Preface il parlait trop de soi.
Blaise Pascal, referring to Montaigne's Essays

it started in London. I was there 8 weeks one summer, working to finish the software for a bank's big stock-and-bond trading floor, disliking London as always. It's a personality conflict: London is great by all objective measures, but I'm always carping and caviling at it, finding pretexts to complain about it, sneering at the cute Dickensian London, the grand imperial London, the snug, smug middle-class comforts like the towel warming rack, electric pant pressers & teapots that I find in my hotel room.
      I was, however, on expenses, meaning that I could dine more or less wherever I wanted without paying for it myself. A good thing, too: one is almost guaranteed a memorably bad meal, walking into a modest restaurant chosen at random in London. I ate quite good dinners last summer in London, alternating mostly between Indian and French food, but it cost the company I was working for a small fortune.
      At first there was a crowd on my team, a dozen of us. We'd often go out together to eat in the evening, after we'd started our overnight software test running on the trading floor. Thai food, Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, French, Chinese, Hungarian (everything's available in London, just be sure to stay away from the English food). Endless meals of lowest-common-denominator general-conversation small talk. I enjoyed much better my meals with just my friend Bob Brady.
      I also enjoyed my meals alone. Gradually our numbers dwindled as the trading system worked better and better. I had taken over responsibility for the two most trouble-prone pieces of software, so I was the last one left. I ate alone a lot. I have always enjoyed eating alone in restaurants; I'm not one of those self-conscious souls who feels everyone taking pity on him for not being able to find a dinner companion. Mostly I read at the table, but last summer I discovered writing. It's more active and stimulating than reading, and allows my imagination to roam freer. The stimulus of a foreign city (such as Los Angeles, where I'm writing this now) and its differences from home make me think about things I'd normally take for granted.
      One of the hazards of eating alone is overhearing others. Having a conversation in a restaurant, I tend to suspect the man eating alone at the next table of listening. But, having been that man quite often, I can attest that the restaurant conversations I want to overhear are few, indeed. One Indian restaurant, in particular, had noisome, impossible-to-ignore conversations, two out of three times I dined there. The first was simply a pompous Republican recounting at length to sympathetic Tories all the many respects in which Reagan and Bush were the best of all possible American presidents. The other was two British upper-class men, in their early twenties, trying to impress each other with their worldliness and cynicism. "Everyone is fucked up, I mean everyone," one of them said over and over. His point was to recommend the tolerant (especially self-tolerant), detached, cynical attitude that follows naturally from attaining this wisdom.
      Another impetus to start writing these essays came from the Practical Cogitator. It's a compilation of the favorite literary extracts of two Boston men, a lawyer and a literary editor, made shortly after the first world war. They had been soldiers and wanted for reading material. The extracts are short, averaging perhaps a page. This allows the soldier to read in odd moments without losing the thread of a story or an argument. The Practical Cogitator is several hundred pages long, printed in fairly small type on thin paper. It's a wealth of wisdom, very portable. Just the ticket for my London reading.
      The book stimulated me, first by the density of the ideas contained in its non-fiction pages. There can be so much wealth and texture in a well thought and well written paragraph! I was stimulated to try to emulate this. Second, the book has such a strong Anglophilic cast; there was a strong cultural affinity between New England and England, certainly in Emerson's day (just glance through his essay on England), lasting into our own time. The Practical Cogitator seemed a good means to explore my feeling of antipathy toward things British. (Too bad there's no suffix that's an opposite for -phile. I've heard -phobe used that way, but it's clearly wrong: an Anglophobe is one who fears the English, not one who hates them. The closest thing we have is the miso- prefix, from misos, the Greek word for hate, used in misogyny, for example. I guess one could coin the word "misangly," though the parallel with anglophilia is not obvious, and having just the "y" at the end doesn't seem enough.)
      I have always loved ideas. This has run in my family for three generations. My paternal grandfather was a successful real-estate man, a small-time entrepreneur editing Attainment, the Magazine of Success in Washington D.C., until he married my born-again grandmother, who influenced him to move to southern California and go into the ministry, to do the Lord's work. He ran a succession of small churches and store-front missions, never very successfully (he made a better real-estate man than a minister), dying of cancer when his son was 16 years old.
      My father grew up in this hothouse Baptist atmosphere, praying several times a day, spending some Sunday afternoons in the swing waiting for Jesus to appear in the clouds. Then he went away to college, his world expanded, and after a good deal of schooling he became an agnostic and a philosophy professor. He renounced the specific Christian doctrines, but they were always the strongest influence on him, the reference point in relation to which he defined himself. He focussed on German Existentialism, never losing that Protestant earnestness and seriousness.
      There's a wide variety of ways to relate to ideas. Baptists don't need many ideas, but they had better be the right ones: our world and our ideas are nothing compared with the overwhelming reality of a jealous old-testament God, minutely judging our individual actions for conformance with His regulations and, depending on the result, assigning us permanently to Heaven or Hell. In this situation, the regulations are clearly the important thing; other ideas are frivolous.
      My father kept the German Protestant seriousness; he had no doubt that the existential questions he pondered were of the utmost importance. He sought genuinely for truth; the quest was a moral, ethical, practical one, involving no ostensible love for the ideas themselves. But he was a privately passionate man, keeping his feelings well below the surface in a most Germanic way. I suspect that he really loved ideas, that the suppressed and sublimated love was channelled and concentrated into something like a martyr's ecstasy.
      I have always loved ideas less intensely, primarily for themselves, in an aesthetic way. Sure, they're the foundation on which I build my life, in the sense that values and ethics are built out of ideas. But I'm an order of magnitude less serious about philosophy than my father or grandfather. I feel that ideas are among the most important things in life, but not that they transcend life. With experience and contemplation we can gradually accumulate the wisdom to build a better and better philosophic framework for our lives. But there is no single answer for life's question, and many of the choices we are forced to make must be made arbitrarily, to a degree, by personal taste.
      When I was much younger, I tried to write a novel of ideas about the construction of a system of values and personal philosophy. It was a historical novel, written as a series of letters, and the main character was the poet Vergil, whose work I greatly admire. It had some nice pages, but it was a failure as a novel because I have very little interest in telling stories, in plot. The story was just a vehicle for the ideas. I realized last summer in London that a much better way to express those ideas was directly, in essays.
      I am aware that few of the ideas in these pieces are original; if I have any contribution to make it is as a generalist, by connecting ideas from different disciplines. There is no logical progression to the essays, they may be read in any order, but they're intended to form a whole.
      I'm writing these essays to please myself, to stimulate my thoughts and my imagination, to learn, and for the pleasure of making something. I don't know if anyone will have an interest in reading them. I hope so; I love to share ideas. I meet very few people interested in such things. The art of conversation, as it existed in the salons of the enlightenment, is gone. We have instead TV and small talk. It's too bad, because we have intellectual riches of unparalleled quality and quantity strewn around us today. We have ready access to the past, in history, to the rest of the worked, via cheap transportation & light-speed communication, and to exciting scientific and technical developments that change the way we see our world and our selves. Knowledge and information, that, throughout most of history has been rare and has been reserved for the elite is now available (at least in America) cheaply and to all. Here's to the enjoyment of them!

-- Los Angeles, May 1990


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