Notes From Babel

A Nation of Tinkerers

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I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I was impressed with Austin Bramwell’s vigor on land use planning issues, and Bramwell listed Death and Life as his #1 most influential book, so I figured I’d have to check it out.  Nearly a hundred pages in, however, and Jacobs has not yet finished fawning all over how neat sidewalks are.  Not a very rigorous work.  But she opens her book with a quote from Ollie Wendell Holmes, Jr., which has been ringing in my head the past week:

Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favor of civilization, apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all. When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex: that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.

I realized yesterday that the reason I’m so taken with this quote is that it expresses almost the very same twisted condition of humanity noted by Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground.  I quoted this once before, but its import cannot be exhausted:

In short, anything can be said about world history, anything that might just enter the head of the most disturbed imagination. Only one thing cannot be said—that it is sensible. You’d choke on the first word. And one even comes upon this sort of thing all the time: there constantly appear in life people of such good behavior and good sense, such sages and lovers of mankind, as precisely make it their goal to spend their entire lives in the best-behaved and most sensible way possible, to become, so to speak, a light for their neighbors, essentially in order to prove to them that one can indeed live in the world as a person of good behavior and good sense. And what then? It is known that sooner or later, towards the end of their lives, many of these lovers have betrayed themselves, producing some anecdote, sometimes even of the most indecent sort. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man as a being endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the noncessation of world history—and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty. He will even risk his gingerbread, and wish on purpose for the most pernicious nonsense, the most noneconomical meaninglessness, solely in order to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious, fantastical element. It is precisely his fantastic dreams, his most banal stupidity, that he will wish to keep hold of, with the sole purpose of confirming to himself (as if it were so very necessary) that human beings are still human beings and not piano keys, which, though played upon with their own hands by the laws of nature themselves, are in danger of being played so much that outside the calendar it will be impossible to want anything. And more than that: even if it should indeed turn out that he is a piano key, if it were even proved to him mathematically and by natural science, he would still not come to reason, but would do something contrary on purpose, solely out of ingratitude alone; essentially to have his own way. And if he finds himself without means–he will invent destruction and chaos, he will invest all kinds of suffering, and still have his own way! He will launch a curse upon the world, and since man alone is able to curse (that being his privilege, which chiefly distinguishes him from other animals), he may achieve his end by the curse alone—that is, indeed satisfy himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, the chaos and darkness and cursing, can also be calculated according to a little table, so that the mere possibility of a prior calculation will put a stop to it all and reason will claim its own—then he will deliberately go mad for the occasion, so as to do without reason and still have his own way! I believe in this, I will answer for this, because the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig! With his own skin if need be, but proving it; by troglodytism if need be, but proving it.

As I’ve said before, we are a people defined by a will to tinker.  Not because our world wants for tinkering, but because we are tinkerers.  Take any perfect thing and man will mar it so he may satisfy his urge to put his hand to it.

Apparently, Justice Holmes, one of the fathers of the Progressive movement, believed the same thing.  Simple constitutional doctrines can never satisfy those whose tinkering proclivities are directed toward our legal system.  Progressivism is not the ideology of choice of Progressives because it renders better results, but for the more fundamental reason that it gives activists something to do.

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

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