When Concepts Are in Control

WE think too much about events, not enough about concepts.Possession is a concept: My friend Leppy told of the time, as a young man, he visited a well-to-do friend in Chicago. Two giant azaleas stood in gorgeous bloom at the foot of the drive. When Leppy complimented his host on the plantings, the host said he had not noticed them. "Then they must have been my azaleas, not yours," Leppy suggested. Possession may be nine-tenths in the power to observe. Travel: Travel starts with a hunch, an inkling, a curiosity, a feeling that precedes a more explicit itinerary. An energy gathers about heading toward a particular destination. Lacking this positive energy collecting toward a direction, we have the purgatory called "aimless travel." Plagiarism too is a concept. Plagiarism has drawn attention nearby recently: A Boston professor borrowed a movie critic's words without attribution; a New England reporter took paragraphs from another reporter's story, again without crediting. Lies are self-originated, unborrowed falsehoods. Gossip is distinguished from plagiarism in that no one claims gossip as his own. Lies, plagiarism, and gossip are forms of playing loose with truth and accountability. "Two-ness" is a concept. (So is oneness, but that takes forever to consider.) To express two-ness, thinkers have formulated the Gemini twins of multiple talents, and the Cain and Abel of aggression and innocence. Innocent two-ness is abundant: On Saturday I observed two fawns ambling beside the railroad track in southern Connecticut, and two antlered deer seen shortly after. Sport should be innocent two-ness. Aggressive two-ness, "us and them," accounts for war and other evils in human experience. When a concept is powerful enough, inertia and resistance are left behind. The status quo is so many dinghies tethered about a resting ship. When the ship, empowered by a destination, begins to move, either the dinghies are pulled in behind the ship and dragged along until hauled aboard, or they break free and are left to their own indirection or to find haven with another ship. Events may be only the evidence of ideas passing by. We tend to look to events to tell us what is happening. News is taken to be the reporting of events. But events are usually the derivative of ideas. We look for patterns in events as if to find some solace against chaos. A concept is "a generalized idea of a thing or class of things," says our office-standard dictionary. Concepts give shape and context to events. When we say that events are in control we know we are in trouble. "Restructuring" is a powerful leading concept of this time. It means shaking down, eliminating excess, streamlining, for competitive reasons. When two major New York banks combine to form one larger bank, as many as 6,000 jobs and six dozen branches will be shed to form a more profitable enterprise. Banks have been slow to join in the restructuring that has been underway in other industries. Computer rivals IBM and Apple suddenly find joint ventures to be in their joint interest. Europe is restructuring apace: National companies are becoming pan-European companies and already look westward to North America, where a continental trade zone is forming. The US "restructured" its agriculture after World War II, as manufacturers moved to plants in the South and West. Change means hardship for many. A "competitive strength" of the US is its readiness to levy the cost of change on individuals to a degree that would not be tolerated in countries with stronger welfare state traditions; this is said with irony. "You old fool, you're confusing your own life with tales other people have told you," protests a character in "1492," Homero Aridjis's novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain under the Inquisition. "It all gets jumbled together inside my head," replies the old man, trying to make sense of the Jews' desperate exodus. "No matter, when we look back, all our memories will become one single story." We tend to do that with history, jumble it to make it simpler. The year 1492 saw the end of Moorish rule, the establishment of the Catholic kings in Spain, the New World expeditions, and the financing of these with wealth confiscated under the Inquisition. Talk about concepts, evil and good! And talk about concepts is just what I hope we will do as this complex cinquecentennial is observed.

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