Friday, September 25, 2009

Postmodernism and the Human Heart

There is something called the all-purpose saddle. The sides, called flaps, of the saddle do not go straight down to accommodate the elegant, nearly straight leg of the dressage rider; nor do they extend far enough forward to accommodate the bent knees of a rider who takes her horses over jumps. Instead, the flaps of an all-purpose saddle land somewhere in the middle, neither too far forward nor too straight. (The black saddle is a Passier dressage saddle; the brown, a Stuebben jumping saddle. Comparing the two, you can imagine what an all-purpose saddle looks like.)

Sitting an all-purpose saddle is actually a hindrance to equestrians of all disciplines. A dressage rider cannot extend her leg and drop her heel correctly; a jumper cannot place her knee forward enough to maintain her two-point balance. Most riders think an all-purpose saddle is a saddle that is good for nothing, for the simple reason that it tries to be all things to all people.

It may as well be called the postmodern saddle, because it pretends there is no validity to the question: is there a right way to do something? It pretends that whatever you want to think is fine, and that perspectives are equally valuable, and that the question of definition is supercilious: who is to say what riding dressage or going over a jump actually is, anyway? Are you implying that your way of viewing reality is superior to my way of viewing reality? is the unspoken question to anyone who states a preference. It allows a person who believes in the all-purpose saddle to hold her head up high. This is very different, however, from actually riding a horse.

How is this way of thinking an improvement over the contentious pondering done by early theologians in their debates about how many angels could sit atop the head of a pin? Postmodernism is a flurry of focused thought, but it is not taking place in the classroom of life where actual learning occurs. It is a diversion, off the point, an extra-credit hobby class that mistakes itself for core curriculum.

Still, we seem collectively to agree today that the correct perspective on existence is the postmodern point of view that includes infinite variability. Our zeitgeist is postmodern. We believe that time moves in one direction, and that what comes later is better than what came before. Postmodernism, therefore, is better than, say, The Enlightenment, as if to say history truly were an every-widening gyre, like the flight of the falcon in search of her prey (images extracted from the work of W. B. Yeats).

But which is better for the falcon: to seek the prey, which comes first, or catch the prey, which comes later? Put that way, it's easy to see how senseless the question is. So why do we assume that on the path of our development, postmodernism is better than any other historical perspective on human existence? It's just the philosophical version of the all-purpose saddle: the fact that someone invented it doesn't make it worthwhile. The fact that it came later doesn't make it better.

All points of view may be equally valid in that everyone has a right to think whatever she thinks. But that's where postmodernism has to stop. In our personal lives, we must choose what we believe, where we will put our energy and our faith. We must stand for something, not everything. We declare what is valuable to us and what is not. There is no such thing as an all-purpose belief.

A friend of mine died unexpectedly last weekend. He was here, he was healthy, and now he is gone. If he could come back for one hour, do you think he would go to his desk, pull out all his files, and rush in a fever against the ticking clock to be certain all his facts were straight, that his arguments were persuasive, that his points were clear and inarguable? That everyone would be impressed by everything he ever did?

Or would he sit with his beloved wife in the garden, holding her hand?

Eventually we will come to our senses, and all-purpose/no-purpose postmodernism will blow away to reveal once again the human heart that beats in us all.

Postscript: If you ride with an all-purpose saddle, please understand I am not sitting in judgment. The metaphor of the all-purpose saddle in this essay is based in my own personal experience of riding dressage.

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