What’s Right, What’s Left?
So much of modern culture seems bent on eliminating humanity from life itself. In many instances, this is identified as progress. But is it?
Consider the current attitude toward handwriting, i.e., cursive. In many of our schools there is no longer any emphasis on the handwritten word. When I asked my grandson recently if handwriting was taught in his high school classes, he said, “No, they say we don’t need it.” If this is the fate of handwriting today among teachers and students, it stands at odds with many to whom I have asked this question, “Would you rather receive a handwritten letter expressing love, condolence or praise or an email expressing the same sentiments?” The preference unanimously favored the handwritten letter. When I asked why, since all were expressing identical sentiments, the unanimous answer was that the handwritten letter was more personal. This pinpoints the key difference between something written by hand and something punched out on a keyboard. In the latter case the very “feel” of writing is absent. Moreover, scientists have said without equivocation: “Writing with just the index finger rather than the whole hand ‘no longer stimulates the neurons or the same cortical areas.’ ”
I suspect the swing toward the tapped-out printed word and the lack of emphasis on handwriting is the triumph of communication over communion. A tapped-out message on a smartphone or a computer is basically a mere communication of information. A handwritten letter or perhaps a poem is an attempt by the author to convey feeling as well as thought or information. The expression of felt thought can be and has been regarded as the ultimate in verbal expression, i.e., the aforementioned letters of love, condolence or praise. Handwritten examples of such writings have historically been regarded as the “right” way to express them. Once this is disregarded or subordinated, what’s left but the flat prose of who, when, where and what?
Handwriting or cursive is distinguished by the fact that the letters that create the word are linked or joined. Unlike print, the letters do not exist in isolation. This gives to the word a unity it would not otherwise have. Some say this is irrelevant, but I would suggest in refutation that a handwritten signature has an almost trademark unity that reveals more about the author than his or her name.
Even in those instances where a handwritten name is required, i.e.. checks or contracts or medical prescriptions, the signatures often amount to little more than scribbling. The signatures of some doctors on a prescription often look as if the doctors had signed it with a pen held between their toes. But, as with checks, deciphering does not seem to matter. The prescriptions will be filled, and the checks will be cashed regardless.
If the only purpose of language is to communicate, I think that a strong case could be for the exclusive use of computers or some hand-held facsimile. But poetry, fiction, drama and personal correspondence by their very nature prove that communication is not the sine qua non of language. Handwritten examples by penmen and penwomen in each of these genres (usually in the form of first drafts or corrected final drafts) prove this to any sensitive reader. Literary history as well as pen-and-ink evidence confirm that most if not all of the overwhelming majority of poems, plays and stories were handwritten before being translated into the printed versions that we know. And the sacredness of handwritten poems, letters and other literary genres—as well as the value attached to them—is inestimable. Abraham Lincoln is more present in the handwritten version of the Gettysburg Address (originally identified simply as “Remarks by the President”) than in the printed replica or the marble monument at Gettysburg on which it is carved. In this same context, what would be the personal value of a sonnet of Shakespeare handwritten by Shakespeare himself? What if you put such an imagined discovery beside a printed copy of that same sonnet? Which would make you feel closer to Shakespeare? Comparatively speaking, isn’t this why letters expressing love or condolence or appreciation are rarely thrown away but kept as sacred souvenirs for years or generations because they establish communion between the writers and the intended readers of the writer’s words in the writer’s inimitable script? This alone might explain why we are the losers the more we exclude personality and humanity from private and public discourse.
Another instance of our replacing truth with illusion has to do with our regard for height—mere height. I mean height in the measurable as well as the symbolic sense. At times the two senses are combined. In Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity and some Eastern religions the concept of God is associated with Olympus, Sinai, the mount from which the Sermon on the Mount takes its name, the Himalayas. It was as if imagining divinity at sea level was a diminution. In the New Testament the risen Christ is described as ending his 40-day post-life by ascending into heaven. Even allowing for the imagination of the authors and their reliance on metaphor, this inescapably implies that heaven is not a state but a place—a stratospheric place. Such a claim even contradicts the words spoken by Christ before his crucifixion, i.e., “The kingdom of God is within you.” Many centuries later Omar Khayyam took it a step further (and truer) in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”: “I myself am heaven and hell.” Regardless, the tradition of associating a more perfect or even a divine existence with height persists, as if height is more compatible with worth or importance or superiority, i.e., “Glory to God on high” or “in the highest” and so forth.
If you switch from matters divine to the values of corporate America, there are traces of an imitative scale of values. The higher one climbs on the corporate ladder, the higher one can expect to be elevated in the corporate skyscraper. In corporate America there is a kind of unspoken reverence reserved for the “higher-ups.” Promotion is invariably seen as ascent, and authority is defined by how many people you have “under you.”
In architecture what is behind our reverential awe for skyscrapers? In one sense a skyscraper is nothing but a real estate scam. If a one-story building could be built and maintained (or rented out) at a profit, it would seem only logical to an entrepreneur that a second story could be added to double the profit. Then a third story could be added to triple the profit and so on up and up and up.
And now to the myth of travel. My focus will not be on necessary travel related to employment or necessity. My concern is with travel equated with adventure, daring or simply with “getting away.”
Travel by definition is movement from one place to another—locomotion. In the beginning it was done on foot. Subsequently it was done on the backs of horses, camels or other animals. Then on sleds, wagons or sleds pulled by animals, and ultimately in or on vehicles powered by motors or pulled by horses, dogs or human beings. Once travel was no longer done on foot, the traveler was simply conveyed. If he was the driver of a car, he could steer and so on, but otherwise he was essentially a passenger, i.e., someone who was transported from place to place by wheel, rail or wing while sitting stock still. The same formula applies today to space travel where the astronaut in orbit is strapped while sitting stock still in a rocket.
The commercialization of travel has cultivated the belief that travelers are broadened spiritually by travel, that the more one travels the more broadened one becomes, that the more nations one visits the more internationalized one grows to be. There is a kernel of truth in this assumption, and travel does wake people up to the “rest of the world.” But this is not the same as maturity, which is characterized by spiritual and mental integration and an ongoing concern with the mystery and meaning of existence on the planet. Emily Dickinson was no globetrotter, but her poems touch on universal themes that relate to and can be understood by people everywhere. And yet her “reclusive isolation” was such that she rarely left her home or even her room in Amherst, Mass.
An ongoing immaturity persists regarding the value of human life by identifying worth with wealth. By this criterion human life is valuable, more valuable or not valuable at all in proportion to a person’s financial assets. If someone has a million, he is worth a million. If he has nothing, he is worth nothing. In other words, a man with nothing has no being. What’s propounded as the “American Dream” reinforces this belief. Horatio Alger and Benjamin Franklin praised it. But it should be noted that Alger and Franklin believed that hard work was necessary to earn what would make the dream possible. Realizing the dream by accumulating wealth created attendant problems that were and are rooted in human greed. Whether the dream is realized through work or luck, there is no question that the egalitarianism of the United States of America makes such an attainment possible. The utopian myth regarding wealth is the worm in the apple. It creates the belief in the minds of the wealthy that wealth is in need of more wealth, that enough is never enough. Perhaps this is behind the creation of the national and other lotteries that have been spawned in the last decades or so. The gullible public becomes addicted with a jackpot mentality that Ronald Reagan counted on when he said, “I want a country where everyone can be rich.” For some the lottery was a shortcut gamble to the realization of that version of the American Dream. But even when the gambler won, there were attendant accompanying vices that emerged from hiding. I knew one attorney who handled the legal troubles of eight different lottery winners. He never specified what their troubles or problems were, but he concluded that winning the lottery ruined the lives of all of them.
The ultimate defiler of human life in the 20th century and so far in the 21st is war. Even though Winston Churchill once stated (correctly, I think) that defeat is a greater evil than war, the fact remains that the price paid by the winner and loser in a war is incalculable. The dead can be commemorated and even revered for their sacrifice, but loss is loss. Wilfred Owen, the Welsh poet who was killed in the last week of World War I and who knew of the horror of war from his own involvement in it, went so far as to call Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”) nothing but an “old lie.” And the story is told of a French mother who, when presented with a medal awarded posthumously to her son and told that he had died for France, simply stated, “J’ai perdue mon fils.” (“I have lost my son.”) Mollification, time and honors may assuage but never compensate for lives lost, no matter which side is declared the winner in war. William Stafford, one of the best American poets of the last century, said it all when he wrote that every war has two losers.
Civilians rarely see war in all its brutality and horror. Pictures of headless bodies of combatants or children are never shown or seen by the “viewing public.” Perhaps they should be. The sickening photograph of a burned naked Vietnamese girl running in panic from her village or of a bound prisoner being shot in the head at pointblank range by a Vietnamese officer, convulsed the public enough to intensify demands that the war be ended. Some see these atrocities as the price that must be paid for victory to be gained. Warriors would agree. Others see war as a conflict of strangers killing strangers. But in either case, it is dispiriting and sickening even when one side or the other thinks it is in the right. Perhaps this is why there is a tradition in Chinese culture to regard soldiers with pity because they are the ones who must commit legalized murder in the name of national or self-defense and for whom deaths are more than arithmetic.
Civilians rarely see war in all its brutality and horror. Pictures of headless bodies of combatants or children are never shown or seen by the “viewing public.” Perhaps they should be.
One of the most common as well as the most lucrative ways to dehumanize individual lives is through pornography. Human desire is universal, and the aim of the pornographer is to arouse desire (through films, photographs or multiple other means made widely available through the most “sociable” assets of the social media) but separated from personality. In fact for Margaret Mead, pornography is nothing more than “sex disassociated from personality.” By separating sex from personality the pornographer removes it from moral strictures that his victim might otherwise invoke. Human desire is reduced to appetite, and the aim of the pornographer is to stimulate that appetite in any way possible, to be successfully dismissive of conscience, to leave nothing as a barrier to indulgence.
In many ways the beauty of the female figure is the key to this. This is not the nude figure in the Venus de Milo sense. This is the nude female figure in random disregard not just of clothes but of anything that hints of restraint. This is Hemingway’s “divine lollipop” primed and presented for pleasuring. Breasts and pudenda are there for the gloaters, and the male of the species is regarded as nothing but a penis. Whatever is human in sexual relations is reduced to erotic calisthenics and climactic emissions. Love is left out entirely, which means that our humanity is left out.
All of these efforts to eliminate humanity from multiple phases of human life gradually dehumanize us as people. This is a mortal loss. What is right is removed from day-to-day life, and what is left constitutes what we call society today, where the only way up seems to be down.