And I like to recommend it in the context of a recent reality — we executed Saddam Hussein in part for what he did to Iraqis at Abu Graib prison:
    From Aldo Leopold:
    All through history tyrannical majorities condoned their acts of violenceon the grounds of punishing “wickedness”. The hawk which kills my pheasant is wicked and cruel, and hence must die. Some hawks in some situations doubtless should die, but let us at least admit that we kill the hawk out of self-interest, and in so doing we act on exactly the same motives as the hawk did.

  • Usury (pronounced /?ju???ri/, comes from the Medieval Latin usuria, “interest” or “excessive interest”, from the Latin usura “interest”) originally meant the charging of interest on loans. This would have included charging a fee for the use of money, such as at a bureau de change. After countries legislated to limit the rate of interest on loans, usury came to mean the interest above the lawful rate. In common usage today, the word means the charging of unreasonable or relatively high rates of interest. As such, the term is largely derived from Abrahamic religious principles; Riba is the corresponding Islamic term. The primary focus in this article is on the Christian tradition.
    The pivotal change in the English-speaking world seems to have come with the permission to charge interest on lent money: particularly the Act ‘In restraint of usury’ of Henry VIII in England in 1545 (see book references).

  • since we are all digressing here
    Guy, the modesty of your mud hut and actions remind be of this quote,
    “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”
    E.F. Schumacker
    you have created your ‘black swan’ moment with your may day call,
    sometimes you have to throw the cards in the air to see how they land,
    many opportunities will be the result, never sell your precious time
    for money
    ‘Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.’ Hesse

  • I think torture is out of the list. But wire tapping is like H1N1 virus, it is rampant. Due to the easy access to the net, some people can now easily download a computer application that enables the user to hack phone calls or spy a certain man. Well this should be stopped.

  • Matt – The idea of building chicken coop is really nice though!

  • This world is an illusion. Everything is but a figment of ‘who’ ‘s imagination. Thus a lie as far as entities are concerned. We are never really ‘here’ at all…