Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why not every child should go to college

In his NYT review of Donald Antrim's memoir, A. O. Scott has an astonishing sentence, which opens up to an entire universe of misunderstanding, confusion, and pain. Scott writes: "The cultural imperative to confess, to share, to work through our troubles in public — in print, on television, in a blog — has had the effect of eroding the Tolstoyan entitlement to unique suffering, an ideal that it is the prerogative of literature to defend."

As most people read him, of course, Tolstoy was closely examining the self-indulgent aristocracy to show the superiority of simple and happy peasants. An intellectual historian would immediately spot Tolstoy as a Christian Platonist: The famous sentence about happy and unhappy families posits one basic way to do things right, but an infinite number of ways to mess things up. On the surface, it's not an extremely complicated thought, like most moderately healthy people, Tolstoy thought suffering was bad and certainly not an "ideal" or an "entitlement" to be defended. Along with Wittgenstein and Gene Siskel, Tolstoy's position is that art should guide people towards happiness rather than pull them into pain.

Tolstoy's insight goes a little bit deeper, though. Trauma freezes details in the mind and isolates a person psychologically, while happy experiences naturally flow to their succeeding experiences, and open people up. One of the keys to happiness is a universalism that does not prioritize its uniqueness, but rather appreciates the uniqueness (and commonality) of all others. The "cultural imperative to confess" is one of several mechanisms by which a self-indulgent narcissist can sometimes be transformed into a happy and open individual -- it can move a person from an arrested fixation on a specific moment in time to the realization that their life is comprised of a series of succeeding moments in time.

In other words, the "imperative to confess, to share, to work through" is, existentially, people's desire to purge themselves of toxic intellectual habits. As belief in God and Science is replaced by faith in the market, confession ceases to be a matter between themselves and their priest or psychoanalyst, and is freely offerred to the world (sometimes even as a product). But the whole point of confession is to "get over it" and to "get it off your chest", to remove constrictions in breathing that arise when biography is not fully integrated (moments of frozen trauma), to remove barriers to Heidegerrian authenticity, to situate events in the continuum of one's own life, and situate one's own life in the continuum of human suffering.

In its ideal form, confessional culture could be a tremendous tool to improve the quality of our planet. Sadly, in its current form, mass market confession is more than just a threat to the literature that valorizes precious and unique suffering: it can subvert the possibility of real personal growth. When people use cliches and tropes rather than real experiences to understand their own development, they can entirely avoid integrating biographical details into their sense of self, because their "confession" is wholley comprised of intellectual material that post-dates their trauma, with the result that their development remains arrested at their moment of pain, despite the fact that they have been given a wonderful vocabulary for discussing and sharing that pain (this sentence sounded better in the original German).

{As a side note: Donald Antrim is one of the most interesting writers working today: His "Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World" is a suburban post-apocalyptic satire that had me laughing until my cheeks were soaked with tears. Scott is generally a conscientious and fair reviewer, his review of Antrim's latest book is uniformly positive, but that sentence was just much too tempting to target to resist. Part of the purpose of this entry is to remind us all that the New York Times is a bizarrely biased institution defending shaky existential ground: For example, they were so threatened by this book that they hired a professional sniper to take the author out. }


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