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Marilynne Robinson (on civilization)

May she keep on teaching and writing. Marilynne Robinson, photo from an article in The Guardian newspaper.

[3-minute read]

We hear it all the time. Human beings are naturally aggressive. We have always had wars, and we always will. Some of the more pessimistic among us – and listen, such people are not deranged; there are reasons aplenty to cast a stink-eye on our history  – go so far as to suggest that war is the natural condition of human societies, and that peace is an intermittent and temporary reprieve. This is nonsense.

Among many other reasons, it is foolish to think this way because, first, it is too easy, and second, it is too damned discouraging. Third, and most important, to consider warfare as our default mode is slippery and false because it allows us to excuse and even justify  (to ourselves, to our fellow foreign policy analysts, to our tough-on-crime cronies, to any of our partners-in-expediency) the use of brutal methods to address problems. Meanwhile, we routinely fall into the lazy assumption that human beings have hair-trigger predispositions towards violence or other anti-social qualities, yet most of us wouldn’t say this about the people that we actually know and interact with. (“People are AWFUL! Well, not my people, they’re mostly pretty great but, you know, those people out there…”)     

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Better Read Than Never: Stephen King’s CELL

My review of Stephen King’s novel Cell got a little long and breathless — much like an SK novel — so I cut it in two. The first part was my experience reading Der Horrormeister and sometimes preferring him as a teacherHere, I punch the buttons of the fictional Cell, which I found an agreeable and often compelling read.

There are gorier covers, but my son's paperback version looks like this.

There are gorier covers, but my son’s paperback version looks like this.

Here’s the deal on Cell: for reasons that are never fully understood (by characters or by us), everybody speaking on a cellular phone at a fatal moment are slammed by some kind of electronic probe, later called the Pulse, which instantly erases from them most of what we typically think of as individual humanity. They lunge for available throats and entirely forget how to drive or otherwise conduct everyday jobs, let alone the conventions of civilization. Chaos ensues, of course, and life suddenly becomes a savage, primitive contest of survival between “normies” and “phoners”.

We watch as this happens via Clayton Riddell, a young Dad separated from his wife and young son. He’s a struggling artist, and (as did King) he has daylighted as a school teacher, but on the day the world goes violently sideways, he has just sold his graphic novel, Dark Wanderer, and its sequel for a dizzying amount of money. He’s bought a gift for Sharon, estrangement be damned. He’s thinking of what comic book might thrill his little Johnny. Things are looking up. Seems like a good time to buy some ice cream.

Uh-oh. None of this helps at all six pages in, when the power-suited, ear-pieced woman ahead of him in line for soft-serve, yacking loudly, suddenly stops, drops her phone, gazes blankly, and then tries to drag Mister Softee out of his truck.

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Just Human Nature?

Have you ever noticed how gloomy we are in the way we talk about ourselves? About our species, I mean. Someone cheats – on his taxes, on her partner – and we shrug and mutter, “Well, it’s only human nature.” Over and over, we sing the same mournful refrain in response to signs of dishonesty, selfishness and aggression, most often evident among people that we don’t know.

I find this bizarre. I think we need to reclaim this phrase, and shout Now THAT’S human nature! whenever we catch people in acts like this: pushing a stranger’s car out of the snow; smiling at small children; preserving history or restoring spoiled habitats; singing the good old songs; standing against injustice; jumping into icy water or burning houses to save another. I don’t mean that lying and brutality don’t happen, only that they are not the default mode of the human system.

It reminds me of the view of history as one unrelieved tale of war, tragedy and competition. If this was true, how could we have cities and art and temples and enduring music? War destroys quickly, and this is the horror, but it is also the exception. If war and aggression were the rule, we’d have destroyed ourselves long ago. If it were otherwise, how could any of the cooperative projects and personal accomplishments of human beings remain? The King James Bible, Chartres Cathedral, Réal Madrid CF, the computer program on which I write: pick your favourite example of human enterprise and progress, and know that it required time and peace to be built.

And if our human nature is nothing but self-interest and negativity, how have we survived? (Just give us time, I hear some of you muttering. We’re working on it.) We can be beastly to each other, but we can also be angels. When we think of our friends, our family, the colleagues we know and respect, we don’t assume as some sort of default stance that they are “only out for themselves”, “naturally aggressive” or, God forbid, “born in sin”. Oh, we screw up. We are in constant need of education. Most of the time, though, most of us are just ordinary Janes and Jamals who are trying to be useful, wanting to enjoy the company of others and to leave some legacy of goodness behind. It’s only human nature, after all.

(And here’s Waldo! Ralph Waldo Emerson, that is, with his description of humans being at their best, the success that, in our heart of hearts, most of us want more than anything else:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.