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January 2, 2008 - 1:38pm


Recently I had lunch with a materials science professor, and my family spent New Year’s with an engineer and his family. I’ve also been readying to guest-post with the science set over at The World’s Fair and stumbled on a list of dozens of distinguished scientists in artificial intelligence, signal processing, zoology, and other fields, whom the U.S. Navy funds to help protect us from enemy submarines and frogmen.

Being reminded of how many work in practicality is enough to make a liberal arts person despair. Luckily I didn’t attend the big humanities convention over the holiday, or I might have determined to go back to school for accountancy.

Call it humanist’s New Year’s dis-ease: The feeling that one has not chosen one’s life’s work wisely, because one is, let’s say, an adjunct lecturer in English at a big state university instead of a member of the Fermilab steering group.

On a long drive down a barren Midwest highway, this can lead to greater, more generalized, doubt. Sure, one thinks: I have known art, the best that humankind has thought and felt, our tie to the universal and eternal, and that which defies The Void. Why then do I still worry for my children? Why fear loss, strangeness, pain, decrepitude, the conscious hours of dying? Wait, one thinks: I’m not even a humanities scholar proper. I’ve become…I’m…a blogger. O God!

One might think one’s understanding of the human condition could be used to elevate mood, but it often lifts for unconscious reasons instead—maybe a view of a hut sheltered from the wind by a low hill, or trees against the sky on a friendly ridgeline.

That evening, still confused, one opens W.H. Auden’s commonplace book and finds this filed under “Solitude and Loneliness”:

Letting rip a fart—
It doesn’t make you laugh
When you live alone.
(Anon. Japanese [trans. Geoffrey Bownas])

And one feels that this observation, caught in a flash by some fine sensibility, is worth any number of decades-long projects fashioning littoral seabed neural networks with autonomously deploying explosive devices.


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