From Harper’s Magazine, September 2010:
Why dogs go after mail carriers by Garret Keizer
One looks for the questions that define one’s times. Perhaps the key question of our own, a question that applies both politically and environmentally and which, oddly enough, seems related to the fate of the post office, is this: Do we want to be angels, or do we want to be human beings?
People who talk about our “materialistic society” and about getting back to “spiritual values” strike me as having a right sense of indignation and a poor sense of analysis. The delusion of our society is not so much its materialism as its faux spiritualism, its desire to make a heaven on earth, not as a place free of needless suffering and full of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “collective joy,” but as one in which the elect live everlastingly and communicate telepathically while flying in disembodied splendor above the heads of the Mexicans mowing the lawn. Already one hears futuristic blather about a “posthuman” age. I’d say that I hope I die before I see it, except that I have seen it. Your great-grandmother saw it. The posthuman is merely the subhuman that results whenever people aspire to the superhuman. Rameses the Second was posthuman too.
How about just-human? I don’t want to be a seraph or a sunbeam but a citizen, that is, to live in a physical body and a geographical community, bounded by time and space and served in full equality by incarnate fellow citizens like Shirley B. I’ll keep my email, thank you, but let my “primary communications carrier” be a unionized worker with his feet on the sidewalk and no wings on his feet. If I have to wait an extra day or two for a parcel, I can bear it.
English painter, engraver, and satirist William Hogarth produced two prints called Beer Street and Gin Lane in 1751. He designed these prints in response to the great anxiety in London regarding the heavy use of gin at the time – especially among the lower classes. Gin had been around for a while, but became wildly popular due to a combination of a few factors.
In the late 17th century, William of Orange popularized the drink, and it came to compete with the more traditional ale for the place of national drink.William also deregulated the distilling industry in 1689, thus allowing amateur production which would help lower prices of alcohol and increase the price of grain – increasing trade with the colonial holdings. Imports of wine and spirits were also banned. Perhaps most importantly, improvements in agricultural techniques created reliable surpluses of corn. This corn could therefore be used to make gin, and consequently gin became the cheapest and most potent alcoholic drink available in London (Nicholis, 2003).
Beer Street presents a quaint scene of British street life. The people are happy and they all appear to be healthy – many have very robust waistlines (a sign of health at the time, in contrast to today). The business of Mr. Gripe, the pawnbroker, appears to be doing very poorly. His windows are boarded up, and he takes his beer through a hole in the door – perhaps his business is in such bad shape that he is fearful of being sent to debtor’s prison. Hogarth had intended Beer Street to be viewed before Gin Lane, to make the image of Gin Lane all the more shocking. If the goal of this work was to present beer as a part of a good, honest, English lifestyle, it is certainly a success. The characters radiate good humour.
In stark contrast, Gin Lane presents a scene of uninhibited vice and debauchery. The focus of the composition is a woman who – out of neglect from drunkenness – has let her baby fall off the side of the stairs. It is well known that Hogarth was very concerned with the plight of children, and this may be the reason for the inclusion of this element as the central focus of the work. (Baum, 1934) The pawnbroker of Gin Lane, unlike his unfortunate counterpart, has a thriving business. He examines the tools of the craftsmen who are selling them – presumably to buy more gin, as well as the utensils of a housewife. At the lower right corner lies an emaciated corpse. Out of his basket fall pamphlets he had been trying to sell telling people about the evils of gin. Off in the distance, we see perhaps the most horrifying image, a madman appears to be hitting himself on the head with a bellows, and he carries an impaled baby on a spike. A building in the back is collapsing from disuse, and the barber has hung himself, presumably because no one cares enough about their appearance to divert money away from their gin consumption. These depictions may seem extreme – almost a caricature of reality rather than a sober depiction of the consequences of alcoholism. This is surely the case, however there were some very real dangers related to drinking gin at the time. Distilleries were unregulated, and produced a very poor quality product. Turpentine was a common additive, and as late as the early 20th century it was still prevalent in gin. There are also a few well publicized cases of people being driven to extreme measures in their search for gin. One woman reclaimed her child from a workhouse only to strangle it in order to sell its clothes for money to buy more gin. In another case, an elderly woman who had passed out from overconsumption allowed a child to burn to death. (Nicholis, 2003) It can never be known for sure if Gin Lane actually succeeded in preventing someone from falling into that kind of degenerate lifestyle, but Gin Lane is certainly a powerful and horrifying statement against vice.
It may seem curious at first that while the true subject of the prints is ostensibly the dangers of alcoholism – beer is given unqualified praise while gin is vilified. However we must take into account the relative newness of gin, together with the cultural space occupied by beer. Complete sobriety was just not an option in England at the time – it would have been dangerous considering that the supply of clean water was unreliable. It makes sense that at the time beer was considered the drink of healthy and honest people.
Beer Street and Gin Lane received a mixed reception. Some critics thought the works were superior; others felt that Hogarth’s ham-handed moralizing was in poor taste. While it is uncertain what effect these prints had on the gin-drinking public, Hogarth’s efforts were rewarded when the Gin Act passed in 1751, which significantly reduced the amount of gin produced in England. (Nicholis, 2003)
Baum, R. M. (1934). Hogarth and Fielding as Social Critics. Art Bulletin , 16 (1), 30.
Nicholis, J. (2003). Intoxication and Society in the Gin Epidemic. Journal for Cultural Research , 7 (2), 125-146.
I celebrated my birthday recently. I didn’t do anything fancy. I guess I’ve never really been much of a birthday person. As per the usual, I ended up going to a nice restaurant with my closest family members and my girlfriend. I don’t really desire anything more out of it, and getting gift suggestions out of me is like pulling teeth.
After a bit of reflection, I realized what selfish occasions birthdays are. Everyone who knows you is expected to shower you with gifts and attention. This might seem sensible to me if we lived in a society where we spent most our days seeking virtue, but I would argue that the dominant theme, day-to-day in our culture is selfishness. What moral sense does it make to celebrate another year of selfishness with a day of even greater selfishness?
With this in mind, I propose the following simple practice:
On your birthday, write sincere, thoughtful letters to all the people in your life who you are thankful exist.
I intend to start doing this next year.
This birthday for me was a lot different than previous ones. It’s not a significant year for me – I haven’t just turned fifty or anything, but this year I actually felt comfortable with my age. I actually feel older, closer to thirty. I feel mature and grounded. I feel like all my major sins are behind me, along with the fumbling and confusion of youth that was their source. I feel prepared to spend the rest of my life attempting to do good. Where in previous years I would tend to ruminate on my birthdays about how I’m not the person I want to be, this year I accept this fact knowing that while my the state of my soul fluctuates from one week to the next, I’m on a steady path upwards.
Last night I dreamed that I bought a white, 1998 Toyota Corolla. It was kind of a shitty car, but it was really fun to drive. Fast acceleration, purred like a kitten. I had my company logo painted on the side of it. I don’t remember what my company was though, although I remember two big letters: a big blue R and a big red L. A Real Life company?
George Bernard Shaw has a reputation for including direct proselytization in his plays and novels. It is a rare individual who can turn stage direction into polemic.
The following is an excerpt from the stage direction at the beginning of Act Three of Shaw’s Man And Superman, dealing with Shaw’s opinion on “welfare leeches.”
Whoever has intelligently observed the tramp, or visited the able-bodied ward of a workhouse, will admit that our social failure are not all drunkards and weaklings. Some of them are men who do not fit the class they were born into. Precisely the same qualities that make the educated gentleman an artist may make an uneducated manual laborer an able-bodied pauper. There are men who fall helplessly into the workhouse because they are good for nothing; but there are also men who are there because they are strongminded enough to disregard the social convention [obviously not a disinterested one on the part of the ratepayer] which bids a man live by heavy and badly paid drudgery when he has the alternative of walking into the workhouse, announcing himself as a destitute person, and legally compelling the Guardians to feed, clothe, and house him better than he could feed, clothe and house himself without great exertion. When a man who is born a poet refuses a stool in a stockbroker’s office, and starves in a garret, sponging on a poor landlady or on his friends and relatives sooner than work against his grain; or when a lady, because she is a lady, will face any extremity of parasitic dependence rather than take a situation as cook or parlor-maid, we make large allowances for them. To such allowances the able-bodied pauper, and his nomadic variant the tramp, are equally entitled.
Further, the imaginative man, if his life is to be tolerable to him, must have leisure to tell himself stories, and a position which lends itself to imaginative decoration. The ranks of unskilled labor offer no such positions. We misuse our laborers horribly; and when a man refuses to be misused, we have no right to say that he is refusing honest work. Let us be frank in this matter before we go on with our play; so that we may enjoy it without hypocrisy. If we were reasoning, farsighted people, four fifths of us would go straight to the Guardians for relief, and knock the whole social system to pieces with most beneficial reconstructive results. The reason we do not do this is because we work like bees or ants, by instinct or habit, not reasoning about the matter at all. Therefore when a man comes along who can and does reason, and who, applying the Kantian test to his conduct, can truly say to us, If everybody did as I do, the world would be compelled to reform itself industrially, and abolish slavery and squalor, which exist only because everybody does as you do, let us honor that man and seriously consider the advisability of following his example. Such a man is the able-bodied, able-minded pauper. Were he a gentleman doing his best to get a pension or a sinecure instead of sweeping a crossing, nobody would blame hiim for deciding that so long as the alternative lies between living mainly at the expense of the community and allowing the community to live mainly at his, it would be folly to accept what is to him personally the greater of two evils.
The years. . . when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and ﬂooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me.
That’s what Jung had to say about it, anyway.
The Red Book – of course – is the long unpublished illuminated manuscript penned by Jung during the years following his falling out with Sigmund Freud. Varying reports on Jung during this period cast him as either a victim of a prolonged psychotic episode, or as a mystic plumbing the depths of the unconscious mind (or both, among the more broad-minded / indecisive).
Though I’m genuinely excited about this release, the hype being generated by the publisher borders on the absurd. They’re trying to cast this as the unearthing of some mystical tome that will once and for all change our understanding of the human mind and lead us to glory. If you think I’m exaggerating, just watch this promotional video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIBQFSwX1UY)
All that being said, I’m really eager to crack this baby open. It’ll be a while before I’ll be able to look at a copy myself – I don’t really have $200.00 to blow on illuminated manuscripts right now, and the book is presently sold out anyway, but before too long I anticipate some person will scan it and make it available on the Internet, and I’m not so impatient that I can’t wait.
The few images released by the publisher are tantalizing! In case it wasn’t already obvious from Jung’s other work, the connection to the turn-of-the-20th-century occult community is crystal clear here. Some of his drawings (particularly the cross in the circle, seen in the video) would look perfectly at home in some not-so-secret Golden Dawn tome.
Anyway, onto the goods. Here are the best photos I’ve been able to grab off the web.
Oh, the wonderful posts you’ll make!