Memorial Day Weekend Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote


“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” — Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

All modern fiction flows from Don Quixote.

Its author, Miguel de Cervantes, was born into a poor family about 1547 in the Castilian city Alcala de Henares, which lies several miles northeast of Madrid.  As a youth he fell madly in love with a local barmaid by the name of Josefina Catalina de Parez, but was forbidden to see her as a result of his poor prospects of making a living, given the lowly station of his bird.  He fled the rough circumstances of his birth, as many Spaniards did at the time, by first landing a job as a chamber assistant to a wealthy priest in Rome in 1569.  A year later he joined the Spanish Navy Marines (the Infanteria de Marina), which was stationed in Naples, Italy, then a possession under the Spanish crown.  While in Italy he was greatly influenced by the art, architecture, and learning of the high Renaissance that was all around him, and wrote about these experiences in his later writings and through fictional situations.

After only a year in Naples he participated in the significant sea battle of Lepanto in October 1571.  During this battle the Holy League, hoping to stem the Islamic Ottoman Empire’s influence into the Western Mediterranean, prevailed over its rival, who had not lost a sea battle since the century before.  Cervantes, suffering from fever, participated in the battle nonetheless, and was wounded three times from gunshot wounds: two in the chest and one to his left arm that left it useless for the remainder of his life.

He was hospitalized six months from his wounds from the battle and then returned to service and Naples until September 1575.  During this period he participated in additional expeditions and battles, including the fall of Tunis to the Turks.  At the end of his assignment in Naples, he boarded the galley Sol, which was headed to Barcelona, carrying with him letters of commendation from the Duke of Sessa to the King of Spain for his heroism and service.  While off the Catalan coast the Sol was engaged by Algerian corsairs and, after the captain and many officers perished, was taken as a prize, the survivors–including Cervantes–made slaves.  He attempted to escape at least four times over the five years of his captivity in Algiers.  It was not until his parents successfully ransomed him through the intercession of the Trinitarian order was he able to return to Madrid and freedom.

After his return to Spain Cervantes struggled to find his place in Spanish society.  His request two times to emigrate to the New World, in 1582 and 1590, which was another means of rising in Spanish society, were denied by the Spanish Crown.  Though married in December 1584 he worked at various jobs as well as launching his career as a writer, including as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and as a tax collector.  During this time he continued to struggle financially.  In 1585 he published his first major work, La Galatea, which garnered very little interest from the Spanish public.  Ostensibly a pastoral romance the stories of the novel stitch together his poetry, which seem to be the main purpose of the work and has established him in the pantheon of great poets.  But La Galatea also anticipates many of the themes that he pursued to much better effect in Don Quixote: low people with high values, and high characters with low intentions.

He also wrote several plays during the period prior to Don Quixote, barely making a living and fell into bankruptcy and imprisoned as a result at least twice: in 1597 and 1602.  It was supposedly during his second imprisonment in La Mancha that the idea for Don Quixote came to him.  Thus, at the age of 58, Cervantes successfully published the first part of his classic work, following with the second half in 1615.

The work has become such a part of our literary and cultural heritage that we have woven its images and themes into our lexicon (e.g., quixotic) and in our art, as with this iconic image by the artist Salvador Dali:

Dali Don Quixote

Most of this imagery is based on the popular first, farcical, part of the novel, which is probably as far as an average reader can get through the work.  It is in this part that the stories of the muleteers, his tilting against windmills, the goatherds, and his other popular misadventures are told.  In the later, second part, Cervantes employs devices never before seen in fiction, and which anticipate many of the devices seen in the modern novel today, such as the character that is aware that it is being written about.

All of these characteristics do make the novel both the first modern novel and one of the greatest of all time.  But my post is most concerned about how Cervantes through Don Quixote speaks to us today.  In order to understand this we must first place both Cervantes and Don Quixote in their time, which was one of the most significant periods in European history.  Spain at the time, particularly prior to 1588, was the first of what we would later characterize a world superpower.  The original saying, that became known to apply later to the British Empire, was that “the sun never sets on the Spanish Empire.”  The Spanish monarchs influenced and defended the first transnational organization that unified most of Europe–the Roman Catholic Church residing in the Vatican.  From the Netherlands, to Italy, across North Africa, into Asia, the Philippines and the Spice Islands, across the African horn, the Indian subcontinent, and the New World it was the Spanish flag and Spanish authority that contended for hegemony against its sworn enemy: Islam and other forms of heresy.  Its holdings in all of these places brought to the home country galleons burgeoning with silver, gold, and spices that expanded their coffers.

The Spanish Imperial vision was also an apocalyptic one and so–as with most great nations–the strengths that forged its origins and the weaknesses that were baked into those origins later evolved into extreme and grotesque embodiments of themselves, leading both to its cultural fugue and slow decline.  Three years mark significant events related to these weaknesses:  1478, 1492, and 1609.  The first, 1478, marked the start of the Spanish Inquisition, which was a means of the Spanish monarchs to seize control of religious orthodoxy from Rome.  Combined as it was with fealty to the Spanish monarchy, it enforced a type of severe theocracy upon the Catholic people of the Iberian peninsula which was not only enforced from above but insinuated itself into the fabric of Hispanic society anticipating such totalitarian societies as the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, and Cultural Revolution-era China.  The second date was the year Columbus under the authority of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs landed in the New World (though he believed to his death that he had landed in Asia).  More significantly it marked the final conquest of Granada, which was the final foothold of the Moorish (Arab) political authority in Iberia, and the expulsion of the Jews.  The latter royal decree, which was followed up in 1501 to apply to the Moors remaining on the peninsula, took the form of an ultimatum to convert to Catholicism or to leave.  The final date, 1609, marked the forcible expulsion of the Morisco Conversos (Moors who converted to Catholicism) to North Africa.

Prior to 1478, while the Iberian peninsula was in play between the Spanish monarchs and the Moorish caliphs of Al-Andalus, there were periods of tenuous peace and cooperation in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society that helped spark the early European Renaissance.  It was in the Iberian peninsula, Sicily, and the Italian city-states that the Jewish scholars, bringing with them the classical texts of the Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers preserved by the Arab conquerors, reintroduced these ideas into European society by translating them into Latin.  It was also through the free intercourse of a diverse people through trade and intermarriage that knowledge of Asia and the Spice Islands sparked the European Age of Discovery.

It was not that life during such Golden Ages, where our current concepts of human rights and freedom were unknown, were ones that approached our current state of safety and our current sense of fairness.  Al-Andalus suffered periods of Islamic religious fundamentalism and oppression from time to time.  Relative to what was to come, however, the people of the Iberian peninsula had developed a free and tolerant attitude that was undermined by the legal authority of both the Catholic monarchs and religious authority, enforced by the medieval code of chivalry.  Spain became a terrorist state, focused on the concept of Christian “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood).  By the time of Cervantes, there was a large black market in false family trees to ensure that one’s Jewish or Moorish ancestry would not be uncovered.

The chivalric tradition, with its emphasis on defending the Catholic Church and the monarchy, stood in opposition to the emerging idea of civic republicanism, also known as civic humanism.  This concept emphasized, in the words of Paul Rosenberg recently at

“was practiced by the Renaissance-era Italian city-states. In a world dominated by large feudal hierarchies, with powerful militaries at their command, citizens of republics were collectively and individually responsible for sustaining the sphere of relatively remarkable freedom they enjoyed — including, but not limited to being responsible for military defense. The spirit of patriotism which animated them derived from the fact that they were responsible for continually re-creating the political community that gave their lives meaning.”

The most prominent advocate of this concept came from Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived from 1469-1527, and it would be hard in reading Cervantes that he was not influenced by the Italian reintroduction of civic virtue in this manner.  Living under oppression the artist across history has found many ways to express heterodox ideas without running into trouble with the authorities or other self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy.  I believe the same is true of Cervantes in his great book.

Thus, given this context, we learn in Book One of Don Quixote that the story was conveyed to the author by the (fictitious) Muslim historian Cide Hamete Benengeli.  In this way Cervantes ties Spanish tradition at the outset to their Moorish influences–a tie that would not be permissible in any other real way.  Furthermore, we find in the fictional narrative that the chronicles of Don Quixote were originally written in Arabic and translated by a Morisco.  Throughout the tales of this Picaresque novel we find the protagonist applying the principles of chivalry through the lens of his delusions in increasingly outlandish and satirical ways.  What happens to Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza are both extremely funny and sad.  Almost everyone he encounters swears fealty to chivalric traditions, religious and cultural orthodoxy but, in the end, are interested only in their own self-interest and in deceiving the obviously deluded old man before them.  In the second book the cruelest deceptions are inflicted by a Duke and Duchess, the legend of Don Quixote and his squire now known far and wide among the literate classes of Spain.

Thus 16th and 17th century Spain, through its oppression in seeking racial and religious purity, had created a vast wasteland.  The old virtues no longer held sway, if they ever did, and the people–isolated as they were by fear and loathing–could not adopt the new ones.  Only delusion held things together.  In the novel, when our Knight Errant returns to reality and, once again becomes Alonso Quixano the hidalgo, he has no choice but to die.  Imperial Spain was rotting from the inside.  It would take another 200 years before its decline would lead to its fall at the hands of Napoleon’s France.

Thus Don Quixote is many things and its full meaning has eluded readers for over 400 years.  It is both funny and extremely sad, as life is; and certainly as we look back at Cervantes’ own life, as it must have been for him.  For one can only cry and laugh at the extreme cruelties, stupidities, deceptions, and hypocrisies of his time and our own.  He was an insider, a heroic man who, like his character, at first believed in the cause for which he fought, was wounded, enslaved, and upon his liberation, found that in his own society that he was also an outsider; deceived, rejected, defrauded, and imprisoned.  In the end Alonso Quixano became Don Quixote on his own terms, just as the wounded hero Miguel de Cervantes became the one of the greatest authors of all time.

 “Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” — Miguel de Cervantes

Sunday Contemplation — e.e. cummings

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(I carry it in my heart)

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Albert Camus

Albert Camus

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

Albert Camus was a philosopher like Bertrand Russell was a philosopher.  Camus, whose fiction is among the greatest written in the 20th century, denied that he was a philosopher or that he was proposing a philosophical position.  Indeed, in reading his fiction and essays it is apparent that he places little value in modern philosophy, ideology, and religion because, ultimately, each promises a utopia that is unrealizable and that oftentimes ends in evil, even though the intentions of the proponents of those schools of thought may be good.  Out of these writings, however, he does construct an edifice for how we can live our lives in a universe that we learn is vaster and older than we ever imagined.  In this way he anticipates the current crop of scientific writers who are beginning to extend their interests to this same territory, in particular, the so-called New Atheists through such works as Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins as in this talk:

But also other writings from various specialties such as Lewis, Amini, and Lannon in A General Theory of Love.  Or perhaps it is they who have continued his line of thought, though they may not be entirely aware of that fact.

For Camus, who lived first-hand during the fall, humiliation, and Vichy collaboration of his beloved France–a member of the Resistance–life was an “absurd” proposition since we live our mortal lives and ask ultimate questions in the face of a silent universe.  In his book length essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942; Eng. tr. 1955) he noted that we humans continue to ask such questions yet, like Sisyphus, find ourselves tumbling back down the hill.  Reason and deductive philosophical methods fail to answer these questions since they attempt to prove using circular reasoning the propositions that they assume as true.

For me the essential wisdom to be garnered from Camus lies in the novels The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946), The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948), and The Fall (1956; Eng. tr. 1957), though along with the essays The Rebel (1951; Eng. tr. 1954) and the aforementioned The Myth of Sisyphus, though he hardly ever wrote anything that was not worth reading.  Wisdom derived from these works is not simply in the philosophical propositions that they explore but in their insight into the human condition.

In The Stranger, the main character Meursault, a French Algerian, describes his world in a detached and pathological manner.  He is what today we would recognize as a sociopath, a condition that may describe as many as one of every twenty five people.  It is here that Camus explores the nature of evil.  The book opens with him discussing the death of his mother in a dry, almost passive voice, which he learns through a telegram.  He is asked to travel to a nursing home a distance away to make arrangements for her burial, which he does reluctantly.  He then returns home as quickly as he can to spend time with his girlfriend, for whom he expresses no feeling.  As we explore Meursault’s character we find that he does not care about anything, nor does he share empathy with his fellow human beings.  He decides eventually to kill another person as an intellectual exercise.  He wants to know: can he kill a stranger without anger?

When he is arrested for the crime Meursault barely tries to defend himself, explaining to the jurors that he feels nothing but annoyance at having to defend his actions.  As a result he is put to death for his crime.  The Stranger was first published in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France.  It was during this time that Camus was editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat.  All around him was the horror of human cruelty given legitimacy by an invading force that killed without regret.  It is in this context that the novel’s flat tone is both shocking and intimate given the monstrous human phenomenon it describes.  For Camus, evil is ignorant–pathology and solipsism being extreme forms of ignorance.  The character Meursault sounds much like the pleadings of Eichmann after his capture by the Israeli authorities chronicled in Hannah Arendt‘s landmark book Eichmann in Jerusalem.  In her study of the man Arendt posited that Eichmann was anything but an aberration but, in her terminology, evil it turns out is banal.  In this same vein Camus’ Meursault is a very banal man, and the embodiment of his own country’s collaboration with fascism and the Holocaust which caused people to do horrible things to their fellow human beings.

In The Plague, Camus’ masterpiece, scores of people are falling ill and dying in the Algerian city of Oran.  Despite the reality before them, the city’s leaders are unwilling to accept that it is bubonic plague.  As the disease runs out of control with fear running amok, the government finally takes action and places the city under quarantine.  The people of the city are now not only cut off from the outside world and their loved ones, but also cut off from social contact within the city.  Fear, isolation, and panic overtake the community.

As Camus develops his story the people of Oran react in one of two ways to the plague: those who personalize the danger and regret their lives, and those who dedicate themselves to caring for the sick, despite the personal danger to their own health.  Among this latter group is Dr. Rieux and a few of his acquaintances.  Only after almost half of the city’s population dies does the community realize that all of them have a high probability of dying.  Accepting their own mortality they develop a sense of unity and place the needs of the community of a whole above their own personal needs and desires.  This is a theme that Camus will revisit in later essays and literature.  Faced with the realization of one’s mortality in an indifferent universe does one give up and die, pursue one’s own interests, or is there still another way to preserve the best that makes us human?  Camus comes down strongly for finding such a way in the compassion, sympathy, and empathy felt among one’s fellow human beings, which speak to the needs of all of us.

In The Fall, probably Camus’ most controversial and complex novel, we follow the conversation between former Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and a fellow Parisian he meets in a seedy dockside bar in Amsterdam named Mexico City.  The conversation is one-sided, and first person through the second person, not an unfamiliar approach for those familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad.  The story covers a period of five days in five separate locations starting at the bar and ending in Clamence’s apartment.  Clamence describes himself as a “judge-penitent,” and it is not entirely clear what he means when his narrative begins, but which reveals itself as the story unfolds.

The novel follows three main sections:  Clamence in Paris and his fall, Clamence in a prison camp during the Second World War, and Clamence’s acquisition of the painting “The Just Judges.”  Each of these sections pose a dilemma and explain Clamence’s self-description of “judge-penitent.”

In Paris, before his self-described fall, Clamence had been a well respected lawyer.  He viewed himself as the defender of the downtrodden and actively sought out cases that bolstered his image in this way.  His actions were not so much motivated by altruism than both public approval and self-image.  Clamence’s fall, and his self-imposed exile to Amsterdam, is caused by his own lack of action when a woman falls to her death along the River Seine.  He passed the woman along his walk and saw that something was amiss.  Regardless he presses on and hears a splash, though he doesn’t see her fall.  He chooses not to go back and investigate, avoiding the choice of whether to place his own life in danger in saving the woman.  He tries putting the incident out of his mind and avoids reading the newspapers in fear that they may confirm that the woman did, indeed, jump–an act that would undermine his own self-image.

Then one day, he finds himself close to the same location along the river while in a self-congratulatory mood.  He hears laughter in the distance and it seems to be coming from the water, though he turns and it most likely came from two lovers in the distance, though there is enough doubt in the narrative to suggest that it was generated by Clamence’s subconscious and that he himself uttered the laugh.  He is thus reminded of his cowardly behavior and the possibility of the woman’s death.  He is struck by the contradiction of his self-image and the reality of his motivations and actions.

Later Clamence’s “fine picture of himself” is literally shattered by a sucker-punch to the face coming from a motorcyclist with whom he gets into an argument for blocking a congested city street.  Dejected and seeing for himself for the first time for what he truly is, Clamence attempts to destroy the image he built of himself, living a life of debauchery and consorting with the worst elements of Paris.  Despite these attempts the myth of his public image is too strong and he fails as a public penitent.

In the second part of the narrative, Clamence tells the story of his desire during the war to join the Resistance, but his fear of death is too much for him.  In fear he instead flees to North Africa with the intention of ending up in London.  I was reminded in reading this portion of the book of the Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca and came to realize that its narrative was very close to the experience of many Frenchmen during this time.  During his transit Clamence is arrested in Tunis, supposedly as a precautionary measure, and ends up in a German prison camp.  While in the camp he meets a veteran of the Spanish civil war, captured by a “Catholic general” and handed over to the Germans.  The man tells him that, supposedly as a result of the Church’s collaboration, he has lost his faith in Catholicism and posits that a new Pope is needed.  Only able to control the limited environment of their imprisonment, the inmates at the behest of the Spanish inmate elect Clamence the camp “Pope,” with wide latitude over the distribution of food, water, and work assignments.  At first diligent in his duties Clamence abuses his power one day by drinking the water of a dying man.  For the second time we have the imagery of water.  In the first case Clamence refuses to immerse himself to save another.  In this case Clamence consumes the water to cause the death of another.

In the final sequence, the stolen Jan van Eyck panel entitled The Just Judges from the fifteenth-century Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Lamb hangs in a cupboard in Clamence’s apartment.  He explains that he acquired it from the bartender of the Mexico City who, in turn, had received it from the thief in return for a drink.  Because Clamence knew that the painting was being sought by the authorities he extended a “kindness” by offering to hide the panel for the new owner.  The subject of the panel are the judges on their way to adore Jesus.  To Clamence the judges will never find him since he cannot offer people the redemption that they seek.  Since Jesus’ teachings emphasized the avoidance of judging others, the Church subverted his message and turned him into the ultimate judge, separating him from his innocence as the Lamb.  It is here that he defines his role as judge-penitent.

Many critics have looked at The Fall as a break from the more optimistic and positive messages in The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel.  Instead, however, I believe that this work is the fullest rendering of the human condition that he wrote, exploring the themes that he always visited.  Unlike The Stranger, there is no final judgement that brings justice.  Unlike The Plague, there is no community to pull together.  Instead, in the atomistic post-World War II world we only have individuals who appear to be trustworthy and acting in the public interest, though the reality is starkly different.  What goes around does not always come around.  In this way Camus is much like Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Bad Little Boy.”

The narrative structure goes a step further by insinuating the reader into Clamence’s world.  As such we, the second person, allow him to be what he is.  And, as such, we are co-conspirators to his actions and, by extension, to the world we allow to take place.  It is a book, along with its predecessors, that still speaks to our time.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Carl Sandburg

Each generation of Americans is faced with its own challenges–some of them external and some of their own making.  We currently live in a time in which the efficacy of the democratic experiment is once again being challenged from many quarters.  Great power and money, as it has always done, using ignorance and fear as its handmaidens, is doing its best to undermine it.  Russia, ruled by a new type of oligarch, again threatens the peace in Europe and, by extension, the world, and along with it the legitimacy of representative democracy; using the forms of democracy to mock the legitimacy of its institutions through show plebiscites and instigated “grassroots” rebellion in independent countries.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by these challenges I am reminded of those faced by earlier generations; that of my grandparents and parents, who faced the Great Depression, the power of the industrialists here at home, and the existential threat from the expansionist ambitions of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany abroad. Back then the choice offered to many of the nations of the world was between extremes: either fascism or communism.  Back then, the democratic experiment was said to have shown its weaknesses; the economic depression and the internal squabbles by factions having rendered it impotent.  New ideologies were needed, those that would sweep away the old civilization and with it the Enlightenment ideals.  Each of these ideologies, opposed to one another, claimed to either be the great simplifier of history or the inevitable result of history.

When we look at the past we often make the mistake in believing that what happened had to have happened, but that is not the case.  If you rewind the tape of history and spool it out again the chances of coming out with exactly the same result are exceedingly small.  Contingency and probability within a deterministic universe allow for a number of outcomes.  So it was not inevitable that those generations would overcome their challenges at home or defeat both Japan and Germany, ushering in both a bi-polar geopolitical world and one in which the nations of the earth could engage one another peacefully.   That they would make a world in which the democratic ideal would thrive and new democracies be born, consisting of a period of unprecedented societal affluence widely distributed among the citizens of the growing democracies, and social advancement that tore down the barriers imposed by racial, religious, and other forms of bigotry.  It took action by the people through the institutions created of, by and for them.  It required knowledge, wisdom, and action.

Carl Sandburg, who was of that generation, felt compelled to write about his time in the midst of the Great Depression in the only way he knew how, and that was through poetry.  Sandburg is mostly remembered today for his history of Lincoln, for which he received several Pulitzer Prize awards.  But his influence went far beyond those works, which he set aside to write this poem.

The poem he penned is The People, Yes.  It is a long form poem, but one that tells its story in simple, humane terms, about a people who are discouraged by events but who, in the end, pull together and fight to prevail.  It contains the ingredient found in the best poetry–humor and irony.  Rather than a polemic or the rah-rah of the cheerleader, it is a realistic assessment of the everyday hopes and aspirations that has inspired people since the beginning of civilization.  It is a conversation, almost Socratic in nature.  Rather than a mere historical document, it speaks to us today, as in the excerpt below.

Have you seen men handed refusals
till they began to laugh
at the notion of ever landing a job again–
Muttering with the laugh,
“It’s driving me nuts and the family too,”
Mumbling of hoodoos and jinx,
fear of defeat creeping in their vitals–
Have you never seen this?
or do you kid yourself
with the fond soothing syrup of four words
“Some folks won’t work”??
Of course some folks won’t work–
they are sick or wornout or lazy
or misled with the big idea
the idle poor should imitate the idle rich.
Have you seen women and kids
step out and hustle for the family
some in night life on the streets
some fighting other women and kids
for the leavings of fruit and vegetable markets
or searching alleys and garbage dumps for scraps?
Have you seen them with savings gone
furniture and keepsakes pawned
and the pawntickets blown away in cold winds?
by one letdown and another ending
in what you might call slums–
To be named perhaps in case reports
and tabulated and classified
among those who have crossed over
from the employables into the unemployables?
What is the saga of the employables?
what are the breaks they get?
What are the dramas of personal fate
spilled over from industrial transitions?
what punishments handed bottom people
who have wronged no man’s house
or things or person?Stocks are property, yes.
Bonds are property, yes.
Machines, land, buildings, are property, yes.
A job is property,
no, nix, nah nah.

The rights of property are guarded
by ten thousand laws and fortresses.
The right of a man to live by his work–
what is this right?
and why does it clamor?
and who can hush it
so it will stay hushed?
and why does it speak
and though put down speak again
with strengths out of the earth?

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Werner Heisenberg

Modern education seems to be failing us, but we seem to be at a loss as to why that is the case.  I would posit that it is because a large portion of the populace is ignorant of the most exciting discoveries and insights of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  My Sunday contemplation has focused on that literature that offers wisdom regarding human insight, but what of insights into our universe that point into larger ones that include the human condition and our social structures and perceptions?

Werner Heisenberg, the father of modern quantum mechanics, whose concept of the origins of the universe and the contingent nature of cause-and-effect at the level of quanta proved to be the correct theory over Einstein’s unified theory.  This is the context of the oft used Einstein quote that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Einstein was wrong–the universe is not fully predictable, there is uncertainty in outcomes.  At our level of existence we measure this amount of “free will” by probabilities: outcomes based on the condition of the universe at any particular point in what our brains interpret as “time.”  This is a concept that is often misinterpreted by polemicists and others.  The universe and its processes, such as evolution, are not based on “randomness.”  The universe is deterministic but with some variation in prediction.

werner heisenberg

What marks Professor Heisenberg for mention today is not only his insight into the technical aspects of the physical universe but understanding how these discoveries inform the human condition.

The source of this wisdom comes from his book Physics and Philosophy.  It is a fairly slight tome and a good book for the layman interested in a survey of the physical sciences written by the man responsible for many of the 20th century’s most important discoveries from the point just prior to the next wave of discoveries that would confirm, strengthen, and advance them.  He writes on the history of the theory of quantum theory and how it has changed our view of the universe and the older philosophical traditions that were either displaced or modified by it.  His exposition regarding other areas of our knowledge begins on page 60 speaking from the perspective of 1959, in which he speculates on things that still need to be proven in the other natural sciences and the role of human language in understanding nature (bold for emphasis added by me).

“…(T)he structure of present-day physics the relation between physics and other branches of natural science may be discussed. The nearest neighbor to physics is chemistry. Actually through quantum theory these two sciences have come to a complete union. But a hundred years ago they were widely separated, their methods of research were quite different, and the concepts of chemistry had at that time no counterpart in physics….When the theory of heat had been developed by the middle of the last century scientists started to apply it to the chemical processes, and ever since then the scientific work in this field has been determined by the hope of reducing the laws of chemistry to the mechanics of the atoms. It should be emphasized, however, that this was not possible within the framework of Newtonian mechanics. In order to give a quantitative description of the laws of chemistry one had to formulate a much wider system of concepts for atomic physics. This was finally done in quantum theory, which has its roots just as much in chemistry as in atomic physics. Then it was easy to see that the laws of chemistry could not be reduced to Newtonian mechanics of atomic particles, since the chemical elements displayed in their behavior a degree of stability completely lacking in mechanical systems. But it was not until Bohr’s theory of the atom in 1913 that this point had been clearly understood. In the final result, one may say, the concepts of chemistry are in part complementary to the mechanical concepts. If we know that an atom is in its lowest stationary state that determines its chemical properties we cannot at the same time speak about the motion of the electrons in the atom.

The present relation between biology, on the one side, and physics and chemistry, on the other, may be very similar to that between chemistry and physics a hundred years ago. The methods of biology are different from those of physics and chemistry, and the typical biological concepts are of a more qualitative character than those of the exact sciences.  Concepts like life, organ, cell, function of an organ, perception have no counterpart in physics or chemistry. On the other hand, most of the progress made in biology during the past hundred years has been achieved through the application of chemistry and physics to the living organism, and the whole tendency of biology in our time is to explain biological phenomena on the basis of the known physical and chemical laws. Again the question arises, whether this hope is justified or not.

Just as in the case of chemistry, one learns from simple biological experience that the living organisms display a degree of stability which general complicated structures consisting of many different types of molecules could certainly not have on the basis of the physical and chemical laws alone. Therefore, something has to be added to the laws of physics and chemistry before the biological phenomena can be completely understood.

With regard to this question two distinctly different views have frequently been discussed in the biological literature. The one view refers to Darwin’s theory of evolution in its connection with modern genetics.  According to this theory, the only concept which has to be added to those of physics and chemistry in order to understand life is the concept of history. The enormous time interval of roughly four thousand million years that has elapsed since the formation of the earth has given nature the possibility of trying an almost unlimited variety of structures of groups of molecules.  Among these structures there have finally been some that could reduplicate themselves by using smaller groups from the surrounding matter, and such structures therefore could be created in great numbers.  Accidental changes in the structures provided a still larger variety of the existing structures.  Different structures had to compete for the material drawn from the surrounding matter and in this way, through the `survival of the fittest,’ the evolution of living organisms finally took place.  There can be no doubt that this theory contains a very large amount of truth, and many biologists claim that the addition of the concepts of history and evolution to the coherent set of concepts of physics and chemistry will be amply sufficient to account for all biological phenomena. One of the arguments frequently used in favor of this theory emphasizes that wherever the laws of physics and chemistry have been checked in living organisms they have always been found to be correct; there seems definitely to be no place at which some `vital force’ different from the forces in physics could enter….

    When one compares this order with older classifications that belong to earlier stages of natural science one sees that one has now divided the world not into different groups of objects but into different groups of connections.  In an earlier period of science one distinguished, for instance, as different groups minerals, plants, animals, men.  These objects were taken according to their group as of different natures, made of different materials, and determined in their behavior by different forces.  Now we know that it is always the same matter, the same various chemical compounds that may belong to any object, to minerals as well as animals or plants; also the forces that act between the different parts of matter are ultimately the same in every kind of object.  What can be distinguished is the kind of connection which is primarily important in a certain phenomenon. For instance, when we speak about the action of chemical forces we mean a kind of connection which is more complicated or in any case different from that expressed in Newtonian mechanics. The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.

    When we represent a group of connections by a closed and coherent set of concepts, axioms, definitions and laws which in turn is represented by a mathematical scheme we have in fact isolated and idealized this group of connections with the purpose of clarification.  But even if complete clarity has been achieved in this way, it is not known how accurately the set of concepts describes reality.

     These idealizations may be called a part of the human language that has been formed from the interplay between the world and ourselves, a human response to the challenge of nature.  In this respect they may be compared to the different styles of art, say of architecture or music.  A style of art can also be defined by a set of formal rules which are applied to the material of this special art.  These rules can perhaps not be represented in a strict sense by a set of mathematical concepts and equations, but their fundamental elements are very closely related to the essential elements of mathematics.  Equality and inequality, repetition and symmetry, certain group structures play the fundamental role both in art and in mathematics.  Usually the work of several generations is needed to develop that formal system which later is called the style of the art, from its simple beginning to the wealth of elaborate forms which characterize its completion.  The interest of the artist is concentrated on this process of crystallization, where the material of the art takes, through his action, the various forms that are initiated by the first formal concepts of this style.  After the completion the interest must fade again, because the word `interest’ means: to be with something, to take part in a process of life, but this process has then come to an end.  Here again the question of how far the formal rules of the style represent that reality of life which is meant by the art cannot be decided from the formal rules.  Art is always an idealization; the ideal is different from reality — at least from the reality of the shadows, as Plato would have put it — but idealization is necessary for understanding.

    This comparison between the different sets of concepts in natural science with different styles of art may seem very far from the truth to those who consider the different styles of art as rather arbitrary products of the human mind. They would argue that in natural science these different sets of concepts represent objective reality, have been taught to us by nature, are therefore by no means arbitrary, and are a necessary consequence of our gradually increasing experimental knowledge of nature.  About these points most scientists would agree; but are the different styles of art an arbitrary product of the human mind?  Here again we must not be misled by the Cartesian partition.  The style arises out of the interplay between the world and ourselves, or more specifically between the spirit of the time and the artist.  The spirit of a time is probably a fact as objective as any fact in natural science, and this spirit brings out certain features of the world which are even-independent of time, are in this sense eternal.  The artist tries by his work to make these features understandable, and in this attempt he is led to the forms of the style in which he works. Therefore, the two processes, that of science and that of art, are not very different.  Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language….

Here is a truly beautiful mind grounded not just in mathematics and scientific theory, but informed by human experience.  In the rest of the work Heisenberg outlines the philosophical implications of modern physics on the history of human thought.  His conclusion speaks to our own time, 55 years from where he stood.  Though his primary concern was in the conflict between the West and the Communist dictatorships–and the possible use of nuclear weapons for which modern physics, he felt, bore a great deal of responsibility–he also foresaw a different type of conflict.  This was coming conflict originating from those parts of society upon whose foundations relied on, to use his term, narrow doctrines of understanding which would feel threatened as the coming discoveries in modern physics would reveal new knowledge of the universe and humanity’s place in it.  His final note is hopeful but what other choice did he have but to be hopeful?  The alternative is the extinction of the human species, and perhaps it is that–self-preservation–that will bring about, in the end, his final sentiment.

“…Finally, modern science penetrates into those large areas of our present world in which new doctrines were established only a few decades ago as foundations for new and powerful societies.  There modern science is confronted both with the content of the doctrines, which go back to European philosophical ideas of the nineteenth century (Hegel and Marx), and with the phenomenon of uncompromising belief.  Since modern physics must play a great role in these countries because of its practical applicability, it can scarcely be avoided that the narrowness of the doctrines is felt by those who have really understood modern physics and its philosophical meaning.  Therefore, at this point an interaction between science and the general trend of thought may take place.  Of course the influence of science should not be overrated; but it might be that the openness of modern science could make it easier even for larger groups of people to see that the doctrines are possibly not so important for the society as had been assumed before.  In this way the influence of modern science may favor an attitude of tolerance and thereby may prove valuable.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of uncompromising belief carries much more weight than some special philosophical notions of the nineteenth century.  We cannot close our eyes to the fact that the great majority of the people can scarcely have any well-founded judgment concerning the correctness of certain important general ideas or doctrines. Therefore, the word `belief’ can for this majority not mean `perceiving the truth of something’ but can only be understood as `taking this as the basis for life.’  One can easily understand that this second kind of belief is much firmer, is much more fixed than the first one, that it can persist even against immediate contradicting experience and can therefore not be shaken by added scientific knowledge.  The history of the past two decades has shown by many examples that this second kind of belief can sometimes be upheld to a point where it seems completely absurd, and that it then ends only with the death of the believer.  Science and history can teach us that this kind of belief may become a great danger for those who share it.  But such knowledge is of no avail, since one cannot see how it could be avoided, and therefore such belief has always belonged to the great forces in human history.  From the scientific tradition of the nineteenth century one would of course be inclined to hope that all belief should be based on a rational analysis of every argument, on careful deliberation; and that this other kind of belief, in which some real or apparent truth is simply taken as the basis for life, should not exist.  It is true that cautious deliberation based on purely rational arguments can save us from many errors and dangers, since it allows readjustment to new situations, and this may be a necessary condition for life.  But remembering our experience in modern physics it is easy to see that there must always be a fundamental complementarity between deliberation and decision.  In the practical decisions of life it will scarcely ever be possible to go through all the arguments in favor of or against one possible decision, and one will therefore always have to act on insufficient evidence.  The decision finally takes place by pushing away all the arguments – both those that have been understood and others that might come up through further deliberation – and by cutting off all further pondering.  The decision may be the result of deliberation, but it is at the same time complementary to deliberation; it excludes deliberation.  Even the most important decisions in life must always contain this inevitable element of irrationality.  The decision itself is necessary, since there must be something to rely upon, some principle to guide our actions.  Without such a firm stand our own actions would lose all force.  Therefore, it cannot be avoided that some real or apparent truth form the basis of life; and this fact should be acknowledged with regard to those groups of people whose basis is different from our own.

Coming now to a conclusion from all that has been said about modern science, one may perhaps state that modern physics is just one, but a very characteristic, part of a general historical process that tends toward a unification and a widening of our present world.  This process would in itself lead to a diminution of those cultural and political tensions that create the great danger of our time. But it is accompanied by another process which acts in the opposite direction. The fact that great masses of people become conscious of this process of unification leads to an instigation of all forces in the existing cultural communities that try to ensure for their traditional values the largest possible role in the final state of unification.  Thereby the tensions increase and the two competing processes are so closely linked with each other that every intensification of the unifying process — for instance, by means of new technical progress — intensifies also the struggle for influence in the final state, and thereby adds to the instability of the transient state.  Modern physics plays perhaps only a small role in this dangerous process of unification.  But it helps at two very decisive points to guide the development into a calmer kind of evolution.  First, it shows that the use of arms in the process would be disastrous and, second, through its openness for all kinds of concepts it raises the hope that in the final state of unification many different cultural traditions may live together and may combine different human endeavors into a new kind of balance between thought and deed, between activity and meditation.


Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Elizabeth Bishop Edition

Late contemplation today due to the flu.  I am in that stage of life where this poem, which I first came upon as a young man, has changed in meaning.  I find this with most art.  Works of fiction, particularly those of Dickens and Twain, which were required readings in my youth have somehow changed in my mind’s eye from the manner that I first viewed them, now that I am past the midpoint of life.  Walt Whitman, from whom all modern American poetry springs, as with Mark Twain, from whom all modern American literature springs, almost occupied this space today.  But then my mind kept coming back to this poem.  Mr. Whitman (and no doubt Mr. Clemens) will need to visit us another day.  Here then is One Art by Elizabeth Bishop.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Miles Davis Edition

Wisdom can be found in all of the arts, some of them visual, some written, and some using sound.

Fifty-five years ago in March and April 1959 the Miles Davis Sextet entered the studio at 30th Street Studio in New York City and recorded the album that would be known as Kind of Blue.

The reason I believe this album and, in particular, the song “So What” resonates is that it is an amalgamation of its time, taking into itself the entire history of jazz and jazz culture, which is American culture, and the potential that is American culture when all of its elements–its best elements–come together.

In the 1950s United States that brought Miles Davis and Bill Evans together, one black and the other white, the Civil Rights movement was just getting into swing against both Jim Crow and aggressive racism in the South, and the less obvious discrimination in housing and job opportunities in the north.  There was a tension between white jazz musicians and black jazz musicians based on the conditions where white musicians were able to get well paying union gigs, play in studios, in television, and other mediums that allowed them to make a living plying their art, but which denied those same opportunities to the originators of the jazz form.  Black musicians felt that many of the more popular white jazz musicians with few exceptions were co-opting their culture.

For jazz is a particular kind of art–an art that speaks of history, of the blues associated with a people who were enslaved, brutalized, escaped enslavement, disenfranchised, and oppressed for the color of their skin, but who overcame these indignities, embracing the blues, finding the wonder in small things, finding joy in living life.  It is a particular American voice forged in the underbelly of a society that espoused lofty goals that expressed the hopes and desires of all of human history–to human dignity, to the equal worth of each human life, to freedom, against the strong dominating and devouring the weak–but which fell far short of its goals in practice.

When Bill Evans was introduced to Miles Davis by George Russell there was a tension in the air where they played, especially in black clubs in Harlem, Brooklyn, and elsewhere.  The two men had much in common despite the different hues of their skin.  Davis had overcome heroin addiction that was the drug of choice in ’50s jazz culture, throwing himself into his music, pushing the urban-inspired form of jazz known as bebop to new frontiers.  Evans, a New Jersey boy who fully immersed himself in the jazz life with Russell and Charles Mingus, also had experimented with narcotics and become addicted to the drug–a struggle, which for Evans, would last the rest of his life.  But when he played the feelings expressed through the keyboard communicated a musical vision that has been described as the reflection of light from a sun-dappled waterfall.  It was this quality that drew Davis to Evans, the style deeply influenced by the French impressionists.

Davis tested Evans by taking him to venues that he knew would challenge his sensitivities and make him aware of the black-white dynamic.  Since the 1920s New York City was home to the jazz club and turned a blind eye to integrated audiences and couples.  Benny Goodman had integrated his jazz band in the 1940s.  But the societal undercurrent was everywhere the band turned.  White society denied black people opportunities and dignity.  In Davis’ band this dynamic was reversed–Davis was the leader and Evans the sideman.  Reverse racism caused by years of oppression was everywhere Evans turned within the black subculture but Davis would have none of it: “Crow Jim is what they call that. It’s [got] a lot of the Negro musicians mad because most of the best-paying jobs go to the white musicians playing what the Negroes created.  But I don’t go for this, because I think prejudice one way is just as bad as the other way.”  Years later Evans spoke about those years, “It makes me a bit angry. I want more responsibility among black people and black musicians to be accurate and to be spiritually intelligent…to say only black people can play jazz is as dangerous as saying only white people are intelligent.”

So near the end of their collaboration it should not be surprising that these men forged what is considered to be by many the best work of music to be produced in the 20th century.  For they arrived at the same place from different origins, they harnessed their love for the jazz form to not only express the past but to express what was possible in the future from the place they stood, pointing the way to enlightenment when others could only see the barriers in front of them.

I believe nowhere did they express that vision better than in the song “So What.”  For even the title expresses their shared vision, so what? that they were of different skin colors, so what? that the structure of the song was a break from the bebop structure, so what? that they had to get there by overcoming barriers, some of their own making and some not.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — William James Edition

Several years ago I came across Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found and was immediately inspired to continue to search for similar examples of wisdom in art, literature, poetry, and other forms of human discourse.  As a result, when I ran across the address of Dr. James at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common on Memorial Day, May 31, 1897 I knew I had found one such example.  Shaw, of course, was the Commanding Officer of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment–the first black regiment organized in Massachusetts for the Union cause–and the subject of the 1989 movie Glory.

Robert Gould Shaw memorial

Being a career military professional, I was most impressed by James’ insight into human nature and his ability to overcome his own feelings of inadequacy and guilt from his inability to have participated in the war to abolish slavery.  His brother Wilky James was an officer in the 54th Massachusetts and participated in the Quixotic–and poorly planned–direct charge on Fort Wagner in which half the regiment was decimated.  Wilky suffered terrible injuries from the battle, which foreshortened his life.  But William seemed to have taken some lessons from his brother’s experience and shared them on that day.

Here, then, is today’s wisdom from an excerpt of William James’ oration:

“It is hard to end a discourse like this without one word of moralizing; and two things must be distinguished in all events like those we are commemorating–the moral service of them on the one hand, and on the other the physical fortitude which they display.  War has been much praised and celebrated among us of late as a school of manly virtue; but it is easy to exaggerate upon this point.  Ages ago, war was the gory cradle of mankind, the grim-featured nurse that alone could train our savage progenitors into some semblance of social virtue, teach them to be faithful to one another, and force them to sink their selfishness in wider tribal ends.  War still excels in this prerogative; and whether it be paid in years of service, in treasure, or in life-blood, the war tax is still the only tax that men ungrudgingly will pay.  How could it be otherwise when the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring?  Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us; and military virtue least in need of reinforcement by reflection, least in need of orator’s or poet’s help.

What we really need the poet’s and orator’s help to keep alive in us is not, then, the common and gregarious courage which Robert Shaw showed when he marched with you, men of the Seventh Regiment.  It is that more lonely courage which he showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head…the 54th.  That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of the five hundred of us who could storm a battery side-by-side with others, perhaps not one would be found ready to risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse….The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.  Such nations have no need of wars to save them.”