Monday, September 12, 2011

We Sell the World to Buy Fire

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

- Wendell Berry

Todd May:

If a life has a trajectory, then it can be conceived narratively. A human life can be seen as a story, or as a series of stories that are more or less related. This does not mean that the person whose life it is must conceive it or live it narratively. I needn’t say to myself, “Here’s the story I want construct,” or, “This is the story so far.” What it means rather is that, if one reflected on one’s life, one could reasonably see it in terms of various story lines, whether parallel or intersecting or distinct.

...In an earlier column for The Stone, I wrote that we are currently encouraged to think of ourselves either as consumers or as entrepreneurs. We are told to be shoppers for goods or investors for return. Neither of these types of lives, if they are the dominant character of those lives, strike me as particularly meaningful. This is because their narrative themes — buying, investing — are rarely the stuff of which a compelling life narrative is made.

...In what I have called an age of economics, it is even more urgent to ask the question of a meaningful life: what it consists in, how we might live one. Philosophy cannot prescribe the particular character of meaning that each of us should embrace. It cannot tell each of us individually how we might trace the trajectory that is allotted to us. But it can, and ought to, reflect upon the framework within which we consider these questions, and in doing so perhaps offer a lucidity we might otherwise lack. This is as it should be.

You know me; I'm all about the whole life-as-narrative thing. Searching for meaning outside the material concerns of buying and selling tends to lead one into an airy-fairy, mushy-gushy discussion of spirituality, though. And honestly, there are plenty of consumer products that facilitate my ability to live a meaningful life. Ferzample, I'm the kind of person who never used a cellphone except when absolutely essential, certainly not for just calling someone up to shoot the breeze while driving home. Why, I may have even been known to sneeringly remix George Carlin's remark about pagers when the topic of cellphones came up, saying that they were "electronic leashes, one more way for your controllers to control you, one more sign that your life belongs to someone else." Yet when I saw how having a smartphone enabled me to be involved in the world of independent bookselling in my free time, it was an easy choice to make to get one. You can sound your barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world; I'll take a quiet, domesticated existence browsing contentedly on the computer and in libraries and secondhand stores.

People have always lived lives dominated by economic concerns. Idealists have been complaining about the corrosive influence of Mammon for quite some time now. So it's worth remembering that the luxury of being able to travel just about anywhere in order to pursue an occupation tailored to your exacting preferences is a very recent one, and the problem of being tempted to spend disposable income on consumer goods is a pretty nice problem to have. A lifestyle that fits somewhere between Epicureanism and voluntary simplicity works well enough for me without veering into otherworldly asceticism.