Wednesday, May 26, 1999

An alternative American dream

There are no simple answers in the scaled-down lifestyle.

Posted By on Wed, May 26, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Dear Vanya,

I’d just finished Jerome Segal’s Graceful Simplicity when Hannibal the Cannibal’s words came to my mind. "First principle: simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius: Of each thing ask what it is in its nature."

How methodical the good doctor is! How refined. How elegant.

Is elegance a synonym for simplicity? Lawrence Slobodkin (Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect) thinks so: "In science the deepest form of simplicity is called ‘elegance.’ Elegance is the primary touchstone for the most advanced theories. At this level, simple-looking, nonintuitive mathematical or logical formalisms predict or explain universal aspects of nature."

I know, I know. You find the bibliographical references in my letters useless and pedantic, but they’re "needful things" to me.

Need. This is how Segal looks at it: We only think we need so much. If we were to adopt the politics of simplicity, if we could think about money differently, if we could live an alternative American dream in which economy would mean a liberation from the economic, we’d be much happier.

Do you remember our talk about money? We were having lunch at Union Street a few days after you lost your job and you said you had no respect for money, you just needed a lot of it to live well. But what does "well" mean? Doing what you like in your spare time? Having your dream job or the ideal partner?

If none of the above works, Segal suggests, there’s always Mr. Micawber (in Dickens’s David Copperfield) to teach us that: Income of 100 + Expense of 101 = Misery. Income of 100 + Expense of 99 = Happiness.

The idea of living simply is not a recent fad; nor does it mean living on a modest income. The adjustment is, mostly, one of attitude toward money and consumption in general, toward the gnawing worm of the material world eating at our liver.

Segal’s solution? Read books. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Change your system of values.

He writes: "On the most basic level a politics of simplicity represents a way of perceiving; it means seeing things from within the realization that the good life resides in the achievement of gracefulness in all of its dimensions."

Read books? Are you as skeptical as I? Sure, Segal is the first to admit that in order to find pleasure in the haunting whispers of a library one needs to be educated properly.

"Clearly, our schools do not equip children to live lives of simplicity and to resist the hectic, frenetic alternatives that pull at them," he states.

No. Our schools barely equip children to read. As for writing ...

Good god: When was it that we lost our grace? Let’s take you, for example. You write exquisitely, yet you take no pleasure in it. How long did it take you to write your last abstract? Fifteen hurried minutes before class? Of course it’s good: That it’s not good enough for you is an entirely different matter. You work against simplicity because the world moves too slowly for you. As for those who can’t follow you, you say, "If it were decided that they were not located within the scale of this text, then fuck ’em."

Great argument: I like that.

I read Marcus Aurelius. Poor lonely stoic Roman emperor, how well he fits into Segal’s scheme: Be noble in character and simple in needs. "The security of life is to see each object in itself, in its entirety, its material, its cause."

I reread Thoreau’s Walden, especially "Economy," the first chapter: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust."

Segal trashes (elegantly) the "how-to" books for their unrealistic suggestions. But how "realistic" is Graceful Simplicity? It’s entirely noble in thought, and graceful in style, but how happy would we really be if we did take part-time jobs in order to spend more time with our children? Is it all about time management?

"Why not have one day of work and six days of rest?" Segal asks.

Back to Thoreau: Build your own house, grow your own vegetables, enjoy your own company. But if he had it so good, why did Thoreau leave at the end of two years of graceful solitude?

"I left the woods for as good a reason for which I went there," he wrote. "Perhaps it seemed to me that I had other lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

Segal’s book contains as many truths as it does delusions. There is no single version of "the good life," but he does say education could be better (and cheaper) and we could, indeed, recycle old ways of looking at the world. Or, maybe, you were right all along, and it is all about scale.

"The universe is wider than our views of it," said Thoreau. But I sometimes wonder: Are you happy in your world-blown-out-of-proportion? Are you the sole occupant of your private dilemma? Has your Apocalypse already happened, and – if it has – did it leave you somewhat empty?

That’s all for today.

Take care, Dayana

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