Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Disillusionment

Can a state of disillusionment ever be coherent?

As a feeling, it is difficult to experience as anything but painful. It seems defined with the bad: it is a poignant sorrow, arrived at only when one realizes that a previous pleasure--or a previously pleasant part of one's life--has passed, and can only be partially recaptured at the expense of intellectual or moral honesty.

Yet such honesty itself requires us to appreciate being set free from an illusion. We cannot but feel, after such an experience, that having seen that illusion from both in front of and behind the curtain, we are now competent judges, in John Stuart Mill's sense. Knowing both sides, we have moved beyond an immature stage. This is progress, and it is to be celebrated.

Aside from such vague dissonance, however, disillusionment occasions a new problem, when we encounter those who have not yet seen behind the curtain: do we attempt to rip it aside, or not?

If we are at our best in such moments, we want to help, to offer the benefit of our experience to others. Yet this is a path--well, not really a path at all. It is a wall topped with razor wire, and it's not clear what's on the other side.

To tell a story of one's disillusionment is, very likely, to tell a story of one's failures. (For I have sworn thee fair, after all, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.) Such a story is a gracious offering. At the beginning of his essay on discussion, Montaigne notes that he learns better "by counter-example than example," and offers his own reflections on his imperfections in hopes that he "may teach someone how to fear them." But he also, too truly, notes that "when all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are."

More importantly, life in front of the curtain feels comfortable for those who are living there. Efforts to tear it away can fail, and they can fail badly. One attempting the operation may well do more harm than good.

I struggle with this every once in awhile, particularly since my job and other aspects of my life bring me often into contact with young adults--many of whom have and are about to act on the same illusions I once had and once acted upon. And I don't have any great ideas about how to handle such situations, but here is a proposal for three rules of thumb. I truly welcome additional suggestions:

1.) Do your best to know your own motives. In these situations, I know mine are often mixed. The thing about which I am disillusioned, after all, is something or someone who has hurt me. That means that I might be making a little speech to myself about looking out for this young person's good, when in fact I want the pathetic revenge that comes from trash-talking a perceived enemy. If that's the dominant feeling, everything else I'm trying to do is suspect. Good advice, it seems to me, is more likely to come from a soul at peace with itself.

2.) In addition to suspecting your motives, suspect your experience at both the widest and narrowest margins. Your disillusionment about something as broad as, say, marriage, is unlikely to provide good guidance to anyone in a particular situation that does not resemble yours in numerous respects. (In other words, it's probably silly to be disillusioned about something this broad.) Likewise, your disillusionment about a single person may really be about your problems, or your problems in that relationship, rather than the other person's. (Remember this is a rule of thumb; I do not mean this to apply to anyone's disillusionment with any genuine abuser or other social monster.) Disillusionment about cliques of people, or institutions of various sizes, on the other hand, may well be instructive.

3.) If you really know that the "illusioned" person cannot hear you, or if this is really the kind of lesson one must learn for oneself, it is probably best to curtail the attempt. I think we probably know this more often than we like to admit, because we like to believe that we have more power over people than we do. But if you just met someone, and she has stars in her eyes over some institution that is woven into the fabric of her life, chances are that you cannot help. And if you know that the person you're advising has little respect for your opinion, chances are that you cannot help. And if you've offered the same caution before, and it has fallen on deaf ears, chances are . . . .

But it is difficult. Because at least sometimes, one really wants to help.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Love Letter to Brasil (and Brasilians!)

A week has passed since Margaret and I were in Brasil. To convey what it was like is not possible—but a failed attempt strikes me as better than none at all. Before the trip, I had absolutely no expectations. Which is funny, since as a small child, I would check out books about S. America and imagine what life in the continent must be like, gazing at pictures of mountains, rivers and jungles. But adult life came perilously close to destroying my capacity for such wonder. So my attitude was "another plane trip, another conference." I had no idea what I was in for.

What was so striking about Brasil? First, the sensation of being in a land with very few English-speakers. Had we gone to Rio or São Paolo, things might have been different. But the site of the conference was Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. BH (bay-ah-GAH, as the locals call it) is Brasil's third largest city, but not exactly a tourist destination. Because of this, I hazard that BH gave me something more akin to "the real Brasil," as distinct from the side of the country carefully prepared for tourist consumption. Not that I exactly blended in. That my dress and my demeanor screamed "Americano!" from miles away, I have no doubt. ("You'll be marked as a tourist the moment you get there," an old friend of Peruvian heritage assured me.) And my Portuguese has very little going for it, beyond my general willingness to take some risks and make a fool of myself. (The brasileira at the airport thought I was trying to buy chocolate on credit, rather than proposing to use my credit card. The fault was certainly mine...) But the locals were so warm and so receptive to my bumbling efforts, that after a while I found myself spontaneously exclaiming "Amo Brasil!" This had the double merit of being true and being ingratiating. When the true and the useful coincide in this manner, one can only feel grateful.

Another unforgettable thing about Belo Horizonte—the sidewalks. Here in the States, or at least where I live, the sidewalks are mostly charmless paths of dull and drab concrete. In Belo Horizonte, they were typically colorful mosaics, with fascinating and unpredictable patterns. I wish I could describe these better. One of the more remarkable patterns was a hopscotch (see photo below).

Quite a large proportion of the local buildings, as well as the streets, are named after famous writers. On the first day, I found Montaigne and Stendhal. The last day presented me with a building calling itself "Edifício Montesquieu." There was also a condo (I think) sporting the name "Federico Fellini," as well as a salon called "Nixon," which I can only assume was not named after the former U.S. President. But it's difficult to be sure.

Anyone who appreciates food should certainly try the Brazilian cuisine. The buffets are generally much better than the typical American buffet. Our second night, Margaret and I went to a restaurant called "Amadeus." In addition to offering all the cheeses, fruits, and meats we could dream of, as well as the most splendid array of desserts I'd ever seen, Amadeus featured a wine cellar that we were able to personally inspect. Perhaps my favorite type of Brazilian restaurant is the rodizio. A rodizio invariably begins with an antipasto bar, full of olives, fruits, cheese, nuts and other delectables. Here the trick is to eat about half as much as you'd like to, since you need to leave room for the main courses. These consist of "endless meat." The server brings one kind of meat after another, about every seven minutes, and carves it for you at the table. He does not stop visiting your table, armed with juicy meat begging to be consumed, until he is explicitly instructed to do so. The rodizio we visited was a Lebanese place—"Vita Araba." I managed to stay just this side of the famous "meat coma."

Scenery, architecture, food—such are the standard fare of travel writers. No experience of travel should be without them. But how to write about them vividly, with imagination and flair? Obviously, I've got no idea. My strategy in the above paragraphs was to pick relatively two non-obvious items of interest—buildings with strange names and sidewalks with strange patterns—before debauching into the usual discourse about food. It would be a mistake, however, to leave you with the impression that scenery, architecture, food were what made Brasil for me.

What did make Brasil for me, if not the impressive scenery, buildings and cuisine? The answer: its people.

I love Brasil—but what I really love are brasileros and brasileiras. In every location in which I encountered Brasilians—whether at the conference, restaurants, shops, museums, gelaterias, or the airport—they were some of the warmest and most welcoming people whom I've ever met, in any country. They were so willing to converse with a none-too-impressive American who tried, however poorly, to speak their language. Seeing my somewhat confused look in a bookstore, an employee approached me. After we talked a little, partly in English and partly in Portuguese, he led me to two sections. "Here are some classics in Portuguese!" he said proudly. "And here are some books"—gesturing to another shelf—"in your language." When I (sincerely) told him I was far more interested in the former, he looked at me with a mixture of surprise and respect, and proceeded to ask me where I was from and what my name was. After purchasing an inexpensive Portuguese edition of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, I decided it was time for some chocolate. The chocolate was fine. But what I really remember was the woman behind the counter beaming when I told her that her English was good, after she had asked me which state I was from. When I give a true answer to this question (i.e. "Texas"), I am no longer surprised when I receive a look of contempt. None of the Brazilians whom I encountered exhibited any such small-minded nonsense. They are not so provincial as to believe that Texans are just one thing.

My encounters with brasileros and brasileiras on the streets and in the shops were a daily source of joy. I should add that the Brazilian academics at the Hume Society conference were equally lovely. Professor Livia Guimarães, of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), did an excellent job coordinating the conference as a whole. Though I had met her only once, Livia remembered me and embraced me (literally) as if we were old friends. Particularly memorable was the Hume Society's banquet, held the last night of the conference. I was quite fortunate to be seated next to two Brazilian academics, Luiz Eva and Cecília Almeida. Margaret and I had met Luiz the day before, and so knew that he and I both love Montaigne. Luiz spoke excellent English, and in a distinctly American accent, perhaps because he spent half a year at Johns Hopkins on a post-doc. Now he teaches at the Universidade Federal do Paraná. We spoke about everything from the style of philosophy most influential in Brasil, to why more people don't fathom that Montaigne is a philosopher, to why Hume remains a figure of interest and fascination, to the impossibility of translating the Portuguese term "saudade." After a while, Cecília joined our table. From what I gather, Luiz and Cecília had both studied philosophy in São Paolo. Cecilia is also interested in French skeptical writers—she specializes in Pierre Bayle—and recently accepted a position in the philosophy department at the Universidade de Brasília. In addition to encouraging my fledging efforts at Portuguese—her English was so much better than my Portuguese!—she gave me invaluable advice about where to travel next time we're in Brasil. (Not trusting my own ability to remember, I asked her to write it down, which she did.) Cecília also mentioned the prospect of yours truly coming to Brasilia to give a lecture. This I did not get in writing, but I am optimistic that it will happen. In any case, Margaret and I will be making another trip to Brasil.

In conclusion … but I won't conclude, since my time in Brasil has hardly concluded. In lieu of a conclusion, here are some photographs.