Friday, May 5, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Ascending Higher

Life of the Individual1:11
“Happy is the man…”

“And yet if class has become visible again, it is only in its grossest outlines—mainly, that is, in terms of income levels—and to the degree that manners and style of life are perceived as relevant at all, it is generally in the crudest of terms. There is something in us, it would seem, which resists the idea of class. Even our novelists, working in a genre for which class has traditionally been a supreme reality, are largely indifferent to it—which is to say, blind to its importance as a factor in the life of the individual.”

Norman Podhoretz [born in 1930],
 Making It (1967)

In an essay (“The Intellectual Bargain;” April 15, 2017), by Terry Teachout, in The New York Review of Books on Making It, by Norman Podhoretz, first published in 1967 and re-issued 50 years later, the writer sets the scene of what the son of working-class (or is it lower-class?) Jewish immigrants from Poland pursued at a certain time of America’s history; Teachout writes that this is not a conventional autobiography: “It is, rather, a book about the pursuit of ambition, a study of how certain Americans transform themselves in order to get ahead in the world.”

A part of the intellectual bargain to get ahead is the transformation of self, a willing partnership between student and teacher. This is done in accordance with the stated class requirements of your betters. Although Podhoretz says in this book that he had a desire to make it, he was unaware of class till much later on:
In my own case, the blindness to class always expressed itself in an outright and very often belligerent refusal to believe that it had anything to do with me at all. I no longer remember when or in what form I first discovered that there was such a thing as class, but whenever it was and whatever form the discovery took, it could only have coincided with the recognition that criteria existed by which I and everyone I knew were stamped as inferior: we were in the lower class. This was not a proposition I was willing to accept, and my way of not accepting it was to dismiss the whole idea of class as a prissy triviality.
Such was my view, marked by a quiet determination if not outright rejection of the established order of things, that is, until very recently. When I was growing up in the place that I was, there was the view that despite one’s origins, one by dint of effort and education, achieve great success. If there was a need to transform oneself to some of the ways of the majority culture, it was implicitly understood. But my father always reminded me and my brothers, Du bist a Yid, with all of its implications and meanings.

I knew this, but I also balanced this with the knowledge that I was also a Canadian, a Montrealer and a lover of all things American. I don’t remember thinking myself as inferior or unhappy due to where or how we lived; I do, however, remember wishing that our family had more money. If I had ambition, it was not discussed. It was silently understood that this was a requirement to fit in, to get ahead, to become a success.  

Interestingly, and although this is an aside, it is one worth mentioning. In Judaism, when one is called up to the Torah to recite a traditional blessing of thankfulness (“the Barechu”), this honor is called receiving an aliyah (Hebrew: עליה‎‎; ascent, going up). The person receiving the aliyah physically moves up to the bimah (Hebrew: בִּימָה; elevated place), a raised platform from where the Torah is read, and in doing so, it is said that he also receives a spiritual uplifting. In short, to move on up.

There is a good reason that the wealthiest area in Montreal is called Upper Westmount, with multi-million dollar mansions on top of the hill overlooking the city below. The view from Summit Circle is worthy of its name, worthy of the cost of ascension. The people residing inside can claim that they have “made it,” having the physical assets to show for it. But if they are happy, who knows? Do they ever go down the hill to rue Sherbrooke Ouest to Chalet Bar-B-Q or Villa du Souvlaki? They might, just to sample something different. Perhaps incognito.

For those who have a simple mind and poor abilities in accumulating wealth, which is most of us, one can always take comfort in knowing that this desire to “get ahead” has been held in check, that it has not overtaken one’s ethics and moral values and one’s sense of community. There has been no need to compromise; and there has been no need to make any of those grand bargains that always come at a high price. For this I am thankful.

This is not to say that I have escaped unease and burdens. Hardly so. There are many other kinds available to the rest of humanity. Comfort can easily be replaced by discomfort and anxiety. In my case, the lessons of the Holocaust have been ever-present. I thought this burden unfair, but I had no power to change it. I could not escape it, even as much as I tried in my desires and attempts, poor as they might be, in making my own way. This I learned much later in life.

While I still view class as a trivial accident of birth, it, however, resists being put down and put to rest. It springs up like a jack-in-the-box. It takes a less charming view of failure, viewing only success as important, now easily measured by such accounting standards as those that measure the wealth of corporations and of nations. It has a more practical side, if not a more ruthless one. We no longer reside, as in the 1970s, in a period of progression, but of regression. 

It is actually worse than it sounds, even as the burdens of the Holocaust are now one generation removed. Sure, life goes on, but it is repetitive and deterministic, as if one is locked in a bad dream, a nightmare with little chance of escape. The gods are either angry or bored, or both. Human relations are bereft of warmth and meaning, where opinion has replaced knowledge and understanding. Even beauty and goodness, what little there remains, although beguiling, offers only some comfort. So, what do we do?

We believe and act as if “life goes on,” which it invariably does, even as we keep our nervousness in check, since we have no choice. (“For help,” there are prescription drugs, so-called mood stabilizers, which have loads of side effects.) So, we anxiously tell our children how important it is to get a good education, so as to have a better chance of a good well-paying profession, so as to be in the best position possible to nurture a nice family—the perfect triad of a “good life.” 

Such is the desire for many, and as desires go, it’s a powerful enticing one, with all of the suggestions of meaning and happiness. Yet, can a good education and hard work alone prove enough to make it? I have my doubts, even as I write that this “good life” becomes even more desirable now than in my day, since everything else of meaning and importance has been taken away; yet, this becomes more difficult to achieve. 

What is left is the practical and the seizing of opportunity; and we are left to fight against entropy and the chaos it invites, whose purpose is to defeat us. Is it only the successful wealthy who can safely take a chance to pursue their dreams of becoming an intellectual, an artist, a writer? Yes, the comedy is evident for those who want to see it. Even these words look and sound strange today.

Even so, as much as there is evidence to support this assertion, there will always be a few individuals on the bottom rungs of society who will dare climb the ladder of success. There will always be an individual or two who will decide to live his life in accordance to his values. Such a person will not happily or willingly subsume his intellectual and moral ambitions into a meaningless void of acceptance, to a position where he comfortably resides in opposition to the “life of the individual.”

Or at least, I think and hope that this is the case, but who’s to really know the future? Certainly not this guy.

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