Downloaded my free kindle sample of Jonathan Franzen‘s eagerly-awaited, critically-acclaimed new novel Freedom last night. (excerpt) (reviews) Couldn’t wait any longer for my Amazon pre-order to arrive. Dove right in, ’til I got to the part where a character is “complaining about the length of his attention span” and realized my own was drifting towards sleep. But so far, so great. (Not everyone thinks so, btw: a few female writers have been heard to grumble that Franzen’s being unduly lionized, there must be an interesting and possibly Oprah-centered back-story there. But never mind.)

I bring it up in part just because it’s a huge literary event, when a writer of Franzen’s stature weighs in with much-needed perspective on the strange form of life we’ve been living lately. (His Corrections nine years ago was brilliant in that regard.)

But I also find the theme pertinent to what we’re doing today in the Future of Life class: further discussing William James’s claim that what life eventually makes of itself, in the long run, is a “vital question for us all.” Do we live as though we really felt that? Or have we shrunk our “freedom” to a mere series of consumer product-and-lifestyle choices that have no real regard for the ultimate disposition of our species?

One early review contends that

In America what passes for freedom, or so Jonathan Franzen implies, is a refusal to accept limits, to shoulder the burdens of an inheritance… more

“The burden of an inheritance” is also the opportunity of a legacy, and that’s what Dan Dennett was getting at when he talked about what makes us a unique species, with regard to our forebears’ solicitude for our destiny… and ours for that of our progeny.

We’re free to care about the future, or not. If we care, the present expands and deepens. If we don’t, it shrinks and shallows. That’s my claim, anyway. The fundamental message here is anti-deterministic and melioristic: The future is an open country, in an open and pluralistic universe. It’s ours for the filling. The way things are is not the way they have to be. We can make it better.*

What would Edward Bellamy say? What would you?


*Some other pertinent James quotes from Pragmatism, lecture #3:

To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the PRINCIPLE of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the PAST of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.

Thus if no future detail of experience or conduct is to be deduced from our hypothesis, the debate between materialism and theism becomes quite idle and insignificant. Matter and God in that event mean exactly the same thing—the power, namely, neither more nor less, that could make just this completed world—and the wise man is he who in such a case would turn his back on such a supererogatory discussion. Accordingly, most men instinctively, and positivists and scientists deliberately, do turn their backs on philosophical disputes from which nothing in the line of definite future consequences can be seen to follow. The verbal and empty character of philosophy is surely a reproach with which we are, but too familiar. If pragmatism be true, it is a perfectly sound reproach…

But philosophy is prospective also, and, after finding what the world has been and done and yielded, still asks the further question ‘what does the world PROMISE?’

Theism and materialism, so indifferent when taken retrospectively, point, when we take them prospectively, to wholly different outlooks of experience.

Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth ‘fit’ results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness.

Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past.

‘Freedom’ in a world already perfect could only mean freedom to BE WORSE, and who could be so insane as to wish that? To be necessarily what it is, to be impossibly aught else, would put the last touch of perfection upon optimism’s universe. Surely the only POSSIBILITY that one can rationally claim is the possibility that things may be BETTER.

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