It’s impossible not to talk about the Virginia Tech shootings in some way today. Although I hadn’t intended to talk about them at all, it seems that incidents like this worm their way inside your mind and charge everything you read with a kind of radioactive significance. I happened to be flicking through the wonderful Adam Phillips’s collection of essays, Promises, Promises, and by sheer chance started to read his piece on open mindedness and it seemed so poignantly apt, not necessarily to the tragedy that took place, but to the nightmare of the aftermath that will now inevitably follow it.
‘An open mind is not an open door,’ Phillips suggest in his introduction, ‘ “open-mindedness” merely describes what is, for some people, a preferred way of discriminating…. After all, at its most minimal, the open-minded have to know what they must keep out of their minds to keep them open… An open-mind, as Northrop Frye remarked, has to be open at both ends. So when we think of ourselves as open-minded we think of ourselves as open to the right kinds of things. We have doors in order to be able to close them. Our attention is not so much selective as exclusive.’
Being open-minded in our contemporary multi-cultural, heterogeneous, morality-lite society isn’t so much advisable as essential, if we’re all going to rub along together one way or another. But what Phillips reminds us here is that the open-mindedness we strive for is never complete or comprehensive. It simply couldn’t be because our minds aren’t made that way; thinking outside our own particular boxes is a struggle and a problem and the vast majority of the points are gained for making the effort. Yet one of the implicit problems with open-mindedness is that, as an attitude, it tends to embrace a resilient optimism, a firm conviction in truth and possibility that is as beautiful as it is constraining. Being open-minded we think of as being a good thing, and so therefore it’s a state that attracts other positives, like to like. No matter how far we’ve opened our minds – or perhaps because we may have opened them to their widest extent – we can’t make room for the most devastating depths of negativity, violence and horror. There’s almost a shadow of a hope in the very embrace of open-mindedness that it’s gentle liberality might make the dimension of evil and hopeless despair disappear.
But Phillips goes on to propose that the opposite of open-mindedness, or what we used to call ‘narrow-mindedness’ is all about that other positive-seeming act of making our minds up. Once we have made our minds up about something, for good and all, once we’ve got something licked, something fixed and sorted, something whose sense and reason justifies us utterly, then we’ve suddenly closed one of those doors. I’ve said before that I think all truths come with an attached use by date, and Phillips is suggesting that this is their very saving grace. Too much ‘knowingness’ can be as much, if not more, of a problem than radical doubt. Phillips quotes another author, Jonathon Lear, who argues that what we really need, which is to say what might ultimately be the most useful stance to adopt, is ‘the capacity to live non-defensively with the question of how to live.’ Knowing things for sure is a good way of building up walls of protection, great barricades of self-assurance that are all the more painful when events conspire to kick them away. Relying on reason to validate us and the things we do is one of the great illusions of the human condition. The reason can be all too spurious, because all we really wanted was the validation, the life support system of logic to ground our actions.
If you’re wondering what all this has to do with the Virginia Tech massacres, then it’s because Phillips subsequently considers tragedy and catastrophe. ‘It is the fact that terrifying and shocking and surprising things happen – that we do terrifying and shocking and surprising things – that is always tempering our hope for ourselves.’ A hope that is too often based on the reasonableness, the rationality, the intelligibility of human conduct, though what Phillips is trying to suggest here as a way out of the impasse is that ‘real rationality fully acknowledges the significance of irrationality.’ We really need to accept that part of ourselves is always capable of acting in unforeseen and inexplicable ways (this is something that Bikeprof’s excellent post also talks about today – in much more lucid ways that I have). When tragedy strikes, it has even the most open of minds reaching for any kind of reason to counteract the intolerable nagging of the question: Why? When we are reminded of our awful vulnerability, then our immediate instinct is to become defensive and protective and mired in the mud of ‘knowing’ what will fix the terrible problem of human violence. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech disasters, who wouldn’t ask the unbearable question, why? But can we then find the courage and the openness to bear the equally devastating possibility that there may not be a proper answer? I’m going to leave the last word on this awful prospect to Phillips, who says it with far more brilliance and grace than I ever could:
‘There is something in human nature that wants, for no available reason, to destroy what we most value… There is something beyond intelligibility that is causing all the trouble, and we are really up against it. So there are two kinds of people: those who believe that it’s just a matter of time before we work it all out (call them, say, technocrats); and those who believe that we never will because life isn’t like that… We may live by trading with the enemy, but we can’t force the enemy to trade. If there is meaningless destructiveness then we are all potentially inconsolable.’