Come to Think of It: The meaninglessness of man

Electronic communication has given a whole new meaning to the word ephemera. And as writing began in stone and in its current form, secured somehow in the ether of electronic coding, I fear for our children’s children who may be disinherited from the literary traditions of history, not to mention one’s written language itself.

Just where language came from is as mysterious as life itself, if not more mysterious. We are perplexed by the hippopotamus, with its largeness and hunger for tons of grass or whatever is a hippo’s daily bread; but we are perhaps unspeakably bewildered at the thought of a hippo praying before it gorges itself yet again on another ton of turf. The idea of a hippo talking is incongruous with our cognitive habits because we are intellectual snobs in the society of the world’s species.

But wherever language came from, which is probably the same place life came from (read here God Almighty), it is not altogether certain that language will endure, at least as written.

We as a species seem to be either devolving or evolving, I can’t say which. Modern day electronic communication proceeds from the principle that less is more, when, with the medium of language and the written word, the very opposite is true.

Thus we text a smiley emoji to indicate our pleasure at someone’s equally curt compliment about our new haircut. I suppose in such things, more isn’t much needed, but such a habit carries over into heavier moments of one’s life, like birth and death and marriage.

These events are oftentimes acknowledged with the same brevity and inhuman distance as a smiley emoji by a very short text like: “Grandpa past away today.” I speak from experience, because that is how I was informed of the passing away of my own father’s father.

In more formal and human epochs—like two decades ago before text messaging—the notice of a loved one’s passing was usually given in person, with sorrow mitigated by warm affection and moving words, however learned, because these were tempered by an equally warm and affectionate tone; or by telephone call which transported at least the tone.

I say we may be evolving or devolving, and the way we use language is the reason. It may be that man’s thought and expression will become all feeling and all analytics or mathematics, that he will perfectly express all he has to say on his wedding day, for instance, by a kiss and the formula 1+1=1, but somehow that may be a cause for confusion. In words, “The two shall become one” is perfectly intelligible, because the thought, being mystical, is easily conveyed in the mystical medium of words. But in pure feeling or pure number, man is diminished, and his world shrunk like a juicy grape into a dried up raisin.

There’s a vision of the caveman, homo erectus, with his sunken skull and club and hairy back doodling with a rock pencil on the wall of a cave by the light of a Promethean fire. There’s another vision, of modern man hunched over his cellphone thumbing away the words and thoughts and criticisms of his age. The scrawling scratches of the half-wit in the cave have endured tens of thousands of years, and probably will be there tens of thousands more. I doubt this article will last more than a day or two, but will probably end up going down the memory hole.

Come to think of it, man isn’t so much evolving into a superman or devolving into his pre-historic former self but is simply becoming smaller and more insignificant in the precise meaning of the word—man is becoming meaningless because he is meaning less and less in what he writes by the minute.

The Black Man’s Jubilee

In light of the holiday Juneteenth, the day on which a vast body of enslaved black men, women and children were declared free from their white masters and captors, I wonder what the term really means. Not the word, ‘Juneteenth’, for that doesn’t mean anything at all, at least in an etymological sense. The word is a contraction of June and nineteenth, but who first contracted it is a mystery to me and Mr. Google, only that the contraction happened sometime in the late nineteenth century. Rather, I am more concerned and perplexed by the word freedom. What does it mean to be free? 

Surely freedom means not having to pick another man’s cotton because he tells you to. That kind of freedom, freedom from being a working slave to a master, is what Juneteenth celebrates.

But there are other kinds of slavery. One is not altogether free if he must beg on the side of the street for his daily bread, like the emaciated black man I saw this morning at the corner of University Mall in Carbondale, holding a red sign beneath the traffic lights. Yes, of course, the man has the choice to stand at the corner and beg or go to a shelter and simply stand in line for some food. But I suspect that the thin and tired looking man did not look like that because he wanted food, at least not directly. He was most likely a drug addict and wanted money for more drugs. 

The tragic irony is that the man I saw was literally drowning in a sea of prosperity, of currents of wealth and the means of material acquisition bustling all about him. Just across the road fifty feet away stood Taco Bell, where the man could have been hired on the spot for a team member position beginning at $14 dollars an hour, an entire dollar more than minimum wage. Assuming no overtime, speciality pay, etc., that is bringing home $29,120 a year. And did I mention Taco Bell offers free and discounted food and drinks for its employees? 

But the chains that kept that man captive were invisible, and those prevented him from walking over to Taco Bell for a paycheck and a life off the street. Who put those chains on him, the white man? Hardly. What is more than likely, he put them on himself when he turned to drugs to escape a childhood full of pain, perhaps from an absent or drug-addict father who never taught him to be a man, let alone a free man.  

Freedom means being free from things which hinder us from acting as we would like or ought to act. In early America, slavery took the form of forced work, chains, and the lash. Today, slavery takes the form of addiction, ignorance, and vice. In the days of early American slavery, one could hear a black man under a burning sun singing in some cotton field a hymn of hope and jubilee. That man, though a slave before man, was a freeman before God, and secretly he knew it, which is why he sang in the sun. On the other hand, the manacled black man of today thinks he is free, but he is enslaved by a thousand different chains which hinder his movements at every turn. He stands on the street corner looking pitiful and small and does not sing. He cannot walk fifty feet to a trendy, colorful and air-conditioned restaurant which will pay him almost $30,000 to do what he is already doing in the street and sun because his mind and will are enslaved. 

Come to think of it, I cannot fully celebrate Juneteenth, because I am still waiting on the black man’s jubilee.