On the sorry state of gift giving

In modern culture, the ethos of gift giving has come to resemble the genre of the apologia. The defendant–guarded, vigilant–is made to choose between pre-emption, exculpation, and exoneration. These are her weapons.

“But I wasn’t sure what to get you.”

A reminder of how tenuous our acquaintance, how limited our imaginations.

“I know, I know, I was so busy shopping for everyone this year that…”

A reminder of how exceptional our vanity, how miserly our spirit besides.

“I thought I would surprise you, but clearly…”

A reminder of human folly.

“No, I like it. Really I do. Thank you, darling.”

A reminder of the problem of dirty hands: petty truth-telling or painful lying, false gratitude or unwanted candor.

“Gift cards and cash are always welcome, say experts.”

A reminder of the vast extent of our agnosticism, of our obese belief in freedom of choice.

“I know you like science, so I got you a newt.”

A reminder of how fallacious our reasoning, how undiscriminating our judgments.

“Well, if you don’t like it, you can always take it back. I’ve left the receipt in the box.”

A reminder of how great our fickleness: of our failure to commit to one other, of our daily infidelities.

Let’s review: Children ask for what they shouldn’t, then receive what is needless, trivial, or harmful. Adults indulge in useless rituals and overzealous brinkmanship to assuage their doubts, curry favors, or honor long-lost pasts. This, in turn, leads to complaints that are summarily lodged followed by apologies summarily offered and reparations speedily effected. The result, naturally, is a signed treaty the point and purpose of which is to guarantee all parties a moratorium on ambient hostility for one more year.

In the sorry state, everyone feels bad. How did we become a nation of sorry gift givers, how help create a culture in which we give disposable things in a halfhearted spirit to people we barely know on the assumption that whatever we give can always be returned? Hold, sit, and dwell here for a moment… It’s as if we’d never felt love.

We live apart in countless ways.

A Coda on the Blessed State of Good Thinking

When we err, reality urges us to make amends. Will we attune ourselves to the call? And when we get things right, reality praises us for doing it justice. Will we hear its praise? Both exemplify the giving spirit of good thinking. Both bespeak the blessed state of just generosity.

Have a blessed New Year!

Further Reading

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, “21. Articles May Not Be Exchanged.”

Andrew Taggart, “The Starting Point of Philosophical Self-Reflection.” See, in particular, “what’s missing?”

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On the meaning of sighs: A philosophical conversation followed by a lullaby

The following is a short excerpt from a philosophical conversation I had recently with one conversation partner. Afterward: an afterthought, an extra thought, a lullaby of a kind.
She wrote,
I sigh.
Yes I sigh.
The cosmic breath, of all men, of all women
Of more creation, loss and love to come.
 
I replied,
First, “I sigh”: The sigh is the quiet laugh of the tragic:
I.e., it is an acknowledgement of a life and a death that is no one else’s but mine.
It follows that no one else can take my death from me.
 
Second, “the cosmic breath”: The sigh is a mark of my stepping back from the brink.
The sigh implies that I am viewing life as if from above.
It follows that the sigh is sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”).
 
Third, the puzzle: How can the sigh be at once above me (infinitude) and about me (finitude)?
The solution: The sigh is a sign that the life of which I am a part I am not, finally, apart.
Conclusion: With the sigh, I have overcome despair. Whence the wise final line re: “loss and love to come.”

*

A Memory, a Lullaby

December 25, 2009. I sighed, yes I sighed. I was busy making the world’s shittiest hot chocolate. There was no milk in the refrigerator, the stove was half-warm and wouldn’t heat up, and I was in a fucking hurry. The end result was a chalky mess which I rushed out to hand to my former girlfriend–a beautiful woman, with dark hair and dark eyes, “nothing like the sun”–who stood forlornly beside her Mini. It had been a miracle, I suppose, that the SUV that had crunched the right front fender hadn’t also collected my right femur, tibia, and ankle in the bargain. The car was fucking mangled, and, what’s worse, the hot chocolate was undrinkable. (I drank it later.) Because I could walk, I could still make shitty hot chocolate. She turned from me, my dark lady. Here–Exhibit A–was salvation, light amusement for the mischievous gods.

I nudged (if that’s the word) the Mini onto the side road. Then, I slowly unloaded my boxes back into my old apartment. A dingy place I’d subletted–yes–from a writing friend who was away in South America working on the next great American novel. (We live our cliches, don’t we?) Luckily, I didn’t have much to haul. Half the boxes were filled with books. The other half with a wasted life.

Later that evening, I bought a one-day unlimited Metro card. It was 12 subway rides there and back before I’d managed to stack all the boxes in the Park Slope apartment I’d end up sharing for 3 months with a hipster bartender and a guy working for a start-up (This, of course, was before we got kicked out by the new landlord named Joe.) That night and for the next 3 months, I would sleep on an air mattress next to my philosophy books. The air mattress had a pin-sized hole in it. A memory of lost time: Alone walking home.

Home now. 2 years later. Upper East Side. Here I type beside the morning light, the birdsong, the birch trees, the church bells which should be set to ring in about an hour. Home now, my god. Omphalos. Now I laugh, yes I laugh. To me, life is sweet.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “The Latest Version of my Short Public Bio”

On layaways, one-click drunk shopping, and being an idiot

Philosophers are idiots. Evidence for this claim abounds. First off, we’re easily confused. Because of this, we spend much of our days asking for explanations concerning the most elementary truths. Second off, we don’t readily understand topics that everyone else immediately gets, so we’re always asking people to slow down and show us again how they got to where they got. Third off, we can’t seem to remember very much. As a result, we need to be reminded of the meanings of words and then reminded once more after we’ve forgotten them again. Third off, we can’t seem to get a handle on technical terms. Only after having heard them parsed in laymen’s terms might we have a sporting chance of making some sense of them. Fourth off, we can’t manage to get our minds wrapped around complex topics. Whatever is complex, we seem to think, must be made simple before it can be looked at and held in mind–that is to say, before it can be lost again. In conclusion, since the dawn of time, we’ve been idiots.

(Come and knock on my door? I’ve been waiting for you?)

So attractive is this picture of the philosophical life that I can’t help but ask: Would you care to be an idiot with me, if only for a morning? Let’s be idiots together and have a look at a few things the smart people are saying about wealth and buying.

Last night I read the New Yorker column titled “Delayed Gratification,” a column on economics written about once a month by the journalist James Surowiecki. Surowiecki points out that the idea of layaways is making a return, in some cases replacing the idea of buying large items with credit. As I understand it (dimly, very dimly), a person who wants to purchase, say, a washer and drier agrees to pay the store in regular installments until the item is paid for in full. Once it’s paid off, the washer and drier is delivered to his home. Hence delayed gratification: want now, work to secure it, and get it later.

My first thought: I like that! There’s something here about being committed to what you want and about remaining committed to making it your own. My second thought, a deduction: I can imagine that the individual buying something on layaway must have already determined that, among the set of possible items she could purchase, this is the one she thinks is best to work toward the having. Hurray for her.

My third thought: Confusion sets in. The idiot in me can’t make out how this picture of prudent homo economicus differs in any crucial respects from the spendthrift, debt-ridden homo economicus. Both want the same things (i.e., they strive for the same final ends). It’s just that they use different means (techne). The difference is that the first one shows restraint (sophrosyne) whereas the second one chucked his out the door.

My fourth thought: Why are we talking all the time about self-control, self-restraint, etc. etc.? Why aren’t we talking instead about whether our desires are really worth having? Whether these desires are essential? (Do you really need a big screen TV with the plasma thingie?) Whether these items really factor into leading a fulfilling and meaningful life? The idiot in me, the idiot I am remains stumped. If only we inventoried our set of ownmost desires, he thinks, and found that many of them weren’t essential, then wouldn’t the self-control talk be beside the point? Moot. Wouldn’t the need for self-restraint many times go away?

My fifth thought: A note to self: Replace “delayed gratification” with “completeness here and now.” As I say, I’m confused by complexity and don’t get what other people get.

(Assuming you’re still reading…) I opened yesterday’s New York Times to the Business Section (now, there’s common sense all over the place!) and read the front page story, “Online Merchants Home in On Imbibing Consumers.” Wow, what a title! “Imbibing” seems like a fancy pants word for getting drunk  and “home in on” for “attract” or “allure.” So: People who’ve got stuff to sell are trying to attract the kinda drunk people to buy the stuff they’re selling.

What explains the increasing prevalence of drunk buying? Too many Rieslings and lots of Smart Phones. With the Smart Phone (my phone, which was not so smart, went bye-bye, by the by), an individual can buy stuff with one-click shopping. When they’re at home after a long day of work. After the bars close on the weekends. Can buy all kinds of shit right there at their fingertips. So to speak.

Perhaps it’s time to consult the expert. Shall we? Quoting:

“In a shopping context, alcohol would lift people’s moods and make them feel more relaxed,” said Nancy Puccinelli, an associate fellow at the Oxford’s Saïd Business School who studies consumer behavior. “If we see a product and we feel good, we will evaluate the product more positively.”

I’m not quite with it, but I vaguely get the sense that the expert above has said something sorta commonsensical and also sorta obvious. (The expert is training to be an idiot, though she doesn’t know it yet.)

Call me stupid, but why have we have construed leisure time in terms of consumption? Why would we want to live in a world in which we spend our free time drinking wine next to our laptops, then buying crap on our laptops or Smart Phones, then regretting some of these purchases once we’ve sobered up? (No, the answer is not self-control. See above.)

I don’t see how the “delayed gratification” story is all that different from the “buy now Zinfandel” story.

In conclusion: One of my goals in life is to keep being an idiot. This shouldn’t be that difficult.

On night visions and homecomings

On the way to the airport well before dawn, my middle sister told me about the recurring nightmares she’d had when she was a girl. There was the one about the angry man with the red eyes. The one about my mother who’d become the mean witch from the Wizard of Oz. And the one about the Incredible Hulk who’d turned evil. In each case, the dream had been precipitated by an intimation or experience of death. In one case, she’d tried counting by 2’s to distract herself from envisioning; in another, she’d stayed up all night to protect us while we slept. This led to her two weeks of insomnia.

Have you had insomnia recently, I asked. No, that was years ago.

Mid-air and half-asleep, I remembered my recurring boyhood dream. In it, I feel my teeth getting loose. I think they’re going to come out, I bring my hands up to my mouth, but they don’t. The teeth stay put while moving about. Then, I go to speak, but my jaw is half-locked, not locked entirely but out-of-sync. My teeth rub up against each other, painfully but not as painfully as I expect them to, while my jaw moves discordantly, out of tune. The truth is that I can speak, can speak just fine, but the words that come forth clot out. These intelligible words are not the right ones.

For me, this is the shudder of a death that is mine. The meaning of the nightmare is not pictorial but metaphysical. It is not that there is some structural flaw in the architecture of my mouth nor is there some cognitive degradation in the hardware of my brain but rather a metaphysical rivenness in the order of things. In the face of the Unfathomable, my mouth is relatively intact whereas my words cannot but come forth broken. For someone like me who’s lived his life according to right speech, the terror abides still.

And will this be how Death comes, comes kindly for me? With whatever I say being the wrong thing but without the ability to make amends with some last rites? No matter my philosophical meditations on death, no matter my nightly ruminations or morning exercises, regardless of my lifelong preparations (Cicero, recall: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”), will I befoul the earth and the air, leave polluted a consecrated space, despoil the lives of others in my final moments? That is horrible.

Maybe this is why the wise (and lucky) among us, sensing the end, know to close their mouths and put out their hands and rub.

*

When I got home, I checked the lights and the heat. I looked in the refrigerator and checked the pantry. I turned on the faucets and watered the plants. I imagined having dogs at once forlorn and ebullient. Food, heat, light, life: the basics, the essentials. We’re inclined to think that these are no more than material necessities, but they may very well be inchoate philosophical thoughts.

It could be that our thought-actions are of home. Omphalos. Thought-actions that are a three-fold answer to a three-fold question:

Do you exist, ask the pigeons in the tree. (Yes, here I am.)

And have you forsaken us, plead the plants and the animals. (No, my friends, I’ve not forsaken you.)

And are you grateful, entreat the lights and the heat, grateful for this and for everything. (Yes, I am. Danken, my friends.)