The Grand Inquisitor, the Strong, and the Weak.

The dilemma raised in the Grand Inquisitor passage of Brothers Karamazov can be summed up as such: Can people come to ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ on their own, without being prodded either by whip or by carrot, or, in Dostoyevsky’s words, by authority or by bread? Can they be good without witnessing miracles or submitting to an authority?

This is a monumental ask. An average working man can barely take care of himself. We see weak, scared people around us everywhere. How can we ask of them to reject their simple, undemanding comforts to take care of a stranger or mind some higher ideals? Such a demand, Grand Inquisitor argues, should be made only of a strong person, the one who understands and can handle that understanding both physically and mentally. It’s not easy to do, even for the strong. Grand Inquisitor is a strong person but not in a sense that he can bend the weaker people to his will (although he can certainly do it through the authority vested in him). His strength rests in recognition that such weakness exists in most people (rather than pretending, like libertarians, that it doesn’t), reconciling with it and availing himself to do the dirty, ungrateful job himself: being a guide to the weak, depraved and scared of freedom masses, to provide them security and happiness in exchange for freedom.

Happiness in this context is different from the way we view happiness. In Grand Inquisitor’s world human happiness is an abdication of responsibility, of having to make tough decisions. It is a faculty that is better relegated to the figure of authority. And really, we know many people who have handed over that capacity (to be happy) to others.

In his own way, Grand Inquisitor is right: he views his job as a burden that he has to carry in order to relieve the unwashed masses from having to think and take responsibilities – attributes (or side effects) that come with freedom. He saves the weak from having to live in freedom, which they, as he demonstrated to Jesus, can’t handle on their own. But Jesus is also right: What good is ‘goodness’ if it is mandated or ordered by an authority? What if people only love their brother out of fear of a vengeful deity in the afterlife or a state/church authority in this life? Can people be good on their own free will? Jesus, by refusing to show miracles or wield authority, deliberately erred on the side of a free choice or free will of anyone to come to the conclusion that we’re all brothers and we have to love each other.

Is Jesus then the voice of the strong few and Grand Inquisitor – the voice of the weak many? This conclusion would flatter those who think of themselves as strong. Not only do they find themselves on top of the worldly hierarchy, they are also invited to think of themselves as doing God’s work.

But if you’re also a thinking person, the implications of the Grand Inquisitor/Jesus metaphor are so horrendous, so bone-chilling and so threatening to your daily way of life that, upon understanding the core of this argument (that if you choose to be free you essentially become an outcast), the only sensible course of action is to forget you ever read this and retreat back into the world of busyiness and daily errands. And that’s what billions of us do. Career, family, sports, TV shows, travel, weekend BBQ. Proving Dostoyevsky right yet again: that we’re the feeble-minded creatures of routine, that we’re indeed the weak who, when given a choice, prefer Grand Inquisitor’s world order to Jesus’s.

This sticky psychological residue, this constant cosmic and public directive to be ‘doing something’ haunts me from time to time to this day. It’s impossible to shed it completely, as I’m a product of my time and our contemporary values, which I’ve diligently internalized and excelled at for decades.

I remember how disdainful I was towards the what I considered ‘rabble’ during my subway commute to and from work. I understand now that my short tolerance for the riff-raff was borne out of my own misery, although I would deride anyone who would’ve pointed that out to me at the time. Of course, I considered myself strong, because of the shit I had to deal with on the trading desk, the kind of shit the unwashed couldn’t even come close to comprehending. My definition of ‘strength’ was itself faulty. I equated it with my social position and the efforts I undertook to get there.

But, in Jesus’s terms, strength is a mental preparedness for a life of obscurity and nothingness. This preparedness is what frees you from the toxic treadmill. It’s the ability to say ‘fuck it’ and disappear into the woods or into the desert. It’s very hard to do. Smart, driven but weak people, like for example hedge funders and tech bros, understand it, if only subconsciously, when they accumulate real estate in Vermont or in New Zealand, hoping to, one day, enjoy the serene beauty and solitude after years on the battlefield. Of course that day never comes because, according to our modern day ethos, abandonment of the game is an admission of defeat, an anathema. Fear to appear weak is a driving force behind ambition and is a definition of weakness. The entire Trump administration reeks of that fear.

The strong among us are those who are not afraid to be labeled losers. It’s those few who either abandoned the conventional rat race or were never part of it to begin with. It takes either balls or total insanity to do it. Jon Stewart, who left his successful and beloved show to tend a rescue animals farm. Crazy cat ladies. Priests – genuine kind, not the pedophiles and the pseudo pious (Pharisees). The social workers. The hermits. Artists who create art for art’s sake. Everyone who’s involved in an activity that would get a condescending giggle from a run-of-the-mill New York cocktail party crowd.

Is it possible to be strong and stay in the game? Yes, if you do it for others. This way you become a Grand Inquisitor.

 

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On Beauty, the Good, and the Value of Abstract Thought.

Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?

While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.

We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.

Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition.  We know it when we see it.

The_Creation_of_Adam

Apollo

I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.

DHS76_771_0

Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?

This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.

The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.

One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.

This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.

Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.

We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’

A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?

Tool’s Version of “No Quarter” is a Metaphysical Meditation.

Sometime in the mid-nineties, when I first heard Led Zeppelin’s classic “No Quarter”, I thought that Robert Plant was fretting about having no quarter, as in no 25 cent coin. I thought he agonized about not being able to call someone. If you’re over 30, you will remember that there were times when one needed a quarter to use a payphone. A quarter was the price of one phone call. I had no money back then, collected quarters all week to do the weekend laundry, thus I could sympathize with someone not having enough change to make a phone call. I fully believed that it was a valid reason for such a haunting song.

My then boyfriend, after he was done laughing, explained to me another meaning of the word “quarter”. He said that Plant was lamenting the lack of a shelter, a place to stay. That makes sense, I thought. For years afterwards I lived with this thought in my mind.

Wikipedia offers yet another meaning behind the song. There’s a military term “no quarter” that is used to describe a situation where the victor takes no prisoners (thus no quarter), and vanquishes the defeated. It’s even darker than the previous two situations. But still not dark enough. The band Tool took it to a whole new level.

Tool is a progressive rock band from the 1990s that has never achieved mainstream status. Instead it has gained a cult following. Some call it a “thinking-man’s metal band.” Its members and especially its lead singer Maynard James Keenan (MJK) are known for their seclusion and disdain for public spotlight. Their music is not available on iTunes. Given my own disdain for commercialization of everything I can’t help by commend them, even though I had to go through some maneuvers to get my hands on their albums. During their live concerts Maynard, crowned with a Travis Bickle haircut, stands in the back of the stage, avoiding spotlight; his goal is to connect with the audience through lyrics and delivery, not through showmanship. He performs, convulsing in a half-bended posture, his own private catharsis in the dark corners of the stage, away from the public eye. Such delivery is meant to appeal to audiences’ own personal struggles, to invite thought and self-examination, to make one a participant rather than merely a spectator.

Tool ventures into areas where others are afraid to tread. Perhaps this is the reason it has never become mainstream: mainstream is all about helping us through a hard day’s grind, to cheer us up. It’s Paul McCartney and Beyonce, or Pearl Jam if you’re socially conscious. But Tool is merciless in its candor. Its music is too haunting, lyrics – penetrating, delivery – visceral; an extinct combination of mastery nowadays.

Tool’s trippy, melancholic rendition of the song, already dark and brooding to begin with, is a meditation on our own restlessness, our existential agony. It calls on our deepest, Kierkegaardian anxiety, our metaphysical blues, a kind of sadness that is impossible to nail and put into words. This restlessness is what you think about when you lay in bed unable to sleep, when you commute to and from work in a state of supine trance. When you look at the water or at the fire. When you’re suddenly alone and your phone is quiet. When you drive late at night on an empty highway listening to Pink Floyd. Or that one time you took acid in your twenties. Maynard lifts up the curtain and invites us to look into a scary black void, a “path where no one goes”, a “no quarter.” We peek into this abyss and, horrified, pull back, grateful to be distracted back into our normal busy, thoughtless state by a phone call or a twitter message.

Busyness is a welcome distraction, a mind-numbing drug. We seek to avoid thinking about our universal loneliness – the kind of loneliness that is in the back of our minds even when we are surrounded by friends and relatives that love us. And how can one claim otherwise, how can one deny his loneliness today, in the age of a ubiquitous selfie and Instagram – tools designed primarily for the deliberate displays of staged fun, only to serve, ironically, as ultimate manifestations of loneliness? If it wasn’t for our busyness, then that nagging, baffling, suppressed despondence that we tuck behind the defiant cheer in public would drive us to religion or drinking or drugs.

This is the source of our melancholy. Maynard pierces our hard-built rationales to reveal their hollowness. He comes in and tells us there’s no Santa. He makes it difficult for us to keep pretending that we have made it work. He drags us, kicking and screaming, to come face to face with the question: “Why must it be like this?” But our entire lives we tip-toe around the answer. The answer is just too terrifying to contemplate. A search for answer would force us to examine our own state, our own actions, our accepted notions and customary ways, and we are ill-equipped and unprepared and unwilling to do so. We live the way we do because we have bills and responsibilities, but to think that we chose to have those bills and responsibilities is unfathomable. To think that such way of life wasn’t ordered upon us by some supernatural force, that it wasn’t predetermined would then prompt us to deal with it, but we have no tools and capacities to deal with it.

Sure, we’ve heard of Thoreau, living alone by his pond, and Bertrand Russell with his praise of idleness, we’ve read all the clever books. We are all educated and aware of the predicament. Like Davos attendees, who make sure to mock, with faux self-deprecating chuckle, their own attendance at a posh retreat as an unavoidable chore because of “business”, we, mere mortals, in a similar manner, have no willpower or genuine desire to get out of the routine. We can only softly mock our complacency, in quiet resignation. We’ve made adjustments and accommodations – physical and mental, we’ve learned to maneuver, excel at survival, we are resourceful and flexible. Why isn’t THAT a virtue, Maynard? Oh, Maynard, have mercy on our feeble minds! We are just fallible humans, for Chrissake. We just want to get through this with as little thinking as possible. We already have enough to worry about.

We are all homeless who pretend, real hard, to have found refuge. It is cruel to deny us our little illusions, our meager “quarters.” Maynard, you heartless bastard.

My Little Homage To Atlantic City

Atlantic City is anti-Vegas. In Vegas, like at Venice masque-ball, all the life’s drudgery is hidden away; in AC it’s on open display, with not even a half-hearted attempt at disguising it. Vegas is a high class prostitute with silicone breasts and facial injections and perfect ass that will charge you a fortune and will leave you disappointed. AC is a 45-year waitress at Harrah’s, too old and unattractive to flirt, too weary of life, with saggy everything. Happy to have a job. At this point, AC doesn’t even try to sell you anything, because it knows it’s in the gutter and doesn’t have the money or desire to put on a mask. You get what you see. If you don’t like what you see you can go fuck yourself. The heart of AC is its authenticity. No city in America can command such connection to reality as AC. Well, maybe Detroit or Camden. Atlantic City is a Steinbeck-worthy shithole where all those polished, self-assured story-telling billionaires giving us lectures on CNBC wished they came from. Oh, what a perfect place to put on one’s resume, beefing up one’s down-to-earth, up-by-the-bootstraps, common man credentials! There’s just something irresistible about AC’s decrepitude with its boarded-up houses and hard luck and real-world sensibility. Even AC remaining patrons are symbolic of decline and loss. You see some retiree named Morty in the poker room all the time, and then, one day you realize you haven’t seen him in a while. He stops coming to the game. Maybe he got tired, or maybe he ran out of money. Or moved to Florida. Who knows. In the surviving casinos you will find a fine vertical slice, as they like to say on Wall Street, of society: at the poker table you have a smart-ass Asian guy to your right making fun of your Blackberry and to your left you have a grandpa with a flip phone. But still the slice is heavy on the down side: it’s full of hustlers and lowlifes and Jesse Pinkmans, and small businessmen with garish gold jewelry, hairy chests and oiled hair. In Manhattan such fashion choices would be considered good for Halloween. Here’s it’s the real deal. Cab drivers are grateful to give you a ride and are especially appreciative of an extra dollar you throw in as a tip. “50 dollars a day, on a good day,” one chatty driver told me about his daily haul. Maybe he was fishing for sympathy, but maybe not. It’s hard to imagine making much more driving people around this town: customers are scarce. AC is pristine in its realism; is ugly and beautiful as life itself. Pampered Manhattanites, desperate for a real, unstructured adventure, secretly nostalgic for good old times when Times Square had hookers and Washington Square Park had drug dealers, commute in a zombified state between the City and the Hamptons, without realizing what haven – not heaven, but haven – they have just 150 miles to the South. But fuck them. Let them suffocate, let them look in vain for thrills in the sterilized, anesthetized, risk-free Manhattan Green Zone. I don’t want them to contaminate my own little untouched, ungentrified playground with their Starbucks and yoga and irony. Oh, irony. How sick I am of irony. Irony is the last refuge of someone who has nothing to say. Atlantic City is devoid of irony. That’s what I like about it. It’s an antidote to all those effete, overeducated, self-conscious ironic types. It’s been down on its luck for too long to care anymore. It’s too battered to even pretend to keep up appearances. It shows the world a big fat middle finger and then goes about its business. If you come it’s nice, if you don’t – it don’t give a shit. It already lost all its family jewels. Revel was AC’s last attempt to live large, to splurge and to go down in style. It’s that Pontiac Firebird that Lester Burnham bought, on a whim, before leaving this shitty world. Now, when you approach Atlantic City it stands there, beautiful and dead, towering over the skyline, reminding us all of the eventual demise.

The Ability to Be Bad Is The Ultimate Gender Equalizer.

“Women are only good because they never had a chance to be bad”.

I saw “The Counselor” the other day, a movie based on the screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, the same guy who wrote No Country for Old Men and this post is a result of my ruminations on one of the film’s character. Spoiler alert: Cameron Diaz’s scheming and ruthless character kills Brad Pitt in an especially gruesome and chilling manner. For money – the most mundane and age-old reason of all. Some will find my thoughts and conclusions controversial. But here goes.

Women’s entire world, even when they are inclined to delude themselves about having some sort of power, revolved around the world of men. It’s the world built by men, with the rules written by men, so even when we think that we can achieve some sort of power, all we do is just play, real hard, by men’s rules. Sometimes we succeed, but those exceptions only confirm the rule. The bitchiness and cruelty that those of us who decide to wager into the man’s world develop is the manifestation and the confirmation of the man’s world. All this “Lean In” feminism that you keep hearing about is just a manual on how to be able to function in a man’s world. (A long, but dissecting and revealing account of what’s behind this movement.)

The ultimate gender equalizer is the ability to do evil. That includes the power to fleece the fools, to take advantage of the weak, to wage wars. True equality between sexes will be achieved not when a woman acquires access to tools of power she’s been denied for millennia; it will be achieved when she learns to lay them down after she’s had a good run. Women, especially at all those ubiquitous women’s conferences, like to think and talk of themselves as being better than men: we are nurturing, cooperative, benevolent, etc., etc. After all that uplifting talk women really begin to believe that they are better than those brutal apes, men. What bullshit! Women are only good because they never had a chance to be bad. It’s a feel-good fairy tale that women have been telling themselves for thousands of years just to cope with their second-class status. If you don’t have the power to do real shit then your only outlet in life, your only point of consolation is to “be nice”. When you are good out of weakness it doesn’t count, because you have no choice; you don’t get to pick a path, it’s been picked for you. How do you know if you’re truly a better part of humanity if you haven’t been exposed to and tempted with, at least not on a scale that men were, real power? Women think they are better than men because women never held that kind of power in reality – the power to do shit, not just depend on others to do shit. It is only during the last century we began to slowly shed those misconceptions. But here’s the kicker: once we, women, receive access to it, we are no different, no better no worse than men. That is a true equality – the ability to do things, sometimes despicable things, and only then the ability to abstain from doing them. Men had plenty of time to purge themselves of the bad things they were doing, to contemplate about their bad behavior; after all they’ve been doing bad things for a millennia. Men have had “fat tails” for generations (to use the statistical bell curve illustration): there are plenty of criminals, murderers, and vagabonds on the left-hand side of the curve among men; there are also a lot of geniuses and heroes on the right-hand side. Women’s bell curve looks much narrower: we don’t have as many delinquents and hobos, but we also don’t have as many outstanding statesmen and thinkers. We are new to this.

It is naïve to think that we can circumvent such natural evolution. First we have to have our own Raskolnikovs, Mussolinis, and Joe McCarthys in our midst; only then we can produce our own Rousseaus, our own Voltaires, our own Churchills. Only then we can sit by the fire, sip cognac and contemplate, in earnest, on the depravity of a human soul and our struggle to overcome it. Because then we will have a true understanding. Then we will know what it takes to lay down the power voluntarily, to refuse to use it to your advantage.

Benevolence and kindness of a woman had always carried a different flavor than a benevolence of a man. When a man is benevolent he projects strength; when a woman is benevolent she only does what is expected of her. A man doesn’t have to be benevolent; if he chooses to be it will come from his strength. If a woman is benevolent, she’s merely doing it because she’s weak.

Whether you like it or not, Margaret Thatcher waging war over Falklands was an essential part of that progress. That’s why we have to welcome even such cunts and dimwits as Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin – it’s progress; a hundred years ago they would just be voiceless housewives or spinsters. Having those public figures is natural growing pains. We despise them, but their existence is necessary to make way for future groundbreaking female leaders.

To achieve true equality we have to be bad first. We have to be bad for the next 2000 years. We will have to become the corrupt politicians, we will have to fleece the populace, to start wars, to fuck things up. We have to purge it all out of our system, to inoculate ourselves, so that later, hundreds or thousands of years from now, we can, this time genuinely, magnanimously, and without any social expectations, be good, show mercy. Then, we shall be truly equal.

Your most favorite 5-10 seconds of music.

A few days ago someone posed a question on Twitter: what’s you most favorite 5-10 seconds of any piece of music. I didn’t have to think long, few came immediately to mind.

1. Intro/Opening guitar riff on Money for Nothing, Dire Straits;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwDDswGsJ60

2. Jimmy Page’s entry on Bring it on Home (at 1:45) and almost immidiate follow by John Bonham (at 1:49)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihWhTvHVLAM

3. Opening riff for Travelling Riverside Blues.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtEAp-Rybl0