Recollected in tranquility


Over at Troutsky’s blog, I ran into a blogger named KulturCritic who is concerned that we, human beings, that is, have lost something valuable from our paleolitithic kin-relationship days and are the slaves of our own creation, the time-production-history schtick.  I like to make fun of him for being a wild-eyed utopian, but I share a bit of his sensibility, as any reader of my posts on the “International Work Machine” can tell.  Well, I found myself feeling more sympatico with his posts as I walked home from work on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan yesterday.

Wordsworth thought of  poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I am no poet, so what can I do to communicate my occasional epiphanies?  Should I bother, or will I simply produce some tired, trite prose?  Brace yourself…

Why does anyone do anything, I often ask myself.  All the effort people expend, physical and emotional, on stuff, things I just can’t invest in.  People want to build something, or accumulate something, which is a sort of building, building a pile.  Money, power, sex, a string of lovers, an organization at your beck and call, an enormous portfolio of funds?  In the end…

What do they do with it?  How does it make them feel?  How would it make me feel?  You can only buy so much, and one thing at a time.  Eat one dinner, drink one wine, make love to one woman at a time.  (Even a menage requires attention to one at each separate moment.) When all is available to you, is there any thrill in acquisition?  When we grow old and feeble, do we look back on our glory days as manager-honcho and think, “Those were great days, they made me..,” what???  It just passes away.  It’s as if it never happened.

So, as Pascal might have pointed out, everything we do to accumulate is based on the illusion that things, in our lives, do accumulate, that there is more than the fleeting moment.  Really, everything we do is just motion and action to pass the time of day, divertissement, to make the trip from birth to death more pleasant.  Just as we might, if we care, try to make the lives of our pet dogs and cats pleasant.

This is no cause for despair or sadness – it’s just how it is.  Things like culture, art, literature, philosophy, which some see as having transcendent value are simply more “entertainments.” Most people live without them.  That is, everyone has culture, but not high culture, and what is culture in the general sense, other than a framework for helping us get through the day?

We might as well recognize this, and when we do, most things in our world seem pretty shallow and stupid, and what’s left to hang onto is the other people around us, the similarly lost souls, drifting on the sea of time, mindless of its true nature.  So we might as well be nice to one another.  We might as well expend our mental energy on fathoming the minds around us, instead of planning ahead, scheming, working, and building silly intellectual systems that pretend that there is some ultimate meaning to any of our ideas.  The future does not matter, in most essentials, it’s like the past.  The basic structure of life never changes.  Progress, or history in that sense, is a mistaken idea.

Is it easy to think these thoughts when I am comfortable and well fed?  Easier than being poor in this world, certainly.  But long ago, those ancient humans for whom acquiring food, clothing and shelter was not so simple…Maybe these thoughts came more easily to them since it was so obvious what was important.  Maybe the complexity we have created for ourselves has made it harder, globally, to think these thoughts.

Well, that’s what I thought, anyway, although it seemed more important at the time.  And below, you will find links to some related posts of mine, if you have more time to waste:


9 Responses to Recollected in tranquility

  1. mark says:

    Oh, I don’t think this is a waste of time. Really it is the great question. Reminding ourselves of this from time to time is important.

    So what is the whole point of life – at one level it is to satisfy our programmed desires, and apart from the necessities for survival, I have got no further than that we engage with some version of:

    eternal physicial life (children)
    eternal spiritual life (religion), and
    eternal cultural life (fame)

    Almost anyone can do the first, and anyone can do the second. Apparently there is a religion centre in the brain, so both one and two are programmed needs. The third is a bit trickier. I suppose fame is a cultural product arising out of the quest for status which is associated with physical reproduction. Maybe fame also accompanies one’s children, enhancing their reproductive success.

    Anyhow these three elements can be found in the Symposium and other works. In fact they can be found in every newspaper.

    But, I hear you ask, so what! They are all futile anyhow. True – I am just outlining three very basic things we appear to be biologically programmed to do to engage with our continuation beyond death.

    So, the ultimate purpose? We can maybe just hope that by keeping ourselves alive as a species we might one day uncover something true and meaningful. We are really probably just in a holding pattern, hoping like hell that all this frenetic madness will eventually (who knows when?) be understood. Our engagement with eternity keeps us going on the daily level. More broadly, we are still young, and for the moment, like children, just playing along with the game because we can. So we fuck, accumulate wealth, and worship, hoping our children’s children’s children might know why on earth we did it all.

    Alternatively, of course, 42. But see

  2. lichanos says:

    Reminding ourselves of this from time to time is important.

    I think about it all the time, but usually in a rather dry, intellectual manner. (That’s why I never accomplish anything.) This time, it hit me in the gut.

    So what is the whole point of life – at one level it is to satisfy our programmed desires…

    I guess I don’t really care about the point of life – just trying to figure out a…stance to take towards it…

  3. kulturcritic says:


    What can I say? I believe you have well expressed one of those moments when the invented race of time and history stand still. For a brief moment you uncover that difference, that primal otherness from your normal experience of cultural belonging; and this jolt cracks open an ancient doorway, to something more visceral that over generations was left behind and forgotten in this madness we call civilization.

    Great articulation of your experience.

  4. mark says:

    Sounds trite, but for me the stance is not much more than making some kind of contribution to that greater good (or happiness!). For me that is study, writing, and my current paid job. It’s all a shot in the dark really. I imagine that in the long run there might be some value to it if it help us get from here to there in slightly better shape than if I had done nothing.

    I don’t know if we left anything behind, or whether we are just becoming… Again, we are so young.

    • lichanos says:

      I have trouble seeing how I make any contribution to the greather good, except by virtue of having a family that is more like the one I would have liked to have grown up in than the one I did grow up in, and by occasionally amusing my friends and co-workers. I flatter myself sometimes that I have had some sort of positive impact on some of the younger people I meet now and then. That would be enough.

  5. troutsky says:

    You don’t get to know your “impact” so I assume it exists ( just to be on the safe side). I disagree with Marks “religion center” of the brain and think this kind of thinking leads to forced lobotomies! I think you, Lichanos, mistakenly attach a neutral character to culture and that you need a project. I know! Egalitarianism!

  6. kulturcritic says:

    Yes, Troutsky is correct, the idea that religion is central to the constitution of humanity would only serve to confuse what is recent and cultural with what is primal and instinctual. Humanity is not ‘ab origine’ a religious creature; rather, religion is a creation of ‘man’ for the purposes of manipulation, control and conquest.

    And if anyone tries to rebut this by claiming that man was religious long before civilization emerged, I would suggest that the precivilized sense of identity and integration with nature (including production of Venus figurines) by our earliest ancestors was not a religious expression in our sense of ‘religion’.

    Actually, religion, science, politics and economics, as distinct concerns of humanity, only emerged with the birth of agriculture and urban culture.

  7. mark says:

    And your blog, don’t forget your blog!

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