That’ll preach

One of my favorite games is to declare, in the midst of a conversation, “That’ll preach!” Most of the time, the declaration is ironic or absurd. The exceptions are sometimes interesting, though.

Case in point, this morning. I was talking to a friend of mine about an interview with László Krasznahorkai, in which he says toward the end:

According to Krasznahorkai, the deepest loss is the loss of a culture of poverty – the ability to “sing wonderful songs when we are poor”. Now, he says, “… we only have people who don’t have money … everybody wants to be rich, everybody has only one dream, but people, do we really have one dream – I ask – is this the only aim in this shit, to have much more money?”

There’s nowhere left beyond the reach of the market, he continues, “… no empty spaces with possibilities, only stupid spaces, spaces in which you can’t do anything other than wait to return from this space …” There are perhaps theorists who could explain why this has happened, he adds, but after these explanations “… everything goes on – why? I see you, and I ask you – why?”

He gestures to the computer sitting on the table at his elbow. “This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have microphone, laptop, this technical society – that’s all? This is sad, and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Endre Szemerédi, these are fantastic figures, and their work is unbelievably important and we cannot do anything with it – why?”

My friend objected to what he regarded as a certain romanticizing of old-time poverty. I disagreed with him on a number of grounds, but in the end conceded for the sake of conversation. I argued instead that what if the point is less some kind of nostalgia for the past, and more a heightened indictment of the present? Nostalgia, after all, is only really a problem when it overly informs present action.

Fundamentalist preaching, for example, can be boiled down to “Our belief in ethical progress has doomed us to moral regress,” and will appeal to the past as a remedy. But is it possible to accept their diagnosis without the prescribed remedy, and confess instead that of all the world’s guilty parties throughout history, we of the here & now are the guiltiest — that instead of improving or progressing beyond the past, we are to blame for whatever entropic decay we’re enduring and systemic abuse we’re committing.(Obviously, there are gradations of ‘blame’ to spread around. None of this necessarily has to extend into strict moral equivalence. The point being we blame in order not to distinguish the wronged from the wrong, but to identify our different responsibilities and responses to present shittiness.)

If we could accept this, if we could preach this(!), whether it is measurably or qualitatively true or not, could something good, something beyond self-loathing, come of it?

7 thoughts on “That’ll preach

  1. I wrote this before I heard about the body count of today’s latest school shooting. (How perverse that I can construct a sentence like that … that sounds so coldly absurd, and yet still be true!).

  2. How do we live with first world decadence, second world desperation, and third world looming disaster? Reared in liberal Christianity where time was on our side, relentless war, disregard for informed foretelling of limits, and worship of power have demanded something new. It has begun to trickle in, but time is still not on our side. We need the strength to endure more than the power to transform, although we certainly also need that.

    Romanticizing poverty I take as evidence of never having been poor. Romanticizing currency I take as evidence of never having matured. We are stuck with capitalism and private property; there’s no going back. That religion, largely, fails to speak truth to power does not mean that it lacks the resources. It’s always about leadership. MLKings are hard to come by. Those were the days my friend.

  3. I have to admit that 30 years ago I thought the U.S. would be qualitatively different when I was older – but it’s basically the same except with much, much better phones. At the end of the Clinton administration, when we were running a deficit, I thought, ok now we can get somewhere – but instead, the next 10 years were a complete waste of time.

  4. Yeah, Brad, I hope that too (as I hope my wife and I don’t simultaneously get bored with/thrown out of our jobs). But that ‘s a source of personal pessimism, not a reason for cultural pessimism.

    As far as I know the rich (and I’m not including you in the people I really know), the truth is that there is more & more anxiety because there is all kinds of things to lose (at least we feel that anxiety). Nevertheless, that some part of the world population is more anxious does not mean that all of the world population is facing irreversible moral regress.

    I hesitate to talk about the poor (because I don’t know people who are really poor). However, as long as the percent of people having access to education grows, I don’t think there is moral regress (although per net there might be an increasing level of anxiety over missed expectations).

    Basically I think your friend was right. I don’t want to be poor and happy – because I don’t believe you can be poor & happy (unless there is propaganda or non-education to make up the difference temporarily). And I sure don’t see it that people should feel guiltier. In fact, I think the guilt trip thing is precisely the cause of this anxiety-driven cultural pessimism to persist and cultural pessimism in turn fuels the fundamentalism of finding drastic solutions.

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