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.