Out of MN.Eutopia

By Stephen Otabil

General non-fiction, Biography & memoir, Psychology & philosophy

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6 mins


Out of MN.Eutopia
(Excerpt from PROLOGUE, “Some Riddles of this Business”)

Many biographies are of deceased subjects, and the biographers themselves may be posthumous subjects in-waiting. As average Joes tend to jealously guard their privacy, it must take extraordinary courage to have any part of one’s life put on display as public commodity . Further, every life has its share of flaws and vices, some of which are little known beyond intimate circles. Hence, fear of their wider exposure may deter many from venturing into life-writing altogether. A biography free of those imperfections may, on the other hand, be too fanciful to compel human, all-too-human interest. Someone seeking elective public office might indeed indulge that as a campaign ploy. Similarly would an aspirant to sainthood, as an alternative to martyrdom. But the will to power or sainthood is no less of a character flaw than thievery, e.g. So, the life of a prospective power-dealer or saint is, on fair reckoning, no more exemplary than that of an average Joe who is afraid of coming out with his self-acknowledged vices.

Where the display falls under autobiography proper, it conjures up exhibitionism of the grade befitting attention-seekers and the notoriety-crazy. We have seen above what manner of perversities can ensue from celebrity life displays, in print or in broadcast. But celebrities are not the sole seekers of attention and notoriety. Comedians also are, and they, aside from regular stand-up performers, come in different stripes, from different professions, and with different avenues of public exposure. Their shared stock-in-trade is to turn norms upside down, and be unabashed about it. Technically, therefore, a comedic life on display is purposely one out of order, and that signifies a product of careful dissembling. Again, the display may be on stage, in print, or—in these times—online. The worst possible detractor, then, in the business of experience sharing over Life’s enduring problems, is a witting lapse into a comedy of life-written. Inferentially, rehearsed laughter seems dubious medicine for a mind ailed by the difficulty of reading tears of fear from those of triumph. And what affliction, inversely, for the sane-minded to be made to laugh off problems that perpetually aggrieve!

Implicit in the indictment of notoriety and comedy is the recognition that ordinary aspects of Life are worth writing, and also that success or good fortune cannot measure the writeable. Human living is not all about success, and there are perhaps even more edifying lessons to be reaped from the failures of others of a common kind. Failures are likely born of experimentation, and, as not all experiments succeed and no experimenter wishes failure, self-summons to experiment must be inevitably attended with some foreboding that can discourage from initiative altogether. The discouraged ones scarcely try, and those afraid to try have no positive lessons to share. Negativity may, by contrast, be their forte, in that, having refused to try at all, they may seek to recruit others into their league by sounding alarms about the hazards of trial and error. This they can effectively do in writing, too, under the banner of “Thou shall not…” But, human living being risky business, all told, the alarmists may be playing the part of that living’s worst foes. Justifiable, incidentally, are reservations about some failed experimenter’s bid to caution prospective others about similar undertakings, as no two experiences are alike. But, coming from someone who has not in the least tried, experimental caution should ultimately prove awry.

I apprehend, however, the common run of humans to be trial-prone, if only from the truism regarding the inherent risks of living. My conviction remains, accordingly, that our species is much the gainer by the shared lessons of the trial-prone than by the proscriptions of idlers. Thankfully, the proscriptions are embedded mainly in custom and anonymous traditions, whereas the lessons are available mostly in identifiable individual literary works . The additional virtue of these works is the fact of their being sourced in the subjects’ reading activity. For any written aspect of living, if genuine, must arise from reflection upon the part lived, and reflection is the subject’s reading of it. Reading is done by recollection of the lapsed phase, and what is committed to script is that which is filtered through the recall effort. Admittedly, recollection can occur on a whim, and the matter dredged to consciousness may not conform exactly to the original. Delinquency may be as much the effect of faulty memory as of deliberation. Even so, the act of filtering need not occasion mendacity or distortion, the subject being at liberty to commit what he or she thinks topically appropriate.


I have sought, in the preceding paragraphs, to drive home my reservations about the ascendancy of the biographic mode in my discourse. I did not set out to write about my life, since I do know it be ongoing and cannot thus make smug assertions of it when I am clueless to what, or how much, remains of it. Those reservations are, however, not meant to debunk the mode per se. For, despite its limitations, it does represent a wholesome conduit for the sharing of experience, and sharing through writing is one virtue gladly assimilated from my humanist formation. Rather, therefore, than suppress that mode, I have sought to balance it with the confessional, and how unsuccessfully so at times may be understood from my concession, in the opening paragraph, of the inefficacy of authorial control in the event of conflict between the two modes. Where the conflict is mild, I may have successfully tamed the bluntness and troubles that come with the assertiveness of each.

In the effort to tame, I have felt the need to think through the major humanist influences on my journey. Plutarch (Parallel Lives & Moralia), Beethoven (“Letter to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, 29 June 1801”), Augustine of Hippo (The Confessions), Benjamin Franklin (Autobiography), Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy), and Plotinus (general outlook) are mentionable for their personal touch and direct impetus to my engagement of self with something greater. It is, however, their example, not their thoughts or ideas, that counts, which is why I refer hardly to any in discussion. The scope of ideational world informing the discussion may, in contrast, be easily gauged by the explicit references made. Some of those influences, like Augustine and Boethius, hark to the classroom experience of structured learning, while the rest hail from the requirements of the new school of life fashioned during the journey. As there is no intrinsic kinship amongst them, and they have been arrayed solely from the consideration of their joint sway on me, I treat them as parallel influences.

I do confess my inequality to the task of plotting lives of our times in correspondence with those of bygone ones. Part of the reason is my deep disappointment in the lives of those in the public sphere, the so-called role models who end up betraying public trust or veneration, and boasting little for instruction in character-pivoted affairs. Exceptions to the norm are insufficient material, and that not merely in terms of quantity. For the standard requires a comparison, not of exception with exception or with norm, but of norm with norm. And if our norm is demonstrably degenerate, then recognition of the fact compels a search for a corresponding norm of degeneracy in other ages. That search falls more fittingly to the historian than to the humanist. But the historian is usually interested less in character than in grand schemes involving causes or consequences of events which may be tangential to character. Hence, readers avid for lessons in character building who look to the historian may feel let down where they expect delivery on particulars of lives lived in singularity or individuality. So, if the humanist cynic in me is avowedly incapable of due delivery, and the historian is technically likewise, then the only option left is deference to a non-cynical humanist, one who has, contrarily to my opinion, found ample instantiation of virtue in the public sphere, and who can credibly act the part of a sorely needed post-modern Plutarch. On the other hand, if no such humanist is forthcoming at reasonable notice, then my cynicism may be vindicated as approximating the living truth to a higher degree than sheer outrage which finds expression in summary denunciation of all things cynical.

It is, then, absolutely for cause that I rate the Muse as primary reader, an act which in no way blurs the primary/secondary reader distinction as expounded above, notice being herewith served of the Epilogue account of the uncommonly affective register of her midwife agency. If not fully primary, then she is at least deservedly co-primary, which amendment in turn qualifies my own status as authorial reader, insofar as I am thereby, by necessary implication, also “co-primary”—with her. All the same, it is a qualification to be the more rejoiced in as it illustrates, far better than any other factor under consideration, the virtue of willful sharing. Perish, accordingly, all possible suspicion that she may have induced me to write in order to get herself deviously co-written. I, rather, have schemed to write her into what has turned out to be far larger than the self of any existent—body, being, or thing. What, moreover, is herein written/read of her agency is a mere trifling sketch of an otherwise rich profile in the aesthetics of the humanscape. And so the best tribute lies probably beyond this volume, in the guise of a fuller depiction conceived on the order of “Parallel Portraits”, with this hopefully begotten of an expanded circle of partnership in living, not merely in life and death.

Again, it is no fortuity that my stated vision of the beyond should ride my conviction of eutopia-found. “Eutopia” does not convert with “utopia”, I should stress, and it is upon painstaking diligence that I have settled for the former concept and rendered it unto some specificity of earthly experience. Now, what beauty to be reveled in, in the hereafter, if my scheme were to inspire others to experiment with the concept in concrete parallel situations so as to help fend it off all possible otherworldly contaminations! For sure, moral philosophy would be much the practical gainer for it. Who knows? The idea of “Parallel-Eutopias” could even some day exercise others into consideration of proximate ecologies tempered strictly to moral purpose. The Stoics of old did dream of something similar, albeit with cosmic emphases. Fidelity to the earthly concrete, in my case, is attested by the recurrence of the anecdotal, mostly in the form of chapter introductions. Let not the casual reader, however, be rushed, by this technique, into misjudgment. For this book is not an extended diary or chronicle. It is rather the fruit of an arduous probe into an order of existence understood in terms of the latter-day Renaissance notion of common-humanity. Anecdote is thus a mere prompt to the probe, and consistent with the probe is my own distaste for platitudes. Would only that I not fail mean reader satisfaction by giving in-depth readers more than they will have bargained for. For to have been given such less should be cause enough for the disappointed to protest in the name of the ought-to-have-been. And while the protest would definitely chasten, it could also positively stimulate me to better workmanship with some like-spirited enterprise.



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