Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Pleasures of Discretionary Logic

One of the great pleasures of being a rational being is the ability to conduct oneself in a logical way. Logic and reason are unimpeachable. Impulse, irrationality, rash behavior--these lead to the breakdown of civilization as we know it. Hence the reaction against the Beat generation, which believed in spontaneity, exuberance, and living in the moment. Their only linearity was the lanes on the pavement as they criss-crossed America in On the Road.

But, to the point. My mother is a child of the Depression. She told us more than once, when we asked for this or that, and especially at Christmas: "Do you kids think money grows on trees?" (Believe me, at the suggestion of even that remote possibility, we ran out and scanned the trees.) Another recurrent theme: "When I was a kid, I was lucky if I got a toothbrush for Christmas."

Although I now earn my own living and can presumably do what I please, I still feel a twinge of ancient guilt over self-indulgence if I spend money on something my mother might not approve of--which, in my residual child, is anything but the bare necessities.

So, I've had to invent rational justifications for the purchase of some musical instrument or other, or most recently a scooter. This form of justification I call "discretionary logic": that is, logic that works to justify what you've done--you think through the problem and arrive at the conclusion you want to by any means that seems convenient. It was not long before I realized that I had many precedents: all of Christianity would be one. Courtroom litigation would be another.

The most recent example comes from a luncheon conversation with my delightful mother, whose hawk ears (her eyes are not so functional anymore) readily detect the appearance on my scene of some new object (another trombone, for example, or a drum kit) that has cost money. I try to prepare for these revelations with the positing of an acceptable principle (according to discretionary logic).

This time, it was the value--even the compelling moral nature--of impulse buying. As I recall, the reasoning was something like this: the movements of one's soul have been recognized throughout history as indices of deep conviction, of the revelation of the divine (cf. the Biblical prophets, or Mohammad), the dictates of conscience (cf. Socrates). Martin Luther King knew, in his deepest soul, that racism was wrong, and he set his life's agenda on eliminating it. Similarly, St. Paul, who had his revelation on the road to Damascus (or so the dramatic story goes, as told in Acts, though Paul himself does not describe the scene and one suspects the hand of an able fiction writer in the Acts account). Paul's inner sea-change led him to found a religion, suffer pain, humiliation, and the discomforts of ancient travel, which were even worse than the discomforts and terrors of modern travel. There is Joan of Arc, the saints, especially Sister Theresa, who seems to have been plunged into a continuing "dark knight of the sole." And so on. Examples abound. If I had my calculator at hand, I could multiply them.

I am in a tradition of devotees, martyrs, noble minds, exalted souls, and fast-track candidates for sainthood when I obey the dictates of impulse, recognizing them as having a divine provenance.

Thus, when I heard from a friend that he had a drum kit available at a good price, I thought it would be cool to get it, though, strictly speaking, I don't need it. But that kind of logic (do you need it?) is puny and cavilling compared to the logic of divinity. Rationality, I have come to realize, is in the mind of the beholder. It seems logical to one person to protect the snail-darter or the horned owl, but to another, the disappearance of this or that species has been recurring throughout the history of life. I like preserving species, but I have to like it as a matter of faith and conviction rather than reason, since reason is, in a sense, hermaphroditic--that is, it swings both ways depending on the context in which it is used.

You can rationalize your love for dime-store romances, and you can rationalize your love for James Joyce. I suppose it is human nature not simply to trust your instincts--you have to build an edifice of justification as a bulwark against other edifices. How many arguments have there been over whether the Beats wrote legitimate literature? How many arguments from one generation of musicians at the next over whether be-bop is really jazz, or (from be-boppers) whether fusion is really jazz? Etc., etc.. Oddly, arguments often expose the pointlessness of reason, since they expose the immorality of reason: she's a whore available to any bidder.

So, mom, impulse buying is A-okay. Let it not outrage your moral sense of conservatism. Whole religions have been based on an ascetic outlook, the point being that the "spirit" is destroyed by greed and materialism. There is something virtuous about self-restraint. Maybe yes, at times, but, at other times, maybe no.

There are other reasons, having nothing to do with "logic," to use as guides to action. For example, consequences.

Well, mom, I guess there are times when discretionary logic won't work--creditors and judges don't buy it.

I felt my soul move when I heard that a drum kit was available