Thursday, December 05, 2002

Thought of the day: the ontological privilege of the postmodernist?
Can I wax Henry Thoreau's tush? Are my amateur philosopher friends more impressive than the Founding Fathers? Does any given Washington Post staff reporter today do more sophisticated work than Nietzsche? In other words, do the finest minds and most distinctive literary voices of the past take a back seat to the most ordinary writers of today, simply because today's writers do their work in a dizzying, brain-jarring postmodern context, and yesterday's geniuses didn't? Most of the time-transcendent figures we admire most--Aristotle, Shakespeare, George Washington--tended to live in a pretty straightforward--or at least simpler--world, one of black and white, good and evil, homogenous cultural environments, linear modes of thought. Modernism, in other words, or pre-modernism, provided them a solid and authoritative definition of reality--what is true, what is good--that people alive now don't have. Few of the busts in the Thinking Hall of Fame had to deal with postmodernism--the pervasive idea that everyone's reality is relevant, that thinking and writing are not linear, that perspective, bias, and nihilism pull the rug out from under any certainty about "Truth" (masterfully clear and vivid essay on this here).

Think of it this way: Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant mind, a mad genius who rose before dawn to devour books on science and philosophy. His writing and political leadership altered human history, redefined liberty, got the world thinking about democracy. But Jefferson, as many have pointed out, despite his words, never had to live in a world where all people were actually considered equal. He lived in the context of a neo-British social hierarchy, where white male landowners were up here in society and women and black people were down there. By contrast, while I am a 40-watt bulb next to Jefferson's football-stadium-floodlight, I, unlike him, share a city where people of various races are equal citizens, where democracy is deep and real extends to Chicago's South Side. I ride the El down to Comiskey Park, and right in front of me an African-American youth wearing a bandana is bellowing belligerent rap lyrics to his companion, and while I soothe my spooked wife that rap does not a villain make, that part of our discomfort is our failure to relate to the gentleman's cultural context (in which rap may just be ordinary music, not the murderous cry it sounds to us)--and balance this with the assurance that I can resent the young man's rudeness without being racist--I realize that I am in the first generation or two of humankind to have to think this way, to frown upon reflexive racism in mixed cultural contexts. Thomas Jefferson, standing there on the subway, steadying his wig with one hand and gripping the overhead bar with the other as the car jostled about, would have sneered at this youth as a savage (in his Notes on Virginia he says worse things about more virtuous people). Now, none of this makes me a fraction of the writer and thinker that Jefferson was, but still, I live in this world, I think this way, and Jefferson didn't. Heck, the simple fact that I've watched television and Jefferson didn't is food for thought.

Or take Thoreau. When he wanted to have an epiphanous experience, he trotted down to, what, his backyard? and sat by Walden pond. This quarter-mile (or whatever) trek was his journey to wisdom for the ages. And I think back to last week, when I took the bus a few miles down into the Loop to do a story for the Tribune on downtown churches. I wrote about how a small downtown Jewish congregation shares a converted warehouse with an Episcopal church. On Friday nights, they drape a worship banner over the cross. This is the postmodern, non-linear, multi-contextual world I and hundreds of more talented writers write about today--where irony rules and society isn't simple. Thoreau sat on his ass by a pond and pondered (root word there?) the rhythms of the soul, but never took such a bus ride as I did last week. Now, a pond may indeed be a more dynamic, complex, meditation-worthy place than a major metropolis in the year 2002, but I'm just saying that while, writing-wise, Thoreau is Babe Ruth and I'm playing T-ball, it's I who have the choice of sitting by a pond or living in a multicultural metropolis, while Thoreau didn't have that choice. And I can't decide--what does that mean?

In the world of Jefferson, Thoreau, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Charlemagne, wisdom was pretty straightforward--you read the canon of the day, you read and wrote endless essays and books that were very methodical and linear, you spoke in long, dependent-clause-laced paragraphs that had topic sentences. (This is the historical utopia of Neil Postman, author of "Building a Bridge to the 18th Century"). Canon? I just wrote an article (to be published and posted here in a couple of weeks) that referred to Moulin Rouge and Shrek in the same breath as I quoted theologians Walter Bruggeman and Richard Mouw while making an argument about faith and culture. To me, television writer Aaron Sorkin of "The West Wing" can communicate truth about the human experience in one of his pithy sentence fragments and be more compelling than a long dusty book about philosophy. This morning I was thinking I should write a series of short stories as a weblog, with four or six main characters living in a mid-size city who have to negotiate technology, social issues, faith and relationships in their evolving environment (more on this later). I could link their names to character descriptions and defining moments earlier in the weblog. I could post digitally scanned pictures as scenes from their town. I could write short entries and long entries, I could write an entry today that related to an entry four months ago, and link the two, bridging everything in between. Before weblogs, no one could ever write in such a non-linear format--from Chaucer to Dickinson, Plato to Poe, as deeply spiritual as their lives and writing were, the written word was still just an inked symbol on papyrus; on the Web, it's a dynamic unit of multi-layered communication.

So what does it say about the wisdom and historical transcendence of the above geniuses that they thought about politics without ever having seen a campaign commercial, thought about communication without having talked on a cell phone, thought about gender identity without ever having seen Madonna or a female Senator? Was something missing? (And what, for that matter, are we missing, not having lived in the next hundred years?)

The question pivots, I think on the odd phenomenon of the resonance of these voices in an ever-changing age. Abraham Lincoln could speak to us about our country when the World Trade Center fell, even though he had never seen a skyscraper. Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton remain two of the funniest, most ironic writers ever to write, even though they'd never seen a sit-com (come to think of it, that may be the reason they were two of the funniest, most ironic writers ever...) Shakespeare is one of the most eloquent writers ever on the drama of human relationships, even though he (probably) never met an interracial couple. Augustine shapes my faith because what he wrote centuries about about the City of God profoundly informs how I view Chicago today. (This can be taken too far--a new book about Queen Elizabeth I as CEO seems rather lame.) Put another way, a Boeing machinist isn't necessarily more visionary about aviation than the Wright Brothers simply because she knows what to do with a wrench and a rivet. It's not only that these brilliant minds may well have been brilliant in any age they were plopped down on the earth--perhaps Thomas Jefferson, riding the subway, would have been an influential multiculturalist or had a piercing insight into the current affirmative action case before the Supreme Court--it's that their wisdom directly speaks to a common human experience we live out in a different time.

Related earlier thought: postmodern awe for absolute truth
Related earlier thought: the contextual problem with wisdom
Previous thought: ambitious service an oxymoron?

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