Cambridge Observed (with Some Digressions about Boston)

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never been to L.A. but I think I can arrive at a pretty decent picture by taking Cambridge, Massachusetts and imagining the exact opposite—developing that photonegative. Or, rather, L.A. would be the hellish negative and Cambridge the bright reality (probably). At least, in my ignorance, I would tend to think so, because I love Cambridge (and Somerville and parts of Boston). Sit down in any coffee shop or bar and you’ll hear people talking about their PhD programs and gossiping about their academic advisor’s mid-life crises. Is it easy to satirize? Sure—but what isn’t? All the girls are dressed in black and gray—they’re Serious People. There are no canary yellow sports bras exposed to daylight… Ah, this brisk Northern air! This bracing Yankee atmosphere! Unlike my imaginary nightmare Bladerunner vision of L.A., people don’t go clubbing in Cambridge (well, technically, some do)—they hold potlucks, at which unshaven physicists and their small, cryptic fiancés discuss the eventual heat-death of the universe. This is a good thing. I like this (apparently).

Cambridge, Somerville, and the collegiate portions of Boston form what might be the world’s largest economy based on knowledge—or, at least, on data. Mark Twain said that, in Boston, people care about what you know; in New York, they care about how much money you have; in Philadelphia, they care about who your parents are. I can’t speak to whether this is still true of Philly, but the first two claims still hold, strongly. I don’t hate New York or even dislike it—it’s so multi-formed, multi-eyed, multi-armed that you can’t really say what it is (except for “big” and “intimidating”). New York contains worlds nested within worlds—and, hey, most of them might suck. New York is everything, and 90% of everything is awful. But Boston is just a few worlds—and Cambridge is only one, the academic world. And I’m a Boston kind of guy—or, really, a Cambridge kind of guy. (I get that there’s a “big” difference, but whatever).

Boston’s great, but being an aspiring member of various elites, I need to voice my preference for Cambridge—and, even above Cambridge, I prefer Somerville, a dusky gem of rare value, unknown to the wider world. Union Square, a veritable El Dorado of alternative culture, remains hidden from the clueless—gracefully concealed by a lack of subway access—and Davis Square (possibly my favorite spot in the Greater Boston Area) is the vibrant core of Somerville.

Not too long ago, I was watching a game at Fenway (on TV) and my Dad (who’s a Yankee fan) pointed out, not unpleasantly, that Boston crowds always look like Boston crowds—the people sitting behind home aren’t rocking Versace and sipping Moet. They’re just humans, gloriously normal, middle-class, taking their kids to a ballgame. They’re not like Yankee fans at Yankee stadium—jet-setters, obviously camera conscious, as they lounge in overly dignified splendor behind home. It’s another point (or dozen) in favor of the Greater Boston Area.

Most importantly, I think Boston and Cambridge both have a good mixture of New England reserve and non-native, out-of-town friendliness. If you go up to backwoods New Hampshire, it’s all reserve. I imagine the Saudis are less reserved, despite the completely enclosed booths families sit in at Arabian fast food joints. But Boston has a pinch of accommodation—and, damn it, that’s all you need! Boston people aren’t silent and brooding—they’re not Finns. It’s just that the things they say to you might not be the things you want or expect them to say to you. But who the hell are you? Some chemistry student from Omaha? Get used to it. Life’s not a Lutheran Church picnic.

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The Quest for Novelty

by Sam Buntz

The mind thinks that information is the way out. The more details it can gather, it supposes, the closer it will be to amassing an ultimate agglomeration of Truth. The various practical applications arising from this rage for information, seem to justify it—after all, we have iPads, microwaves, and medical care exponentially superior to that of any previous century. It must be adding up to something. But, worthy as these innovations are, the craving for information—for image, for detail, for forbidden knowledge (for videos of beheadings and of naked women crushing hamsters with high heels, to cite two real examples)—only increases, until it results in a final consolidation of Error, as opposed to a consolidation of Truth. It is nothing but sound and fury. Fortunately, this Body of Error can’t help but expose itself—when real attention is turned towards it, it shrivels in the sun. Yet it is exceedingly crafty and strategic in fending off its demise: it simply seeks to keep human attention bouncing around, from one object to the next, without ever settling in concentration and seeing the matter plain. In such a state, human beings can’t even really be said to have any attention—the objects of their awareness are not determined by themselves, but by external powers, by that bundle of Error.

So, the mind marches on, concocting new marinades and seasonings with which to disguise that tasteless and mysterious tofu—the underlying substance of life. As T.S. Eliot puts it, these external distractions seek to “Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled, / With pungent sauces, multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors.” The goal is novelty—mechanically and automatically sought in order to fend off knowledge of the underlying silence, the fundamental emptiness or darkness of experience, which we consider (with almost no justification) to be a threat. We do not suspect that an invisible sun might be buried within that eternal night… Obviously, the pursuit of novelty for its own sake—to keep attention moving to fresh objects, in a state of incessant flux—can only result in madness. (The utter loss of attention might really be the definition of “madness,” as it is commonly understood). As the attention becomes fatigued with familiar objects, it seeks to incite passion through bizarre channels, tripping down obscure alleys. (This weekend, we were just informed that a convention of “Furries”—people who dress up like giant stuffed animals in order to have sex—was disrupted by a chlorine gas leak, likely due to sabotage). It seems to be true that, while, as a whole, the rate of violence has gone down in the world—compared to earlier eras—humanity, thanks to this unhinged quest for novelty, has never looked quite so ridiculous and undignified.

In a way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The further the quest proceeds and the mind’s affections continue to go haywire, the more this great Body of Error seems obvious. Here, the risk is that, in attempting to expose the Body of Error, the critic fails to see or notice anything that is not the Body of Error, and hence becomes just another unconstructive complainer, howling in the cheap seats. Anyone can see that there’s something ridiculous about Miley Cyrus humping giant teddy bears on stage—but not everyone who notices that this is ridiculous can articulate what the alternatives are. If you bask in ridicule—in giving it or receiving it—you haven’t really separated yourself from the mass of accumulated falsity. Your attention is still subject to that shifting and treacherous sea.

But what is the alternative? In venturing an amateur guess, I would say that the alternative is, as already implied, a practice involving concentrated attention, concentrated will. Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” But what one thing? Where should attention be concentrated? And how? It would be somewhat presumptuous to fill in the blanks, on my part, demonstrating a certain pretension to sagedom.  Yet it is impossible to end this essay without offering something more. Simone Weil’s voice might serve to bridge the gap, establishing a living connection with the Body of Truth, existing across the gulf from the Body of Error: “The combination of these two facts — the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it — constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.”

Thomas Hardy’s God

by Sam Buntz

If we lack a hope that transcends the vagaries of time and space, the best we can do is not to hope: to never expect much. That was the wisdom of Thomas Hardy, later echoed by poetic descendants, like Philip Larkin. Yet, while Hardy is a poet who advises stoic endurance in the face of the world’s “neutral tinted haps and such,” he goes further than his disciples. While Larkin also advises endurance, he is, compared to Hardy, somewhat spiritless: he has no appetite for a cosmic quest, and disdains poetic mythmaking for that reason. Despite being shorn of orthodox belief by the revelations of Darwin, Hardy actually did have the urge for such metaphysical exploration. Unlike some of his followers, he doesn’t cease to think after receiving an initial impression—he pursues, he speculates, he wonders. As John Irving put it in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hardy was “almost religious.” He had the temperament and the wonder, but he lacked hope for an eternal world, for final bliss. He knows all about time, but is uncertain regarding eternity.

A great example of Hardy’s philosophical mind in action is the poem, “The Masked Face.” The speaker finds himself in “a great surging space,” with no “firm-fix’d floor” and locked doors at both ends. A mysterious masked face arrives to tell him that this place is “Life.” When the speaker complains about the locked doors and the confusion reigning in this weird locale, the mask-veiled being replies:

“There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken.”

And in an untitled poem, labeled a “fragment” (though it seems complete enough), Hardy talks about another metaphysical trip. The speaker visits the Dead—all who have ever lived—where they wait in a hidden gallery. He asks them what they’re waiting for, and they reply that they’re waiting for “God” or “the Will, or Force, or Laws” or “vaguely…the Ultimate Cause” to finally “know it.” To the speaker’s repeated questioning they explain that they’re waiting for God to “know how things have been going on earth and below it: /  It is clear he must know some day…” They continue:

“‘Since he made us humble pioneers
Of himself in consciousness of Life’s tears,
It needs no mighty prophecy
To tell that what he could mindlessly show
His creatures, he himself will know.

“‘By some still close-cowled mystery
We have reached feeling faster than he,
But he will overtake us anon,
If the world goes on.’”

In his work, Hardy took inspiration from Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who viewed the “Will to Live” as fundamentally pointless, even malign: we are all its helpless puppets, and our glory lies in renunciation and asceticism. But despite Schopenhauer’s profound influence, Hardy, in these particular poems, refuses to see life as a meaningless slog. He doesn’t consider the onward march of the Will as so much sound and fury. Rather, Life is a process that may, in fact, lead to a desirable conclusion, and there may be some greater design behind it—though not one consciously directed by the Biblical God. Rather, God is Life (or the Will) in Hardy’s estimation—a process leading towards some final comprehension. (This is very similar to George Bernard Shaw’s philosophy, as well). We have only to play our part in it, without complaint or accusation. Yet, at the same time, this shred of hope for the future—if it really is hope—is slathered with qualifications. God or the Will or the Ultimate Cause will reach some great reckoning “if the world goes on”, says Hardy (italics added). The sense of existential nausea, of reeling in immensities of time and space with no point of orientation, never really dissipates.

There is a certain tendency in some British artists—writers, playwrights, poets, film-makers—to indulge in misery for its own sake. “British Miserablism” is actually a school and a style. In a warped way, these artists look back to Hardy—but they fail to recognize that a tragedy is not a tragedy if there never was any chance for things to go right. If it’s always been 3 A.M. in the soul, and has never been high noon, where’s the loss? But, by situating his poetry in this greater semi-mythical context—speculating on the ultimate purpose of God or the Will, however vague it may be—Hardy lets us see genuine tragedy in the human condition. Things could be going right—we might’ve been born in the hidden room lying at the further end of that shifting, bewildering space called “Life,” discussed in “The Masked Face”. We might’ve lived to see the unveiling of the Mask, to note whether some more or less benevolent countenance lay behind. But we’re born in the middle of the process, unable to understand the purpose of the Infinite in authoring our sufferings—and our joys, for that matter (Hardy, in “Hap”, imagines higher powers, randomly scattering bliss and pain around his “pilgrimage”). That’s our real tragedy, in Hardy’s view. We can but serve and die, doing a little good in the process, and hoping merely that someone else will finally learn what it was all about.

But Hardy didn’t just influence poets like Larkin—poignantly unhappy, while dedicated to muddling through. He also influenced W.H. Auden, a writer who knew all that Hardy knew about time, but also knew much more about Eternity. Auden called Hardy an ideal mentor for the inspiring poet—since Hardy used so many verse forms and meters, and also provides numerous instructive examples of a great poet’s lesser and awkwardly shaped efforts—and understood the negative lessons Hardy taught about time and death. As Auden writes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “The glacier knocks in the cupboard / And the desert sighs in the bed / And a crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But Auden also affirms a hope transcending time and space—which Hardy never really could, since the vague hope he does have is ultimately bound by time, occurring at the end of a historical process. In “In Praise of Limestone” Auden imagines a higher world where “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from / Having nothing to hide.” This is a far more specific hope than Hardy’s desire to see the Will somehow become aware of what’s happening on earth. Auden has absorbed Hardy’s teachings, while daring to leap beyond them—reaching, as a poet, the same kind of final reckoning that Hardy intuited but did not dare to attain.