A Face To Indifference
- Let's play a game. You tell one of your stories, in such a way that it means something of course, only don't tell me what it means. I'll come up with a moral for the story, subject to one condition: the moral has to include a new idea, new at least to you and me.
- I'm willing. How should I begin?
- Why not with those people on the street outside Starbucks? What's going on with them? Remember our condition: there has to be a meaning.
- I'll try not to make it too hard for you. The 300 pound man is still playing his guitar during the day to earn money for food, pushing his cart at night, sleeping in the doorway of the design showroom. The paparazzi has reappeared, not seen for months, not since the movie-star frequented restaurant* down the street closed while its building is remodeled. He's still trying to become the subject of a reality TV show to be self-produced, catching himself in the act of catching stars. Who else? A middle-aged woman who drives around all night has taken to stopping to talk to me when she sees me at the tables outside at Starbucks. She hears voices calling her a whore, sometimes hears a voice coming out of my head doing the same. Her CEO husband from England divorced her years ago; she can't get over it. She brought her aged mother over from Bulgaria last year, and the two took off for Portland, Oregon to live more cheaply. Last month the two had a fight, mother called police on daughter, daughter drove off down to home territory, L.A., where ever since she's been driving around in circles. Conservative Jewish, she's visited most of the neighborhood rabbis; they can't or won't help her. They tell her she's possessed by a demon. She has been taking medication, seeing psychiatrists on and off for the past two decades. She's not taking drugs or seeing councilors now. She gets out of her car, thinks someone driving by is playing music chosen to insult her, gets back in her care, drives away, returns. Her aged mother in Oregon, without daughter's rent contribution, has been evicted, and now is living on the street. Why doesn't she go home, I ask? Her mother, she says, is crazy. You're not? I ask. You too! I thought you were a friend, that we were like Franny and Zooey, she says; back to her car she goes and drives away. See what I'm getting at here?
- I'll take my turn when you're finished. Go on.
- Hungry Dog** is back hanging around UCLA. A poverty-stricken version of our president, a stupid man amusing because he thinks he's smart. He sleeps in a flophouse room with a dozen others, works as a temporary part-time guard, but is always getting fired, he says, for not being a member of the race his bosses belong to. He's back to going around to lectures and conferences eating and bagging for later all the free food and drink he can take. Hint: meaning here.
- I don't want your hints. Leave them out.
- I'm not sure I like this game very much. 'Franny And Zooey', I repeated to the troubled woman, just about my favorite American novel, read over and over again. To luck into the relation these brother and sister have to each other! Both hard-headed, realistic about the world and deeply mystical in demand for - yes - meaning. And here the grand opportunity arises with a women by whom such a relation is offered, but is absolutely impossible: hallucinating voices, her world is unreal; living in nearly constant fear and anger at those voices, mystical depths don't have a chance. Imagine the face of this woman: deeply lined, slightly twisted into a grimace of pain.
- I'm picturing it.
- Now imagine the faces of the mostly Jewish audience of a lecture I went to on the memoir-writing, Italian holocaust survivor Primo Levi.
- How should I imagine them?
- Without expression.
- Which is an expression of indifference.
- You wanted to wait until the end of my turn to derive your meanings. At the break for lunch out on the terrace of the Faculty Center, at my table, the only one in the shade needed to read my computer screen, are a man in his 90s attended by a woman in her 70s, a retired psychiatrist who gives his age as 85, a married couple both in late 70s, and a retired school teacher of the same age. All jewish. I read the first chapter of Primo Levi's first book, If This Is A Man, describing his transport and admission to the Auschwitz death camp. He describes the experience as that of becoming progressively aware that everyone outside him is indifferent to him and those with him; as the guards, applying techniques that facilitate that indifference, take away their clothes and possessions, shave their heads, the prisoners find that they are becoming indifferent to themselves. Hint.
- Stop that.
- I close the computer. Eavesdrop on the table's conversation: 'A beautiful program.' 'They really know how to do things here.' I turn to the psychiatrist who's seated next to me, and ask him what he thinks of the Jewish woman driving around all night hearing voices and told by rabbis she's possessed by demons. He responds he's retired, and in any case was specialized in treating veterans for post traumatic stress disorder. According to social workers, I reply, the people living on the streets also suffer from PTSD. No, he objects: PTSD is a serious disease; the vets who have it often cannot even stay indoors. Yes, I say, exactly like many of those living on the streets, according to social workers. Several organizations go around and on a person to person basis try to set up proper services for them. A matter of a few hundreds of people, when we are told there are somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand are living on the streets in L.A. Here the 95 year old man, in a hoarse but understandable voice says, 57,000. The school teacher comments that 'we're' doing what we can. I don't think so, I say. How would I solve the problem, she asks? I answer: Give everyone a place to live. That's impossible under our system and I know it, she says. I say, It's only impossible because you don't care. Who do I care for, she asks? Hint.
- Are you through?
- Almost. As I said, around the table I saw nothing but blank faces, faces that expressed indifference. This has nothing to do with Judaism. Our president owns another such face. Rather I'd venture to say that what we are seeing is how a human being expresses, responds to a life lived stripped of everything but the economic, stripped of everything including religion, customs, arts, sciences - and playing games too. Now your turn. Tell me about faces.
- Faces. Very good... Give me a moment to think... Ok. I've come up with something.
- We didn't say I couldn't make use of ideas we've discussed before. This is what I think. Plato divided the soul into three parts: rational, irrational, spirited. Rational expresses the world, irrational expresses the self, the spirited expresses the self in the world, or society.
- You haven't put it that way exactly, have you? The three part division can also be applied to faces.
- When you feel good, you smile. If, not feeling good, you deliberately put on a smile, you can make yourself feel good. As our own put on smile makes us happy, when we see, or even hear described, another person smile, we also are made happy. The same power of suggestion works in our relation to others as in our relation to ourselves. I propose - and this is my claimed new idea - that this inborn function of the human being is part of what makes us social. The spirited part. It is allied in this function with the instinct to touch each other, shared with most animals, and with our rational understanding of the immense benefits that come from cooperating in producing resources rather than competing for and depleting existing resources.
- Irrational part of the soul represented by the instinct to touch, rational by the understanding of the benefits of cooperation, and the spirited part by the sympathy that comes out of the ability of our minds to affect our bodies.
- Yes. That's my new idea. When we look at our president, at Hungry Dog, at the old people ridiculously indifferent lunching at a conference on the murderous indifference of the Nazis, we see all three functions of the soul broken down with reduction of life to the mere economic: the blankness of their faces expresses their spiritlessness, irresponsibility, indifference to others outside of tribal alliances; a false economic theory claiming that free markets create human happiness excludes a rational organization of society; touch has been psychologized into pleasure-stimulus, transforming what is between two people into a matter of the internal economy of one person. How'd I do? I won.
* With The Movie Stars
** Hungry Dog & The 17 Year Man