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Tend to Your Garden, or Brave the Storm?

“We must tend to our garden” is essentially the last line of Voltaire’s “Candide,” a novel of unrelenting bitterness and outrage at the human condition.

The story follows Candide, and his love interest Cunegonde, as they go out into the world, and are battered by every manner of disaster and mistreatment. There is also a Professor Pangloss, who was created as a mockery of the ideas of the philosopher Leibniz, who wrote that “This is the best of all possible worlds.” He continually tries to spin something good out of the tragedies that befall the two main characters.

At the end of the book, Candide and Pangloss are in Turkey, and they meet an elderly man who has decided that the best way to live life is to not try to achieve anything in the external world, to just grow his garden. All the main characters in the novel then start their own garden together. Pangloss is still contending that things did work out and it is indeed the best of all possible worlds. Candide replies, “That is very well put, but we must go and tend our garden.”

The “lesson” is that the world is full of so much misery, and so many bad people, and catastrophic events, that it is futile to try to do anything externally significant. in it. The only meaning is tending to one’s garden, literally and figuratively.

It is certainly not my favorite novel. It is bleak, it is intentionally vulgar and shocking. But it has remained as a major work. I never liked the nihilism combined with the fatalism, which pervades it. However, one can at least sometimes feel like throwing up one’s hands, and retreating from the incessant hurly-burly out there. Some days, it feels like it is only getting worse.

We know all about the Far Right, and about their efforts to take over the country and install a totalitarian state. We know how they are passing laws to suppress the right and the ability to vote. We see that their vast media brainwashing empires do story after story intended to compel people to vote for them and their evil brew of hate, fear, and anger. “Biden is going to take away your meat.” Completely untrue, they were forced to admit it, but the story still got out there, which is all they care about. “Democrats are going to tell you what to eat, and to read, and what you can say” A new story every day.

Their goal is to simply scare people into voting for the likes of Trump or Cruz or Hawley. Republicans have no programs or policies, they simply try to get people to vote against Democrats out of fear, since in a binary game, that elects Republicans. We know that they are all lies, we know that they will never cease them. We are compelled to keep aware of them but to try to ignore most of it, because they are not susceptible to rational discussion.

So I try not to immerse myself in all of it, because it is equivalent to pounding one’s head against a wall, to keep refuting each day’s right-wing meme. They want to control the narrative, they want to keep repeating the same thing, and then forcing people to defend against it. “Did you know that Biden and Pelosi want to force everyone to wear masks everywhere, and not be able to take them off?” Or,”We are learning that at the capitol on January 6, it was BLM and Antifa who were allowed in by the police, who were only going after the Trump supporters.”

Do you think I made that last one up? No, I read this a few days ago on a Dodgers baseball blog. What does one say to that kind of idiocy? Nothing, it is useless. Yes, of course. the police at the capitol were given orders (from whom?) to let in the BLM and the Antifa. Why would BLM be storming the capitol? Did you see Black people waving weapons around, and crashing into the building? No. Did you see Antifa people/ What are Antifa people? How does one recognize them? Why would they and BLM be storming the capitol to stop the certification of Biden’s election?

Yet the person who runs the baseball blog, thought to put this in, along with his now daily denunciations of “cancel culture,”ever since the baseball Commissioner, after consulting with various team owners, decided to move the All-Star game out of Atlanta, because of the voter suppression bill Georgia passed. So I can no longer read that site, with Dodgers baseball as a bit of a haven from the right-wing propaganda machine. Not a big deal, but a sign of the times.

Yesterday, there was a headline, “Rose McGowan says that the Democratic Party is a cult.” Of course I did not read it, but just seeing the headline is upsetting in many ways. First, who cares what Rose McGowan thinks about the Democratic Party? Does she have any knowledge or understanding of history, politics, or government? No. Did she not grow up in a cult? Yes, the headlines say that she claims that this gives her the understanding that the entire Democratic Party is a “deep cult.”

Of all the large entities out there. the Democratic Party would be just about the least for anyone to conceive of as a cult. Didn’t Will Rogers say, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”? That was of course a pointed joke about the fact that Democrats are famed for internal battles, for having so many groups of people with different views and agendas, whereas Republicans march along like a militia.

I just looked this up, and there are twenty or more stories about McGowan’s statement, many of course featured on right-wing sites. “Hey, if Rose McGowan thinks this, it must be true! She was in a cult, after all, so she says she can recognize it! Let’s use this to cancel the entire Democratic Party! Go, Rose!” She has made herself into another arm of the Far Right, whether because she ultimately identifies with them, or because she is so starved for media attention, which she got for a time with the Harvey Weinstein story, that she wants more of it. Whatever her motivations, she is immediately used by Fox News and the rest of them as propaganda fodder. And of course some people will give her inanity credence.

There is another story I did not read, but saw the headline. “Justin Bieber again accused of cultural appropriation due to hair style.” Ah, what can that be about? Bieber, a musical artist of sorts, whose music I have never had any interest in listening to, but who has made hundreds of millions of dollars without my support, keeps being accused of “cultural appropriation” because he has a hairstyle which…imitates a hairstyle of Black people? The word “accused,” as if we are in the Salem of the witch trials, or the Toledo of the Spanish Inquisition. “Justin Bieber, you stand accused of the crime of cultural appropriation, a serious offense. Before you are found guilty do you have anything to say in your defense?”

I didn’t read to see who is accusing him, or the punishment they demand. To change his hairstyle immediately, to one they will accept? To give them tens of millions of dollars as recompense for his or his hair stylist’s actions? To go to an indoctrination camp where he learns what is and is not cultural appropriation? Probably none of that; it is just a grab for attention; and it is fun for too many people to see what can be banned. whom they can get fired or forced to apologize for “cultural crime,” a term with Orwellian connotations.

Again, another story which the media machine puts out there. There are so many sites, and they desperately need stories to get people to look at them. So any of these will do; they are about entertainment figures, they are easily understandable, and draw many views, in a way that a story titled, “An in-depth analysis of the complex economic issues the country faces” would never achieve.

Which is why we almost never see any of those, but we see hundreds of them about McGowan or Bieber. Maybe each of them will comment on each other’s stories, that would keep it going. “McGowan says that Bieber must shave his head, and that he is a willing tool of the Democratic cult.” “Bieber replies to McGowan, says she cannot act, and wonders what happened to her ex-boyfriend Marilyn Manson.” And it is a virtual guarantee that all of it will be picked up by the Far Right Propaganda Machine to be used as another example of why people should vote for them.

“Tend to your garden.” I never liked the idea of retreating from things, literally or figuratively concentrating on seeds and bulbs, deliberately blocking the outside noises, and people waving and yelling for one’s attention. But are these the only two choices we are being driven to? “Tend to your garden,” or alternatively, in a line spoken by an important character in another famous book, Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” “In the destructive element immerse.”

And if you wonder exactly what he, and Conrad, meant by that, scholars have been puzzling over it ever since it was published in 1900. It has been a long time since I read it, but I still interpret it to mean that to learn, succeed, and transcend, you must engage with the powerful negative forces which are outside of you and perhaps within you.

The great books don’t necessarily solve our problems, but they can give us words and images to crystallize what we are dealing with. We don’t easily forget the stories and what we individually take from them. How do we deal with the maelstrom of noise and misdirection that we are assaulted with. and with all the bad things that we see going on? Deal with it head-on? Ignore most of it, and concentrate on the few areas and issues where we might have some influence? Or abandon the whole thing altogether?

That last reaction might have been easier in Voltaire’s time, than ours., of course. And my father would always say, “If people walk away, they just leave the field to the bad guys.” But in this era, doesn’t it seem as if the bad guys have as their goal to just inundate us with lies, and with stories which never actually signify what they pretend to, but which much of the media automatically purveys as worth our hearing?

And it often feels like a tennis game where only one player gets to serve, and the other player is always having to return serve. The umpire in this metaphorical game is of course the media. Sometimes looking at or growing some beautiful gardens of flowers is a welcome respite from the tennis game, but I don’t think we can afford to just stay there, though it can be tempting.

2 Responses

  1. I’m spending the weekend sitting outside, enjoying my garden and a good book. Spring’s flowering perennials need very little tending. The bleeding hearts and columbine are especially beautiful this year.

    John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas ( the dobro master ) have a new song out: ” All The Lilacs in Ohio”. Absolutely gorgeous.

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