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Nouns, and Other Mischief

The following appeared originally in Eclectica Magazine.


Nothing is identical to anything else. Only the individual exists. The very words I use to make these assertions, the adjective “identical” and the common noun “individual,” are intellectual constructs, useful but artificial.

Children recognize, or at least assume, the uniqueness of everything. When they see a car of the same make, model and color as their parents’, they say “daddy’s car,” expressing not their inability to form a generalization about types of automobiles but the plain fact before their eyes. It is we older people who make the mistake of believing that categories of objects are real, that because some cars, dogs, and widgets look exactly like some others, they are identical, the same. The convenience of general ideas progressively seduces us, first through language itself, then out of their own sheer utility, until we unthinkingly accept them as real as we do the air around us—though they no more faithfully describe that reality than “H2O” does the taste of water.

Art is a corrective to our misguided faith in the truth of the generalization. In art, good art, only the individual exists. Prince Hamlet and Jay Gatsby may be universal types, but they would be long forgotten if they did not continue to live for the reader as individuals as unique as that reader’s own brother or spouse. This uniqueness is what makes them endure despite what academic and other rational analyses make of them.

Art thrives on the concrete and the individual. All artists are trying to crawl back through the Proustian tunnel to recapture the young child’s way of experiencing the world, not out of nostalgia but out of a sense that there, and only there, in a world of unique, all-but-inexpressibly precious uniqueness, the real world lies.

Without generalization, the “common noun,” we would have an infinite proliferation of individual names. We would remain stuck in an earlier, less articulate version of ourselves, functional but without the benefits of verbalized logical thought. But the artifice of generalization leads us to rational conclusions that promote mistaken notions of commonality and encourage prejudgment. We don’t need language to reject or kill our own kind, but the same ability to generate the word “kind” allows us to distinguish and alienate people we mistakenly but logically designate by the common noun “other,” not us.

Numbers are the greatest generalizers and nowadays the biggest mischief makers. Numbers lie. They do so by equating what is inherently different. They tell us two spoons, two voters, two spouses, are, for the purposes of counting and calculating, interchangeable. Numbers lie by identifying and equating groups of things and persons with other groups of things and persons. The slaughter of two thousand, or two, is not as heinous as the slaughter of two million. Numbers by their nature invite comparison, and comparison invites judgment, by tricking us into thinking that what is not identical but can be computed as such is equal qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

This is the same sleight of hand—again, indispensable for rational thought—worked by the general idea. By designating otherwise discrete individuals as members of a category, we can manipulate them for artificial, useful purposes: apples here, oranges there; six cases of influenza one month, six hundred the following. The mischief comes when the categorization of the individuals involved, or their enumeration, invite conclusions that have no business being made on such bases. We end up arguing whether a million or “only” 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered. We call what is happening in Darfur a “genocide” because there is an ethnic distinction between perpetrator and victim, while washing our hands of the four or five million who have died in Congo because there are no clear categories to distinguish the killers and rapists from their prey.

We have become the victims of our own cleverness. We have fallen in love, blindly, with numbers and generalizations, as witnesses no less than as perpetrators. The Nazi habit of good record-keeping is of the same mentality by which we calculate their crimes. No one who has lost a mother or a child to the Khmer Rouge or the Janjaweed makes this mistake. They know tragedy is personal and unique. To attempt to calculate or classify is to trivialize, distort and nullify. That’s why we open our hearts and our wallets to the suffering of one visible malnourished child but never get around to writing a check for tens of thousands. This is not an indication of cold-heartedness. Just the opposite: We know reality when we see it, and it is always unique and singular.

Why Art Is Long

Professors make their living talking and writing about the worldviews that form the backdrop to the works of a Shakespeare or a Homer. And yet, those writers endure not because of their cosmologies but despite them. Their art is “long” because it is not dependent on ephemeral or ludicrous philosophical or religious systems but on something else, something also more profound than good craftsmanship or poetic talent. What makes art long — when it is long, Euripides_Pio-Clementino_Inv302when it endures beyond its time — is its subject: our human nature. That, when it is portrayed by the hands of a master like Euripides or Cervantes, is what remains reliably constant from age to age. Euripides’s teenagers talk and think like today’s teenagers, and his tragic heroines suffer the same way their real-life sisters do today and have done since the fifth century B.C.E. and before.

The same can be said of great biblical literature. The Song of Songs, despite its strange metaphors, expresses passionate love in a moving way recognizable to anyone alive today. The machinations, jealousies and sudden bursts of sentiment in the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel, are perennial. The rest, the prescriptive and proscriptive codes of behavior and other parochial preoccupations, unless you are a believer, are dead to us.

I realize “human nature” is a very general term. To some it can mean human beings at their worst, or it can mean something immutable in a way different from the sense I understand it. What I’m referring to is the commonality, neither good nor bad, or both if you like, the identity and image of ourselves we recognize in everything we call art, from the musings of Catullus about a stand of trees that will ultimately end up as a ship, to the music of Bach, from those haunting funeral portraits of Roman Egypt, to the novels of Anthony Trollope. They all carry the ideological baggage of their times — Roman deities, 18th-century Pietism, class snobbery and simple prejudice. But we find ourselves and our kind in them nevertheless, and therefore they endure.

Our individual lives are short, or at least seem so in retrospect – vita brevis —but art is long and for that reason, until and if we evolve into something other than what we are, is dependable, not as a religious faith or substitute for one, not as something which can be grounded in mathematical certainty, but as a kind of manual for our species, points of common reference and ultimately of comfort as well, along with, of course, great beauty, binding us together in Geoffrey_Chaucer_(17th_century)mutual recognition despite superficial differences, healing us after we have behaved badly as individuals or as a people, reminding us who we are – not the “we” of the short-term, the modern “we” or the European, Asian or African “we,” but the perennial one, as identifiable in the cave paintings of Lescaux as in a Vermeer portrait, in Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Jesus and Jane Austen, Chaucer’s Alice whose breath (like my wife’s) smells like apples, and in Mozart’s Requiem, full of childlike dread and pity.

If we want to know what it is to be human that’s where we turn, not for philosophy or rules of conduct but for a self-portrait, imperfect, full of questions that will never be answered, and perhaps don’t need to be.