Summaries And Substance

The more I read and try to live, the more I realize: everything we do/consume is a summary. Ok, so that sounds a bit too similar to “Everything Is A Remix”, but bear with me. I use the word, “summary” because it appears there is only so much room in one’s life for previews, marketing, samples, wishes and regrets…but try taking in the whole thing. Try doing and experiencing EVERYTHING. Who can? It was always this way. Did the average peasant get to experience the privilege of being William Shakespeare? Did the citizens of ancient Egypt get to experience the glory of being Nefertiti, or the fans of David Bowie the experience of…well, being David Bowie? The age of people endlessly sampling stuff through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Soundcloud didn’t begin in a vacuum, and it wouldn’t have worked better even if The Powers That Be had planned it. It is our mortal limits as human beings, not generational differences or technology, that allows our penchant for sampling to grow rampant. It is our glimpse of The Truth, and our interpretation of such, that makes us the mindless consumers you love to mock (and become).

Is there substance (truth)? Of course there is, but I doubt the person who derides the masses for listening to Top 40 (if that is even a thing anymore) knows what it is. Do you honestly believe that you are Heraclitus, an intellectual and paradoxical loner who rejects dichotomy and finds the truth in sameness and difference, seeing a world that is static and ever changing while everyone else comforts themselves in binaries? No. To know substance is to be alone, to be useless to everyone except oneself. The journey of art (or at least the idealized version of it) is one where one dares to separate themselves from the flow of humanity, connect with themselves/god/nature/whatever…and then, like Bob Dylan, plagiarize a bunch of writings when making comeback records (“Modern Times” is still pretty good, though).

But if lying is one way to hide substance (truth), paraphrasing is another (and god knows I’m guilty of the latter). One could pull a Wittgenstein and go all, “Man, fuck citations! I just want to drone on and on about logic and disregard all that other shit people mumble about like morons!” But then what is it like to be in their shoes, when people like Bertrand Russel try to summarize exactly what you mean while introducing your work?* Would you be grateful that someone noticed you, angry that they got some parts wrong, or paralyzed with the realization that as much as people notice you now, the summaries are going to be what survives longer than what you have actually done? Ok, that last part is just me thinking that way (I mean, if anyone else thinks that way, maybe we could go out for a walk). I can’t stop thinking that way because however much one emphasizes the purity or decay of one’s soul, it’s what one does that defines them…and then everyone splits that definition into multiple interpretations.

I mean, think about it: the “Founding Fathers” of the United States of America are said to have been inspired by ancient Greek Philosophers. Plato, Aristotle…seriously, just read “The Republic” and “De Anima”. A lot of shit we take for granted is there because of those works…but not of their own volition. Those works were translated, interpreted, and reprinted, but did the essence of those really survive all of this time? Let’s not forget, the rest of the ancient Greek stuff was destroyed by wars, weather and time (hence Nietzsche had to make do with Heraclitus’ fragments). So, how much of The Truth do we really have? While it is said that we have a few of the works in good shape, the margin for error (and inspiration) is huge. For example, think on this…dozens of versions of the bible, and the one your local bible thumper has probably doesn’t even have the Gospels of Judas. That’s just Christianity. Judaism, Hinduism, Shinto, Buddha, Islam, Rastafarianism, The fucking Moonies…works that are written, preserved, re-interpreted, bits and pieces being lost forever. Best part? They’re then presented to you as The Truth. Given those circumstances, it’s amazing that one has faith in…well, anything.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Oh, you ignorant sod! Of course we have the original works of Plato and Aristotle, fully preserved, with not a word omitted or altered! Oxford prints books about them, entire universities work tirelessly to keep these important works alive in the cultural mind. Who are you to say such a thing and deny all of this?” You know what? You’re right. If we’ve made it this far, maybe, just maybe, we have the truth in our hands. Maybe the reason humanity has lasted (for now) isn’t due to blind luck but due to the will that comes from grasping The Truth…whatever that is. We may not have the means to articulate it, or even do something “useful” with it, but it guides us, lives in us, makes one launch people into Space or create movements. But here’s the thing: when one grasps The Truth one has to do something with that truth, and then obscure it to some extent just to make it workable for everyone else.

Truth is like a precious bowl in a wood and glass cabinet that You Must Not Touch Even In Dire Circumstances…except you will. You have to, or there will be nothing to build from. One has to tarnish the truth somehow. What guides humanity isn’t an objective fact, it’s a kind of fiction. In many forms, we are guided by the most familiar, rousing, accessible and powerful fiction there is: that we matter. From the mathematician to the poet, from the garbageman to the CEO, it’s the fiction of us mattering that guides us, not truth, and it is our interpretation of The Truth that softens its blow, allows us to justify ourselves for good, ill or whatever. But somehow one has to witness fiction for it to gain meaning, and the meaning is both in one’s hands and in the hands of everyone else. Writes Ned Rorem in, “The New York Diary”, “Since not a day passes without history, there are those who say it should be recorded or lost. But such is a chronicle, not a diary. And history recorded tonight would not be the same if recorded tomorrow. It is not what you say but what I say you say. (emphasis mine)”

Our heroics, villiany, passiveness…who justifies that? You do. But who witnesses it? Guess. The witnesses always outlast the perpetrator. Legacy is created not by force of will or grace of intellect, but by those who dare to remember (or not). So go ahead: do that great thing, make that speech. Better yet, quote as many people as you like. Retweet them, plaster them on your tumblr, wear it on a flag, bumper sticker, forum signature, pin or tattoo…none of what you say or do really defines you. Comfort yourself, and watch as the world makes you its new villian. Suffer, and weep as the world makes you its hero. Or maybe no one gives a shit about you, which is comforting…for a while.

It is said that there are two guarantees, Death and Taxes (ah, paraphrasing…the allure of pretending to know something, without the responsibility of having to provide a citation). Interpretation should be added. Because you will die, and you will be remembered. Or not. Maybe that’s not a bad thing after all.

* Just a tiny summary of the book, “Wittgenstein’s Poker”, which everybody should read.


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