The Way We Have Become: A Surfeit of Seeming

The Way We Have Become: A Surfeit of Seeming

We are the bees of the invisible.
–Rainer Maria Rlike, Letters

To be visible all the time –to live in a swarm of eyes– surely that leaves its mark on the face.
–Tomas Tranströmer, “Solitude”

The way we live: when I think of that in the cusp of some small frustration—say, holding the phone waiting for a warm-bodied techie—random themes begin to buzz in my brain, like restless bees in a hive. Themes like politics, marketing, celebrity, trust, art, the void. How can I quiet these themes, these concerns, long enough to make sense of the noise?

I do not mean to make an essay out of the tribulations of writing an essay—that’s tacky; I mean only to explain my title as a bewildered approach to the multitudinous present, the way we have become. It’s a large topic, relevant to what V. S. Naipaul called “our universal civilization,” relevant also to all those errant souls—immigrants, refugees, displaced persons, expatriates like myself—wandering the earth. It’s a large topic, but I have tried to hew to a particular line: the tyranny of appearances, a surfeit of seeming in America. Yes, now things must seem, not be.

Bees buzz and also sting. The line I have taken may not always please. But I suspect that even Candide knew in his heart of hearts that whatever is, is not always, well, cool. The difficulty is tact: how to give dissatisfaction its due without slighting the fecundity of the present. In the end, Emerson said, temperament is the “iron wire on which the beads are strung.” In this text, temperament and autobiography do serve as wire, but also something else. Something impersonal. (No, not postmodern theory.) Call it an aspiration to reality beyond the delirium of appearances. That is also to say, an invocation of truth, not absolute but fiduciary—a truth we can trust—as mind, in its give and take, reckons with the world.

But truth, trust, and mind can be weasel words. Some clarification of them, as they apply to this essay, is due before we start fingering the beads.

Philosophers have long puzzled trust as they have puzzled truth. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon debate whether trust depends on fear of detection, as in the case of the shepherd Gyges, who found a gold, magic ring in the Lydian wilderness and considered keeping it. This perspective, rooted in rank self-interest, informs subsequent discussions, through Machiavelli and Hobbes and on down to John Nash’s solution—yes, think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind—of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory. Another perspective, developed by Locke, Hume, Kant, and Rousseau, takes a more benevolent view of human nature, locating trust in love, sympathy, moral responsibility. Then there’s the leap of faith, Kierkegaardian or otherwise, that finds truth and trust—now fused—in a spiritual impulse that overwhelms doubt, defies the weight of the world.

And now? We perceive a crisis of trust, a dearth of veracity, everywhere. (This is not an American dilemma only, as Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures of 2002, in Britain, suggest.) Still, I am not wholly persuaded that America has become a culture of mistrust.



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: