I heard a trenchant aphorism the other day, derived from what Amazon has learned about the best way to package books: Structure, not padding.
My first job was as a shipping clerk for a small academic publishing house in Indianapolis. Every day I would pack up hundreds and hundreds of books for mail delivery, in those thick padded envelopes. When I dropped off each day’s shipment at the Post Office downtown, there was always a batch of returns waiting for me, that had been jostled about too much en route to the buyer, so coming out of the package looking like a used textbook on its fifth undergraduate. It drove us crazy, but at the time there was no way to prevent such a thing. And the way I saw postal workers throwing packages around – some of those guys were phenomenal athletes – it was no mystery how it happened.
Well, Amazon has this nailed. I have bought hundreds of books from them, and only two or three have ever arrived damaged. They shrink wrap a book or two to a flat, much larger piece of sturdy cardboard, then throw the bundle in a box just the right size, that pins the cardboard in place: perfect. No padding at all: just pure structure, everything warped down to a fare thee well and tight as a drum, just like I used to do with the gear lashed to my boat in the Grand Canyon. If an ammo can cuts loose in a rapid, it can kill you. Or just disappear forever in the River, together with the camera inside it.
Speaking of the River, when we had a day of big rapids in the Canyon – most days – the boatmen all took particular care to pump up our boats in the morning, as tight as possible. We used Army surplus rafts in the early years, left over from WWII, and they leaked appallingly. Heavy bastards, too; about two tons, fully loaded. In the rapids, you want as much maneuverability as you can get. Nothing is harder to push around with a pair of oars than a mushy tube of rubber as heavy as a loaded pickup (other than a boat full to the brim with water). So we would pump like crazy before the big drops, bringing the rubber of our boats to an adamantine stiffness.
Structure, not padding. It’s a general principle, applicable everywhere: music, with its series of highly ordered formal systems that constrain and enable novel development; logic, mathematics and metaphysics, where learning supervenes upon categorical and terminological clarity, and is produced by the work of its attainment; the polis, where law and custom, hierarchy and authority constitute the limes within which social play may proceed; all the organs of society, from sport to worship, from bureaucracy to language, from commerce to craft, from dress to rites of passage, where forms and their transformations are the main matter of social discourse and their keeping the means of its life; but above all in the family, and all the edifice of powers and principalities, thrones and dominions founded thereon.
When my children were small, they bickered with each other hellishly. We told them to stop, we punished, we rewarded, we separated: nothing. We consulted an earthy, sensible family therapist who taught us that their bickering was a way of trying to discover the limits and order of their relationship, the boundaries and rules. But, being children, they couldn’t ever know for sure whether they had reached an absolute limit. So they kept at it. If we wanted the bickering to end, we had to establish simple, readily discernible limits for them, make them clear and definite, and enforce them absolutely. Then, they would understand the rules that governed their play, and would settle down happily with each other.
The same principle applied in our relations with them. Bedtime rituals and routines had to be set in stone, or they would become the itch of endless negotiation and whining, bargaining and passive aggression. Ditto for customs and rules about eating, study, TV, you name it. “Look,” she said, “kids are just like us: they are spending lots and lots of time and worry and sheer work trying to figure out where the limits are, so that they can know that they are behaving properly in relation to the world. If they don’t *know* where the limits are, and can’t *feel* them, in the form of pain, then they will keep pushing and pushing and pushing until they do. It’s their *job.* They can’t relax and feel happy until they understand where the limits are, so that they know they are safe within them. So, *show them the limits.* They’ll be happier, and so will you. Then, once you are all clear on the limits, you’ll be able to get on with the really fun, loving, and good business of family life – the stuff it is meant to be about in the first place.”
It made perfect sense. Even infants don’t want padding, but swaddling. So much for all the garbage we had picked up from the PC parenting books, about “creativity” and “letting young minds bloom.” We took her advice. It was like a miracle. Everyone in the house was happier, even the cats. This at the most basic level: we all got more sleep.
I look about at the chaos – moral, economic, sexual, philosophical (these being all aspects of the same basic phenomenon) – of the Boomers and their heirs, and I see the effect of generations raised with no clarity about the limits. I look at my own adult children, and see that unlike almost everyone of their generation, they are morally relaxed. Not because they or their parents are particularly good or clever, but just because we took some simple advice when they were very young. And in their confrontation with the world, this gives them confidence, an eager courage borne of the conviction that they have a good idea what is right and can do it if they choose. They know where the limits lie; and this is in no small part due to the fact that there, at those limits, their mother and I still stand, flaming swords in our hands and death in our eyes. They know goddamn well, still, that when I start counting, the last thing they want to have happen is for me to get to three.
This business of my counting to three in a voice of thunder is, paradoxically, one of their happiest childhood memories. We sit around the table and howl with laughter at their stories: “Remember the time I did x, and Daddy started counting? Oh, man, did I ever scooch my little tuckus back where it ought to be. I never found out what happened at three, but I did not want to find out the hard way. Dad, what would have happened if you had ever got to three?” At this point, they all fall silent and look at me: the smiles still wreathe their faces, but the question is serious. I never tell. Instead, I let the smile fall off my face, and in deeper tones that echo back from fathomless doom, I say, “You don’t want to know.”
They laugh, delighted. The world is still solid.
The Limit, you see, is still there. Beyond it lies chaos, the unknown. The Father is its personification; as the limit and firmament that contains the outer darkness, he is himself, potentially, death.
The essence of authority, of power, is death, and the danger thereof. The Father is the author of life – “king” comes from “kinning” – and may demand and collect it at any time – “lord” comes from “larder,” the judge who determines who shall be fed, and who cast out of the feast and into the outer darkness of banishment, where there is wailing, gnashing of teeth, and death. Our human fathers, likewise; or else they are to us no more than clowns, or fools.
The lethal power of a father is terrifying to children, when they know they have been bad. But, by the same token, it is thrilling, and comforting, for – provided their father is righteous and dutiful, is in his own life and doings ordered toward the Limit – they know that his terrific power will be deployed first in their defense and nourishment, even unto his own death – which is for them the most terrifying idea of all. The father is for children the paramount embodiment, expression and agent of the Limit, and only within his bounds may they live. Should he die before they attain adulthood, so likely will they. But should he prevail, and should they survive under his wing, then may they win through. By his blessing at their final passage from his daily care, they may know that they are themselves properly fitted to the Limit, and therefore ready to assume the awful responsibility and authority of bringing forth life, and eo ipso dealing death, and, ergo, ordering themselves righteously thereunto.
Structure, not padding.
The latter history of the West, since – when, WWI and the end of the Belle Époque? 1840? 1789? The Reformation? – has been a steady and relentless process of deleting limits, in every department of life, and the depravation of social order and moral structure this has brought about has had the natural consequence that moderns everywhere are horribly anxious. They can’t find the Limit, unless they “hit bottom” somehow. So like children they thrash about looking for it. They are more and more wild, and not in a good, hale, healthy way such as that of Chingachgook or Odysseus, who were archetypal Fathers, but in a way dissolute, desperate, disordered, precisely diseased. They rebel against the ineluctable authority of the Limit, even as they search for it and regret its absence, like a boy who aches for his dead father. The search takes the form of rebellion, of transgression. Transgression *is* a search for the Limit.
Because their dearth of sensibility to moral order – which is to say, to ontological order, to *religious* order – makes moderns so anxious, modernism is mostly about adding padding to life. Leftism, liberalism, PC, and a fortiori sexual libertinism sans consequences (so, the abortion of life, in all its ramifications): these are mostly about emotional padding for everyone, an equal distribution of insulation from the buffeting the world administers to all of us, a substitution of ever more desperate and finicky ersatz niceties of politesse for the uncomfortable realities, and a retreat from confrontation with the Limit: with the reality of death, with the rigors it imposes upon us, and with the difficult, painful choices we must therefore make.
It’s none of it any good at all, of course. The painful choices still end up being made, as they must, but more poorly than they might have been; for, we all of us hit absolute bottom in the end, one way or another. There is one question, and one only: shall we live, and so die, nobly? Or, not?
Structure, or padding. Which will it be? Without the structure, no amount of padding will suffice. It’ll all get ripped out by the Limit. We are all going to die, and when we do, we shall be judged. We shall feel the cut of the Limit. Everyone knows this, in his heart; or else, no one would but saints would ever try to be good.
There is, in the final analysis, no padding. There is, only, structure. To be is to express, and to obey, some structure. To think otherwise is to disagree with reality.