The text, said Aldous Huxley, is the pretext. We read not only to learn or process information. We read—or at least we did once upon a time—to revel in the sheer opulence of language. “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” is how Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” begins. Humpty Dumpty parses the words for Alice and explicates their “portmanteau” nature, but the pleasure resides not only in sense-making but in the sensual flair and appetite of our potential engagement with the language.
All our activities may be viewed in the same light. We do things not only to get them done but to embroider our personalities around them: in talk, exchange of pleasantries and jokes, shared reverie. What is specifically human is what is civilized, that is, what remains after function has been subtracted. Packing for a trip, washing the dishes, receiving a massage, for example, are activities that may all be accomplished more or less mechanically. What is specifically human is the excited talk about the forthcoming trip while the bags are being packed, perhaps badly; the chatter over the dishes, though several may break; or the tickle in the massage. In other words, what is essentially human is what is gratuitous, the whole range of being which is not function-related, the non-utilitarian, the element of play taken in the widest possible sense.
The philosophic distinction going back in part to Plato’s Parmenides, sometimes phrased as the opposition between Reality and Necessity, is the appropriate discrimination here.* Necessity refers to the domain of activity in which the purposes of subsistence are exclusively served. It is what we may call the economic sphere of confined exertion—that of which John Travolta, playing the archangel Michael asked to revive a dead puppy, says, “It’s not my area.” Reality is the realm of spirit or of the non-replaceable, in which the sense of being is enhanced in the circuitous attainment and expression of either joy or wisdom or both. It is what John Donne is getting at when he writes: “On a huge hill/Cragged, and steep, Truth stands and he that will/Reach her, about must, and about must go.” Similarly, Emily Dickinson: “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies.” And so, Polonius: “By indirections find directions out.”
*Celebrated logician Willard van Orman Quine in The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays reverses the terminology when he writes that empiricists argue that “necessity resides in the way we talk about things, not in the things we talk about.” The term “necessity” is used rather casually here and is synonymous with “freedom” or “reality.” The distinction holds.
Not long ago, I took my dog Shiba for an afternoon workout at our town beach on the Ottawa River, a lovely crescent of yellow sand and shade trees patronized by visitors from as far away as Montreal. A pure Siberian husky packing the energy of the Big Bang in her muscles, Shiba looks forward to these outings when she can entertain herself swimming furiously toward the horizon after lobbed twigs and tennis balls. With her striking white pelt, blue eyes, children-loving temperament and dolphin-like swimming motion, she is generally the center of attention and has made many admiring friends among the company of beach-goers.
Not everyone, however, is appreciative of Shiba’s playful and rambunctious presence. As I was about to launch another tennis ball for her to retrieve, I was approached by two attractive, deeply tanned young women who objected to Shiba’s performance, or, rather, to Shiba herself. They demanded that we cease and desist. When I inquired why I should comply, I was informed that dogs were unclean creatures and that Shiba prevented them from bathing since the water would be polluted by her thrashing about.
Needless to say, I was initially taken aback. After all, Shiba was a community favorite who posed no threat to anyone. Moreover, the women were not local residents but visitors from the big city. Additionally, my municipal taxes paid for the upkeep of the beach, which they enjoyed at no cost to themselves. The plain fact was that they had no stake in the matter and were, to put it somewhat wryly, completely out of their depth.
But, as my readers have surmised, they were of the Islamic persuasion. True, they were not garbed in traditional dress and seemed for all intents and purposes to be “modern” young women; yet they had no compunction against affirming their traditional and, indeed, alien values, which they attempted to impose as of right. I did my best to remain polite, but could not resist suggesting that they find some other beach to visit and that Shiba, whose license I had also paid for and who was more of a resident than they were, was far more entitled to the privilege of the river than interlopers from elsewhere.