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May 15, 2008

The Ideal, and What to Make Of It

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've been thinking some recently about the difference between "what a person considers the ideal" and "what a person thinks might be useful in the here and now."

One reason for this is that The Wife and I recently visited a show of paintings and drawings by Nicolas Poussin at the Metropolitan Museum, and Poussin will often get a person thinking about such things.

Another reason is a small-t theory that I'm working on: It seems to me that people often get themselves in trouble because they scramble the two categories. Instead of doing what they can with what's available in the present tense, they try to impose their ideal regardless of what the actual situation before them really presents. Or maybe they too-regularly deduce their way to present-day behavior from the ideal, despite the practical fact that there's often not much connection between what idealism suggests and what's-needed-here-and-now.

Still, there is that question of the ideal ... Whatever else it is, it's certainly a part of life. What to make of it? How to deal with it?

Poussin shows how the ideal can be so near, yet so far

To me, the question of the ideal is a little like the question of sex fantasies. We all have them. What to do about it? And what to do with them? (If anything, of course.)

Sad experience suggests that imposing fantasies ("Hey, honey, let's me dress up like Batman and you like Catwoman!") can flop. Instead of delivering the expected bliss, acting on the desired ideal can instead spoil what might actually be magic about the present moment.

Still ... It's impossible not to feel an attachment to your favorite dreams and imaginings. And maybe there are in fact some ways of indulging in them that can pay off nicely. For some reason, for instance, I'm especially vulnerable to topless-beach fantasies; they seem to represent some kind of erotic ideal to me. And damned if a week The Wife and I once spent on a French-Caribbean island wasn't one of the most pleasing things I've ever lived through. Of course, it took an enormous amount of practical real-world effort to arrange, execute, and pay for our week of ideal bliss ... (If anyone was wondering: The Wife enjoyed it too, or so she tells me.)

My tentative conclusion: Our ideals and fantasies are resources that can confer much pleasure; that can sometimes serve as beacons and reminders; but that can also screw our lives up completely; and that are therefore perhaps usually best enjoyed at a bit of a distance.

Rough rule for myself: Enjoy the fantasy -- don't impose it. If the moment's right, go ahead and enter into it -- but be prepared for the fact that even a week on a topless beach in the Caribbean will come to an end. But, generally speaking, do what you can to deal honorably and fairly with what's immediately before you. And don't be too hard on yourself when you screw up, because you will screw up, and most of the time that's OK too.

So far as practical life goes, I rather like the way that much classic art (and much Michael Oakeshott-style conservatism) handles the ideal. Instead of trying to make the artwork (or the moment) achieve the ideal -- instead of letting the ideal dominate -- it sets the ideal off on a distant plateau, gives it respect, and acknowledges its beauty. And then it shakes the spell off and gets back to fumbling through the here and now.

The real and the ideal ... Nature and civilization ... Facts and imaginings ... Can't we all just get along?

Idling around Wikipedia earlier today, I was reminded that -- speaking purely about the ideal, and not proposing anything in the way of concrete action -- I don't have too many quarrels with anarcho-primitivism. A few things that I can't go with ... A few things from bioregionalism and Vedanta that I'd like to stir in ...

But generally speaking, ideal-wise, I'm down with anarcho-primitivism. Not that I'm about to turn into Ted Kazcinski or anything. But (awful those his acts were -- dude shouldn't have gone that far with it!) I could certainly see his general point, and I share a few of his general feelings. I try not to let this attachment to the anarcho-primitivism ideal derange my here-and-now behavior too much. But, y'know, for me there's no getting away from the fact that anarcho-primitivism is over there, on that distant plateau, glowing under the same golden light that warms my ideal topless beach.

Have you ever run into a p-o-v (that has a label, of course) that pretty much nails your ideal way of seeing things? I mean, when you really get down to how you really feel about things? Screw responsibility and adulthood entirely: I'm talking total romanticism, no compromises, and extreme impracticality here.

Here's a visit with the anarchist John Zerzan, who really does seem to live the credo, or much of it anyway. I've read a lot of Zerzan, and I've found him smart and fun; god knows he's nothing if not provocative. Hey, is there any reason why an ideas person shouldn't play his axe as nuttily as a punk rocker? Can't excitement and extremism make their own worthwhile (if only because provocative and fun) contributions?

A few other uncompromising extremists whose thoughts I resonate to: Stewart Home (his book "Blow Job" is a riot), Colin Ward, and Edward Abbey, whose "Desert Solitaire" is a real beauty. This is a nice read-it-in-an-hour intro to Vedanta.

* Semi-related: Back here I wrote about the Situationism- influenced post-punk band Gang of Four. Much of Situationism clicks for me too -- especially when it's accompanied by a great dance beat.

OK, now: Back to real life ...



UPDATE: Thursday, Ricpic, and Peter have got me humming this song:

posted by Michael at May 15, 2008


One of the pleasures of art is that it often lets us live in an ideal world. But trying to live it is another thing.

Posted by: Thursday on May 15, 2008 6:13 PM

If one were to be honest, there is a kind of agony that rises in one when faced with the ideal. It is so beautiful. And so unrealizable. The trick is in somehow reconciling within oneself the knowledge that there is an ideal but unrealizable state with the reality that we can only live in a fallen state. But the ideal is necessary. For without it, without an awareness of it, our fallen state quickly degrades into a corrupt and nihilist state. So Poussin is necessary. Painful. But necessary. Art is real.

Posted by: ricpic on May 15, 2008 9:19 PM

There's something not quite right about the woman facing the viewer in the Poussin painting ... hard to say for sure ... something missing perhaps. No, it's probably just my imagination.

Posted by: Peter on May 15, 2008 9:21 PM

The whole notion of "idealism" versus "realism" is an interesting conundrum. Does one have ideals, but set them aside and essentially ignore them in the name of being "realistic"? If so, are the supposed ideals really our ideals or not? Or does one become so dedicated to the ideal that it becomes nearly impossible to deal with mundane reality? My own sense is that we need ideals to provide goals ... something to strive for and judge progress by. If we are not at least making efforts to move closer to them, are they really our ideals? Probably not,

My socio-political ideal mixes in more bioregionalism- less primitivism, but may be similar to yours Michael.

I also think there are significant differences between ideals and fantasies ... whether sexual or political ... and it behooves us to recognize them.

Posted by: Chris White on May 16, 2008 10:54 AM

And the Lord God of Hosts said, "Miguel, thou must regroup!"

Posted by: vanderleun on May 16, 2008 12:45 PM

I just watched the whole series of "A Dance to the Music of Time," which takes Pouissin's painting of that theme as its reference point. The BBC series (1997) is based on a twelve book series by Anthony Powell and has a kind of subtitle: "20th Century Blues." That is, the story stretches through the 20th century, a group of young men trying hard to live up to their elite promise and being constantly baffled by the times, which seem to favor a figure of ridicule: the proverbial fat misfit suckup who finally ends up crashing into the hippie scene and then right on through reality and into Poussin's painting in a payoff ending that's certainly hard to beat.

The series takes a couple of days to watch and features confusing changes in the actors as "time" dances on, but that payoff ending is worth the effort!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 19, 2008 6:14 PM

Chris -- I'd be interested in hearing more about your thoughts about the diffs between ideals and fantasies.

P. Mary - Thanks for the rec. Now it's time for you to move on to the Anthony Powell books! I knew a guy who'd actually read the whole series -- he said it was great.But what else are you going to say after committing six months to that kind of reading? That it wasn't worth the effort?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 19, 2008 10:40 PM

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