“No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.”
It’s another Friday night down at the neighborhood bar, but there’s something that isn’t right about the atmosphere this time. There’s an undercurrent of fear and anger running through the conversations at the neighboring tables, and every single one of them is a political conversation.
It’s been like that all day. The lawyers at their conference couldn’t talk about anything else either. It wasn’t just a forecast of legal changes, the way you might expect in the weeks following a presidential election: it was preparing for a storm. Even the traffic this morning seemed angrier than usual.
I am listening to the conversations—just listening, and thinking things over. I’ve been able to get by with ignoring politics up until now, but I wonder whether that’s still going to be possible. It isn’t that a piece of legislation has never affected me personally—the Affordable Care Act did, and especially the period of uncertainty in the months before its passage. If it had been passed a few months sooner, there’s no saying what kind of a life I’d now be living.
That would have been the time to take up advocacy, I suppose, but I was tired of having my future tossed around by forces outside my control. I surveyed the forces that for all I knew held my life in balance—it had taken many of them, working at cross-purposes, to get me into a mess that big—and thumbed my nose at them. I chose instead to focus on what I knew I could change—myself. If I only live fully, I thought, and pursue my ambitions wholeheartedly, and be happy in spite of everything, then I am the one in control—not the political system, not the health care system, not any system. That was a strange, chaotic time. It was as if I were standing aboard a sinking ship, casting things overboard, and political engagement was one of the things that went.
I hadn’t missed it, either. In the time that followed, there were entire months when I had to walk 10 Kilometers for an internet connection, when I only picked up newspapers in order to line birdcages with them—and when I finally did catch up with the world, I found that I hadn’t missed a thing. The same old arguments, exaggerations and misinformation were still being bandied about. And all of it just confirmed what my studies had already brought home to me. In music, when we shift around in a predictable way, repeat ourselves a few times and end up exactly where we began, we call it progress—and that seems to be the way it happens in history, too.
But I really should be focusing on my studies right now. The book is lying open in front of me on the table next to my glass of cider. It’s a book on the metaphysics of color, possibly the most pointless branch of philosophy there is. Actually, the author himself would agree—he’s writing in the tradition of Wittgenstein, he doesn’t even think it’s possible to practice metaphysics. The book is quite good for what it is, but right now it’s a little hard to care. Where else but philosophy do you find people writing books on subjects they don’t believe it’s possible to know anything about?
I think back to class a couple weeks ago. That afternoon, the professor had announced to us that we would get out early because he had a conference to attend. But, he added, color might be a sore spot today anyway. We knew what he meant. All of us had seen the solid wave of red sweeping the maps from east to west last night. Not our state, of course—it was never contentious the way we were going to go.
But even in a decidedly blue state, in our tiny, four-person class—I can’t imagine why so few people wanted to take a course on the metaphysics of color—there was dissent. I got into an argument after class with a fellow student. He seemed to think that since neither of us found either candidate appealing, we were mostly in agreement, but I didn’t see it that way at all. For him, Trump represented the lesser of two evils. As for me—well, perhaps you could find a candidate who represents the greater of two evils when set beside Donald Trump, but I’m not sure where you’d have to go to look. Maybe Innsmouth. All the rest are just politicians—nothing better, nothing worse—but he’s something far worse. The night before election day, I dreamed about Hitler. Hitler with a bullwhip*. I may not be a political person, but I am concerned with the way things are looking.
And my father was there, too—I had hoped that having his lifelong dream fulfilled would have halted his transformation into a reactionary, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Everybody who doesn’t hold conservative views is now an enemy, including me, even though I’m not actually a liberal either. I’m not anything. If there were an award for being the least political human being within a thousand miles of Washington, D.C., I would be a good candidate for it, and every time I see him he still tries to pick fights over politics. I saw real hatred there behind his words—which is why it’s so alarming to see so much anger here now, on the other side. Everywhere around me, people are trying to make themselves into strawmen.
“I wouldn’t wish the man on anybody,” I had said towards the end of our conversation, “but perhaps this will help us all figure out what’s important.” In every ordeal, there’s an opportunity to grow stronger, to remake ourselves. It’s something I learned myself, back when things were bad. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be applicable on a national level, too.
And yet—what can I do? Self-conscious group affiliation of any kind is a concept that’s never made emotional sense to me, which is one reason I don’t have a political affiliation. I never felt like I belonged to something larger than myself until I became a Buddhist—which, being based on a shared sense of non-identity, doesn’t help me much there.
And in spite of having spent the years often referred to as formative here in the States*, very little of the culture rubbed off—or, rather, any of the cultures. None of the standard political positions makes sense—all the lines that I see others defend so vehemently seem to be drawn in strange and arbitrary places. And what’s good for one person is always bad for another—how are you supposed to choose? Self-interest? But no, that’s one thing I am sure of—the sum total of people’s self-interest will never add up to something that’s good for everyone.
And to top it all off, there’s nothing that annoys me more than having people try to convince me to adopt their views, unless it’s having them try to do it in sneaky, subliminal ways. Debates are okay in philosophy, where people are trained not to identify themselves with their arguments and nobody changes anyone else’s mind anyway. It’s all okay if there’s some actual state of affairs to be discovered that’s one way and not another. But goals, values, how others should live their lives—that’s another matter. I’d make a lousy advocate because I’d be doing it with a bad conscience.
Am I a fatalist? Probably. But it really seems like there’s nothing I can do here, and if that’s the case, then there’s no reason to feel bad about it. Maybe just trying to keep hold of a comprehensive, unaggressive perspective and living from it in the midst of a difficult time is the best I can manage.
It’s clear that I’ve done all the studying I’m going to do for the night. I pack up my book and notebook—the latest page of which has far more musings over politics than metaphysics— put the tip on the table and leave. Instead of heading straight for my car, I take a walk along the street—the poster child of revitalized downtown areas for miles around, although you don’t have to go far to find the streets it’s better not to walk down.
I recall another dream from the week after the election. In that one, I was in a classroom for some kind of math course, and sitting next to me was none other than the president-elect. I asked him a couple questions. He paused, trying to figure out whether I’d just insulted him. He determined—correctly—that I had, but he just laughed, brushed it off.
Then I’m in another room, with a couple classmates. They’re having a conversation in German about the election, and I join in. “Guess who was sitting next to me in class today?” I ask. “It was like a bad dream…”
*It makes him American, you see.
In the dream, I’m part of a class taught by Mrs. P, who was my English teacher back in high school. We’re in a loose sort of line in a hallway outside a large room with a chapel-ish feel to it. We are singing: the song is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Different groups of us come into prominence throughout it. As I sing, I’m reminded anew of how banal and stiff the tune is, just as it always has been—but I still try to put some real expression in it and give as good a performance as I’m capable of.
When we’ve been singing for a while, two men run out of the room—it seems as if they’ve been hiding there, but we flooded them out somehow. One is dressed in what I recognize as a Russian military uniform; the other wears some kind of priest’s robe. It strikes me as quite a funny situation. (November, 2017)
Spotting a connection between the dream and something that had been on my mind the previous day—check. Sometimes it really is that easy. The next step is looking at some of the striking elements. What kind of a feeling do I get from them? Where did I get them from?—a question that often resolves into: who am I plagiarizing this time? In this case, it’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I find the passage easily.
… I call it Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt which is exemplified by a Russian soldier who, finding a campaign too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything—to cease reacting altogether. (Friedrich Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo”)
The soldier in the dream is a representative figure—specifically, a representative of fatalism. And with that settled, I don’t need to look far for where the priest came from. Nietzsche had a good deal to say about priests, very little of it kind. The associations are mainly: passivity, asceticism, unworldliness, “etherealized abstraction,” “negation of the world”. One can find passages concerning priests very similar to the one about the soldier above, enough to make you wonder why he went out of his way to introduce a new figure. Probably because he was explicitly writing about himself that time.
Anyway, the gist seems to be: don’t give up. Take part. Kick fatalism out the door. But actually, it isn’t quite so straightforward.
The dream is drawing from a source that, for me, belongs to the past. This suggests that the source is significant in its own right rather than just something that got caught up in a web of associations and dragged along. There was a time when I read a lot of Nietzsche— I’m sure that, even now, the traces of his thought here would be unmistakable to anyone familiar with his works. A chapel is a place set aside for worship, often for a minority sect; even though this philosophy is something that lies firmly in the past for me, the past always leaves traces. I know from reading imagery that this is also the case with Christianity, which lies even further in the past—and which the imagery here testifies to as well, while adding a heavy layer of irony to the whole thing.
The dream is a sort of correction, but a confirmation as well—the best approach is one that does not conflict with a past attitude, but is continuous with what was good in it.
Something else to consider is that these anti-fatalist figures were the creations of a professed fatalist. He just thought that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The two figures show the wrong way to be fatalists—but my decision to sing shows the right way. I did not choose the song, but I still chose to sing it well. That’s what it means to be a fatalist—that’s the attitude the dream is encouraging.
Dreams do not always point us towards certain attitudes or courses of action—sometimes they only seem to reflect our own confused emotions. But this one is offering pretty clear advice, I think to myself as I look over my notes. And yet, I don’t feel any more certain. I won’t try to shut myself off from politics, but I still can’t see myself taking any kind of an active role. Most of my objections still seem compelling. Perhaps simply staying open to it and letting it be a dimension of my life is enough—for now, anyway.
-To Be Continued-