The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Could He have tried a bit harder?

In Faustian style, the dream is one of infinite achievement. There is an American hymn which praises God as "the greatest Achiever of all". (Glancing around the world He created, one wonders whether He couldn't have tried a bit harder.) Americans are encouraged to believe that you can crack it if only you put your mind to it: this takes too little account of the frailty of the flesh, but it also overlooks the human capacity for self-destruction - the fact that even the most robust of achievers may be secretly in love with failure.

- Terry Eagleton, in a review of America, America
At the risk of sounding like a modern-day Panglosse, if were on a Heavenly Earth, it would not be as pretty as things could be. Human determination in the face of adversity is far more beautiful than any snow-capped mountain or shimmering sea. One can be intelligent, successful, generous and handsome. Fine. If you were born with those qualities you hardly deserve any laurels. If you've been in the gutter, a wretch and a wreck, and risen, risen above the shit to a higher state... That struggle, in itself, is greater than the end state.

We are only as beautiful as we were wretched.

As to "the frailty of the flesh"... Human beings have their limits. To one's mind, other human beings can be reduced to statistics. An individual cannot live as a number however. He must live and act in the belief that he is free. Determinism, even if it is in some philosophical sense true, can subjectively only serve as an excuse for inaction. A reason to say, "I can do nothing, it is out of my hands."

There is no excuse for inaction. The fact is, and even ruthless pessimism can only support this thought, whatever you are trying to do you could be doing it better. The only question is knowing how to do it better. That only requires informing oneself, which we can all do: you can ask someone for advise, you can open a book, you can read a trade journal, you can phone an expert, you can try harder, try something different, experiment.

This doesn't mean buying into all that particularly American liberal bollocks about we all being self-made men, and we all bearing the horrific angst of personal responsibility for our failings and, almost as bad, the inane bourgeois belief that at bottom the inequalities and privilege in our society is due to the fact that that X is smarter/more industrious/better than Y. It is merely to say: something can, and must, always be done.


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