Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Tragedy in Death of a Salesman

"…how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?
and how shall they hear without a preacher?"
— Romans 10:14

Fred Vaughan headshot by Fred Vaughan

In "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller there is an illusion nurtured by Willy that a man can be "worth more dead than alive."1 Obsessions with destiny can play such tricks on a person. In the end, however — but before Willy's suicide — there is a summing up: "Pop!" his son says, "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!" Repudiating him with, "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman," does nothing to substantiate an imagined reality in which the salesman Willy Loman has profound significance. But the Willy Lomans of the world, and perhaps even Arthur Millers, cast short shadows in comparison to men for whom the appellation "tragedy" applies. There is neither singular tragic flaw to precipitate demise nor great ideas hanging in the balance with their life or death. So the terms "tragedy," "death," and "salesman" to which I refer in the title pertain very little to the play of the similar name. Miller argued that although Willy is indeed a "little man" he is worthy of the pathos we usually reserve for tragic heroes such as Oedipus Rex. His argument was that any character willing to sacrifice his life to secure a sense of personal dignity invokes the sense of tragedy. So who knows, it could be, although I tend to doubt it. Nonetheless, I had something else in mind.

There must certainly be many cases throughout history in which ideas of extreme import have been lost for no other reason than the death of a chief proponent although a full accounting of the overwhelming loss due to such events is well beyond any conceivable effort at historical reconstruction. Certainly the most complete instantiations of such carnage have by their very effectiveness destroyed all evidence of the ideas that were lost. We only occasionally get glimpses that such situations may actually occur because a meme has managed by some accident of fate to frustrate the procedure and escape into the world at large before the death of its initial advocate. We find even in such cases in which complete premature annihilation of an idea was unsuccessful, sad commentary with regard to the surviving culture unilaterally pardoning past sins whereby counter culture has been illegitimately destroyed. Furthermore, desecrated ideas do not reoccur in the interim as they are purported to be capable of doing in cultural fairy tales that promote the concept of "inevitability" of all great ideas. They are gone — it is possible that most truly great ideas have vanished forever! The context of history changes such that an unformulated idea would never occur to anyone else after its time had passed. Even "immortal" gods, perceived rationally by many as simply the products of human intellectual exercise, are vulnerable to extinction with their adherents. St. Paul knew this. And H. L. Mencken named one hundred seventy one "immortal" gods that have long since succumbed to the nether world, in conclusion quipping: "All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead."2 Preemptive violence employed against their human hosts in preventing unwanted meme epidemics one must conclude to have been spectacularly successful in every area of intellectual endeavor including philosophy, science, mathematics, music, religion, and, of course, politics. The effectiveness of accidental death or ruthless intrigue on all sides of every issue has been truly appalling and there is little reason to doubt that nascent ideas will be vicariously assassinated well into the future. It's happening right now. Machiavellian techniques apply not just to politics, but sadly, to every area of human intellectual endeavor.

Proponents of tired paradigms inaugurated before the eldest living human was old enough to propound the previous paradigm, still melodramatically cite Thomas Kuhn's popularized notion that a paradigm can only become universally accepted when death finally takes all those who upheld the previous paradigm to illegitimately criticize opponents.3 It's a dumb argument. Establishmentarian ideas debated into the ground have not died on account of the deaths of their proponents! There was full knowledge of their inner workings as a part of the debate that accompanied their demise. And long after the last proponent has been ushered to the nether region, stories survive of the victory of the new paradigm that will be extolled until it is in turn replaced, and in extolling its success, the defeated ideas survive as leitmotif against which it can be praised. Only fragile newborn ideas, unheard outside an inner circle, are truly vulnerable to death whether by natural disease, accident, or inquisition of one or few of their intellectual hosts. It is in this defenseless phase of private discovery and investigation prior to joining the public debate where destiny balances precariously on a fragile human fulcrum.

In his American classic, Robert Pirsig suggested that philosophical ideas propounded by the sophists in pre-Parmenidean Greece may have been systematically destroyed by antagonists and that what must once have been a heated debate turned into a unilateral attack on "sophistry" as mere rhetoric.4 With no sophist alive to set the record straight these accusations held for millennia, so sophists' alternative philosophical structure disappeared from the face of the earth, the minds of mankind. That is, of course, unless Pirsig actually did recapture from extracted roots of words and innuendos in accusations some of the original intent in his revitalized concept of Quality as preeminent over subsequent Westernized Aristotelian classifications.

In an earlier attempt at imitating the style of Jorge Luis Borges5I intimated that science perfunctorily expunges concepts from its registry as a part of a normal retroactive redaction, such that records of the life work of the hapless characters Woran von Geht and Friedrich Spielen had already been expurgated from journals: "The considerable volume of their contributions… more recent translations…have mercifully omitted…" However, beyond the facetious novelty in that account, a real danger exists of very similar expurgation processes. Nearly a century ago two of the most brilliant prospects for salvaging physics from the doldrums of academia vied with their alternative fixes to then current dilemmas. As protege of Poincaré, Walter Ritz had developed alternatives to the already gilded dogmas surrounding Maxwell's wave equations of electricity and magnetism. He was able to avoid the problems of having to throw away legitimate solutions to theoretically justified equations just because they ignobly refused to apply to the "real" world. Ritz's theory also competed honorably with Einstein's relativity for a time, accounting for many of the experiments because of the accepted factuality of what he pointed out with regard to the phenomenon of extinction of light by lenses, mirrors, and indeed by any material medium. Some years later Wilhelm de Sitter promoted Einstein's special relativity in preference to Ritz's using illegitimate arguments with regard to the non-existence of ghost images of binary stars.6 I sometimes wondered why so brilliant a physicist as Walter Ritz would not have rebutted such feeble arguments and thus have kept the debate alive. I finally realized why that was. Walter Ritz had long since been dispatched to the nether world! Earlier he and Albert Einstein had also argued at length about the origin of irreversibility in physics, an argument that had gone on for some time. At length the editor of the journal Physikalische Zeitschrift seems to have suggested that the two formulate their respective positions, sign an agreement to differ and get on with it.7 So they did that in 1909 and the debate ended. But of course, as too few know, the primary reason that the debate had ended was because Walter Ritz died two months after the agreement to disagree was published. Hence also, of course, de Sitter's subsequent claim in 1913 with regard to relativity would go unchallenged. Later in life Einstein recapitulated the arguments with regard to irreversibility to Wheeler and Feynman as stimulation to their development of absorption theory8and seemed to have somewhat altered his own position on issues including the debate with Ritz.9 But Einstein is dead too and most physicists have accepted his previously formulated position that complexity with the associated need for probabilistic solutions must, in itself, produce irreversibility without a microscopic counterpart. Cramer alone, who also challenged the "Copenhagen Interpretation" with his "Transaction Interpretation" of quantum mechanics, seems to maintain the standard propounded by Ritz.10 But sadly, although "a formula, a phrase remains, — …the best is lost" as Edna St. Vincent Millay sadly bemoaned.11 To my knowledge, no one has been able to reconstruct Ritz's electromagnetic theory.

In mathematics there is Evariste Galois, without whose willingness to write down the ideas of group theory the night before his duel over the dignity of a whore, we would not now have one of the major branches of mathematics. But, of course, if he had gotten a good night's sleep, practiced with his pistols, or better yet, just capitulated with regard to his lust, all of mathematics might be much more sophisticated than it is. In music there was Mozart, perhaps murdered or at least driven to deadly abstraction by an opponent of his abilities.

If salesmanship and religion don't seem to fit in the same sentence, read Roger Rueff's play "Hospitality Suite,"12or see the movie based on it, "The Big Kahuna" with Kevin Spacey and Danny De Vito. With regard to religious ideas it should be noted that although Judaism, Christianity (for a time), and Islam (during the odd crusade) were repeatedly under attack, these were always after their associated memes had leaked out into society at large and were, therefore, ineffective beyond the associated slaughter of humans. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, like so many religious ideas before and after it in cultures throughout the world including previously cited immortal gods, did not fare so well. It was destroyed most effectively by the more or less total destruction of Persians who held to the doctrine of good versus evil to the bloody end. Perhaps current administrative decisions by the U. S. may in some way revitalize this notion that lacks so much in subtlety by its vain attempt to destroy all those infected by the offending idea of the Western world being evil. Ethnic groups everywhere and always have seemed to annihilate without compunction anyone holding opposing religious ideas for the greater glory of their own gods, their own culture, their own ideas.

In the political arena, character and literal assassination has been the norm that seems to have picked up momentum over the last quarter century. The tragic deaths and subsequent annihilation of character of key liberals by the resurgent American conservative movement has been motivated in large part by an agenda that cared primarily for the destruction of liberal political ideas to which cause these people's lives had no moral standing. In contrast, by elevating the stature of a chief proponent of terrorism and attempting to destroy his person but failing, his ideas may be emboldened like flames in a wind that has just failed to extinguish a fire. Creating public martyrs has the opposite effect of secret assassinations. So, although it is not surprising that bin Laden should find himself under attack by the most powerful nation ever to rule the world, it is indeed surprising that there would be so little awareness by Americans of the phase of this particular epidemic of anti-American sentiment. It seems well past the stage at which the incineration of any affected person or even of a small group of people could be effective in the eradication of the viral meme. The idea that the Western world is consumed by its own power and glory is out there! That notion and the associated hatred of Americans have been out there for some time with only the most naïve caught unaware on September 11, 2001. Now the idea is being reinforced by ill-conceived attempts to destroy it. It would seem that it should have been, and should still be, obvious that that idea must be debated openly to portray the proper perspective. Having resorted to prehistoric methods of idea extinction, too late in any case, the approach can only confirm by its success or failure what we desperately want to believe to be an invalid idea. How do we now convince anyone of its illegitimacy? Certainly Afghanis nor Iraqis (nor any other of the billions of Muslims) will buy the idea that we do not, and will not, continue flaunting military and economic might throughout the middle East and entire world until we have utterly destroyed all cultures but our own. That is an idea worthy of our consideration -- something to think about.

The death of a "salesman" of any idea by any method whatsoever is akin to killing the messenger. Certainly terrorists instrumental in massive killing are not merely killing salesmen. They must be brought to a justice that may involve their own deaths no less or more so than other perpetrators of heinous crimes. But let it be known that even in such cases capital punishment is constitutionally administered in consequence of those plans or actions involving the killing of human beings and not for nurturing ideas. For one thing (and it is, in fact, a major thing) to act otherwise is immoral by virtually any standard in any society. Those who treat human life as subsidiary to, or as mere attributes of, material symbols of an idea (or of an idea itself) are grossly immoral. Ideas must warrant victory and arguments should be won or lost based on relative merits of the competing ideas, not by "kill ratios" reminiscent of Viet Nam. Pursuing ideological arguments with human slaughter, however effective, by definition disqualifies participants from victory in any war alleged to pit good versus evil. Once both sides have reverted to such tactics, what is left is a bloody crusade of "us" versus "them!"

1 Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Penguin, USA (1998)

2 H. L. Mencken, "Memorial Service," Prejudices (a selection), Vintage, New York, 143-147 (1958)

3 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1962)

4 Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

5 See for example, Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, New Directions Pub Corp., New York (1964)

6 R. Fred Vaughan, "Special Relativity: An Experimental Error," Gift of Fire, 31, 6-15 (July 1988).

7 Walter Ritz and Albert Einstein , "On the Current State of the Radiation Problem," Physikalische Zeitschrift, 10, 323-324 (1909).

8 John Wheeler and Richard Feynman, "Interaction with the Absorber as the Mechanism of Radiation," Review of Modern Physics, 17, 157 (1945).

9 Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord — The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford, 467 & 484 (1982).

10 John Cramer, "Velocity Reversal and the Arrows of Time," Foundations of Physics, 18, 1205 (1988).

11 Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Dirge Without Music," Collected lyrics, Washington Square, New York, 172 (1959).

12 Roger Rueff's play "Hospitality Suite" does not seem to be available in print.

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