by James Greer
Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ mugt ir vinden
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
vor dem walde in einem tal,
schône sanc diu nategal.
Under the lime tree
on the open field,
where we two had our bed,
you still can see
flowers and grass.
On the edge of the woods in a vale,
sweetly sang the nightingale.
Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170 – c. 1230)
I woke this haze-shrouded California day with an obsession: to escape. Not just my cramped and unclean two-room sublet, but the whole dust-bowled, brown-scarved city. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost three years, and during that time have never discovered the city limits. To be fair, the city may not have any limits. I’ve been told as much, but it’s unwise to believe everything you’re told, I’m told. As a matter of long habit, I rarely leave the house. I spend my days reading books, or watching movies. I consider myself a student type.
I had never before this day been afflicted by anything like an obsession. I’d always figured I simply didn’t have the requisite attention span. You—or maybe not you, but someone, I hope—know what it’s like: you set your mind on something, get maybe halfway through, and suddenly stop, because you can’t remember why. Your motivation evaporates, without apparent cause. Well, the answer’s clear, Alphonse-Hubert, you tell me (that’s my name, and yes, it’s my real name, and no… I forget what no. Call me Valence, or Val. Everyone else does—strange that I don’t know your name, though), obviously, you’ve remembered that there’s no point. In other words, there’s no point to anything, and still we do things, we keep doing things, despite the pointlessness. Not me, personally, I don’t do anything, or not many things, at any rate, but people in general: we do things.
Where’s the evidence that doing things has resulted in a benefit for humanity? A real, measurable, absolute benefit for every human being, I mean. Obviously you can do something nice for yourself, or your neighbor, or your grandmother, but all of these people: you, your neighbor, your grandmother, are going to die, and where does your good deed end up but the cemetery? Okay, say you are an inventor and you come up with something that undeniably progresses our common ability to travel from one place to another more quickly and comfortably, while at the same time preserving the earth’s natural resources and affordable to everyone, not just rich wastrels.
I’m not convinced. What’s so terrific about traveling more quickly or comfortably? Who’s to say we’re not better off with slow, cumbersome, filthy, disease-ridden, back-breaking, environment-blighting modes of transport? The earth does not belong to us, nor her natural resources. If we squander them, it’s the same as stealing from God, but if we save them, we’re saving them for God, and where’s the benefit to humanity in saving things for God, who—by the way—is supposed to be in charge of saving things for us, or at least saving us. Perhaps these are the same thing, perhaps not. I’m no theologian.
I don’t think the old days or ways were better than the new ones. I don’t think they were worse, necessarily. On the whole, life has always been life, and the core problems associated with life remain as unsolved and troublesome as ever. I’m not one of these crazy Luddites who want to take away every invention made after the year 700 or whatever. Not that I approve of many of these inventions, in fact just the opposite, I disapprove of everything the so-called Renaissance and its grubby cousin, the Industrial Revolution, has bequeathed us, with the possible exception of the television and the DVD player, because I watch a lot of movies but I don’t like to leave the house. I disapprove of modern conveniences and the general uptick in speed-of-life that has accompanied these conveniences, especially the vacuum cleaner, but I cannot condone anything that derives from religion. Religious people, by which I mean people bound by faith, which is of course the etymology of religion, are by definition insane, and will do insane things. Religious people in recent history have been known to fly airplanes (which I don’t like, either) into skyscrapers (also no good), killing thousands of people.
Where’s the benefit in that? Granted, thousands of people die every day, sometimes of what are called natural causes, sometimes through neglect, stupidity, greed, laziness, etc. More rarely, these people are killed by other people, either singly, in small groups, or in mass executions. The victims in such cases are inevitably described as “innocent.” Which is another thing I have trouble believing: that there are innocent people. Everyone goes on and on about innocent people, especially with regard to children, when you and I both know, as has been proven in such books as Lord Of The Flies, Madame Bovary, Mein Kampf, Green Eggs And Ham, The Holy Bible, Highlights Magazine, Wuthering Heights, and Civilization And Its Discontents, that no one is innocent. Everyone deserves to die, and everyone will die. It’s a question of when, that’s all. And of how much, not how little, harm you will do to others and yourself before you die.