Friday, January 01, 2016

`But Don't Think Foolishly'

My brother has found photographs of my father taken during his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and, not surprisingly, they reveal nothing about the man. If I were asked to assemble all the strictly factual information I know about him, it would fill less than half a page. My family will always remain a mystery. In retrospect, that seems remarkable to me, as the father of three sons. A good part of raising children is sharing one’s experience, though not in the tiresome sense of “war stories,” which my father on occasion shared, usually casting himself in the role of clever fellow or put-upon hero. Much of my time with my sons is spent in conversation, and the fuel of most good conversation is memory. 

At dinner in an Indian restaurant on Wednesday, my oldest son (age twenty-eight) observed that he increasingly sees me in himself. Both of us, he noted, are reserved and understated, and tend to be emotionally unruffled. He can’t remember me being angry. We tend to feel things deeply but don’t assume anyone else is interested. Neither of us will ever be the life of the party, and neither of us is bothered by that. We tend toward the comedically understated. As the hinge in this three-part relationship, I increasingly see a narrow range of my father’s character in me. I don’t suffer fools with understanding and graciousness. I’m impatient with pompousness, self-centeredness and empty talk of any sort. I endorse Dr. Johnson’s famous distinction, as reported by Boswell:   

“My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant. You are not his most humble servant. You may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times." You don't mind the times. You tell a man, "I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet." You don't care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly.” 

Theodore Dalrymple, three years older than I am and childless, also admires Johnson and is not pleased to see traces of his father in his own aging sensibility. In “Father in the Looking Glass?” Dalrymple makes the obvious but useful-to-remember observation that “one’s destiny is not entirely of one’s own devising.” To ignore this truth is to risk disaster for one’s self and others. But neither should we conclude that free will is an illusion. Dalrymple notes that his father was a dogmatist, as was mine. This is an increasingly common human type we both abhor, and detect in ourselves. He writes: 

“Dogmatism is the reaction of those who want to know best but suspect that the metaphysical foundations of their supposed knowledge are shaky. Ambiguity disturbs them: how can there be rational criticism, for example, founded on argument and evidence, when at the same time there is no disputing taste? The solution to the tension is to stand behind a stockade of indubitable truth.” 

Thus, the dilemma of a thinking, feeling person in the age of relativism. Read Dalrymple’s final two paragraphs for a terse description of how I feel all too often, in particular when I am taking myself too seriously and replicating my father’s behavior from half a century ago.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

In the essay you recommend Dalrymple finds himself in a cleft stick regarding objective/subjective judgements on soup and literature declaring opinions on these areas merely ‘gustatory’ or matters of taste.

“This raises a problem that I have still not resolved in my mind, and I doubt now that I ever shall”
“Though you throw subjectivism out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns”

You tend, and I in no way mean to criticise this, Mr Kurp, to erect a kind of canon of good writers (Dalrymple, Nabokov, Dr Johnson, Boswell, Joyce, Epstein, Davonport etc etc), which might suggest that there is an objective standard, contrary to what the wonderful Dalrymple (I love his book “Admirable Evasions”) avers. How to separate such awareness of proper good taste from the dangers of bigotry is surely the challenge. To know what is good without bigotry.