Netherland (7)

Consciousness is a light (indeed, the most important light) and language and mass media are lights, too: “Your tribe has come to light,” Rachel tells Hans, as they watch the evening news. But language isn’t always a vehicle for truth, history, and clear meaning. Its powers of obfuscation are great. Similar considerations apply to awareness, as well. Given the aspectual nature of consciousness, we cannot be aware of things under all possible aspects at one time, including the very thing we fancy we know best: ourselves. Very often, we’re only aware of the gleaming surfaces of people, places,
and things.

Playing in the garden one day with his son, Hans shows Jake how to use a shovel.

When I dug up the topsoil, I was taken aback: countless squirming creatures ate and moved and multiplied underfoot. The very ground we stood on was revealed as a kind of ocean, crowded and immeasurable and without light.

Or when Hans tries to hail a cab.

As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.

Kierkegaard famously defines selfhood “as a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation
relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.” Well, let’s borrow the bits of this definition that are clear and say that Hans is a relation that relates to Chuck Ramkisson, to his wife Rachel, and to himself. But he’s only aware of gleaming surfaces, not gray depths; only aware of shining exteriors, not foul mechanical darkness.

Hans is aware that Chuck is a portly Trinidadian who is a charismatic entrepreneur and evangelical prophet of cricket. But he isn’t aware of Chuck’s shady, gangster dealings in the nether lands of New York. Hans is aware that his wife Rachel has a knack for legal argument plus a weakness for food and cinema. But he isn’t aware of Rachel’s “unconsidered factors” and “clandestine pre-existent injuries” in the nether regions of her soul. Chuck knows he’s a smart man who can make a good educated guess at the oil production of an American-
occupied Iraq…

But I found myself unable to contribute to conversations about the value of international law … or the constitutional rights of imprisoned enemies … or the merits of vaccinating the American masses against small pox … or the menace of the neo-conservative cabal in the Bush Administration… In this ever-shifting … conversation, my orientation was poor.

“I was a political-ethical idiot,” he continues.

Hans is an idiot not because he’s stupid but because it’s not clear to him what his dreams, hopes, and aspirations are, what his regrets, feelings, and worries are. Above all, Hans is an idiot because it’s not clear to him what his attitudes and values are. How do you prioritize objective facts if you don’t have subjective preferences? How do you make evaluations, appraisals, and discriminations if you don’t know what’s dear to you, what you care about, and what you’re willing to struggle and fight for? You don’t.

Value-blindness ensures that.


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