Friday, April 18, 2008

Umberto Eco and the Rainy Day

It's raining this afternoon.
I was hurrying through the brick alley leading to the publishing house where I was going to pick up a manuscript, when around the corner came a former coworker. We were both hunched, umbrellaless, against the rain, and as he passed me, we exchanged a quick glance of mutual dismay.
Because this guy has always been almost diagnosably noninteractive, this flicker of shared humanness was a bit startling, and nice.

It reminds me of something Umberto Eco said in an essay whose name I forgot.
He was responding to the question: On what do you base ethics and morality if not on God?
His answer is, we don't need God as a base. We can start with our basic biology--with the shared experience of having bodies.
For instance, he said, I know that I would not like to be hung upside down. So I can use that as a basis of an ethical system about how to treat other people.

Bruce Springsteen said something similar during an audience Q&A session, on PBS "Storytellers." Someone asked him where he got his sense of racial justice, which he shows on songs like "American Skin (41 Shots)".
He looked a little baffled by the question and said that he guessed it came from how he felt as a kid. The people in his life mostly ignored him and he felt invisible. He didn't like that feeling and figured other people wouldn''t like it either.

So, that's three things we know.
1. People don't like to be at the mercy of the elements.
2. People don't like other people to be mean to them.
3. Bruce Springsteen had an unhappy childhood.

Seems enough to base a philosophy on... or at least a foreign policy.

(Painting, top, "Beside the Sea," by Degas, 1869, at the MIA)

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