Cosmopolitan universalism (often to the point of no longer regarding oneself as Jewish) and clannish separatism are the extremes. In between is a spectrum of compromises, degrees of more or less permeable participation in the polyglot world while still holding oneself to be Jewish. (It goes without saying that other people who care about such things will regard you as Jewish regardless of how you slice it, as many patriotic, Goethe-revering Germans realized too late. I am grateful to be living in the rare time and place where I can say, “That’s their problem.” I don’t take it for granted. But neither am I persuaded to say “Got the name, might as well have the game.”)
I was the cosmopolitan universalist who no longer identified as Jewish until, as I wrote on Ambivablog, I discovered that . . . nothing could be more Jewish! (Here’s the full George Steiner piece that brought that home. The link to it in the blog post leads to a paywall. And here’s the Hillel Halkin article I quote in the update.) It’s a Moebius strip; there’s no getting off it. OK.
Now, in a Sunday New York Times article about Lab/Shul, a “god-optional” mobile community/performance/ritual thingie comparable to an “emergent church,” its originator, a 44-year-old, gay rabbinical student named Amichai Lau-Lavie, again states the two poles succinctly. Here’s the one I identify with:
What matured in me is the sense that Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line . . . That it is a tool in our toolbox for human well-being and being helpful beings, and that there is a difference between many people who really view Judaism or religion as the end goal: In other words, keep the Sabbath or marry a Jew so the Jewish story continues. That’s of course how I grew up. I realized that that’s missing the point.
I’m not flying Delta because I’m interested in Delta. I’m flying Delta because it’s convenient or I got the miles on it. The idea is to get somewhere. I’m practicing Judaism because that’s my airline, because I was born into it and I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life, but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.
(Except that Judaism isn’t even my airline. It’s the one I flew in on, but I fly on a variety of carriers nowadays . . . and sometimes I just flap my arms.) And here’s Lau-Lavie’s (admittedly biased and condescending) take on the other pole:
The pews are filling with people who just want some structure . . . ‘Just tell me what to do. Give me order in the chaos.’ In an age in which we have more and more privileges and choices, the allure of a system that tells you what to do and what not to do, and what to wear and what to eat, and the consequences and limits of your choices, for some mental types, is essential. I get it. It’s a suspension of disbelief in its deepest sense. I’m judgmental of it and I have a lot of respect for it.
We have both poles in my extended family, and a lot of the spectrum in between. We even all get along.
But you have to go over to A Cold Eye to read it.
. . . that even a materialist could love?
I’m not a convinced materialist (that takes belief, and I am not a believer of any kind—I’m as pure an agnostic as you’ll find), but I’m immersed in science all day long and so I am conversant with its core belief, which is—crudely put—that only what has a demonstrable physical, material basis is real. Let’s take that as our premise just for the moment, without taking it as truth or untruth.
We all have odd thoughts sometimes, and what follows was one of mine. It was spurred by hearing about someone who, late in his own life, had quite convincing hallucinatory conversations with his deceased wife. And more than one person my age who has said that it was only when their second parent died that they lost them both. And the truism, maybe especially a secular Jewish one, that memory is our immortality.
What if that’s literally true?
Another ingredient in this thought is having copyedited a book about the Singularity, the techno-geek fantasy that machines will bring us immortality (it’s been called “the Rapture for nerds”). Various mechanisms are imagined, but one of them is transferring our consciousness into a silicon substrate, a deathless machine. I am extremely skeptical of this and think it’s basically a religious hope of escape from death transferred lock, stock, and barrel onto science, but that’s beside my point here.
Which is: What if we actually transfer at least a part of our consciousness into another brain?
That seems less of a stretch than transferring it into the alien medium of silicon. And love is the technology of transfer. Longtime couples, besides sharing a lot of experiences, certainly incorporate parts of each other’s outlook into themselves. “Becoming one flesh” might be a metaphor not only for feeling one another’s joy or pain, but for an identification intimate enough to incorporate some of each other’s cognitive traces. When one dies, then, maybe some aspects of their consciousness literally live on in the other’s brain.
Just putting it out there. When I listen to jazz, it feels like Jacques is listening through me.
Cross-posted on A Cold Eye
Yesterday I read this op-ed by Sherry Turkle about how we can no longer simply think or sense or experience or converse without interrupting ourselves to make a record with a device: we miss the experience in the process of “capturing” it, documenting it.
I don’t really think this is so different from what we’ve always done, either mentally in the form of inner chatter (what meditators try to stop), or externally by keeping journals or sketchbooks. Let’s just say our acquisitiveness has become more visible; in our attempts to grasp elusive experience and compel the moment to seem more real, less dreamlike, we’ve invented a newer, faster, shinier mousetrap. “Better,” well, that can be debated.
In response or no, I left my iPhone behind last night (not for the first time) when I came over to my parents’ house for dinner. The camera is one of the aspects of the gadget I have the least-mixed feelings about. It has enabled me to take some wonderful pictures, and I’m not even a photographer. But I do sometimes get busier capturing the sunset than experiencing it.
After dinner my parents sat down in front of the PBS NewsHour, aptly dubbed “The Snooze” because it’s their excuse for a post-prandial nap. Just as the show rolled into a long feature on whether brain-training videogames can keep you sharp as you age, my mom (90) slumped forward over her baby-blanket knitting (3 more great-grandchildren coming in March!!), and my dad (almost 96) had his head thrown back with his mouth open. The coincidence of sound and scene positively cried out for documentation. (My parents still have their wits in both senses, so I can confidently say that they would find it funnier than we do.)
But I didn’t have my phone. So I decided to do something quaint: try to draw them. (I’m even less of an artist than a photographer.) They did not stir as I tiptoed out of the room and back in with paper and pencil. Long story short, I couldn’t begin to get their faces—it was severely humbling even to try—but I didn’t do too badly with their hands.
I’ve pretty much decided — no, I’ve decided to bail out of Facebook.
In brief, I find it (have always found it) aesthetically ugly — to quote myself, “It’s like meeting your friends in an airport concourse: I can smell the synthetic carpet, spun of formaldehyde.” It’s also emptily addictive. Others have written knowledgeably about the little hit of dopamine — which is not about reward but craving, anticipation — that our brains get from each little instance of human connection or admiring attention for our wit or whatever: the promise without the delivery. I’ve linked to those articles on Facebook (!), I’m not going to hunt them up again now. I’m not going to research this. But the point is that Facebook substitutes for more substantial kinds of expression and connection, and can stealthily begin to replace them. It becomes like living on potato chips: you lose your appetite for anything else, but you don’t feel nourished.
What’s seductive about it is that it is quick and easy in a time when none of us seems to have any time. Brevity is seductive for good reasons (thus the success of Twitter, where many people do their hanging out): there are many things that, if you can’t say them in 140 characters or less, you really shouldn’t bother saying. (That’s not true of everything, though. “Give me the wisdom to know the difference.”) Brief updates are fun. The illusion of communality is another big draw. We are tribal animals leading far-flung lives, and Facebook makes you feel like you can find many of your friends in one “place,” and pick up the essential news and gossip that you need to know, like people used to at the well, or the country store. It’s genius, really, to lure us in with these simulacra of deep old goods, and then “farm” our “likes” and sell us stuff. We are cattle being raised for cash in a feedlot with virtual-reality goggles of green pastures. But every once in a while you feel the standardized narrowness of your stall.
Facebook makes us lazy, or I should say, it makes me lazy. (Some people will relate and some will not.) It becomes too much hassle to make a date to see someone, even in the same city, when you feel you’re sufficiently in touch because you meet on Facebook. It becomes too much hassle to write a blog post (how ironic to think of that as a feature of the “good old days”), and certainly too much hassle to go read one. More ominously, it becomes an annoying distraction to deal with a relationship (even with one’s cat) that is crying out for attention, or to wash the dishes, or to look for work. (Such reversed priorities are symptoms of addiction.) But these are worthwhile things we used to do, and maybe we felt we had more time, back then. Was that cause or was it effect? We certainly had more three-dimensional challenge and more substantial satisfaction.
There’s a lot I won’t like missing: pictures of my friends’ and cousins’ babies (I’m talking about you, Alisanne Korologos, Jonathan Geis, Nicole Constandis Twohig, Patrick Martin, Andrea Flynn); pictures of my friends’ pictures (that’s you, Albert Mitchell); flurries of fun and funny responses to something I’ve posted, making me feel I’m not in an isolation chamber on the moon; good articles I’m glad someone pointed out to me. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s feed (but I know how to find his notebook, which he links to). Comically, I’ll miss pressing a button to “like” something (though I often missed pressing a button to “hate” something). It will be more work to write a private e-mail or (gasp) an actual letter, make a date or a phone call, follow the media and blogs where those good articles and posts crop up. But I used to do all those things! How has Facebook made them seem too much of a bother?! I was having a better time when I was doing all that “work.” Some of my most valued friends aren’t on Facebook at all, and I manage to stay in touch with them.
I feel better already, and I’m not even all the way off Facebook yet.
And I’m not going to link this on Facebook. I’m not asking you to or not to. I just feel better (if lonelier) for not going there myself.
I’ll be here. If anyone wants to come over and not just comment but post, let me know and I’ll make you a set of keys. Some of you already have them.
I can’t express my loving tribute to him better than in this 1996 review, even though it is critical of an instance in which he fell short of his best. He set such a high mark. How sad to lose him.