life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


no place

courtesy of Jeff |

If anything I've learned in grad school that has really sunk in personally, it's this: there truly is a place where my career aspirations are realistic and my specific skills are valued to their fullest extent. Unfortunately, that place no longer exists.

"The writer is the engineer of the human soul."
-Josef Stalin

Among the endless array of reasons that make the Soviet Union a mind-bendingly fascinating place, first and foremost are the ideas and circumstances surrounding its foundation. If you're not a historian, stick with me here. No other revolution, before or since, has been more ideologically driven than the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Of course there were everyday, бытовые reasons which paved the way: no bread, death in an unpopular war, idiot tsar followed by indecisive provisional government. But most of all, the Bolsheviks just saw this time as an opportune moment to seize control. Their new experimental nation was supposed to signal both the beginning and the end of history, and the glorious era when injustice would perish, and utopia would finally, finally prevail. (They were all philosophy majors.)

It's funny that in the early days, the Bolsheviks actually used the word "utopia" to describe their bright, socialist future, considering the word's etymology (no place) and the fact that no truly "utopian" society had ever, in human history, survived for a significant period of time. Of course, we know how it all turned out--revolution immediately followed by a bloody civil war, immediately followed by 30 years of history's cruellest mustache, millions of deaths, disillusionment, stagnation, quagmire, and dissolution. The fact remains, however, that behind each major state decision was a vision of paradise.

In this world aspiring to perfection, the artist, and especially the writer, was king. Literature and sloganry were among the most powerful tools employed in order to accomplish whatever the state needed: patriotism, enmity, espousal of new ideas, subjugation. And for better or for worse, the Soviets were incredible at it. Good writers are respected everywhere, but in the USSR, wordsmiths were gods. As quoted above, Stalin called them the "engineers of the human soul," which pronouncement carries hefty connotations. A writer doesn't just interpret the soul or enliven it. He creates it, teaches it how to be a soul. Besides, engineers were important in early Soviet society, and nothing is more precious to a Russian than his soul. If I didn't ruffle too many feathers (or starve), I could have scored a meaningful job in the Soviet Union.

I don't live in the Soviet Union.

My design/marketing class last week was all about storytelling--how to use words, and specifically characters and plotlines, to sell products and persuade people. The professor was lively and convincing. She told how the human brain is wired to remember and learn from stories, not facts or logic. She gave examples from business, as well as support from cognitive psychology and other fields. She didn't have to tell me, though. I already knew. But as I glanced around the room, I beheld a strange and startling sight. My class of 44 students, almost all Stanford MBAs, stared blankly ahead. They didn't get it. They didn't remember the powerful story from the class before--only the numbers that came after. They asked really stupid questions. It was as though their human brains had been re-wired. From the back of the room, I reluctantly lifted my hand time and time again to address the softball, supposedly human, questions because nobody else could.

In this current era of relative material stability, people seek stories more than anything else. They seek to contextualize themselves, to surround themselves with beauty, to feel like protagonists in a narrative that makes sense, and is moving toward a resolution. Literature isn't dead, but magazines, newspapers, literary journals, and other organizations touting the real, but invisible power of words and stories are dying off by the day. The Soviet Union went out of business in 1991. Alas, after all this time, the soul remains unquantifiable.

If my classmates of today are going to be my bosses of tomorrow, I may have some more explaining to do about how a writing background and humanities degrees make me a smart hire. I thought it seemed clear.


at the art museum with Tsune

courtesy of Jeff |

Everything echoes in the Asian wing of the Cantor Arts Center. Even with mountainous canvases lining the walls, all vocalizations bounce. Tsune has a hard time communicating over the phone in English, and I have to assume whispering will be similarly hard, but there's no other way.

He points out how the left gargoyle's mouth is open, unlike the one on the right. The slight asymmetry is immediately noticeable and almost jarring to the Western eye, but Tsune explains how the faces represent two separate but simultaneous invocations for the people entering the building. He can't remember what exactly--something like justice and mercy. Though I can't catch every word from his still, small voice, the article on wabi-sabi he printed off provides enough context for me to fill in the gaps. The intentional asymmetry demonstrates the Japanese man's healthy acceptance of his inability to reach perfection. It's in the pottery too. Obviously, I'm the one being tutored.

Another hour, and we've only seen a small fraction of the museum, so we agree to come back later in the week. Then, we'll traverse the Western wings and I'll do the explaining. As that day approaches, I'm apprehensive. I'm not an art historian. Tsune isn't either, of course--he's a visiting scholar in the computer science department. But he comes from a nation with a consistent, influential, and overall "rich" culture, and he has no trouble discussing it definitively, even in English. All I'm taught about my own people is that we're money hungry and fat. Innovative, maybe, but generally only at others' expense, and intolerant. When American and Western ways are spoken of, it's almost always derisively, as an impediment to human progress. What could I ever hope to teach a Japanese man about culture?

Two days later, torsos greet me at the entrance to the first European wing--perfect, granite male and female torsos on ionic pedestals, straight from ancient Greece. To one side, a portrait of a lower English nobleman, a medieval diptych of two saints, and a breathtaking painting of a fantastical palace with imaginative architecture, and lighting and perspective so perfect, it could be an extension of the museum. Tsune is speechless. I realize I can explain almost all of it, and without the help of any specialized knowledge. I teach him about classical influences, Renaissance humanism, and Catholic patronage, and the Bible. And it hits me that I am part of a unique tradition--the Western world is unique, even if it's huge--I've just never seen the forest for the trees.

In the Native American gallery, I don't have as much to say, but Tsune correctly surmises that the drawings, masks, and artifacts are closely tied with the belief systems of each specific people. There, under the brightly colored totem pole-arch, I am shocked by another silent, almost spiritual realization--that I belong also to far more unique and tight-knit subsets of Western culture by virtue of my specific geographic and religious backgrounds. We even have our own art. Most of it may not be museum-worthy, but an outsider could learn a few things about me from studying it. It's good to contextualize once in a while.

After a short time, I'm forced to take leave of Tsune and the museum, but he decides to linger. I walk out less alone than ever.