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