Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saturn and Sparta

Necessity is not the mother of invention. I mean, it might be the ovary, but necessity is a bitch who throws out a lot of spontaneous abortions. Seriously; think of how many eggs in an ovary will actually matter and that gives you a good idea of how often necessity bears live young.

But necessity can certainly produce strength, or provoke it. It's part of our human myth. Need, hardship, going without, living without, avoiding ease, going to the desert, living off the land, growing out one's beard. Going to the mattresses. Earning your keep. Your first post has got to be the worst. They always try to make you wipe out on the first day. These are what come to mind. This is Sparta. It's Apollo, too. And Marcus Aurelius. And Buddha, in his way. Part of the family is a cold rejection, and the other branch seeks to abstain even from avoidance. But it's linked, you see. It's related. All of this is the ascetic urge.

And we are told, by Jedi and priests, libertarians and authoritarians alike, that it brings power, self-reliance, and so on. I remain skeptical when asceticism is imposed (though some believe so firmly in a moral law of BYO that they believe that withdrawal of aid can never be an assault, and there's an argument to be had there), but in any case, this is what I hear, and I hear it from popular and elite sources alike. It's a deep root.

But if Apollo reigns, is he not joined by Dionysus? There is also the indulgent urge, and we are told that if this does not bring power then it proves it. A man can handle his shit, hold his liquor. Get what you want, hold it in your hands, be ambitious, get the most toys, grab the most women. Buy, buy, buy. Have an appetite. Don't eat like a bird (I always loved that for how inaccurate it is), don't eat "rabbit food," gulp down the meat of miserable animals who lived as sadly as you. Get a car that you can't park; get a house you can't afford. Invade a country you can't hold down. More, more, more. It takes money to make money. You get what you pay for.

And the fact is that surpluses have formed much of what we think of as material culture. If the pyramids were the product of want, then it was artificial want manipulated by a ruling elite in order to coerce talent to act as it wished. Looking at the system as a whole, it was not want that made those structures that have inspired billions. It was surplus. It is surplus which rules as much as want, surplus that provides the fuel, the cushion, for contemplation and for aspirations that are arcane and damn near crazy when you compare them to the world of want.

And to this day, the people from the land of plenty regard the people from the land of want as lunatics, and vice versa. They are both mad, and they are both reacting to their madness with cleverness and ingenious adaptation. People do that a fucking lot, let me tell you.

So I know it's a stupid dichotomy, and I know that living as an Apollinian or a Dionysian is destructive and pathological. I know that there is some power to be found in either situation. Still, when I live my life, do I go for indulgence or discipline? Do I deny myself what brings pleasure because going without makes me strong, or do I act as a libertine, accepting the consequences? What is power for the individual? Harmony with others? Coordination? Abandonment? Where the fuck does freedom lie when it comes to indulgence and abstinence? Is the addict but one image of freedom, or is she the inversion of it? Dare we believe LBJ's words that drug abuse is "slavery"? Is rampant lust the expression of our freedom, or of bourgeois society's hypersexualization of life or some bullshit?

Or perhaps this is all one more modern headgame. Maybe we are simply Puritans playing Spartans and alcoholics telling ourselves we're transcendental. Maybe there's no difference between the two. Functionally, the indulgence of a few is paid for by the want of many. And yet, in our little heads, we utopians have often bounced between eudaimonia and Macedonian rags (or German, or Scottish, and so on a billion times), humble but free.


  1. Hmmmm.

    But surplus of ...what, exactly?

  2. Food, time, the power which is present in all ability to do as one pleases, the staving off of death and toil for a little while longer. Originally, though, it was always food--the oldest currency.

  3. Could water be more primary than food?

  4. I try to be disciplined about my indulgences. (I mean that earnestly, I know it could be read as sarcasm.)

  5. Justin, that reminds me of a Demian quote that I was going to include but couldn't be bothered to look up.

    And Karl, water sure as heck provides for food production, and it's a need that proves its severity more quickly than food, but it's just as likely to die on water and no food. Perhaps even more so if you consider that some food has water content.

    Either way, point taken.