Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stealth More Interesting: Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the most attractive and problematic aspects of the "Great Man" theory of history is that it allows us to pack stories into neat packages of a few important people. World War Two, for example, is largely a story about Hitler and Churchill, with supporting roles played by the leaders of other countries and, of course, J. Robert Oppenheimer. These few men dictated, the story goes, the fates of millions, and it was their interactions and their decisions which shaped the modern world. Similarly, if we look back at earlier wars, important scientific discoveries and theories, or famous and influential pieces of art, the dramatis personae is always small.

In reality, of course, no story is so simple as to be about a single man or woman. At the most basic level, the massive network of personal interactions and cultural influences that any given "hero" experiences means that no one is shaped solely by himself. Even the most stubborn, self-assured, and rebellious personality stands in contrast to something, and so the lone voice of a Galileo or a Lucretius hardly exists in isolation. Those voices were alone - though not entirely, of course, even that gets overblown - because they contravened excepted dogmas and cultural narratives so strong as to be unquestionable.

What makes such people memorable, however, is rarely their genius. In that regard, I suspect that there have been and are many more people capable of great fame than have achieved it. What's more, even genius may be culturally mitigated, and one time's luminary may be another's villain, or, worse, Average Joe. No, fame is mostly about luck, about being in the right place at the right time, to use a tired phrase. Even an unquestionably great man like Gandhi would not have been Gandhi without South Africa, and without a colonial oppression so vile that a nation of a billion wanted desperately to fight against it. Without his context, Gandhi is just another deeply spiritual man, and not a man who changed the world.

Which is not to say that the fact of fame is accidental, but rather that the bestowal of fame on particular people is. We, as Westerners, and likely as human beings, much prefer to condense our stories into manageable chunks. Without some synthesis of the vast account of a particular bit of history, how could we possibly build an understanding of meaning? Leave the detailed examinations to the experts, we say, and let the school-house narrative of George Washington and the Founding Fathers suffice when the Fourth of July roles around. There is, frankly, nothing to be done about the simplifications we make, because they are necessary in order for us to accomplish much of anything. To study the thousands of years of recorded history across the many different cradles of civilization that exist in depth is the work of dozens or hundreds of lives.

Nevertheless, it is easy to forget that we are reducing, reducing, reducing. It is easy to forget that even Galileo was not solitary, and that even Beethoven's music was impossible without his interactions with his father, with Haydn, with the music of Mozart, with the women he lusted after, with the countless unnamed and unremembered princes and patrons and musicians. I as much as anyone am guilty of letting the name of some famous person stand in for an unimaginably complex situation which I don't understand, and more often than not I forget that I am doing it and come to a conclusion about that bit of history that supports my own biases and ideals.

How much more so media, politicians, advertisers, text books and teachers, who are in the business, to varying degrees, not only of informing, but of convincing as well? How much of our understanding of the world shaped by our confirmation bias? Because we grew up with a certain narrative, and from that narrative - be it historical, religious, moral, or some combination of all of those (and more) - we have each built a set of ideals and expectations, our own schema for interpreting and defining and rewriting complex events to make them comprehensible, we tend to find that the world either agrees with our preconceptions, or is not worth bothering about. Approaching history from any other way is not only difficult, it may very well be impossible.

What is there to do, then? Well, ignoring the problem is perfectly valid. I say that without irony, because frankly, it is not in the least bit upsetting to me to imagine a world where we tell wonderful stories about the exploits and tribulations of great men and women. Though we call such things history and myth based upon their supposed accuracy, they are more often than not the same thing, and regardless both excite the imagination, inspire the heart, and stimulate critical thought. I am just as likely to talk about Beethoven as a paragon as I am to talk about him as situated within his cultural and society. Indeed, I am more likely to do the former, because it's a more compelling and more entertaining story.

On the other hand, I do have some interest in the truth, and while ignoring complexity is valid, so it charging headlong into it. That is a more complicated task, granted, but a rewarding one as well. Indeed, many of the stories of greatness we have come from people who did exactly that: consider, again, Galileo's challenge to our most fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world. Consider the development of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, who violated the established principles of mathematical truth to do so. Consider more modern examples like Erving Goffman, who challenge the very notion that gender is anything but a socially and culturally mediated display of differences, and not nearly so rooted in biology and neurology as we like to think. Consider Stanford's Ray McDermott, who argues that learning disabilities acquire kids more than kids acquire learning disabilities.

Yes, there's certainly something to be said for challenging accepted narratives in order to, just maybe, get closer to something that is true. But even in so doing we tend to find a similar set of biases and ideologies. The dogmatic belief in being anti-dogmatic is itself dogmatic; the insistence on challenging established cultural and historical narratives can itself become (and has, in some circles) an entrenched cultural and historical narrative. So what is there to do? Nothing, and everything. Who can really say? It's a too tangled web to unravel in a mere blog post. Rather, I'll make reference to Emerson in Self-Reliance: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

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