Monday, March 21, 2005

Who's on First?

(The following letter is a parody of a New York Times Op-Ed piece, written by the novelist Michael Chabon, about baseball legends Jose Canseco and Roberto Clemente, published in March 2005.)


March 21, 2005

Hey, buddy. Are you ready to step up to the plate? Not a lunch plate or home plate, but the plate of the Game of Life. Do you consider yourself ready? Do you have the guts and the will to expand your awareness of yourself and your world?

I believe I do. I believe I can look dispassionately at who I am. I fancy that I am able to assess myself and others objectively and with insight.

But what of my writer's block, you ask? Do I still struggle with that epistolary malady? Indeed I do. In fact, during the past week I hit a real slump of inspiration: not a batter's slump, to be sure, but a writer's slump. I thought long and hard about the problem, and I could see only two alternative solutions. Either I throw in the bat, so to speak, or resort to performance enhancers. I took the latter course. Yes, I confess, I use performance enhancers: the occasional plagiarized idea or borrowed phrase is better than no idea or phrase at all. Would it surprise you to learn that I've even been known on occasion to resort to assorted thesauri (if you'll pardon the term)? Well, in fact I do. But hey, at least I'm honest and out front about it.

In the spirit of openness and disclosure (as is ever my way) I offer the following portrait of myself -- warts and all, so the saying goes. In the words of Jeremiah (the soothsayer, not the bullfrog), I trust that the Lord will heal my "backsliding."

Confessions of a Roguish Schizoid
In a book "The Moral Society: A Rational Alternative to Death," John David Garcia presents a revolutionary ethical theory much in the spirit of Spinoza. The author shows that through the ethical development of art, science and technology man can achieve far more than the advocates of supernatural Utopias ever imagined.

What is the "Game of Life?" According to the author it is a game in which we are the pieces as well as the players. It is a game in which the stakes are ever-increasing awareness. The Game of Life is the pivotal point between good and evil, life and death. The Game of Life is the basis of all evolution. To play the Game of Life is to increase awareness. To deliberately play the Game of Life is to increase awareness as best we can for the rest of our life.

Is there another Game? The author would say yes, and point to the Game of Pleasure. The Game of Pleasure is a game which serves only to increase happiness, never awareness. Persons who play the Game of Pleasure are the major source of entropy (disorder and chaos) for the human race. Players of the Game of Pleasure make themselves and others increasingly unethical until they become immoral.

Apparently, the author, John David Garcia, is a lot of fun at parties.

In the author's view, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza is the ultimate player of the Game of Life. Indeed, "Spinoza is the ultimate Jewish philosopher. In Spinoza Judaism reached its logical conclusion by becoming totally abstract and depersonalizing God into the cosmic force. The philosophy is devoid of ideology and attempts to prove everything deductively from axioms and scientific laws. Spinoza's philosophy is a logical failure that was ethically successful. It freed ethical behavior from supernatural imperatives. Like Maimonides, Spinoza was not readily acceptable to the Jews because he was extremely radical. Indeed, he was so much more radical than Maimonides that Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community and is still considered an apostate by the orthodox. However, Spinoza laid the philosophical basis for Reform Judaism and the Reform Jews have almost completely incorporated the ethical teachings of Spinoza, Most of the Jews in the world today are de facto Reform or agnostics."

Be that as it may.

Before I start arguing that it's muddleheaded, and misses the point, to disparage the greatness of a great and noble thinker for his want of goodness as a man -- before I rise to the defense of myself -- let me begin by offering one example of my own muddleheadedness in this regard.

A big part of what I have always admired about Baruch Spinoza as a master of the Game of Life is what a good, strong, thoughtful man he seems to have been -- his stoic dignity in the face of the ignorance and bigotry of the Orthodox Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, for example, and how he died penniless in a rented room in pursuit of the ultimate axiom, and so forth. I choose to view Spinoza's grace on the field of the Game of Life as reflecting and being reflected by the graceful way in which he conducted his public life (when one has demonstrably nothing to do with the other), and both together as lasting proof of some private gracefulness as a man, when I have no way of ever really knowing what form the true, secret conduct of his life may have taken.

I have no idea what Spinoza's feelings would have been about academic performance enhancers like slide rules, pocket calculators, Cliff Notes, assorted varieties of thesauri, and Bartlett's Quotations, not to mention paraphrasing and outright plagiarism, but I would like to think that he would have viewed them with disfavor, and that -- had he married -- he would have been faithful to his wife, temperate in his habits and modest about his accomplishments. Yes, I would like to think that -- because instinctively, I'm just foolish and mistaken enough to think that great philosophers must also be good men.

There is no question that sometimes I myself have approached greatness as a thinker, that I have even brushed greatness as a player of the Game of Life. If you have any doubt about that, you weren't paying attention to me on the days, during the years I used to visit The Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library, when I paid attention to the Game -- and that's hard to imagine since, like Spinoza, I arrested the eye of The Powers that Be, held their attention like a shard of mirror dangling from a wire in the sunshine, even when I was just standing around waiting to get onto the public access computer or just waiting for something to happen next.

But I'm not going to get into that here. The question of my greatness or lack thereof can be debated endlessly, with statistics, such as SAT scores, IQ scores and the like and assorted anecdotes to support both sides.

And God knows I have no intention of claiming that I qualify as a good man, according to the conventions of my own garden-variety standards of morality: consistent effort, altruism and personal integrity defined as the keeping of one's promises to other people. My want of goodness on those terms is also arguable, I suppose, though not by me, of course.

But I will go out on a limb and venture that any list of the 100 greatest players of the Game of Life who ever lived would conform to the pattern for our species, and therefore contain a sizable number of men who spend most of their lives fumbling with an inherent tendency to slack off, ignore the sufferings of others, tell lies and evade responsibility. Playing the Game of Life well does not make you a better person, any more than writing well does.

The illusion that lures us into the error of confounding Spinoza's goodness as a man with his greatness as a philosopher is that when a man is playing the Game of Life well, as when a man is writing well, he seems to himself, in that moment, to be a better person than he really is. He puts it all together, he has all the tools, in a way that is impossible outside the lines of the playing field of the Game of Life or the margins of the page. He shines, and we catch the reflected glint, and extend the "shining one" a credit for overall luminosity that almost nobody could merit. Spinoza, I think, did; he shone with the grace and integrity of his thinking even when he was not on the field of the Game of Life.

Permit me to digress at this point and venture into the realm of myth and symbol. For the ancient Greeks who depicted abstract concepts in the persona of their gods, the gloriously divine figure of Apollo was said to embody a special radiance, as Nietzsche says in Section 1 of "The Birth of Tragedy." "Apollo, the god of all plastic energies, is at the same time the soothsaying god. He, who (as the etymology of the name indicates) is 'the shining one,' the deity of light, is also ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy. The higher truth, the perfection of these states in contrast to the incompletely intelligible everyday world, this deep consciousness of nature, healing and helping in sleep and dreams, is at the same time the symbolical analogue of the soothsaying faculty and of the arts generally, which make life possible and worth living." Thus Spake Friedrich Nietzsche.

In any event, Baruch Spinoza was a hero, in other words, and I, by the above definition, am not. By my own admission, I have slacked off and hurt people and lied and broken a lot of promises, large and small. And used performance enhancers: paraphrasing and plagiarizing with wanton abandon. And therefore, many people seem to feel, I am not to be admired -- neither in the past, during my brief heyday, so that you must retroactively rescind your delight in my style and your amazement at my prowess, put an asterisk beside your memory of the pleasure of my company over the course of a few long years; nor in the present, not even when I step forward to tell the truth, a big, meaningful dolorous truth that most of you, measured by your own standards of heroism, would have a hard time bringing yourselves to tell.

I can't possibly be a hero to anyone -- I laid down that burden many years and near-arrests and screw-ups ago -- and furthermore (goes the rap) there is nothing remotely admirable about my allegation of widespread, inveterate use of paraphrasing and plagiarism, by myself and by other players of The Game of Life, like the historians Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin, who have a readier claim on our admiration, and shoulder more naturally its weight.

I, we are informed by psychiatrists, by former employers, and former coworkers am only looking to turn a buck by my confessions past and present. If lying would have paid better than telling the truth, then I would have lied (and some have suggested that I have). I am greedy, faithless, selfish, embittered, scornful and everlastingly a showboat. I am a bad man ("a very, very bad man"), and that makes me, retrospectively (except among those who claim always to have felt this way) a bad player of the Game of Life. Not to mention a bad writer.

I don't know what is to be done about the mess I have made of my life, and neither do you. At times I even wonder how I can still live with myself.

And yet, and yet . . .

I find myself admirable. Not in the way I admire Spinoza -- not even remotely, which says something about what an ambiguous thing admiration can be. Like all showboats, I court the simpler kind of admiration, starting in the mirror each morning. I am slick (I drive other people mad with my slickness), I am nine feet tall and four feet wide and walk with a roosterish swagger. But there has always been something about me, about my style of play, my sense of self-mocking humor, my way of looking at you looking at me (Remember: "When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you"), that goes beyond vanity and self-aggrandizement, or being a world-class jerk.

I have been described as a charmer, and a clown, but in fact I am a rogue, a genuine one, and genuine rogues are rare, inside the Game of Life and out. To be a rogue, it's not enough to flout the law, break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat. You must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders, and speaking metaphorically (but not only metaphorically), throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. (Bob Strauss detests sports metaphors, and my resort to one in this instance is itself an act of roguishness, I suppose). A petty consistency (it is said) -- whether it be the consistency of the consistently virtuous or the consistency of the consistently miscreant -- is the hobgoblin of little minds. And the genuine rogue is anything but small-minded (at least not in his own mind).

Above all I must at times be less-than-virtuous, just as at other times I neglect to be less-than-virtuous, for no particular reason, because I feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything's a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified it for rogues everywhere, because you don't give a damn.

As for claims that I lie: give me a break. I don't need to lie. What would be the point? I don't care what you think of me; if anything, I derive a hair more pleasure from your scorn and contumely than I do from your useless admiration. It's not that I have nothing to lose, as some of my critics have claimed, by coming forward now to peel back the nasty bandage on my writerly conscience. A man like me never has anything to lose, or to gain, but my life and the pleasure I take from it.

I have style. Yes, I -- unlike most people -- have style. Only people who don't give a damn have style.

There was a time, though, when men like me, without taking anything from the luster of men like Baruch Spinoza, could also be accounted as heroes. They were the ones, the Ulysses and Sinbads and Raleighs, who sailed to places we couldn't imagine and returned, after a career of wonder and calamity and chagrin, not one whit better as men they were when they left. And no better, surely, than we -- possibly worse. And yet, in the end, they were the only ones fit to make the voyage, and when they came back they were laden with a truth that no one else would be clown enough, and rogue enough, and hero enough, to speak.

Yes, men like Ulysses, Sinbad and Raleigh wore the sign of distinction; they were the ones who might justly be considered "odd" by the world -- yes, even crazy, and dangerous. They were AWARE or in the process of becoming aware and their striving was directed toward achieving a more and more complete state of awareness while the striving of the others was a quest aimed at binding their opinions, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely to those of the herd. There, too, was striving, there, too, were power and greatness. But whereas we, who were marked, believed that we represented the will of Nature to something new, to the individualism of the future, the others sought to perpetuate the status quo. Humanity -- which they loved as we did -- was for them something complete that must be maintained and protected. For us, humanity was a distant goal toward which all men were moving, whose image no one knew, whose laws were nowhere written down.

Check you out next week, buddy. "Bliss in possession will not last; remembered joys are never past." Another quote, my friend. Sometimes you just can't kick a habit.