On Rivers of Man
I found myself running parallel to a river this afternoon. As is the case most days, I spent the first couple miles determining whether I was running away or running toward something. The question is never sufficiently answered, which may account for my inclination to keep running.
The river was there as it always is, either low or high, slow moving or a torrent. A Greek remarked many centuries ago that one can never enter the same stream twice. Little did he fathom the possibility of an engineered river whose oscillations were more regular than the lunar phases. A small dock I passed was suspended, twisted and deformed, laying in mud, indicating that the engineers upstream had neglected to release water over the spillway.
My run came to an interlude when I noticed a gaggle of geese furiously struggling upstream, their forward motion impeded by the current. They were stuck in that abyss between desire and friction, a momentary occasion in which a mental determination and a physical law are at once in-congruent. “I know the feeling,” I remarked to myself. “Take flight. Why don’t they take flight?” The sky hung low, the clouds just barely caressing the tops of the trees. “Can they not see that they may take flight?” The geese continued their struggle with futility until one impassioned fowl broke free and started a slow advance from the gaggle. The others honked out of either frustration or encouragement. It must have been frustration. They had given up. Turning themselves inward, the remaining gaggle drifted toward my side of the river, rapidly paddling to make the shore without losing ground. They wadded ashore, shaking the water from their feathers. The one alone kept straight upriver.
I watched these pathetic creatures a few moments. My presence they regarded with a very conspicuous indifference. They waddled along the shore, upstream, all the while honking to the remaining bird still paddling against the current. I wondered if these birds had forgotten that they can fly. As I wondered about the birds, I began to wonder about the human being. A remarkable metaphor of mankind indeed these birds evinced.
There will come a time, many centuries from now, if G-d himself has not yet had his say, that historians will remark of modernity what I remarked of the flightless birds. It is certain that the geese have their own reasons for remaining grounded in this instance, but mankind seems to have forgotten not only about his capabilities, what he may accomplish, but why it must be accomplished, with what he has. He has forgotten he even has wings.
Future historians are now nodding, genially sharing observations of the last 250 years of western civilization. This period is a remarkable testament, they may may say, etched in stone and canvassed across the digital landscape, of the capacity of man to contrive and believe that which he could never specify. Where were they when He created them from the dirt? Apparently everywhere. For the better part of three centuries, human beings became obsessed with their capacity to describe themselves until the exercise became a codified science, replete with just so stories and ego and ids floating about where there were once souls and matter, marking the only point in science in which Ockham’s razor was very enthusiastically reversed, and blunted. Later came phrenology, with its parts and operators and mechanical whims, then cognitive science, then behaviorism with its inputs and salivary sloppiness. And it all came to nothing; the human sciences insofar as the are performed by humans are unable, axiomatically, to account for themselves, leaving a larger chasm than that which they were supposed to close. A few centuries from now, the propagators of social theory and psychology, if there still remains such attenuated assumptions and people who cherish them, will remark with an indignant certainty that, by G-d, they had seen it all along.
Indeed, they will continue, the Gothic cathedrals of the human soul we so frenetically created, with their spires reaching heights at which it became useless to build, added obscurity to where there was once nothing to obscure. That was the goal, they continue, to complicate the affairs of man to such a degree as to paralyze him. And it was a great success. Human beings at the turn of the twentieth century had become so exhausted by their own explanations that they stopped caring much about their existence at all.
Surely, admits the historian, we must suppose that the social sciences ended when 9 year old children began to commit suicide; when Europeans began aiding suicide for the individuals suffering with “severe psychological distress”, we can mark that point as they era in which psychology had not only failed to explain the soul but had admitted that any clinical relief was either ineffectual or inefficient. Either way, we may suppose that the discipline began its decline when its once lofty goal of aiding people out of mental anguish became one in which it justified nearly every behavioral abnormality.
The wings of man had been clipped indefinitely. For if we are to suppose that he may fly, we must first have concrete design standards for wings.
Society itself, the historian will drone, became one of a mediocre paddling against an ever strengthening current. The ascent of apathy coincided, if not created, the ascent of a libertine meddling. Many westerners of the period grabbed hold of very inane and antiquated ideas of progress and supposed them new. We look back now on the argument for abortion as a recapitulation of Sparta’s institutionalized infanticide. They did not. When historians of the 20th century calculated the life expectancy of the average Greek, they included infanticide in their permutations, decreasing life expectancy. This 20th century progressives regarded with a snide degree of confidence that something had gone right. We now use the same method for calculating their life expectancy, for we have abandoned the regressive idea that a baby killed in the womb is somehow ontologically distinct from a baby killed a few minutes after birth. There was always a spooky mysticism about when murder was murder then. The life expectancy in 2013, with in utero infanticide taken into account, was 50 years of age, about what it was at the height of Hellenic culture.
And the remarkable part is that we considered this period as one of ever sure progress. Concordant, in the spirit of the times, every tradition of the west which had assured its continuity became an object of derision. At some point people became aware of the fact that a once religious institution was now being mediated by a secular court. And the religious tradition itself was no longer permitted in any public venue. From this public space, then, came the vituperation against the western religious tradition, a circumstance only eerie in that no one really noticed what was happening. Though, the secular state did at some point decide that it was going to mandate religious imperatives, charity, in the absence of any real coherent worldview.
Mankind exhausted itself in its own contradictions, much like masochistic flightless birds in a river.
As a very rough conceptualization of what is above swirled about my brain, I looked again at the bird still in the river. He had advanced a little farther and the angle of sight revealed the wake the creature was creating on the surface. It wasn’t the wake of progress, it was the wake of a febrile uselessness, a self denigrating angst.
It only took a moment and one. The bird who had been still paddling, unfurled its wings, flapping in one burst and throwing its body into the air, it took off, honking hysterically. The birds still waddling honked themselves and took to the sky in pursuit.