Literary Obsession ~ Chapter One


The electric melody of her laugh excites star showers in my mind.  At each sentence she speaks my heart somersaults; distracted by her blue eyes, I tremble while I cull the fruit; we two are making apricot jam.  Sure, I am a rational person sitting at a table in our sunlit kitchen, but she delights me so; her moist fragrance perfumes the darkened orange of my gelid handiwork.  “Tell me true, my sweetest fascination, why do I love you so much?”  And since my love is well-read in classics, moderns, and in the post-moderns, familiar with the Greek, the Latin, and the avant-garde French as well (double doctorate summa cum laude from Stanford University) she has the authority to answer me: “Because you are a little bit crazy.”  I am in la- la land where I want to be; hanging out with my dear Plato who famously listed poetry, mystical religion and true love as divine forms of insanity,  high on soul-mate and sliced apricots when the gate bell rings; answering the intercom, hearing a young girl begging me, “Can you please give me something?”;  answering “Yes;”  beginning to rummage to fill a bag for her, an avocado, a bun,  banana, asparagus flavor Knorr brand dry soup,  another little bun, a plate, a glass, walnuts, apricots, maybe she wants clothing; rehearsing what I will say to her; telling her in my star-showered mind about our neighborhood,  about our basic needs system; attempting to explain in words she can grasp that  health care, housing, and food are guaranteed here for anybody willing to pitch in to help the neighbors.    Only desiring to explain, deciding not to search for clothing she maybe wants, I take to the gate the slim pickings I have already bagged, finding there only our neighbor Carmen returning from work, nobody else; I am too late, she went away; I will have to save my bag and my speech for the next beggar; meanwhile, thank you Carmen for sending us the apricots, we are making jam of  them; the girl who ran away must have been from another street; the kids in our street know there is no need to beg; if you are unemployed there is always community service supervised by Señora Eugenia and the ladies of the Neighbor’s Council.    Our neighborhood organized itself in practice to refute the economists who teach in theory that without consumers able and willing to buy the products of labor there is no labor, and that is why our economy is stable while theirs is unsustainable.    I dreamed that the little girl who rang the bell wanted me to prove to her with my bag that those of us who have more than we need are willing to share with those of them who have less than they need;  and please let me dream,  don’t  stop me.   You know I know that I do not know, I really do not know, what fantasies dwell in her to me unknown head, but I  know  also that most of the infinite unknown is merely reality.   Dreams with sex appeal made of apricots and sugar make the world go ‘round.     Let me exaggerate a bit and say it is because of the dreams of lovers, the dreams of martyrs, the dreams of inspired plodders that Chile has evolved to become a moderately social democratic society with a moderately complete welfare state; that it is dreams therefore that make it perfectly possible that at a few times and places, such as for example now and here, it imperfectly actually happens that it is really true, and not just a dream that here on our street and adjoining alley we are able to take care of our neighbors because the government has already paid for the big ticket items like health care for all and massive subsidies for social housing.


Thinking things over, calculating that the next beggars probably will be from other streets, I mentally rehearse a modified speech, planning to sound them out on the mutual aid that probably already exists—and probably could be enhanced—on the streets where they live.

Xxx I could have taken notes on the ideas of the next visitors, if as expected they had been from elsewhere, and used  the notes Friday when we meet with the parish priest  and with Rosa Rivera  –she and her husband are co-pastors of the nearest evangelical congregation–  to discuss extending our basic needs system to other  parts of town; but as it turns out the next bell-ringer to  punctuate our jamming is Tolano, whose real name is Francisco Froilan, who is an alcoholic who lives nearby with six buddies in the humble residence of Chago, whose real name is Santiago Santibañez, who has graciously opened his home to a half-dozen of his comrades-in-drink, who in turn share food, wine, music, and stories with Chago; and since Tolano takes the same prescription medication I take, levotiroxina 100 milligrams once a day, he comes by to bum some pills off me when he runs out, and I fetch my pill bottle and count out the pills one for him and one for me so that we each get exactly the same number; which perhaps makes a point.  Another point drives the lovely melancholy sound of my lovely darling composing an argument, demurring that if  dreaming could change the world the hippies would  have changed it in the sixties, John Lennon would have  changed it in the seventies; Barack Obama now; instead  the relentless logic of capital accumulation changes the world, economic calculation, the drive to turn  money into more money.

Shattered by her terse precision, bewildered like the dust; I feel she is rejecting my meaning half way through its birth canal while its eyes are closed and its head is in pain; she is blind to the weak glimmering  growing light of my vision while it is still  hovering like a hummingbird seeking its bearings among honeysuckle vines,  hesitantly locating itself somewhere near the middle along a red line running from dreams of love to capitalism.  Only let me speak, do not silence me, let me develop the thought that the logic of capital, the logic driving commerce and war and daily life and common sense, is itself a mythic structure derived from the myths that organize modern western civilization; and that a myth is, as Joseph Campbell taught, a waking collective dream.  Give me my voice, I hear yours, lend me your ears –let our love be the admiration of the radically other for the radically other, like a bird singing to a rose—let me hover near a body and mind I do not possess wondering what you are thinking stirring the apricots as the sugar dissolves into the water; as you perhaps are wondering what I am thinking as the temperature increases and the clouds of sweet white disappear into clarity.  When I try to understand why my stomach sinks when she says I talk nonsense, I quickly see that it is not because her words break the spell of my infatuation; on the contrary, when she fights me my libido eats it up; it is not because I want a platonic soul-mate to complete my own identity; on the contrary, I want a levinasian soul-mate to thrill me with mystery.    Nor is it because I fear she is destroying my philosophy, and this for two good reasons, first because I feel only gratitude toward those who correct my mistakes, second because my confidence in my main beliefs is so immense that nothing she might say could shake it; it is indeed my opinion that the world’s key problem, whose solution would unlock solutions to the other problems, is that few read my books, which opinion can be regarded either as a proof of my madness or as an hypothesis that would be proven false if my books were to become widely read but nevertheless misery were to continue unabated the same as now.   To move toward a plausible explanation of my discomfiture, as a conclusion following this review of false explanations of it, I first note that overwhelming evidence shows our prehistoric answers to have survived, and by surviving made it possible for us their descendants to be born, both by calculating intelligence and by emotional intelligence; learning both to forage and to bond; by an ecologically functional social cohesion; so now today I need both to calculate the right ratios of apricots, water and sugar, and to intuit how near her to stand, whether and when to kiss her, where to kiss her, and with what intensity.  That established, I affirm second, as a rational articulation of empirical findings and not merely as a theoretical postulate, that society is organized, both on its calculating side and on its sentimental side, by stories; stories shape and give meaning to its rules and institutions; some stories are for good reasons classified as myths, including for example  — as stories that illustrate what I have in mind—the organizing mythologies of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest studied by Bronislaw Malinowski; myths govern the roles, privileges, and duties of each member of the clan; govern birth, rites of passage, marriage, illness, death; rights to fishing and hunting waters and grounds, and even technology.

I wish I knew what myths organize Señora Eugenia, who is next to ring at the gate; who is next to pull me away from the blonde magnet who attracts me; who arranges a funeral whenever an indigent dies in the alley; who mediates quarrels and calls the police when conflict escalates to violence; who makes sure each young scholar has the books needed for school; who supervises the community service of  the unemployed neighbors who work for food.   This unemployment policy of our Neighbor’s Council is sustainable, unlike the policies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other less enlightened jurisdictions.  Here in our neighborhood we do not borrow astronomical sums from China and then throw them into the economy via tax cuts and subsidies and bailouts to shore up investor confidence, and to shore up consumer confidence,  so there will be more investments and more purchases and then –so the story goes— more employment.   The sustainable flows of cash to buy the flour neighbors Eugenia and Fresia  transubstantiate to bread, using locally gathered wood in their ovens, are mainly the monthly incomes neighbor Gaston and I draw from mutual funds holding shares in multinational corporations.  We can interpret the sustainability of food security in our neighborhood as recycling the stories told by Adam Smith in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations; thinking of the flour as provided by the upper class, mainly Gaston and myself and our spouses and children, the class that Smith calls the landlords, the class that lives a life of leisure with no need to work because it receives a regular income from land rents, or in our case from corporate profits, and in our case not a class we were born into but one we rose into by teaching in universities and writing books; thinking of the tomatoes and sundry other edibles as provided by the working class, Juan and Braulio, as well as Chago and Tolano and Hanibal and Mario and Marcos and Carlos and Ramon and Joanna and Teri and Cheno when they are sober; who come into free food from time to time in the course of their work, for instance when they load a truck bound for Santiago with crates of tomatoes and the truck is full and there are tomatoes left over, and the boss gives them to the workers rather than letting them rot –once we got lucky when a worker gave Eugenia twenty chickens to distribute—and another time a dog bit a sheep so badly the sheep had to be sacrificed and –this was Tolano’s idea—the meat was distributed to the houses where there was greatest need; and thinking of Señora Eugenia as a social entrepreneur who puts it all together.  Eugenia earned a diploma in chocolate desserts studying at night;  diploma in hand she founded a micro-business with a micro-credit from one of Chile’s several clones of the Grameen Bank, but in the end expenses exceeded receipts; now Eugenia is on the street, not as a homeless person but as a street-sweeper, doing community service herself while she coordinates it as the delegate of the Neighbor’s Council; you see her in the street most days, usually assisted by her subteen daughter Maria Elena.  She has become the neighborhood clearing-house for  gossip because  the river closes our street at one end  and there are no cross  streets; so anyone who wants to exit to the outside world  — whether by horse-drawn cart,  by motor vehicle, by bicycle, or like me and like the majority as a  pedestrian–  can no more avoid passing our delegate street-sweeper, and to be polite stopping a moment to exchange news, than she or he can avoid being drenched in the perfume of marijuana billowing from the big yellow house on the corner.    As I walk to the gate to answer the bell and meet Eugenia the declining evening sun   is modulating the light bathing our avocado and lemon trees,  the river bed, and the hills on the other side, into prismatic multiples of shades of green and amber;  and I am reflecting that her husband Juan has developed a specialty in the demolition of old greenhouses, recycling the materials they are made of, and that the two of them are  paying off the micro-loan she took out for her failed chocolate dessert micro- business,  and that when it is paid off she will probably apply for another micro-credit  to take another shot at becoming a micro-entrepreneur, while in the meantime she is  working for us, for her neighbors, relying temporarily on the fabric of mutual aid she herself was instrumental in weaving two years ago when at meetings of the Neighbor’s Council we set the basic needs system up, at a time when her chocolate dessert business was still alive.   Alone on a bicycle, she politely says hello; hands me three bags, tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans; politely says goodbye; and pedals off into the dusk.   As I walk back to the house I ask myself, “Why am I having these feelings I should not be having?  Why does it upset me so much that my sweetheart appears to be maintaining that the relentless logic of capital accumulation, economic calculation, the drive to turn money into more money, changes the world; but dreaming kind thoughts does not?”  It upsets me because it poignantly reminds that I have devoted my career to showing people how to think outside the box and have failed; nearly everybody still thinks inside the box; her words touch my buttons because they remind me of my entire life.  When I was seven years old my three year old brother and I used to sit in the kitchen banging saucepans to drown the voices of our parents quarreling in the living room, but they ignored us, shouting at each other just as if we were not even there.   My life has continued the same; banging pots; the powers that be still ignore us, promoting and believing half-truths that inevitably lead to dysfunctional consequences, such as having to maintain two households instead of one, such as having to celebrate Christmas every year first with dad’s family and then again with mom’s; not to mention war and poverty.   The worst half-truth is the myth of natural liberty promoted by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations; there Smith was so enthusiastic about the remarkable capacities of money, free markets, and liberty to organize cooperation among millions of people even though they do not know each other that he failed to celebrate the remarkable capacities of kinship, social norms, and religion to organize cooperation among hundreds of people even though they do know each other.

Our dominant liberal ideas and institutions,  tightly welding together liberty, power, and money;  fashioning what  Max Weber called the   iron cage of modernity, a cage traditional peoples can enter but cannot leave;  have come to be regarded not just  by the majority but also by  some scholars who should know  better as natural facts and not as imagination-built facts.   Immanuel Wallerstein has shown in Unthinking Social Science that they are not so much the objects of study as the presuppositions of political science, economics, and mainstream sociology.    Immanuel Wallerstein could have added that liberal ideas and institutions are also the ethnocentric presuppositions of contemporary daily life and common sense;  and I myself could have contributed the observation based on my  experience that the most ethnocentric debaters win the debates;  they are the ones who assume with political science that the world is run by power,  and with mainstream economics that people do what they do   for money;  which winning of debates is to be expected because by definition most people believe what most people believe, and because people agree with speakers who tell them what they already think; but which drives me to despair because it makes me realize how hard it is to make headway against entrenched half-truths like “The world is run by power, the world is run by money, by the money of power, by the power of money;”  and which sounds an alarm in my head warning “Howard, you’re screwed, trapped again in a fight you can’t win!” like when you were pinned to the mat in less than a minute in the first round of the Redlands Junior High School wrestling tournament.

But I did win; I have successfully struggled for optimism, starting with cheering up my pessimistic younger brother.     He couldn’t stand our mom and moved out; bach’ing it at our grandmother’s apartment house in Pasadena.    On the wall of his room he scrawled in charcoal, l’homme est  une passion inutile,  a quotation from his favorite  philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre at a time when mine was Martin   Heidegger,  who was the coiner of a number of  neologisms gluing   small German words together to make bigger German words that when translated use  lots of hyphens, like being-in-the-world, being-there,   being-question, being-with,  being-towards-death, and the goal of all my teenage strivings, authentic-being, a concept I felt  more than I understood  — feeling authentic-being  as magic, as enchantment, as the gateway to the gardens of Heidegger’s prose poetry where every flower glows with lights of sublime authority and  insight— and feeling authenticity also as a  premise from which  I could deduce as a  corollary being is exciting; a corollary  I then used to refute my brother when he tried to prove that being is boring.

After the fruit boils we stir it and lower the heat to let it simmer in its iron kettle, and since we have only one iron kettle and do not approve of jam prepared in steel, we must wait until it cooks to refill its kettle with new apricots, enjoying a long intermission.  She asks if I would mind if she were to play Chopin waltzes on the piano, smiling coyly as if she were unaware that nothing would please me more –except perhaps playing Chopin on my body— but as it turns out she plays only one waltz before retiring for a nap, leaving me trying to imagine how to tame the hordes of books rampaging across our furniture and floors, effectively preventing us from pretending to practice a pretense of good housekeeping.   In the earthquake of 2010 the shelves collapsed, heaving books, dishes, clothes and whatever into mixed low jumbles; now, apart from deciding not to rebuild the old shelves –which obviously were not earthquake-proof—  we have only gotten  around to  putting in order  the dishes, clothes, and whatever; leaving the books in unwieldy, unusable, and unintelligible disorder.   It occurs to me that I could fish through the chaos to find at least the ones we ourselves have written.  The first book would be my Life on a Small Planet: a Philosophy of Value, New York, Philosophical Library, 1966.

When I wrote my philosophy of value I read “value” as the sovereign word, as the King-word or Queen-word governing all the other words; for “value” means “price” and  prices and the system of prices  ostensibly govern the economy; while “values” signifies the ideals and the norms that ostensibly govern all conventional behavior, whether economic or non-economic –so much so that educators wisely say that if we do not teach children values, then there is not much point in teaching  them anything else.   Since I then believed that all knowledge is founded upon experience, and since  I then expected a single word “value” to refer to a single thing, namely value; my philosophy had to be an exploration of the experience of value, value-experience, an exploration compelled to deal—before it could deal with anything else— with my brother’s objection that no value exists; which I do straightforwardly, arguing that although you may feel blue now sooner or later  a  beautiful value-experience will happen to you, and then you will change your mind and decide life is worth living after all; and even if value-experience never happens to you, it does happen,  for instance to me;  therefore value exists.   Then the book delineates when value does and does not happen.  (This part –most of the book—is inspired by Heidegger, who combined Kant’s idea of the conditions of possibility of any experience with prose/poetry articulating what everyday life is like to produce great insights while blithely ignoring scientific research.   As Heidegger sometimes quotes the German romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin, as if to prove that not only philosophers but also poets can see truth without doing science first, I do the same by quoting the equally romantic American poet Kenneth Patchen.)  What follows in practice is that we should go barefoot more often.  Authentic value-experiences happen closer to nature and closer to art; in being sunflowers not locomotives.

The Evaluation of Cultural Action (London: Macmillan,   1985) stars peasants eking out a living on poor soil in the rainy south of Chile, at a time when General Augusto Pinochet was the grim chieftain of an all-pervasive violent capitalist revolution.   A poignant story about family and friends bonding and benefiting under rain and repression frames a sober dialogue about methodology, starring Paulo Freire.  Freire’s life was a failure in the sense that he devoted it to persuading people to think outside the box, but at the end of it most people still thought inside the box; nevertheless (I like to think my life is like his) instead of succumbing to pessimism Freire enthusiastically practiced a methodology for transforming the basic cultural structures of the modern world, structures one might name  –heroically simplifying Max Weber—as calculation, capitalism, and bureaucracy; and with these words, dear reader, I let you in on a secret: the secret is that “the box” and “the basic cultural structures of the modern world” are synonyms.   “Basic” means governing meeting basic needs, like the need for food;  “cultural” means developed in upbringing from play,  music, stories, learning to  cooperate…  culminating in ethics (norms, rules)  governing action; “structures” are    institutions made of rules  (the roots of rules are cultural and biological ); “modern world” is roughly what Max Weber described.

My two volume (personal) Letters from Quebec: A Philosophy for Peace and Justice” (San Francisco and London: International Scholars Press, 1995) maps out a game plan for humanity and the biosphere.   Its historical examples (and game plan) of  cultural  action, –that is to say of changing basic structures by changing culture—acknowledge certain limitations; they acknowledge  that even though culture is  socially constructed, deconstructible, and reconstructibe; even though culture is made possible by the spirit of play (thank you Victor Turner) and by the spirit of storytelling (thank you Marcel Mauss);  nevertheless even the most creative cultures survive only if they can pass reality tests imposed by ecology, by human nature, and by warfare; only if the cultures avoid destroying their habitats; only if they successfully organize the metabolism of society, its exchange of matter and energy with the environment (thank you Karl Marx); only if they do not rely on  nonexistent motivations but instead successfully tap the energies of biological behavioral tendencies (Trieben)  that actually exist (thank you Melvin Konner);  only if no military disaster ends the culture by massacre and/or by imposing an alien tyranny that prevents the young from learning the ways of the ancestors.

While the examples in Letters from Quebec  are  Plato, Thomas, Kant, and other great western philosophers, interpreted as having been doing cultural  action whatever they  might have thought they were doing,  Understanding the Global Economy (Delhi: Maadhyam Books, 2000; revised edition Santa Barbara; Peace Education Books, 2004) turns to economists.   Since we humans  make ourselves  predictable with culture  — myths, promises, rules, institutions…, ;  whenever economists explain our  conduct, saying X causes Y,  they inevitably refer to  myths, promises, rules, institutions….   In particular economic explanations require the  economy´s legal frame, whose most important historical source was the Roman jus gentium. Thus Max Weber says economy  requires law to make the consequences of   decisions kalkulierbar (calculable).

My review of my books now pauses on hold, to let me broadcast a short confused report from my emotions.  Pot-banger at first, with my young brother as the first of my collaborators, I have never ceased feeling I had something very important to say to people badly needing to hear but not at all interested in listening; today I sincerely feel that if only more people  understood cultural action to change basic structures peace and justice would be feasible.    At first “frightened child,” then an academic watching street beggars, the news from the Middle East,  global warming,  thinking all this is “mistake,”  caused by ignorance not by nature, greed, or sin; I feel I must work to correct the mistake, and at the same time fear I might really be what some say I am, unintelligible, legitimately ignored, because by definition when words are unintelligible the question whether they are true or false does not arise.   I am hopelessly  in love and deliriously happy.   I often wonder, in my pleasures, whether apricot contentment slows my work.  I fear I should work for world enlightenment 24/7.   And then uncle Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychic health comforts me.   I believe Freud meant –certainly his disciple Erich Fromm meant—that work, play, and love enhance each other, so that without love and play one cannot work well.   Back to work:  Dilemmas of Social Democracies (with Joanna Swanger, Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) examines struggles to democratize economies in six countries and at the World Bank.   Studying Sweden, Spain, Austria, South Africa, Indonesia, and Venezuela the book shows how neoliberalism triumphed when social democracy failed, and –note this—that its failure was inevitable given the basic cultural structures.    When you think and act inside the box, higher wages and higher taxes mean lower profits and less investment.   Next comes a study about a city in Argentina.   This book records my dialogues with Rosario city officials and activists who are finding ways to be both transformative and practical, changing the system while complying with it enough to avoid being shot down; for instance running a municipal bank that by its charter instead of having a single objective –making money—juggles social, cultural, and ecological objectives.   In the crash of 2001 the government froze bank accounts.   The foreign-owned banks –in Rosario for the money—closed and left town.  The municipal bank stayed open, devising creative ways to help businesses meet payroll.

The right words for making transformation intelligible grow from practice.   They grow from language-games one  cannot fully understand without playing them, like for example  the Sprachspiel Señora Eugenia plays so frequently using the word “cooperation:”  Gaston and I cooperate  buying flour,  Eugenia cooperates cleaning the street,  Juan cooperates gleaning tomatoes, Lucia cooperates as teacher´s helper in the local elementary school;  for  the five of us“cooperating” is a ticket of admission into fraternity, into the extended family of the neighborhood.   Practice gives living meanings to words in Rosario too.     Talking the talk of “social militant” or  “urban farmer” or “sexual diversity office” or  “Municipal Bank Foundation” or  “  participatory budget counselor” becomes    meaningful when one is walking the walk.    When someone asks, if  the growth of meanings making social change intelligible is inseparable from transformative practice  in the  field, then why  am I spending so much time writing theoretical  books?; my answer is that if humanity and the biosphere are going to win the Game and not just win  some points here and there, then somebody has to articulate a Game Plan.

There are many good things to do here where we are and now when it is.     But what if while we are doing the good  things to be done here and now the world as a whole becomes ever  more violent and unsustainable ?     A Game Plan performs the function of providing people who do good things  –or perhaps just their leaders–  with good reasons for thinking and  feeling they are contributing to a trend that just might turn the tide.  Somebody has to think about causes and effects, how the world works.   So I keep writing:   my books and manuscripts  still lost on the floor include one on Gandhi  by me and Professor Swanger, one on Michel Foucault,     Rethinking Thinking: Modernity’s Other and the Transformation of the University by me and Professor Catherine Hoppers of  South Africa ….       But now my lovely darling has finished her nap and resumed playing the piano; I shall postpone trying to organize our books to another time;  now  instead of Chopin  she plays Haydn’s Sonata in D Major; now it is time to move the fruit and the kettle from the kitchen to the living room so I  can listen to the magic of her fingers while my fingers start making another batch of jam; and a little bit later  it will be time to wash my feet for a reason I perhaps should not confess, but which since I am feeling confessional I will confess, which is that  once she told me my feet smelled, and ever since then I have been washing my feet with deodorant soap and spraying  them with cologne before going to bed.