“Special” People

by Mark English

I don’t know if it makes much sense to talk about some people having a privileged background. These days this usually means having rich parents. And while I think that – all other things being equal – having rich parents certainly beats having dirt-poor parents, I’m not convinced that having rich – as distinct from just average-income –  parents confers any real benefits on their children.

It seems to me that the only things that really matter involve physical and mental health and general culture. By the latter, I do not mean “high culture,” but rather just the normal cultural inheritance that is passed on within families and without which we would not be functioning human beings: language, ways of behaving (manners, morals etc.).

Are some cultures better to be born into than others? I think you can say so. Certainly, certain categories of person are likely to get a raw deal in some cultures and a better one in others. But you can also speak in general terms.

You could say that a culture in which violence plays a prominent role in settling disputes is clearly inferior to one in which disputes are dealt with via discussion and negotiation, for example. And I think you could say that a culture within which people who are not harming or threatening to harm others are protected and not themselves threatened or coerced is preferable to one in which these protections do not apply. A culture and an environment that is conducive to physical health is clearly superior to one that is not. Longevity isn’t everything but average lifespan statistics do provide a rough guide as to which cultures are working and which are dysfunctional.

The most important kinds of privileges relate, then, to these very basic kinds of things. That said, it’s all too clear that most of us want to feel special in some way, to excel in some activity, or otherwise have some kind of claim to fame or high regard.

To some extent, this is immaturity. Part of growing up involves the realization that, actually, one isn’t all that special – and coming to terms with this realization. Some people never do and live their lives with false hopes and unreal expectations that generally lead to resentment and unhappiness.

If ambitions, hopes and expectations are calibrated to an objective view of one’s abilities etc. – which usually means scaled back (in non-depressed individuals, at any rate) – then there’s no problem.

There are easier ways of having one’s basic feeling of being special endorsed or vindicated than work and achievement, of course. Falling in love, for example – so long as the love is reciprocated.  Or one might just be born special: in terms of having a remarkable aptitude for something; or very good looks; or in terms of ancestry (being the son or daughter of a celebrity or a great man or woman, say).

Ancestry is a paradigm case of the “magical” notion of association by which the special qualities of one person are perceived to “rub off,” as it were, on close (or not so close) associates.

Like many others, I first started delving into my family history hoping (and half-expecting) to find high-achieving or notable ancestors. No such luck. It’s an odd thing to want.  No direct benefit flows from it, but I think it’s all part of the need most of us feel to be special, to stand out from the crowd in some way. We feel special, and it’s as if we are compelled to try to vindicate or validate this feeling. Even high achievers often feel this need. One example was the writer Patricia Highsmith, who enthusiastically explored the possibility that she might have been a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Highsmith was special by dint of achievement, but she also wanted this other kind of perceived specialness.

This magical concept of specialness-by-association applies not just to ancestry but also to many other kinds of association, far too many to catalog here.

Let me give a couple of personal examples. An old colleague and friend of mine was taught logic at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine. This is part of who he is, and – rightly or wrongly – it impresses me, though it would not impress me so much were my friend not also very honest and even self-deprecating. He volunteered the information that Quine was not particularly impressed with his abilities (or attitude). He also told a story about a fellow graduate student at Oregon, whose father was a famous historian and who kept spouting all this nonsense about recursion, ideas which my friend was sure were going nowhere. The recursion man was Douglas Hofstadter, and he was working not only on his physics PhD but also on an early version of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book which won a Pulitzer Prize and is still widely read and admired.

Another example. The father of a Chinese friend of mine was one of Mao Zedong’s generals, who had become a national hero at the time of the Korean War.

From my friend’s earliest years she moved in elite circles, meeting “the Great Helmsman” several times. On account of her father’s role in the Korean War – as well no doubt as her natural confidence and grace – she was chosen at the age of nine to present a bouquet of flowers to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung during an historic and diplomatically very sensitive visit. Her young life, though undoubtedly privileged, was hard and stressful in sometimes very unexpected ways. It was almost unimaginably different from my own.

Our personal histories are, of course, part of who we are. Had my self-deprecating male friend not had that particular upbringing and education, he would not be who he is. Likewise my (not so self-deprecating) Chinese friend. But in addition to this obvious truth there is something more, as rare experiences having little to do with innate abilities – such as moving in elite political circles or close associations with celebrities – can give people a certain aura in the eyes of others. This is a form of (usually harmless) magical thinking. It is pretty universal, I would say.

It applies to places also. Think of all those blue ceramic English Heritage plaques in London, saying, in effect, this is a special building/place because so-and-so once lived here.

Finally there is another dimension of all this which I would like to highlight: the fact that the great and the good and the heroes and villains of history are usually not all that special either. Such things as power and giftedness and fame are real, but the aura associated with them is a figment of mass imagination. The greatness of most political and religious leaders or the brilliance of most celebrities or the strange (and unfortunate) notoriety of perpetrators of horrific crimes is projected onto them by others.

Marcel Proust was a keen and bemused observer of the irrational side of human thinking and he was particularly fascinated by our tendency to confer a magical aura on certain people – in his case, mainly aristocrats – and places who/which (spoiler alert) inevitably fail to live up to expectations.

Pilgrimages to holy places are motivated by a similar mode of thinking, but in a slightly different – or enhanced – form. This is because the places in question are associated with people who are perceived to be more than just political, aristocratic, military, scientific, literary or artistic eminences. Some kind of actual spiritual force is seen to be in play. This is something which Proust, a natural skeptic, may not have understood. It lies outside the range of his experience.

As it happens – and appearances to the contrary notwithstanding – I am not a natural skeptic, and in my younger years I had a great capacity for believing a whole range of things (not just religious, but including religious ideas), which I now see as spectacularly mistaken. I am amazed at my erstwhile gullibility but will refrain from a detailed elaboration – which would not only be tedious but positively embarrassing.

My earliest introduction to the Holy Land was an old book by English writer H.V. Morton, with strangely emotive monochrome plates (the Sea of Galilee, the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the narrow, winding streets of old Jerusalem). Written during the time of the British mandate, it was called In the Steps of the Master. Morton was a secular travel writer but, like many literary figures of his time – and much of the reading public – he clung to a Romanticized, slightly sentimentalized form of Christian Platonism. Later I read Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus. Renan was a much more learned man than Morton – and a skeptic to boot – but even his perspective on both the person of Jesus and the places with which he was associated is irredeemably sentimentalized.

Many other books which appealed to me also dealt with the historical background of the New Testament or attempts to reconstruct supposed original Aramaic sayings from anomalies in the Greek of the canonical texts. In a similar way, various apocryphal gospels and other writings held out the tantalizing promise of reading – albeit in fragmented and distorted form – the very words of Jesus, maybe even the ones he spoke not in public but (there are hints of this in the Gospels) only to an inner circle.

In the classic English film Whistle Down the Wind, set in mid-20th-century Lancashire, some children discover a fugitive sleeping in a barn whom they take to be Jesus and to whom they attribute magical powers. At one point one of the children, a stubborn little boy, voices the children’s growing doubts: “He’s just a fella.”

There’s something poignant about this moment because it represents the sort of realization that all of us – those of us at any rate who share the common tendency to look for heroes and guides – have had from time to time. Such realizations are a part of growing up. Our parents are not all-knowing. Our much-loved teachers are flawed and fallible. Our political heroes turn out not to be quite as heroic or altruistic as advertised, our spiritual guides not quite as special as we thought.

Categories: Essay, Essays

Tagged as: , ,

16 Comments »

  1. 

    I said to a friend once ‘you’re right, you shouldn’t believe it’. Things which are outside your epistemic world you have an epistemic duty not to believe in. Belief in the extraordinary, the miraculous, the supernatural is not to be taken up simply because someone, even someone you would normally consider credible, tells you. Faith in the supernatural is not a lemming like rush over the cliff of rationality. But how do you get there from the high road of skepticism? Running out of gas is one way.

    Like

  2. Things which are outside your epistemic world you have an epistemic duty not to believe in

    Why?

    Surely there is such a thing as epistemic humility?

    Like

  3. I think duty trumps (no pun intended) humility when it comes to such matters. Humility in this invites discussion and dialogue, but some things demand the drawing of lines as opposed to offering compromise. This lists of anti-Nazi martyrs is filled with those attempting sweet reason and Christian Charity to the Gestapo and SA and the rest. Worked so well…

    Like

  4. Yes there is such a thing as epistemic humility but generally speaking as I said in my vehicular metaphor, you have to run out of gas i.e. ideas, theories, explanations. Things have to become strange to you as Wittgenstein remarked:(#121)

    The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. – And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

    The familiar is a sort of blindness:

    Let us name such an aberration of understanding a scotosis, and let us call the resultant blind spot a scotoma. Fundamentally, the scotosis is an unconscious process. It arises, no in conscious acts, but in the censorship that governs the emergence of psychic contents. Nonetheless, the whole process is not hidden from us, for the mere spontaneous exclusion of unwanted insights is not equal to the total range of eventualities.

    (B.Lonergan ‘Insight’)

    A true or true-ish vision of things does not come by the application of knowledge and intelligence but by a vigilant epistemic humility.

    Like

  5. One of the most beautiful, if flawed, films, is Scorsese’s version of Kazantzakis’ “Last Temptation of Christ,” which asks the simple question, what if the experience of being totally human were more inviting than becoming a divinity? Scorsese (a believing Catholic), like Kazantzakis (a believing Orthodox) decides that this temptation is fundamental to the choice Jesus makes, regardless of whether he actually achieves divinity as the Bible claims. It is the imperfections, our inability to live up to our ideals, that makes our being human real and important, a worthwhile journey through mistakes, ‘sins,’ and disappointment.

    I began to lose my hero worship when I read an interview with an aging Groucho Marx who was asked about the sure onset of his mortality, and what it would mean to his fans. “Everyone dies,” he replied,”even Groucho Marx; it’s no big deal.” This was especially important, because all my friends knew Groucho was a hero of mine, and would kid me, “hey, have you heard? Groucho’s dead.” And one day that was true, and I was prepared for it.

    The second moment I remember – and for some reason it was conclusive – was when Lou Reed, a musical hero of mine, finally got straight and sober. I don’t know why this had the effect it had; I suppose because I long thought that Reed’s addictions, and consequent (mis)behaviors were somehow a fundamental part of his aura, the public personality that I admired as heroic rejection of social normality. In fact of course it was a cry of pain, and Reed made mistakes, and even continued to make mistakes in his sobriety because… he was human, and humans simply do make mistakes. But at least in his later decades he was able to recognize this himself and to live the life of a human being – rather than that of the hero of my youth.

    After this, I stopped believing in heroes.

    For me, as a Buddhist, what touches me most about the Buddha’s story is not the myths that were wrapped around his personal narrative, but the naked humanity of his experiences: he watched the Cesarean birth of his son, and it disgusted him; he watched an old man die on the road, and it horrified him. He tried to starve himself to death and a simple rice cake defeated him and reminded him that – he was human.

    Heroes are for children; they are the parents that never were – the Dads who never got drunk or surly (perhaps violent) or cold and distant; the Moms that never withdrew into Quaaludes or boring PTA meetings or chance affairs with milkmen. But as adults, other adults just are adults, like ourselves, and should be. Otherwise we are living in a kindergarten extended through time and space, way beyond its usefulness.

    That adequately describes such states as North Korea. I personally prefer not to live there.

    Thank you, Mark, for this thoughtful piece.

    Like

  6. Our parents are not all-knowing. Our much-loved teachers are flawed and fallible. Our political heroes turn out not to be quite as heroic or altruistic as advertised, our spiritual guides not quite as special as we thought.

    After this, I stopped believing in heroes. …Heroes are for children.

    That is an impoverished point of view.

    Of course they are human, fallible and defecate just as we do. Of course they have manifold faults. Every saint, every hero, has clay feet. But, amazingly, people do, despite their evident failings, achieve exceptional things. Surely that makes them worthy of recognition, admiration and even emulation? To call someone a ‘hero’ is just one more step on this scale, a recognition of something quite extraordinary, done by someone quite ordinary.

    The whole point of heroes is not what they are-in-themselves but what they mean-to-us. Everything rests in the meaning that we ascribe to them, that we project onto them. They represent our strivings to be more than ourselves, to be better than ourselves. We project the things that really matter to us onto them. And as we colour their lives with the things we value, we embellish their lives until sometimes they hardly resemble the original.

    And then along comes some clever Dick to point out the discrepancy. But so what? Their value lies in their symbol, not in what they are, but in what they mean to us and in what we might be.

    You might just as well criticise the Odyssey for being fictional. When I read the Odyssey I glory in a vivid story of ordinary people becoming extraordinary to make a remarkable journey and survive against all the odds. And I thoroughly enjoy the fictional embellishments that make it such a great work of literature.

    As a further example of what I mean. Saint Catherine was supposedly broken on the wheel, hence the phrase ‘a catherine wheel’, for her devotion to Jesus Christ. The historical details are almost certainly false but that hardly matters. She is a symbol of purity, self-sacrifice, courage and reason in the face of great danger. So when a women’s school calls itself St. Catherine’s they are expressing their wish to educate women in similar values and that is why several thousand schools are called St Catherine’s.

    Symbols are potent things that focus, guide and give voice to important values. Heroes are one of the more potent symbols.

    A remarkable example of flawed person as a symbolic hero is Sir Winston Churchill. He was an aging, untrustworthy, abbrasive, obese, turncoat drunkard, with questionable judgement, who nevertheless possessed extraordinary willpower and great oratory powers. He became the symbol that united the British people and the British Commonwealth in a ruthless fight to survive and then overcome. As just one example of this, Albert Speer, the German Minister of War Production, concluded that by 1943 Great Britain was out-producing Germany in all significant areas of armament production. Such is the power of symbols contained in heroes.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Crusader,
    I think [epistemic]duty trumps (no pun intended) [epistemic]humility when it comes to such matters.

    That may be true in well understood ethical cases but is nowhere else true. Curiosity is a special kind of epistemic humility. Curiosity is open, questing and disavows final knowledge. The only duty curiosity has is to continue inquiring. Curiosity knows only one desire, and that is understanding. Curiosity has only one pleasure, and that is discovery. Curiosity is the most powerful tool in our intellectual armoury. The moment we put that away our mind begins to atrophy. It is an act of intellectual suicide. Epistemic duty, as understood by you, is the lock we put on the cupboard where we have hidden away curiosity.

    Mind you, I do recognise a kind of epistemic duty! It is our epistemic duty to unremittingly exercise our curiosity

    Like

  8. ombhurbhuva

    Yes there is such a thing as epistemic humility but generally speaking as I said in my vehicular metaphor, you have to run out of gas i.e. ideas, theories, explanations. Things have to become strange to you as Wittgenstein remarked:(#121).

    “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. – And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”

    But I am talking about the process whereby one starts out with a certain view and then is compelled (by evidence or indeed lack of evidence) to abandon it.

    On the subject of specifically religious beliefs, the usual response one gets from religious people – an old aunt comes to mind – is a slightly pitying, “Ah well, it’s obvious you never really got it in the first place.”

    Like

  9. ejwinner

    Thanks.

    Haven’t seen that film.

    “It is the imperfections, our inability to live up to our ideals, that makes our being human real and important, a worthwhile journey through mistakes, ‘sins,’ and disappointment.”

    What does “worthwhile” mean here? Embracing life as it is presented to us makes sense. So it is worthwhile in a basic kind of way. Is it (being human) real? Yes. Important? Not sure.

    The divine option isn’t there as far as I can see.

    The notion of the divine or enlightened figure who shows compassion for suffering humanity by getting incarnated or reincarnated instead of just enjoying Nirvana is a nice idea, but I suspect you see it (as I do) as something of a fairytale.

    Like

  10. labnut

    “Symbols are potent things that focus, guide and give voice to important values. Heroes are one of the more potent symbols.”

    And so they are. But they work only when they work. And they only really work when you ignore certain truths. (As in the case of Churchill. His rhetoric was effective, that’s all we need to say.)

    Homer’s world is not our world. Or at least not my world. (Try Chekhov.)

    Like

  11. “It is not true that Oliver Wendell Holmes was the father of Sherlock Holmes; as a matter of fact, they were not related at all.”

    It is, as you might guess, from a letter written by the editor of the Strand Magazine, in turn cited in an interesting article on Weberian disenchantment and modern re-enchantment:
    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael_Saler/publications

    In Saler’s terminology, seeking out one’s ancestry could either be a “pre-modern” attempt at re-enchantment, or an “ironic” one. The TV series “Who do you think you are” (a celebrity has their family history researched) often has people genuinely disappointed in the evil acts on one of their forebears – but this is still ironic, given it is appearing as reality TV. In Australia, being descended from transported convicts has changed from an embarrassment to generally a more positive thing, given a modern viewpoint of social inequality and colonialism, and an enchantment of the quotidian past. Similar things happen at the level of a single lifetime too – what one’s parents think unremarkable achievements might make you more impressed with them later on.

    Like

  12. Mark,
    Ah well, it’s obvious you never really got it in the first place.

    I must agree with your aunt 🙂 I say that with some sympathy for you since I also did not get it in the first place. But then the penny finally dropped. Curiosity is a marvellous antidote to sticky coin slots.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Mark,
    But they work only when they work.

    which is most of the time.

    And they only really work when you ignore certain truths.

    which happens most of the time.

    I opt for an enchanted view of the world every time. The cynical skeptick lurks somewhere in the back of my mind with his discomforting interjections. When he becomes too obnoxious we engage in an entertaining dialogue between the head, the heart and the soul(with apologies to Jefferson).

    When my children were small they wanted to know what happened to the children in the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. My first impulse was to give voice to my logical positivism, my inner rational skeptick who worshipped fervently at the altar of critical thinking. I looked into the shining eyes and expectant faces of my children and my resolution faded. Curiosity was everything.

    And so I invented the sequel to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, telling the story in serial form every evening after getting home from work. Being in serial format I could invent many enthralling adventures. My children were captured in the magical spell of this story for several months. I did not dare miss an evening of storytelling since they were so enraptured. It was a magical moment in our shared lives that my family now remember with so much fondness.

    These stories are part of the shared narrative myths that bind our family in a web of love. Today my daughter enthralls her children with the adventures of ‘Granddad’. I insist on an accurate account but I suspect my daughter nevertheless elaborates, enhances and embellishes. Who am I to disabuse them? Because in our family narrative myths are contained the important moral messages that will be their anchor in a stormy world of relativism. Our shared world of love bound together by the magic of our shared memories is the cocoon that keeps our family secure in a challenging world.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. E.J. Winner:
    Your Buddhism without the Buddha (the Enlightened One) seems to me to be like a recipe for bread that leaves out flour and certainly far away from the undulating pilgrims that I saw doing their 1008 prostrations at Bodhgaya. They worshipped the Buddha for being Gate, Gate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha.

    Like