I’ve been thinking a lot about Phil’s two recent posts: “Self-Immolation” and “The Heavyweight Champion.” In both cases, the salient point for me is regarding oneself and one’s actions as too significant in the greater overall scheme. Don’t mistake me: I am not a bland “don’t take yourself so seriously” type; believing in the value of what we do is perhaps all-important. That said, the old joke about the difference between a German and an Austrian comes to mind (to a German the situation is serious but not terminal; to an Austrian, the situation is terminal but not serious). I found myself clinging to this joke in reading Phil’s rumination on musical improvisation: metaphor and model for the new society, the risks, but to act is the thing, to step out into the unknown, braving the void, etc. I wasn’t at Phil’s lecture, of course, but I find the description wonderfully evocative.
It will do to remember, though, that the best musical improvisors do have a safety net. However uninspired they might be on a particular night, however much they misjudge or their minds wander, their own tried-and-true licks are going to see them through at quite a high level, even on their worst days. They themselves may be in agonies of self-contempt, yet all but the most judgmental congnoscenti will be digging it anyway. So the metaphor only works to a certain point. Same for improvisation on a much lower level; Phil and I have both been dance-class pianists and we both know that MAJOR miscalculations can be survived if one keeps a beat and stumbles back to the the phrase. And maybe that’s like Real Life in Real Society, New or otherwise, too: fake it ’til you make it, vamp until ready. And however serious the crash-and-burn, a cup of coffee and a cigarette (in the old days, when I was regularly poisoning myself) would hit this reset button and set things right—or, in the bigger picture, just barely hanging on until the next election. Or, as Toby Belch might suggest, just having some cakes and ale. Musical improvisation or society itself: crucially important, yes, but stuff happens. Try again. When there’s life there’s hope.
The rub here is the lamentable, self-induced exit of Malachi Ritscher. Suicide, however public or political, is still suicide (I leave out cases where other people are brought along, which is murder—something completely different). To whatever extent the poor man thought his dramatic death would have an effect, he was still checking himself out of the world, so sufficiently tortured and troubled that on some level he could convince himself that the world without him stood a better chance than the world with him. A completely misguided Dealer’s Choice, in other words. On a more real level, he was just shutting off the noise, like many suicides. (I leave out other motivations; I’m no psychologist.) The sad chat on the Post No Bills blog that Phil cited bought into the too-romantic view of the Martyr For Our Times, for the most part: what can we do to make sure this selfless act didn’t happen in vain, etc. Please. So, what is proposed? Another protest? Against the war? Against the flaws in human nature? Against the weather? What?
Here’s the deal: it did happen in vain, except for the fact that he may indeed have succeeded in shutting off the noise. Abdication of any of the possibilities that the spark of life grants us is ultimately a self-centered, not a selfless act, however much psychological torture pushes one to that horrific point. Life and its possibilities are much on my mind, because this past weekend I attended a memorial service for a four-year-old girl who had fought bravely her whole short life against miserable health until the odds overwhelmed her. She liked pink and dancing and princesses and, apparently, all the girly things I’ve never understood, and these were the theme of the memorial service. And she fought for life, not death, until the final révérance. So, watching all the parents present (including us) cling helplessly—tearfully and fearfully—to our healthy, living children (who were for the most part getting heartily tired of it but understanding that they had to let us do it as long as we needed to) and meditating on the unavoidable and permanent pain of that kind of loss, I could not help thinking yet again about the tortured Mr. Ritscher. Who, may he rest in peace, died in vain. He fell into the trap of listening too closely to himself, and thinking that one sole act of his might have a particular effect. Better he should have stayed with us and, after getting help, tried to set us straight, somehow: activism, support, polemics, charity, SOMETHING. Martyrs, unfortunately, are only propaganda tools, and generally for those least worthy to make use of them. Dying in imagined solidarity with those who can’t help dying—soldiers anywhere, noncombatants, the helpless starving in the Third World—is not in solidarity with anyone. (The bizarre closing scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind here, with its take on the Masada story.) It is the product of listening too closely to a misguided inner voice, and imagining it to be something far greater.
Listening too closely to oneself is likewise the risk of the public intellectual. I find that particular abstraction very attractive, though Phil and I may disagree somewhat on who qualifies. (The thought that comes to mind here is a hilariously wicked blurb I once saw in—I think—a Columbia University Press catalogue, describing a book of collected writings by Gore Vidal, a writer I would describe as someone who aspires to the state of Public Intellectual: “Vidal shows himself to be a writer of weight and thrust.”) I personally can’t think of anything Norman Mailer said that I found particularly enlightening or moving (certainly coming out against the Iraq or any other war in Iraq doesn’t set him apart). Mailer was of a generation that thought rather a lot of itself: Norman Podhoretz on the left, then right, Saul Bellow, all those guys. Maybe because I’m not only an academic but also the son of one, I really need to feel like I’m getting something new, something different, something penetrating and insightful, not something predictably disobedient or “transgressive.” I’ve certainly never read everything these Famous Writers have written, but haven’t been particularly changed by what I’ve read. They all do seem very conscious of their (imagined?) place in society, though. I guess it isn’t limited to that generation, either; I’ll just call to mind Martin Amis’s glib little whinge after 9-11 (the first U.S. response should have been to send planeloads of aid packages to the Middle East, etc.). For me, it’s the people who rehearse their stentorian pronouncements while staking out predictable Left OR Right positions who are least like what public intellectuals ought to be.
I still believe there’s a place for the public intellectual, and I believe it’s worth aspiring to. The people I find to be both moral and intellectual don’t seem to be particularly fashionable—Umberto Eco, Leon Wieseltier. And I have certainly not read everything those men have written, either. But to finish a truly intellectual piece is to push back one’s chair after a good meal: sated, pleased, but above all bettered for the experience, as one feels after having heard a fine, fine improvisation, be it a Jazz solo or Robert Levin doing a Mozart concerto. To climb that mountain, you have to be bigger than yourself, not imprisoned by the echo chamber of your own inner voices, or watching yourself on the monitor to gauge your telegenic effect.