Friday, April 30, 2010
First the story, then the application.
I have told this story many times, I am like like a child demanding of myself, "tell it again, tell it again!". I love this story.
A couple years ago I was in my wife's house in Hungary, looking through a bag full of manuscripts when I realized I didn't have a copy of a little book I'd written right after I quit school. I had 500 copies printed, and sold nearly all of them in Westwood Village. The police chased me away after about a week.
I looked on a couple Internet sites selling used books, and counted 14 copies of the book for sale, beginning at $60 and going up to $250. Why the high price? Who would buy the book that hadn't met me? A comment on the book posted on Amazon explained everything.
A writer of extremely violent and fairly popular crimes novels had chosen as his pen-name what was my real name, and my book had been discovered by readers and book dealers as his unknown, rare first novel. He had died, so was not in a position to refuse the honor. The book was said to be a prized possession in the collection of a well known crime writer.
I had become the ghost writer of my own book.
But the story gets stranger. I had known someone was writing books in my name for years. I had even read a short essay posted on the Internet in which the writer tells how shortly after college he had travelled in Europe buying and selling old watches between other dealers. This I myself had done, along with not more than a dozen other people in all of Europe, all more or less known to me. The sharer of my name, according to an obituary I read, loved to play practical jokes. He had played one on me. Then the world of books played one on him.
By the way, the name of my book was "Haunts".
I like this story so much because two people with their entirely separate lives meet in a public way, both anonymously and personally. It is an expression of public spirit, how private worlds meets and benefit each other in a real but unexplainable way.
Here is the application, some thoughts on why we will never be able to think our way into a perfect society.
The only time we can feel ourselves whole or see another person as a whole is when we love. Love is a ritual in miniature, a return to the happy presence or pleased thought of someone we know and are known by.
When we think about how to make a perfect society, if it is to be a society where people love each other, it will have to be a place where there is a ritual of the whole unlimited thing that is everyone doing things forever. That clearly is impossible. Rituals and returns are practiced in particular times and places.
Societies can be organized by philosophers to make the best of roughly divided parts of ourselves, to make the best of our reasoning, willing, pleasures. But no matter how much we get of these partial things we will never feel at home. Democratic government can arrange compromises between groups furthering in balance each of the interests of the different partially satisfying types, but nothing insures the common interest will be acted upon, nothing insures the government won't fail, nothing hinders the state from becoming a place where people lose themselves in their strictly defined social roles, exercise power for its own sake, destroy themselves searching for extremes of pleasure.
We will however be able to live our way into a more perfect society if we allow many different religions or factions to flourish, each of which leaves room for a public religion that is no more than the recognition that each faction has its place: without these separate homes, places to return to, democracy is impossible. Public life is loved as something necessary, and also good, since the communication outside the group, talk in the public spirit brings with it all the partial satisfactions as well: it teaches us to reason, it is a place of striving, and of pleasure too.
We can't say why our own family is as it is, we learned the rules as children. But living among people of so many different traditions we are forced to keep our eyes open. If we are wise, we debate which of all ways are best. When we make friends and get married, we are establishing new traditions, but since we've stayed wide awake this time we can say how they came about. The romance in life is in our stories. And people who live romantic lives, in which traditions are established looking for something good, are the good people without which democracies cannot survive.