20 March 2006

A Cup of Hemlock to Call Our Own

It is 1:00 am. I am in bed. Sharikov is too, grumpy from his midnight bath. He is trying to sleep. I am not. Instead I review modal verbs - nothing too complicated at this hour - and memorize German vocabulary. I am determined.




This late-night motivation reaches its limits at a 20-minute mark.

"Forget it", I sigh, "I haven't read anything for the sheer pleasure of reading in months". The book-a-week rule of my undergrad days is certainly forsaken, but this self-educational masochism implemented at odd hours of the night is bordering on ridiculous, even by my standards.

I pick up Veller's Kassandra, recommended by I. many moons ago, purchased somewhat fewer moons ago, and started around the same time. It is

A book about the world, in which you live,
and about its end, -
and about you,
in whom this world lives,
and about your immortality

Contrary to certain snooty critics, who are not too keen on his considerable sales and therefore, gasp, popularity - evidently a major "no-no" in the elite literary circles, I enjoy his humorous fiction. I enjoy his brief asides into the Death of the West even more. I. recommended Kassandra to me precisely for its focused non-fictional, quasi-philosophic, culturally critical purpose.

We, the Concerned, the Hopeless, and therefore the Angry typically represent this Death in light of the past hundred years of history. A little Hegelianism and a lot of Delayed Suicide. Simply put, we civilized ourselves to Death. We discuss this issue to death too. We cannot function in any other way, because We are the Concerned.

Like I said.

I finally said I wanted a new perspective, as a result of these ongoing morbid exchanges. I got it - before I even got to it.

I've only read the first forty pages - one tenth of a compact book that boldly aims to analyze the cultural evolution of man and his society; a book that begins almost as a paraphrase of the tired joke about the chicken crossing the road, "interpreted" by various philosophers; only here the chicken is human.

Between the brief synopsis that commences with the Greeks but exasparatedly ends with Nietzsche and the analysis of societal units like family or state, Veller references Socrates' life-long goal to determine why people act - choose to act - wrongly, despite their knowledge otherwise. Then in a manner expected of Veller's humor, he concludes that we all know how this endeavor ended.

He proceeds to demonstrate casual examples of sluggishly suicidal behavior in men as obvious as a smoking habit or sleep-deprived, workaholic stroke at the age of 45. Even clearly dysfunctional relationships such as the girl loves wife-beating alcoholic asshole A, although she has the option of being with nice-guy-with-a-good-job B scenario qualify. Veller's examples are presented in the context of happiness, defined fairly well by every human according to his specific needs, yet rarely attained. Veller therefore probes the often out-of-sync nature of morality and action because he too wants to know why men act against their better judgement.

I do not.

At least not under such generic circumstances. His conflation of morality and maximized aptitude for survival is also problematic, however my interest lies elsewhere: the empirical validity of Veller's observations regarding the suicidal drive of an individual can easily be extended to the collective suicide of a culture. This is not a clean abstraction by any means: in each of the author's examples, the person in question is aware of the detrimental nature of his actions, while cultural self-destruction seems to largely be an incognizant occurrence, until its signs are too blatant to ignore. Furthermore, this murder-of-self is not a result of losing animal survival insticts, but rather the inability to react due to the lack of overt danger signs.

For example, a rapidly spreading epidemic can be one of such signs. Its fatal effects can be countered with increased procreation to reverse population decline and to preserve the genofund. However, this solution will only be partial until the nature of the disease and consequently the methods of preventing its spread are discovered, advertised, and implemented.

What if no such warnings exist? What if the relatively high standard of living translates into misleading assumptions about demographics? What if those communally designated to proclaim otherwise do no such thing? What if in addition to the illusion of well-being, a culture slowly loses its defining pillars, while its carriers are systematically taught collective self-abasement as the principal value?

The delayed suicide drive of a single individual united with this cancerous group mentality produces a concoction much more lethal than the Concerned anticipated, and it is consumed just as willingly as Socrates' hemlock. Is this the conclusion that Kassandra will reach?

I might not find out until the next midnight linguistic pursuit.