Hustle hustle hustle (Part 3): Terre Haute is bust

Terre Haute is Bust (December 30, 2006)

Relationships, like tires, wear down, little by little, before they wear out. (Oh, but how we tire of tires. They too get old.) For hundreds, no thousands of miles, no for months on end, there had been a whirring coming from somewhere around the left front wheel. That whirring grew louder as the car went faster, and on the interstate the car–in this case, a fetching red Pontiac Grand Am–was inclined to go faster and faster. This, as Aristotle would have said though, come to think of it, he wouldn’t have said, was its natural disposition, the natural disposition of my red Grand Am to go faster and faster as it ranged hungrily over Pennsylvania and Indiana en route to St. Louis, Missouri.

St. Louis, lejana y sola

This is a story about the final unraveling, in letter and in spirit. That is to say, the tire finally unraveled as, concomitantly, did our relationship. The tire unraveled just outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, but it did not unravel before it collapsed, crumbled, buckled, and crammed the remaining bits and mass of bits deep within the wheel well. I wasn’t sure how I managed to wrangle the car off the highway and onto the shoulder–dear Jane was sleeping beside me–without meeting some other fate: some sublime end-over-end, twirl-about, or dervish plunge into the grassy knoll. But I did, and there we were, and there, shortly, were the policemen.

Quite nice, in fact, were the policemen as they watched me put on the spare.

In the motel, I said to Jane, “So what’s the point? There’s no point to a 3-year relationship if it ends. It was all for nothing, wasn’t it?” This, I can assure you, was the voice of reason, not the spirit of anger. A comforting thought despite the niggling fact that it–the thought, I the thought–happened to be dead wrong.

Love or Hustling

Perhaps love is the kind of experience to which posing the question, “So what’s the point?,” doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps the assumption that you’re going to get something out of love implies, as it did here, that love is over–implies further that love, now gone, is well on its way to becoming hustling. Because hustling starts off from that little itch in the back of your head, that smallish itch that says, “What can I get from this person? What’s to be gotten from him?” and then lards up the conversation with helloes and how nices, with chit chat and backscratching, and with… reminders.

The trouble with hustling, unlike that of love and its vicissitudes, is that it cannot work as a general strategy for getting on in the world. For one thing, it violates Kant’s humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative according to which one ought never to use another as a means, only ever as an end in himself. Hustling, on this formulation, is the first principle of Human Resource Departments.

For another, hustling is surprisingly ineffectual, failing therefore even as a policy of prudence. Consider how absurd it is for one stranger to ask another stranger to do something on his behalf despite its being the case that they are present to each other only as strangers. Granted, they may be on friendly terms, but they are not friends. Ask yourself how often you have benefited or profited from a stranger’s granting your request, fulfilling your demand, replying to your inquiry, speaking on your behalf, completing a project of your devising. On statistical grounds alone, the strategy seems worth betting against.

In my experience, hustling has born a striking resemblance to commedia dell’arte, and I have often played the buffo.

Conversation as the Art of Silding Up

I have learned since to sidle up. I invite someone to have a conversation with me. My only condition is that the person seem fascinating, intriguing, or simply interesting. We get together, we meet, we talk. Apart from that, I expect nothing. The paradox is that it works.

I get acquainted with another, I listen and inquire, I get closer, I get in touch. In a way, I mean to partake of love, I mean to give. For me, it’s an experience that goes beyond craving, that gets me out of “wanting more from,” of “expecting this of.” As I argued in “Of Craving and its Supersession,” I imagine, as far as possible,

  1. That this is all there is.
  2. That this is more than enough.
  3. That there need be nothing more or other or else.

The objection may be that it seems inconceivable that this would be a way of “getting anything done,” so let me conclude with a Pascalian argument, one that I wouldn’t otherwise make but that may make some headway with you. It goes like this:

  1. Either this all there is, or there is something more.
  2. If this is all there is, then I’ve been “fully present” in the conversation. Hurray!
  3. If, contingently and beyond my expectations, there happens to be something more, then what a windfall. What serendipity!
  4. Either way, I feel joy.

From experience, I can say that my life has gotten better since I began to think this way. Mull it over before you reject it. A life without hustling may not be all that inconceivable after all.

An invitation to the reader to join me in a philosophical conversation

A Cordial Invitation

I’d like to invite you to have a philosophical conversation with me. If you’re living outside of New York City, then the conversation would take place over Skype. If you’re in the City, then we’d take a stroll through Central Park.

The economy we’d be engaged in would be a gift economy. I’d be opening up a space in which a philosophical conversation could unfold (that would be my gift), and for your part you’d be offering me or another a gift. That gift could simply be a head nod, a thank you, an object you made, a donation, whatever. And, as I say, it could be offered to me or to someone else.

If you’d like to have a conversation with me, you can get in touch with me either by filling out the contact form on my Contact page or by posting a comment below.

A Reasonable Justification

Giving and receiving, Alasdair MacIntyre claims in his book Dependent Rational Animals, is always already asymmetrical. It follows that gifting is not bartering inasmuch as no precise equivalence can be drawn between the original gift and subsequent gifts. The claim, for instance, that I could fully repay my parents for their raising me well is a conceptual mistake and this for two reasons. First, there is no common measure by which to assess how I could repay them for years of excellent child rearing. Second, there is no notion of fullness, i.e., no notion of finally paying everything back. The point MacIntyre is driving at is that we’re always enmeshed in a web of dependencies and debts. In my case, then, in virtue of having been given much, I owe much to my parents and, by extension, to others.  This would account for my current offering.

A Just Expectation

There is a story that the Buddhist Joseph Epstein tells in Benedict’s Dharma that helps me to clarify where my Aristotelianism departs from Buddhism (a promissory note: a larger argument against the egoism/altruism dichotomy in the future). Epstein writes,

When I was living and practicing in India, I went to the local bazaar to buy some fruits and vegetables. A little beggar boy came up to me and stretched out his hand. Without much hesitation, I gave him one of the oranges that I had just bought. What happened next proved very illuminating to me. The boy just walked away–no nod of thanks, no smile, no acknowledgement whatsoever. It was only then that I realized I had had an expectation in that simple act of giving. I wanted “something” in return, even if it was just a nod. Purifying our motives, so that we can give simply out of love and kindness, without any expectation at all, is part of bringing the virtue of generosity to perfection.

I don’t think so. By my lights, just generosity is structured according to gifts given in order to fulfill basic needs and forms of gratitude by which we honor the gifts we’ve received, we recognize gift-givers as gift-givers, and we “discharge” some of our debts over the years. Epstein’s anecdote is best interpreted as a story not about pure and impure motives but about the perils, the human and humane costs, of extreme economic deprivation.