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Musings from a long life

Thu, Dec 23rd, 2004
Posted in Commentary

Begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh, a cycle of poems composed perhaps three thousand years ago. It is a tale of heroism, morality, a struggle against the fear of death. Call it the first novel. Leap across millennia to the epic of the unraveling of DNA’s structure by Frances Crick and James Watson by-passing only a few decades Albert Einstein’s fateful formula; Energy equals Mass times the speed of light squared. Jump about in time (as I did pulling dusty books off crowded shelves) for glimpses of Freud, Jung, Machievelli, Descartes, Darwin (and his fateful “theory” of evolution), Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb), R.H. Tawney (Christianity and the Rise of Capitalism and The Acquisitive Society), ah, here is The Lonely Crowd (by three authors, Riesman, Glazer and Denney). Was it about this time when Kinsey probed our sexual attitudes and behavior ushering in a sexual revolution? So many white men! My birthday 84 years ago marks the year when women were finally able to vote! After all that time from the Bill of Rights to my birthday, my mother could accompany my father to the voting booth and cast her ballot!Sara Teasdale, an American poet of little note, in 1929 published a collection of womens’’ love poems though not self-consciously “feminist,” revealed distrust of men and resentment of male domination. A rebellion was taking definite shape. Piles of books rise around me, Newton, Pythagorus, Leibniz and scattered here and there women of every color and calling including Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison who won a Nobel Prize for the power of her prose, the poet/novelist May Sarton who early in the struggle of gay people confronted the deadly hypocrisy of white academia and a still earlier voice of the author of The Well of Loneliness, a quiet, brave “confession” of a lesbian’s suffering (the author’s name slips from a fading memory). Noam Chomsky, Bob Marley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Chief Josph, Abraham Lincoln, Galileo. Garibaldi, some of the piles topple over. Poets, philosophers, novelist, obsessed emperors, sly diplomats, corrupt Popes, liars, thieves, murderers, pimps, prostitutes, journalists. The titles of books read and forgotten carry me on a dizzy trip of discover, re-discover, wonder, nostalgia, and a grief too deep to measure. This welter of bound print, some of it in languages I could speak and read before losing memory and energy, records the tragic attempt of humankind to free itself from cruel greed, futile ambition, fear of death and wishful dreams of immortality. For eighty years I have been consuming books. Their writers taught me to question all words, all beliefs, especially my own.Have I learned anything of value? I think so. Although my understandings are limited I can confidently brush aside the conventional wisdoms that protect the mighty scrutiny, hide their savagery and stupidity.While the universe remains an impersonal reality it hides nothing from the curious; we know it is dynamic and that we are not in any way separate from it and share its fate whatever it may be.Hugh Iltis, a botanist retired years ago from the University of Wisconsin, was among those scientists who warned us that we are methodically destroying resources on which we depend absolutely for our survival. Books are among those resources. Iltis remarked with real alarm that a textbook necessary for the preparation of students of botany, biology and other life sciences was out of print. This is the kind of disconnect that threatens scholarship. Many of the several thousand books in my modest personal library can help maintain the continuity of our culture. The internet flashes an endless stream of raw data on the screens of our computers. Surfing the net inevitably seduces many users with games, chat rooms and other distractions. It is a powerful tool in the advertising industry’s marketing kit. It has become another feature in the landscape of the consumer society.It is, a least for me, much more satisfying and rewarding to turn to the encyclopedias and other heavy reference books for most of the information I need.A broad familiarity with literature and command of several languages may help in the development of critical thinking and responsible citizenship. Books may furnish an active mind but do not shelter us from the all too common threats of war and anarchy.Wisdom, tolerance, and all the virtues necessary for the creation and maintenance of a peaceful world can be taught and learned in many ways. There were wise men and good teachers before the invention of moveable type. There are still a few communities where life is simpler and where happiness does not depend on war, conquest, and greed and where games are played for fun and not for glory.

Peter Denzer, a former journalist, lives in rural Houston County.

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