This is a rambling essay composed in response to chapter two of Jerome K. Jerome’s Tea Table Talk. I’m calling this kind of self-dialogue a Talk Back, a way of processing ideas in writing instead of skipping over them lightly in passing. I hope that it stimulates your own thoughts, amuses you, or drives you to a better form of entertainment. It was so fun to do, even if it’s not such fun to read, that I would encourage you to brew up your beverage of choice, peruse the source material, and most importantly of all: Talk Back.
Nature (meaning life unburdened by the embellishment of invention), supported by the Minor-Poet
Civilization (being man’s lot, improved by his modifications), supported by the Worldly Woman
First I must say I find it easy to agree with the Minor-Poet (who argues Nature), even though I think what he is saying is rubbish. My gut reaction is “that’s well said” followed by an even stronger “but twaddle.” It does sound pretty to talk about how the things we have don’t really make our lives happier, but if you think living in a cave would give your soul a lift, you’re mad. Still, it is an interesting debate to have becasue it forces us, eventually, to look at those underlying assumptions that we never think to start with. For instance, why does the poet think a natural state is better? His arguments are really not for Nature, if you look at them with this question in mind, but against Civilization. That is, he only argues that Civilization has not given mankind any of the benefits that we usually claim for it. Fine. How would we be better off if we had been content to stop at foraging? By his choice of words we can infer that this would be an easier life, our needs would literally be growing on trees. Money, and the lack thereof, would not be an issue becasue shelter, sustenance, and swathe1 would all be provided for us via such convenient occurrences as caves, plants, and our own skin, well weathered. This is a pretty easy argument to disarm becasue, while foraging can work in many climates, it can’t work in all of them, which means that the world would have to remain largely unknown to us. This idea seems a death blow in my mind, for I feel personally rich in the wideness of this world, however I concede that we might, in such a case, have no way to know the world was so unknown and so will continue as if it does not count. Nevertheless, this smaller world still takes its toll by forcing on us quite early the notion of population control. I read (most of) Diamond’s Collapse a few years ago, and he mentioned a few cases where it could be assumed that either the civilization in question had failed becasue they out-numbered their food source or else thrived becasue they were ruthlessly practical about how many people their environment could support. I would suggest that such controls, though backwards, would still be a sort of progress becasue they suggest that man stand in the place of Nature to determine his fate. A truly savage, animal sort of mankind would either die from lack of resources or else dissolve into a nightmare of endless feuds over territory.
Not that Nature wouldn’t help out, what with all sorts of natural deaths like complications in child birth, plagues, and even predators. Without any sort of inventions to overcome these mankind could only bow to them as the whims of the world and go on. But go on with what? This right here, I think, is the best argument against the supposed peace of the savage, and that is what is the point? I mean, seriously. You’re not making anything, building anything, dreaming anything – not even besting anything, since even going so far as to, say, make a spear for self defense would be spitting in Nature’s eye. The only point of life would be surviving until you died. Like pac-man without the power-ups, cut-scenes, fruits, score board, or squiggly mazes. Just a straight line with the ghosts right on your tail.
So there ends that line of thinking. Nature can’t have a higher claim on what it cannot satisfy. What then? Can civilization come up with a better point? If so it is not my business to make one, since I am only answering the poet and not arguing for Civilization. However, I will give Civilization this: it allows us the opportunity to offer all of ourselves – our hearts, our minds, our souls, our desperation – everything. And though that does not by default mean there is really a point to anything, at least it provides people with a framework in which to manufacture purpose.2
So then, is that the only argument the poet has for Nature, that it is simpler and therefore more satisfactory? No, the Minor-Poet also insists that Nature allows for a wider appreciation of beauty. That is, if people were forced to live in Nature 24/7, they would be unable to miss the wild, dramatic beauty of this world. The Minor-Poet unfortunately could not make the illustration of the person listening to music through their ear-buds while strolling under a flock of melodious finches; however, his depiction of the Average Man as only admiring of Art becasue he is told it is worth admiring is amusing and, in my own life at least, rings true. I went to the Philadelphia art museum with the Geekette last year and LOVED it, but I had no particular affection for about 85% of the museum. They were merely pictures to me. Some of them rather less than that. Does this mean the artist is a fraud? That art itself is a fraud? That mankind is cheating himself out of true beauty by putting in its place something so artificial that you have to be told it’s art? In a lot of ways I agree that art is merely a (poor) distraction from what is really attractive in life – yet there is that 15%. Yeats is redeemed by a handful of poems, even though the reams I must wade through to find them are little more to me than random words arranged into even lines. And for myself, I find this same pattern in Nature. The line of trees along the highway is made beautiful in the spring by the wisteria, in the summer by the subtle gradations of greens, in the fall by the shifting of colors, in the winter by the morbid glory of mist. It is not always beautiful, there are places we must choose not look and acts we must condemn, yet in general we can say, “it is beautiful today becasue . . . .” So the Minor Poet makes a false argument, implying that nature is always wonderful and the crafting of man seldom. The craftings of man are less concrete – being born so often by passing things like world events, opinions, and feelings – but in their eternal moments they strike a chord just as deep as Nature’s own.
Of course, I would also argue that there are other ways of appreciating art than through visual depictions of it, and it is very likely some person might loath a painting but love a sunset even while they abhor raw veggies but ardently attack a casserole of summer squash and kale. Beauty in Nature is not regulated to one sense, and Civilization has taken its cue from that and branched out as well. So the Worldly Woman brings up music. The Poet’s argument that Civilized music is not essential in bettering mankind is interesting. It is really wonderful how the base of this argument is the mature sister of his comments about visual arts. For bottom line, he believes that rather than give us better, richer music, Civilization instead strips the majority of mankind of any desire to make music at all. That is, because we are so used to hearing good music, we do not promote the personal.3 Because our music is complex and developed, it cannot flow out of our actual lives and therefore cannot really represent us. The human voice, he insists, is the best instrument and yet it is often untrained while we fiddle with our fiddles. To answer the face of the argument, I would need him to tell me how far he thinks music can go before it is considered something of Civilization. Is singing in rounds savage enough? What about duets? Barbershop quartets? At what point does even the strictest a cappella merge from the natural, unconscious outpouring of soul into a carefully formed expression of thought? Because as soon as you have a beat, a melody, some sort of meter for your lyrics – as soon as you have these, I say, you are no longer just singing, you are making music and yes, not everyone is going to be able to do this. But if the people making songs are able to converse with other people making songs, or build off of previously made songs, then music will progress, will become, if not more complex, at least more defined. More caught in a tangle of jargon and technicalities and handy rules meant to aid in composition. Therefore there can be no music as we know it in a truly natural community, only the unnoticed whistle, the subconscious hum which echoes back to the sky whatever sighing breeze or buzzing insect we have happened to hear recently. Anything else, no matter how seemingly humble in comparison to an orchestra, is but the first seeds of Civilization.
The face of the thing being headed off, I find the Minor-Poets underlying question much more compelling. Does perfecting and improving a thing inevitably make it less and less accessible? Folk songs can be learned in a week, pan pipes in a year or two, but to really learn the piano, the violin, the full range and use of your vocal chords – these things take intention, dedication. They take time. No one learns them on a whim or by accident. Which means that few people can really learn them well. Painting, sculpting, building, sewing, coding, engineering (whether structurally, mechanically, or electrically), even cooking. The more that we learn and discover about the things we love, the less likely it is that an individual is going to be able to reach master level. Does it have to be this way? Does it detract from the artistic expression of the rest of humanity if only, say, 5% represent it in any given field? Will Sally still hum her simple little tunes, just to amuse herself, if Jill begins to play complex chords? If Sally liked singing before she heard Jill, I would argue, she is not likely to stop liking it afterwards. For great musicians, like the other greats, are just as likely to encourage us on as they are to stop us in our tracks in despair of ever attaining their level. We might not be able to keep up with them, but for a few brief moments in our life they will have inspired us to trot along in their wake. Once, after seeing a man climb a pole using only his hands, his arms straight in front of him, body tense as it hung in open air, I determined to build up my own arm strength so I could at least do something as mundane as walk across the floor on my hands. For about three months I kept up the practice, until the vision had faded and I was gratefully able to drop it. Has my athleticism been stunted becasue there are other people in the world who devote their lives to it? No, rather the strength that I developed at that time has even now not entirely left me. Beauty calls up beauty, as they say.4 The giants of Civilization do not over cloud and dwarf the average person (there are, of course, exceptions to everything), instead, like an impossibly tall tree, they remind him that there is a sky to reach towards.
If that is true, then we should no longer say that people are left behind. It would be more accurate, indeed, to say that they are shown up! Where we leave our talents, whether through our own decision or aptitude or through circumstances outside of us, is not the fault of the greats. It’s possible you could hold people back in order to make the average also the best, but that would suggest that beauty wasn’t really the issue for you. People have tried to reach the heavens by standing on mountains, and people have been content to imagine them from the midst of a smog filled valley. Whether you are on that mountain, or that valley, when you return your gaze back to your own level doesn’t it, at least for a few minutes, seem to twinkle a little brighter, as if suddenly aware of its own potential to shine? Civilization doesn’t detract from the individual’s ability to engage in beauty on a personal level, instead it brings the more remote facets of beauty closer to hearts that might never have known them otherwise.
That’s my favorite rabbit trail brought to mind by chapter two of Tea-Table talk. It’s fun to dissect arguments slowly, leisurely, but now that I have devoted two thousand words to doing so I realize it would have been more efficient to address the underlying assumption of the Minor-Poet, which is that man has the natural capacity to take things as they are without adjusting them more to his liking. We all have our limits, of course, but in general it would be directly against human Nature not to make, modify, and meddle. Any debate about whether we should continue to complicate things or not ignores the fact that we cannot help but complicate things. How far we complicate them might be a choice, but even so I’m sure it’s not one often made consciously by ourselves. I would be interested to hear the Minor-Poet’s explanation of why humans are so invention prone, if it really isn’t in their best interest. In fact, I would be delighted to hear anybody’s opinion on any of the things discussed here. I, of course, already have my own.
- Okay, that was a little unnatural.↵
- It would be unnatural of me not to put my two cents in here and say that even Civilization, defined as progress for the sake of society, is pointless. Self-proposed goals are nice, whether of the individual or the community, but they are inherently artificial, being fabricated. The only way our lives can really have meaning is if they’ve received it from something outside themselves.↵
- Sadly there is truth in this, found in the phrase “I can’t sing” which, not having trained pipes myself, always brings a sense of empathetic pity for the speaker. We needn’t apologize for being an amateur here anymore than we would apologize for not being able to do full splits. And as we do not stop walking merely becasue we can’t run marathons, we should not stop singing for personal fun merely becasue we have no intention of singing for our supper.↵
- A phrase which hear means Google can’t find my source↵