Monday, December 14, 2015

In The Days When Capitalism Held Wonder In The World-With The Dutch Masters In Mind

In The Days When Capitalism Held Wonder In The World-With The Dutch Masters In Mind

A while back, not too long ago, a few months at most, I was thinking about when I was a kid growing up in the reds scare Cold War 1950s, a time when due to international politics one manifestation of the struggle for supremacy was the race to space, the race to see who could claim to get there first in a manned object and stake a claim. The way that translated to a kid, this kid, but certainly many others as well was to direct me, us, to the stars and to stare and wonder, wonder what the heck was out there, and whether what was out there was dangerous to Mother Earth, or friendly. Maybe today such efforts are directed toward the earth itself more and the creation of technology commensurate with our seemingly endless need to look at electronic gadgetry but then the heavens held our gaze and we judged those who reached for the stars as the vanguard, as the way forward. And it was not just kids either as my old friend Sam Lowell reminded me but kids, kids I knew anyway way seemed to get an extra jolt out of the idea of being kings (and queens but precious few girls shared the vision as far as Sam and I recall and maybe that is why we were “outcasts” in late elementary school and junior high when they were dreaming of sock hops and “cool” guys).  Sam can testify to that unsuccessful part since he almost became a victim of the “collateral damage” of the quest for the stars. After several attempts with anything from balsa wood models glided along a wire flight path between two poles to welded soup cans and a funnel filled with odd-ball chemicals (hey, come on I was ten or eleven what do you want) and nearly getting people killed or grievously injured (Sam, my late younger brother, Kenny, and Allan Johnson whom I had met in first grade), including myself, I left the task to safer hands. But the wonder stayed for a long while, the wonder about what was out there and what was new to discover. Then I slowly turned my face to more earthly matters (after also failing to figure out girls, earth version), trying to figure out how to organize this world more equitably through a litany of theoretical models.             


When I look at the picture of these clearly prosperous well-fed Dutch merchant-adventurers (see above) I have the feeling that they too were wondering about what was out there, out beyond the coastal European seas, wondering how to get there first before the bounty they expected to find could be taken by other hands. Wondering, since these are Dutch burghers we are referring to, what they, better what their sea-captains would make of what F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby called the “fresh green breast of the new world” when they entered Long Island Sound and saw infinite possibilities now that they had left the baggage of the restrictive universal Catholic Church behind (although that organization was as rapacious as any pious Protestant burgher) and imbibed deeply of the Protestant work ethic-to get theirs in the here and now. Wondered, maybe innocently, for a minute anyway before digging away at whatever they had come for, just like the space race wonder of my youth.

Then I put my political hat on and thought back to that time, to a time when such types, wondering or not, led the drive away from the old stagnant feudal order, the old hokus-pokus religion (they all have the look of those who took their religion as an individual task, took it lightly once the crush of the Holy Catholic popish church had been lifted allowing them to wonder about earthly “doing and making”), and that there was a pretty penny to be made in the world.    

All of this got tied together for me one day after looking at the picture several times at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and realizing that back then those wonderings, that seeking out of individual worth, even that concept of “doing and making” in the world which drove their ethic, and which formed the rudiments of the capitalist ethos is what pushed human progress along. Fitfully, unevenly, and with plenty of inequality but pushed it along whatever the personal desires of the individuals portrayed in the picture. So while today I, we, can see that the old-time positive capitalist ethos has lost its head of steam and another system of organizing the productive forces of the world is necessary those smirky, self-satisfied burghers have an honorable place in human history. Yeah, and all of their capacity to wonder too.            


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