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Ain’t nothing too discreet
About the disease of conceit
“Disease of Conceit” by Bob Dylan
Each day I am assailed, greeted, besieged, enticed, importuned by blandishments of every sort. I can buy a wristwatch, a sweater, a car, a cruise to Norway, a gun. The list feels endless. I see the ads on the Internet and TV, in magazines and newspapers. I receive robocalls telling me I need to have my car checked, my insurance changed, my Internet security improved. Some are scams, some merely invasive. If I go to a store, I am confronted by shelves of products (though with the coronavirus making itself felt some gaps in the shelves). The grocery offers food stuffs in bags, wrappers, cans, jars, bottles, tubes, boxes, tins. I pause and wonder: how do all these things get made? Where does the raw material that constitutes them come from, the plastic, the glass, the cardboard, the cellophane? How many factories are there and how many people in the factories? And then there are the trucks, boats, airplanes and trains moving day and night, bringing all this to me and you.
I am not awed. I am used to the grocery’s display and the ads at every turn. I was born into a world of surfeit: machines geared to make more of everything as long as there are consumers, a category that increasingly is synonymous with “human being.” If there is no one to do the purchasing in a timely manner, the touted product (for every product is somehow touted) is thrown out, junked or simply forgotten. The planet is dotted with mountains and burial grounds of That Which Is No Longer Wanted. All those containers in the grocery store are sitting somewhere leading their idle lives, seemingly deaf to time. Some are being recycled—or so I am led to believe. Their lives are not over; new matter is fashioned out of old matter. I am supposed to applaud this reincarnation as somehow improving something. Why all this stuff is needed in the first place is beside the point. We, the human race, can do it, so we do it.
As human beings, we are amalgams of will, curiosity and appetite. Invention comes naturally to us. In modern times, invention has been taken as an irrefragable good. The story of Icarus is not for us. Such warnings are compounded of superstition and taboo and, hence, outmoded. Legends and myths are legends and myths, the fancies of primitive imaginations, untrue and irrelevant. The Tree of Knowledge has neither a Latinate, taxonomic nomenclature nor a discernible location. The wariness the ancients felt and that various indigenous people still recognize is not for modern people with their vast funds of information, theory and experiment, their universities, think tanks and laboratories. Economics is based on the prospect of constant growth; pundits scrutinize fractions and percentages. Betterment, improvement, progress—the accompanying terms infiltrate every dimension of modern life. Hope can be actualized. Prodigies come to life. Here comes Artificial Intelligence! Here comes Cloning! Here come Drones! Whoops! Already here. No “fiction” can be attached to science.
Meanwhile, I press, push, turn the key, toggle, point, type in the password, flick a switch and numerous other small gestures that give me control over my machines. I don’t know how most of the machines actually work but then, who does? They are part of what’s been invented and have become part of what’s necessary to live or, to use the modern term, which aptly blends the psychological with the industrial, “function.” I would prefer horses and quills but no one is asking me. I can opt out and did for a long time—over twenty years off the grid. But even there I had a small gas stove and a boombox hooked up to a car battery, to say nothing of a Subaru in the driveway. I wasn’t seeking purity, however, just earth-time peace in the woods.
What has my life with the mechanical inventions made me? Comfortable for sure. I touch the thermostat and can be warm. Easy-going in the sense of having conveniences available such as hot water, something I lacked in my off-the-grid days where water had to be heated up occasion by occasion. Trusting in the sense that the machines worked yesterday and should work today. Credulous in believing some of the importuning that I mentioned earlier. But also uncertain because of the sheer volume of the claims that leaves me muttering, “Sure, sure, if I buy whatever I will be hipper, more contemporary, more able to take my place in the planetary ticket line as another savvy customer. Tell me another one before I start thinking too much.”
These are all very low-grade feelings, tepid and barely worth noting but that seems their importance: the soporific becomes the usual, the agreeable accouterments of what Charles Taylor in his landmark book A Secular Age termed “the buffered self.” I am fit to do nothing so much as yawn and dust the top of the refrigerator. Though modern life is famously brisk and people love to announce they are “busy,” as in “I am busy, therefore I exist,” the efficacy of the ads picturing beautiful people lolling on beaches remains. I can escape. I can set the anxiety aside. I can make myself something like invulnerable through vitamins, up-to-date news, constant electronic contact, workouts, shrewd investments, diets and on and on into an ultra-buttressed and ultra-buffered “life-style,” to use another latter-day word.
What this array of choices grants me is a sort of automatic conceit, something beyond preening for mirrors, something beyond throwing my self-importance around, something that goes with my modern credential as a human-being-who-is-a-machine-for-living. The world exists for me and I am the measure of that world. I am, after all, consulted and indulged endlessly. The machines are my servants. As a so-called “citizen,” politicians of some stripe will tell me what I want to hear. Every form of entertainment is available to me. The earth seems to be endlessly abundant; I don’t have to think about the air I breathe or how photosynthesis is doing or how many fish are in the sea or how much metal is in the ground. I can go anywhere in the airplanes that crisscross the planet. I can await the next invention and join in the clamor: Version 6.2! 6.3! 6.4!
I have, as in the lines from Bob Dylan I quoted at the outset of this piece, a disease, but one so common as to be unnoticeable. Though I tend to be self-effacing, having, as someone whose last name begins with “W,” sat in the back of many classrooms waving my hand fruitlessly, I can be as presumptuous as the next person staring down at a cell phone as if it were manna. Who knows—to switch to another machine—how many hours I have spent in automobiles? Full of destinations, I have been destined. The garages that litter the planet are so many shrines to the God of Fossil Fuel. Idolatry, as the Old Testament makes plain, comes easy. Whatever validates our immediate appetites is good. Mammon will vouch for our impulses; Moloch will take our credit cards.
And yet for all the Bible-thumping, all the joyful and reverent acknowledgment of the Creator, what about the Creation? As the story of the Garden of Eden would have it, we live, as fallen creatures, in exile. There isn’t much doubt about human failings but what about the marvel of where we spend the putative exile? How does the Creation fit into the story? Is it something to take for-granted, a second fiddle, so to speak, to the immeasurable God? Does it perennially languish in comparison with human invention? Same old earth, as it were, though climate change is changing that view. Are we stuck in our inability to appreciate what enables us to live? Does love of the earth take away from God-love? Is the earth a sort of consolation prize beside the prospect of eternal life in heaven? Shards of theology obtrude from every angle.
Invention breeds optimism: things are getting better all the time because “things”–toasters or cars or computers—are always being refined and adjusted and seemingly furthered in their capacities. Optimism, as an ambiance that reduces self-pity and the doubts triggered by suffering, sets the stage for that will-o’-the-wisp, happiness. The story of human life on earth becomes the story of glad amelioration. Humans are fostering knowledge, sociological explanations, educational techniques, to say nothing of skyscrapers and insights into the quantum mysteries. At the least, we can talk as if we knew what we were talking about and via TV, radio and the Internet we do. But then the human race has never lacked for opinions. Probing thought and careful awareness have been the sticking points. The modern penchant for speed—the exaggerations bred by machines—has not helped.
All this human hubbub has made it easy to push the earth aside, but what if the focus on invention, abetted by relentless commerce, becomes the be-all and end-all of life? If the great motive force in this world is love, how do we love the earth so that the harmony the earth embodies is acknowledged in daily life, to say nothing of adored? A minute’s reflection shows us that progress, in its insistent, one-directional way, is not about harmony. A straight line is not a circle. “Further” is an empty direction. What, then, if progress is merely a greedy treadmill? What if the earth’s human-abetting patience is not infinite? What if the imagination that allows indigenous peoples to empathize with the earth and the creatures on the earth is deemed an irrelevance? I could fill up this page with daunting questions but I am still left with my basic conceit—that this, both the earth and the human inventions (which are interventions), is all for me, a birthright furthered by appetite, desire and habit.
I am left with the gift of the Creation upon which all my purposes depend. I am left with that vague word “spiritual” that speaks to the inner longing for coherence, the feeling that my life and death both belong here on the earth with the visible and the invisible, the earth being the first church, the steady miracle. No price can be placed on the earth; the enormity and complexity are both incalculable. Secure in its time-out-of-mind course, it is indifferent to the froth of my mental states. Yet I am wont to insist on those states, particularly as an American obsessed with my fore-mentioned happiness and the importance of its pursuit. Amid the riot of wants, Americans insist that happiness is the surest armor against any and all aggravations, shortcomings and woes. Sadness should accordingly be banished as too uncomfortable and asocial—no blues and heartbreak, just therapy, closure and pills. In the sense of admitting the chastening difficulties of one’s various fortunes in this world, adulthood takes a rear seat. The operative word is “fun.” In the American scheme of things the failure to be constantly happy is a terrible failing. The societal implication goes without saying: if my happiness tramples on your happiness that is your problem.
In reading works of moral philosophy (a domain we have relegated to the fusty past), I am struck by how the notion of relentless happiness and the conceit it fosters does nothing so much as to displace moral qualities such as honesty, fidelity, humility and compassion, which are seen as unimportant and, indeed, indexes of failure, the penchants of “losers,” to use a word Donald Trump favors. The earth as a source of imaginative values has little to offer beyond being a scenic background for the high-flying ego. What the trees and birds have to tell us goes unheard amid the mechanical din we have created and that we define as life itself: what we have created and relentlessly applaud, our “work” here on earth.
How pitiful! It’s not hard to feel that this self-involvement is preparing a very hard fall. The Middle Ages, an unelectrified world of almost literal darkness and stasis shot through with seemingly equal amounts of religious devotion and religious mania, may not be so distant. When automatic entitlement begins to languish and erode, what then? What purpose to life beyond the machines? In the ancient tales, conceit creates nothing so much as grief.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include The Road Washes out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid (University Press of New England, 2012).