Cultivated Interests

A miracle has occurred. I seem to have spent the afternoon with an old college friend in Berkeley and even perused the stacks at Moe’s Books on Telegraph for an hour without purchasing a single volume. There’s a pleasure in sometimes not buying a book that only a bibliomaniac can appreciate. It’s the sort of thrill I suppose a junkie might feel on turning down the chance to get a fix – a shout of freedom from inside the prison yard. No one is really fooled.

I recently ordered a few titles online and the knowledge that they’re in the mail may have kept my book lust in check. I daily expect J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip, Steven Runciman’s Sicilian Vespers and a single-volume selection of Pierre Bayle. In the meantime I’m reading Hudibras and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, from Pulphead, on Constantine Rafinesque.

This Rafinesque character (early 19th century polymath, naturalist, etc.) is new to me. I don’t know why he isn’t better known but perhaps his speculation about the Americas being peopled by refugees from Atlantis got him in bad odor. More likely, I think, it was the presumption of being born with an adjective for a surname. As if Charles could have gotten away with the last name ‘Darwinian,’ or Franz with ‘Kafka-esque,’ or Miguel with ‘Cervantick.’

Driving through Oakland and south Berkeley my friend and I mused over the flare-out of the local Occupy movement (which neither of us participated in) and the explosion of local ‘hipster’ culture. Was there much cross-over between the two, I wonder? These hipster types, you can see them a half mile away queued up thirty-deep in front of some obscure bakery or coffeehouse or brunch factory. “It’s a very social movement,” my friend says. “You can’t be a hipster alone.”

It’s also a consumer movement: they apparently have money to spend. My friend says that an acquaintance of his –proprietor of a neighborhood comic shop – will shamelessly cater to any fresh hipster that steps inside, knowing a cash cow when he sees one. The customer might have known a mere title or two before entering but will leave with an armful of graphic novels he’d never heard of before. “They’re serious about cultivating interests.”

The hipsters and the occupiers both remind me more than a little of myself and my friends twenty years ago. Back then, too, it was the economy (stupid) – and the Gulf War wasn’t long over. The Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa were out or on the way out. And when we walked into the local bookshop in our corduroy jackets and Fluevogs I’m sure the proprietor knew that he could unload a few volumes of Beats on us and snicker profitably when we left.

Sometimes it’s easy to be more charitable toward others than toward our past selves.

In Sullivan’s essay on Rafinesque he writes: “It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature.” As a part of nature, I suppose it’s the doubly special province of man not only to be confused about the world at large but about himself. The quote could almost have been lifted from Montaigne – or perhaps from Eric Hoffer, whom I’m encouraging my friend to read right now. What we want for ourselves and what we want for the world, who can disentangle the two and divide motives of self-interest from those of self-loathing?

(Not that it’s perfectly germane but Eric Hoffer once wrote that “the only key in deciphering another is our self; and considering how obscure this self is and how dim our awareness of it, the use of it as a key in deciphering others is like using hieroglyphs to decipher hieroglyphs.”)

There’s so much to outgrow. We cultivate interests and then abandon them to wither in the hothouse. We nurse causes to reintroduce them, utterly doomed, into the wild. Still, I hope I never stop outgrowing things. Not that I’m really any wiser now than I was twenty years ago – and I don’t expect to be any wiser in another twenty. A fool (like me) asks only for variety of perspective. There’s something to be said even for the sort of progress that doesn’t go from poor to good or good to better but only from this to that.

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