Richard Rorty, the noted American philosopher, took part in a Dutch television series titled “Of Beauty and Consolation.” In an hour-long interview he revealed various autobiographical details and went far beyond the technical matters which so engulf academics these days. This–the personal, the intimate in philosophical thought–has always meant much more to me than the most convincing theoretical edifice. You listen to Rorty’s take on William James’ pragmatism, for instance, and it’s all extremely contrived, even in its incessant attempts to straighten his thought out and give it credit where it is due or withhold it where is not. In a conference room, beauty and consolation are scarcely able to secure a place.
Apart from his general, contagious humility, one thing in particular stood out for me in the interview with Rorty. Having reflected on the reasons why he’d taken up philosophy as a young man–a sense of empowerment and control in an alienated boy played a large part–he says:
I can still remember things I’ve done to other people thirty or fourty years ago… the emotions of shame and guilt are so intense that, you know, I just instantly try to distract my attention. It isn’t that I remember inflicting deliberate pain on anybody. It’s just acts of omission, of ‘it would have been so easy to have done something for her’ or ‘it would have been so easy to be kind, and I wasn’t.’ Something like that…
Soon after, the interviewer asks Rorty what he means by “the synthesis of ecstasy and kindness you’re looking for.” Rorty remarks that
I have no idea what that would be like but, you know, a way of being simultaneously kind and clever… a way of not having to choose between cleverness and kindness.… I just desperately hope to avoid the problem. Can’t imagine what the solution is like…
I wonder if this is a problem. If so, it seems to me certainly not one possible to solve in thought. And I realize you might say we’re surrounded by people who combine the two. But I’d say they don’t combine, but oscillate between the poles of kindness and cleverness, that is to say, of kindness and a certain kind of power of scheming, the rationale of which is to maniupulate and control, and precisely to withhold kindness from another. So maybe there’s indeed something to think about here.
In his autobiography, Tariki, Japanese novelist Hiroyuki Itsuki titles one of the section headings “The Good Die Young.” Mentioning “disgust” with politics, business, the medical establishment, and education, and saying that “even writing this much depresses me terribly,” he continues:
Yet, I have never raised my voice to protest any of those things, and I have almost never written strong social criticism.… I am no longer young. I know that I am one of the bad guys, who has in his life up to now pushed aside many other people in my own rush to survive and to get ahead.
This is by no means false humility. I have deep in my heart a feeling like a heavy stone, which makes me see myself as a worthless person, beyond all salvation.
He goes on to describe scenes from his youth, when his family and he himself were being forcibly relocated from Korea, following the defeat of the Japanese in World War 2. The description concludes with Itsuki saying that, with their home and all possessions confiscated by the Soviet army, he fled with his siblings and mother–soon to die and before that rolled on a cart by the the young boy–to the south, over the 38th parallel, into a US-run refugee camp, and from there was shipped home to Japan. Itsuki reflects on this without illusions:
I managed to survive that period of indescribable chaos, and to live to this day. Whenever I remember the time, I instinctively lower my eyes and drop my voice.… What made the difference between those who survived and those who never returned, but fell by the wayside? Did those with strong faith survive? Or those with physical strength or intelligence? Was it those who didn’t lose hope, who retained a positive attitude?
I have something buried deep in my heart, a voice I can always hear coming from somewhere inside me saying, ‘No, that’s not it. The bad people survived, and the good people all died.
You haven’t forgotten, have you?’ asks the voice.
It was those with the stronger egos, the ones willing to push others aside, the ones who possessed a powerful, self-centered will to live, who survived under those extreme conditions. It was those who were twice as selfish as others, steeped in bad karma, who made it through.
“I was thirteen,” Itsuki writes. “Carrying my little sister on my back and pulling my little brother along by the hand, I ran to the 38th parallel. If my brother was too weak to keep up with me, I was fully prepared to leave him where he fell and keep on running.”
I don’t think, insofar as I can imagine what he and his family went through, that his survival owed to “unthinking life force” and mere “instinct for self-preservation.” There was cleverness in it, a certain calculation and scheming, a clever readiness to leave the weak and hopeless behind, and this is where guilt comes in.
This is what made Itsuki lower his eyes and drop his voice. That’s what made Rorty’s own reminiscences painful, leaving him looking for distractrion. Kind and clever? Like Rorty, I have no idea how a synthesis between them might look, feel, and be like.
Under extreme, life-threatening circumstances, showing kindness clearly may be suicidal. Under normal circumstances, if you express kindness, there is a possibility you will be hustled and duped. Cleverness reigns even when there’s nothing big to be lost, because there always already is deceit. We learn this quickly. Kindness, then, requires at least some naivete; it requires a suspension of at least some questions and suspicion which might otherwise be posed and employed in being clever. We may then rationalize, and not entirely without sense, that if we ourselves are disempowered of our cleverness, and if that really weakens us, how will we be able to muster the power to be kind?
I doubt, however, that with those who use this argument to justify themselves, are in any really hurry to be kind at all. It seems to me that they use the power of language to the end to which, as George Carlin pointed out, it is mostly used: to lie. Secretly, they feed their fantasies of their self–unique because its theirs–extending ever further into the future, on and on and on.
We learn from Tariki that Itsuki’s brother, saved after the war, “died of cancer in his mid-forties.” “I remember almost painfully his favorite phrase,” Itsuki writes: “Ii ja nai?” Loosely translated into English, this means, according to the author, “What’s the use in getting so worked up?” Listening to Itsuki’s outbursts about what was wrong with things, his brother would “half-whisper it, in his Kyushu accent… almost as if he were speaking to himself.”
And so, through all this, the world goes on, as we–some of us–desperately hope not to have to choose to be clever or kind, already clever in thinking we can choose. Maybe we can. But all of us will soon enough be consumed by the flood. In the end, perhaps Itsuki’s brother was right. It is easier to be kind