An episode from 5/16/22: Tonight, I continue with the fourth episode in a five-part series called Notes from the Grid.
The first section is called “Civilization Does Not Civilize,” and it hinges on a remark by the critic George Steiner. While many of us believe that an interest in art and culture can be some kind of barrier against inhumanity, Steiner says that “it’s all over our world: inhumanity can be combined with high aesthetic experience.”
Because of the way we talk and think about knowledge, this link with inhumanity seems to occur when culture ceases to be about the experience of literature or music or art, and instead becomes a matter of criticism, classification, and comparison. While fine on their own, when these things also become mixed up with notions of superiority, the hatred of rival ideas can very quickly turn into the hatred of people.
The second section (begins at 20:30), “The Perpetual Adolescent,” looks even more closely at knowledge, and education. When the psychologist Mary Pipher says about adolescents that “with amazing acuity, they sense nuances, doubt, shades of ambiguity, discrepancy and hypocrisy,” I realize what’s missing: that adolescents aren’t given any constructive way to deal with ambiguity or hypocrisy. They aren’t told how to live in a difficult world, and so they only end up criticizing it.
Using my own development as an example, I say that Pipher’s remark about teenagers is actually a spot-on description of many people today, and our principal malaise is in being unable to deal with ambiguity of any kind. When we retreat behind the supposed certainties of our chosen social or religious or political identities, we inevitably find those lacking, too. I quote a character in one of Nietzsche’s books, who says, “Man is for me too imperfect a thing. Love of man would kill me.” My conclusion, though, is that not being able to love each other, despite our imperfections, is what actually kills us.