Thursday, January 28, 2016

Metaphysics and the Common Cold

In the fog of a mid-winter cold, I find myself whistling "I Should Care," a lovely, insouciant ballad that establishes an atmosphere of emotional ambivalence from the opening line. It's been recorded many times since it was introduced by the Tommy Dorsey band in 1945 for the film Thrill of a Romance. In fact, it was recorded four times that first year. The young Frank Sinatra sang it, and it's a favorite of pianists, with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Barron among its many interpreters.

We might expect the opening line, which is also the song's title, to be followed before long by "... but I don't." yet further expressions of diffidence follow. The vocalist embroiders the theme with, "I should go around weeping...I should go without sleeping." She (or he) goes on to report that "...strangely enough I sleep well," though here a minor caveat is introduced: "except for a dream or two."

So does she care after all?

The contours of the tune work toward the same ambivalent effect. It's been described as "strongly chromatic, with several deceptive resolutions." My own untrained gloss would be that the tune is  slippery. It's not easy to whistle. The melody seems to drift off the mark, descending by slow steps through a harmonic field rich in melancholy and yearning.

What's really at issue here? It's a break-up, of course, and the last two lines fill in the story as the melody reverses direction, ascending to a high note:

"Maybe I won't find someone as lovely as you..."

Mistakes made, love lost, self-protective indifference. keeping a stiff upper lip. The challenge lies, I think, in making the song sound light and wistful, before it finally folds back on itself to reveal its emotional core.

"But I should care ... and I do."

My favorite rendering is a recent version by the Italian vocalist Diana Torto with the Kenny Wheeler Big Band. Her voice is playful, maybe a little coy. And the big band sound that follows immediately upon the final confession, "...and I do." carries an explosion of romantic feeling, though the musicians are nevertheless obliged at that point to follow the descent of the chart into melancholy ambivalence once again.

Yes, I should care. Well, caring is what people do. The social fabric consists of myriad threads of affection, loyalty, enthusiasm, duty, and heartfelt concern. Some are reciprocal, others not. In any case, such connections serve as the foundation of our self esteem and the burden of our days. We care instinctively because we find natural affinities all around us—loved ones, friends, exciting events and activities, beautiful works of art. The cultivation of such things is what give our lives body and direction. But we also care because we know we should. To turn away from someone in need would be a crime, a transgression against humanity, a betrayal of our nobler selves.

Yet we do turn away, every time we drive past a panhandler at a freeway exit, for example. We might feel bad about it, yet hold back due to a calculus of sympathies by which we overlay both our fellow-feeling and our suspicious streak with a skein of tightly reasoned arguments as to what the most effective distribution of our charitable resources might be.

Powerball winner Roy Cockrum tells the story of a time when he was in holy orders, and handed out cash to a homeless person who had turned up at the monastery gates. One of the senior brothers pointed out that there would be a line of people the next day, after word got around, and then he would be able to help nobody. "That is where I was trained that boundaries are essential," he said. "There are people in need all over the world. I hear from such people every day. Every day. But without boundaries, I have nothing left."

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that Jesus envisioned a universe where loved ones and abject strangers are treated alike—an odd vision, if you ask me, which expands but also dilutes the meaning of the word "love." Love is a preferential thing, an act of judgment and discovery, inexplicable and profound. Happy is the man (or woman) who has succeeded in developing a social universe rich of such reciprocal pleasures and obligations, shared values and interests.

One of the values active in such a world should be to extend those pleasures to individuals who have never had the benefit of such an environment. Though it's only one element among many, we love and admire people due to the breadth of their compassion.  

I was thumbing through Jean-Paul Sartre's youthful novel, Nausea, the other day, in the course of another errand, and I came upon a passage near the end of the book where the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, is desperate. He's lost interest in everything, his friends bore him, and he finds himself withering:

Now when I say “I,” it seems hollow to me. I can’t manage to feel myself very well, I am so forgotten. The only real thing left in me is existence which feels it exists. I yawn, lengthily. No one. Antoine Roquentin exists for no one. That amuses me. And just what is Antoine Roquentin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin . . . and suddenly the “I” pales, pales, and fades out.

This is a classic existential lament, gussied up with abstractions but also harboring a truly poetic element. I was impressed by it when I was in high school. It struck a chord.

 ... Outside there were streets, alive with known smells and colors. Now nothing is left but anonymous walls, anonymous consciousness. That is what there is: walls, and between the walls, a small transparency, alive and impersonal. Consciousness exists as a tree, as a blade of grass. It slumbers, it grows bored. Small fugitive presences populate it like birds in the branches. Populate it and disappear. Consciousness forgotten, forsaken between these walls, under this grey sky. 

In the same year that Nausea appeared (1937), Sartre's one-time teacher and elder contemporary, Gabriel Marcel, described a similar metaphysical uneasiness more analytically in an essay with the heady title, "Value and Immortality."  

It seems to me probable that metaphysics amounts to nothing else but the activity by which we define an uneasiness and manage partially (and, moreover, mysteriously) if not to remove it at least to transpose and trans­mute it, so that far from paralyzing the higher life of the spirit it tends rather to strengthen and maintain it... . To be uneasy is to be uncertain of one’s centre, it is to be in search of one’s own equilibrium ... If I am uneasy about the health of one of my relatives it means that the apprehension I feel on their account tends to destroy my inward stability ... Uneasiness is the more metaphysical the more it con­cerns anything which cannot be separated from myself without the annihilation of this very self.

Marcel sums up these observations in the following terms:

A secret voice which I cannot silence assures me in fact that if others are not there, I am not there either. I cannot grant to myself an existence of which I suppose others are deprived; and here “I cannot” does not mean “I have not the right”, but rather “It is impossible for me.” If others vanish from me, I vanish from myself.

In their different ways, Sartre and Marcel expose an obvious truth: the interconnectedness of beings and the fundamental role played by the threads of the social fabric in our sense of ourselves. But the word "social" might be out of place here, in so far as it connotes norms and conventions that don't necessarily answer to our deepest personal need for connection, for recognition.

Sartre went on to fashion a career out of dissecting alienation, shame, and other attenuated states of mind, while Marcel explored the more complex dialectic at work in mature relationships. But be that as it may, I find it intriguing that at the end of Nausea, when the protagonist is at his wit's end, feeling that he has neither past nor future, he gets a lift from a recording he hears of a woman (Bessie Smith?) singing a jazz number:

Some of these days
You'll miss me, honey

He sees glimmers of salvation in the recording; he's moved by it, and he celebrates the efforts of the singer and also the songwriter, whom he envisions sweltering in the summer heat as he pens the tune on the twenty-first floor of a New York skyscraper.

She sings. So the two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Maybe they thought they were lost irrevocably, drowned in existence.

The metaphysics of caring can get a little thick—to the point of hysteria and cliché. Let me give you an example that might be easier to relate to: that cold I was talking about. My head is full of cotton and I don't really care about anything. I can lie on the couch for half an hour without being bored or thinking about anything. Nor is this a condition of Zen-like attentiveness. Rather, it's a condition of vacuity. And the little voice that would normally being urging me to get up and do something, or questioning my ambition, my sense of self, is silent.

But a few minutes ago I stepped to the window, looked out at the melting snow on the yew bushes just outside, and felt a flicker of emotion. I could feel my eyes, my self, reaching out more actively to things I've always cared about—the passing birds, the beauty of the morning. I could feel myself becoming active and engaged again.    

I guess caring about a yew bush isn't such a big deal. But you've got to start somewhere.

In the last two days, I've given two ninety-minute talks about travel to audiences totaling more than two hundred people. I did it because I said I would, and I said I would because I thought people might enjoy it. I also enjoy it--enjoy spinning narratives on the fly, guided only by the images I'm projecting on the screen. Small town restaurants, the glory of the mountains, oceans, and deserts, long frigid nights in the tent, the smell of sage in the air, the interesting people you meet along the way. Those attending seemed to enjoy this kind of story-telling, too. After the second talk, which was open to the public, a woman came up to me and said, "Will you be teaching your Minnesota course again next year?"

"Well, I don't know," I replied. "That's a long ways off."

"I hope you do," she said. "I wanted to take it this year, but it filled up in ten minutes."  

Would any purpose be served in distinguishing between things we care for (which are people, animals, and plants) and things we care about, such as coin collecting or cross-country skiing? I don't think so. More interesting, perhaps, would be to examine the difference between things we care about naturally and instinctively, and those we care about because we think we should. Alongside the joyous interest we would place the troubled concern of which Marcel speaks, and the obligatory efforts that a thinker like Kant might urge us to undertake, driven by a sense of duty. 

Somewhere therein lies a zone of anguished soul-searching, and also an abiding mystery with transcendental overtones—both easily obscured, if not entirely obliterated, by the arrival of a common cold.

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