Monday, November 21, 2011

What Bill Clinton Said

Arthur, Nine Worthies, the Met
Bill Clinton has to be a pretty swell former president if he can be quoted by a kid whose dog had to leave.  "It's just like Bill Clinton said," sobbed Oliver, "I took him for granted."  Clinton's original statement, during his address on campus, was about what we can take for granted in the industrialized West: that our water is clean, that our food is safe, that our electricity will turn on.  Oliver pursued the simile: Sawyer was refreshing like water, fun like food, and bright like electricity.  Sigh.  Today was strange where yesterday was awful - the only ambitions in the house now are human, and there isn't that unspeaking presence I love so much about animals.  The strangest realization was how much emotions felt remind me of those of a miscarriage: the loss, the guilt for not being able to see it through, the wanting it to have turned out not this way so so much, the helpless fantasizing that it hadn't, the wondering if it will ever work out, the hesitation to try again too soon, the unconscious turning to a presence now gone.  We're all pursuing our similes to try to make sense of things.

Bill Clinton had a phrase that he repeated in his rousing argument for the possibilities and efforts of a global social justice: he called for systems (water, sanitation, electricity, yes, but also education, housing, banking) - "Systems! Systems with predictable consequences for hard work."  My God, that's awesome for both teaching and parenting.  But upon reflection, I also see it as the most basic framework for the predictability of civilization against the unpredictability of nature. The moral structure of civilization vs. the amorality of nature. You've seen the nature documentary of the baby turtles working so so hard to reach the sea - and the very few who do (utter unfairness, what system?). Or the enormous tree whose hard work pushing and straining and sustaining so much other life is wrenched by wind (or here in February this year, crushed under the weight of an ice storm).  We have worked so hard to systematize nature (calling Linneaus!), and yet there are no predictable consequences for hard work in nature.  Not really. Still, there should be in civilization (if we are really to believe that we can oppose civilization and nature, which we can't, thus, perhaps, Clinton's impassioned plea) - too many people in the Western world have "too much leverage" within our systems, thus our demise.  Thus the call for a more balanced system. A politico-ecosystem in harmony.

I think of the balance and harmony of the medieval Nine Worthies, a 14th-century phenomenon presenting 3 heroes (worthies) from pagan antiquity, three from Jewish antiquity, and three from the earlier medieval period.  In general (there were occasional variations, and eventually the Female Nine Worthies, too), the three Worthies of pagan antiquity were Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Caesar; the three Worthies of Jewish antiquity were David, Joshua, and Judah Maccabeus; and the three medieval Worthies were Charlemagne, Arthur (whom you have above), and Godfroy de Bouillon (a leader of the First Crusade in 1099).  It's a system of worthiness, each man having worked for some greater triumph, for the establishment (or the destruction, actually) of another system.  It's not a rational system (I can't say what was predictable in poor Arthur's world), but it singles out its heroes. The fun begins when you try to think of whom we would place in what category in the modern period. Bill Clinton would definitely have to feature in there - for that reach to global social justice, and the immediacy Oliver was able to feel and apply to his thoughts as he tried to make sense of this first true clash of civilization and nature in his life.

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