Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 2, 2016
Years and years ago, within the secret-gardened privilege of a liberal arts education — back when, at this particular college, there are no requirements for any sort of mathematics but four years of requirements for cultural history from Greece and Rome to the modern day — I have a professor, one of many big-time characters who help liberate me from my parochial thinking while at the same time opening the door to a lifetime of head scratching. Thank you, all you professors, so much.
This particular man, like many of his fellow academics with bigger and more beautiful than average minds, wears the same outfit day after day and walks the same way to get to the same office to hold the same office hours to help students asking the same questions arrive at the same answers – always making sure, of course, that they are doing it themselves, or at least helping them think that they are.
Some of these ivory tower types wear tweeds and bow ties, some wear elbow-patched sweaters. Professor H, call him, is in the habit of wearing very loose fitting khakis, a nondescript short-sleeved shirt, and Birkenstocks. The way he walks is hard to forget: a deliberate and primordial stepping down – as if permanently imprinting in mud the ground of our tiny spinning planet, which hangs here delicately in a balance of not only deep space but snips, snails, puppy dogs tails, floating Greek characters, and enough ancient philosophy to bend light. Birkenstocks seem like the perfect shoe for this man.
At any rate, the professor is a man with a mission, a mission centered on the entrainment of undergraduate minds to better know Greek philosophers — and, more specifically, one particular concept. If you get it, and your work reflects that you get it, you score well, and get A minuses. (A’s are not given, on principal, in his classes.) The concept is straightforward, and the only thing keeping us all from simply getting it and ticking it off and writing the papers parroting back our comprehension of what he is getting at… is rebellion. You will see why in a moment.
His idée fixe, (which, like everything else under the Sun, is not new) is that freedom is not necessarily contained in the notion of choices. That, on the contrary, choice can limit us, paralyze us, even. That the happy life, a life determined by measured goodness and good-thinking and proper and natural adherence to rules, can create a life far more “free” than a life rife with too much choice or rebellion. Of course, at nineteen, we find it impossible not to rebel against this. Most adults today cannot conceive of it, given our modern world, which is populated by skillions of choices, that get chopped up into skillions more.
Today, I am thinking of this man – whom I have thought of many times before — as I tackle a mundane task: replacing a washing machine, a brand new one with far more choices on its dashboard than I want or need, one which is so efficient in the water department that it hardly uses any water at all, so little, in fact, that it barely gets the clothes wet, let alone clean. There are too many other washers to choose from out there and too many choices within each of them. I feel paralysis set in. My free will – the freedom to choose wisely – is corrupted, even at the inch-worm level of the washing machine!
In addition to this burden of choosing, we are then asked to process these choices quickly and all at once. Look at this screen and figure out where you are. Pick a game and play it instantly. Look at this coffee maker and program it. Look at this phone, and figure out this week’s operating system. Pick two things to do at once, now, or seven or however many you want, there are so many! Do it until you’re giddy and fried and there is only one thing left: the bathtub. The idea of fewer choices and greater freedom? It is revolutionary. Subversive. Possibly even brilliant.
Recently, I hear of the early passing of an acquaintance, a novelist and screenwriter, whose habit with any kind of writing, which he does longhand, is never – not ever –to begin with a blank page. He writes between the lines of other people’s work, on the backs and fronts of bills and envelopes, on whatever comes in the mail. What I love about this is that the freehand scrawls flows more easily this way. Standing out between the rows of printed text, it quietly, and seamlessly illustrates how limitation, constraint, and fewer choices can be the beginnings of something very fine indeed.