Gotham Diary:
Moments in Being
6 November 2012

It got very cold yesterday, and we were dismayed to think about — or to feel for, as we did reflexively — people without warm homes.

Everyone I know is “worried about the election.” I think that it is beginning to dawn on everyone I know that this presidential election is not a race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, however insistently we focus our transitory attention upon the sayings and doings of the two men. It is a battle of assymetric ideologies. On the one hand, Republican voters, as committed to the party line as the reddest Soviet; on the other, people who prefer to “think for themselves.” Many of the second group will vote for Romney because they like him, but most of the Republican’s supporters won’t give the man himself a second thought. Control of the Executive (and, through it, of the Judiciary) is what they hope to gain, not the right man in the White House. The right man is a cypher. That’s how ideology works.

Very few on the left are ideologues — anymore. If it were otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much carping from people who were wowed by Obama in 2008 but have since felt “disappointment.” Ideologues would recognize that the President said the right things to get elected and then did the right things (to the extent that he could do anything) in office. There would be no criticism (from the left) of the President’s aloof manner. There would be little rhetorical regret about the President’s failure to close the prison at Guantánamo. Most difficult to imagine, there would be no squabbling among Democrats.

But Democrats, who ought to be the majority party in any election, have not developed a post-New Deal, post-Civil Rights Acts platform. Much less have they developed an ideological cohesion to compete with that of the Republicans. It’s worth noting that ideological cohesion is rarely rational, and certainly not a matter of logically outlined objectives. The nub of Republican ideology — a commitment to the conversion of public wealth into private property — is never stated by Republicans. And Democrats are too disorganized to fight it.

Hence a close election that should be a shoe-in.


By “moments of being,” Virginia Woolf had something somewhat mystical, somewhat spiritual, in mind. In her discussion of the matter, in the early pages of “A Sketch of the Past,” a memoir that she composed over several years at the end of her life, she begins by distinguishing moments of being from those, by far more numerous, of non-being, of unremarkable triviality, whether pleasant or tedious. Gradually, she shifts into thinking of moments of being as “shocks.”

I only know that many of these exceptional moments brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse; they seemed dominant; myself passive. This suggests that as one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of aart; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

I myself don’t believe that there is a pattern underlying the cotton wool. “… it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.” It’s curious that Woolf speaks of making real something that is already real. I agree with the second clause: she makes the evidence of pattern real by writing about it — and well deserves the rapture of getting things right. Meaning is a human construction. I say “construction” because the fashionable “construct” suggests a flimsy, improvisatory model that can be knocked down at will. Human meaning is really quite durable in contrast, not “artificial” by any means, and we have built it up as we’ve gone along. We find what works by trial and error, but what works works organically, not mechanically: human meaning is not a machine. The development of human meaning has been prone to a consistent type of error that has all the same dwindled in its impact over time: this is the tendency to see more pattern than is truly visible, to infer gods and ideals from violent storms and pleasing regularities. It is even arguable that the vast useless systems of meaning constructed by religions ancient and modern provide an indispensible prototype for the truly anthropocentric system of meaning that underlies modern secular democracy. “Anthropocentric” — a good word, but probably one that needs to be replaced. It suggests that mankind is the most important kind. This makes no sense unless you are still thinking of having stolen importance from gods or stars. The minute man becomes most important, the very idea of importance evaporates. What takes its place, and what the replacement for “anthropocentric” will have to connote, is that mankind immediately shoulders all responsibility, not for the world, but for mankind.