The Best of All Possible Worlds

I was sitting on a bench at Madison Park Beach, watching one seagull on the shore spread its wings above another to either fight or woo, thinking about materialism.

I spent the first half of college as a bitter nerd: listening to a lot of heavy music, sport-sparring with my nerd friends (about socialism, science fiction, our favorite bands), then killing them in multi-player Quake. We were boys, we worked hard, and we were persuaded of facts: “you’re not being objective.”

Objective: did you ever notice, bell hooks asks in her essay collection Teaching Community, that people who are most likely to claim to be objective (that is, to have the facts) are those most secure in their status, race, and social power? To have all the facts means you don’t have to listen.

“Factuality,” says the materialist: he means observation, results. Not the lamb’s “clothing of delight” but its 150 pounds of wool a year; not the stars “throwing down their spears” but their predictable November hardness, a product of air temperature. But when the materialist says “factuality,” what he also means, necessarily, is the phenomena of the senses. No temperature without skin, or scale without eyes to read it.

I’ve been a materialist before, and I might–hopefully rid, though, of any assurance that I have the facts–again. But is a materialist’s ground of belief any firmer than that of the idealist–who sees evidence of Mind, or things as strange as Mind, around her? (Emerson the idealist says the idealist affirms “facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them.”) Or who recognizes that what we see, we see through the achey, limber, hungry self-model supplied by the body?

Idealism makes me sincere (pious?). I’m comforted (you know the feeling) by being able to give comfort, to someone lonely or angry or miserable. I’ve meditated until I had my mind got so strange I felt like the top of my head was being twisted off. My girlfriend the idealist catches a sort of body-honoring when she sees someone stop in a diatribe to sneeze: “I love it when the body takes over.” An idealist, too, gets to live (or try) like she believes in the invisible world.

Idealism makes me trivial (forthright?). I ride in the rain with my raincoat wrapped around my dear Mac Book in my leaky satchel (rather than around me, so I get soaked in my sweater) and I don’t know: is it to make myself worthy of my toy later? Or to make more acute my pleasure at its safety? (Is it silly to call any exercise against maximizing comfort an exercise of idealism?)

Idealism could also make me terrible. Many people of an unattached, unearthly spirituality assure themselves that, whether they have access to truth or not, they at least will do no harm to the mysterious stuff of life; that they love too much life’s “dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements” (Wordsworth) to hurt it.

But isn’t this a deadly assumption? Anyone can do actual material harm, commit real cruelty, specifically in the grip of spiritual meaning. At the end of one of my favorite comics, John Porcellino’s Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, Porcellino (who I first blogged about here) describes driving down a marsh road at night, his truck spraying propelled BTI poison to kill larval insects.

By this point, his sensibility has already moved toward Buddhism and he’s having doubts about his work. But on this night drive, an owl begins to follow his truck, swinging low overhead like a vision or ghost. Porcellino is hypnotized. Only later does he realize that what was happening was not that he was privy to a vision of embodied Nature; what was happening was that he was poisoning the owl. Soon after, he quits.

Or that humming, multivalent ending to the John Updike story, “Pigeon Feathers.” In it a boy, David, is paralyzed by his fear of dying, frantic for proof of immortality. He’s given a rifle and told to kill a flock of pigeons in his family’s barn. He does it, with a coltish intense pleasure. Then, burying them, he feels their variegated, bright feathers and experiences a revelation: “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”