Earlier this week, I read (via Rod Dreher at TAC) a sprawling, absorbing piece entitled “No Self-Mockery, Please, We’re American” by British professor Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is an interesting figure; he is generally known as a Marxist, but has also garnered attention for trashing Richard Dawkins, and in this piece he speaks highly of a rather aristocratic mindset. He isn’t easy to pin down, and to the casual observer, he may seem like a walking contradiction. As the essay shows, Eagleton is undoubtedly proud of this fact.
This piece, as any reader will notice, uses some broad-brush generalizations—the sort of thing that often gets called “pseudo social science,” and not without reason. The article speaks to general senses, not to anything with much empirical backing, and it’s very easy to find counterexamples or debate its points in some absurdly intellectual cloud. In fact, I think the generalizations about Americans and British and Europeans can distract from the more profound message here, even though I sense that many of his insights have some grounding in truth. (The bits about American students compared to those of other countries in particular seem to line up exactly with my observations during a semester abroad.) Some readers will doubtless be offended by the generalizations in this piece, and will ignore the author’s witticisms as they harp on his bias against or ignorance of certain groups or people. Eagleton would most likely laugh at these people and say they prove his point, and I appreciate his plug for irony in the piece. But irony certainly has its limits; when writers go too far down into that realm, they risk burying the actual value of their argument.
Moreover, Eagleton’s observations are not entirely new; he cites Henry James extensively, and Octavio Paz nails the same points on Puritanism’s effects on WASP/American “elite” culture in the 1992 interview with Sergio Marras that I referenced on here a few weeks ago. But that isn’t really the point here. As with Paz, Hannah Arendt, and some of the other brilliant minds whom I think are often misunderstood or marginalized, the greatest value in Eagleton’s piece is not in its attempt to define things such as an “American” mindset. It is, instead, the keenness of insight that leads to the conclusion. There can be glimmers of wisdom everywhere, even if the ultimate point isn’t entirely convincing.
So, with that mindset, here are some of my favorite nuggets from the essay:
[T]he familiar American insistence [is] that what matters about a person is what is inside. It is a claim that sits oddly with a society obsessed with self-presentation. There is no room here for what Lenin called the reality of appearances, no appreciation of just how profound surfaces can be, no rejoicing in forms, masks, and signifiers for their own sake.
In The American Scene, James writes of the country’s disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children’s television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.
Throughout my childhood, it was beaten into my brain (not by any one person or group of people in particular, and mostly just within my own mind) that what was inside was all that mattered. And, to be sure, there are a lot of people who take presentation too far and fixate only on the superficial. But presentation does matter, and trying to pretend that it didn’t led to feelings of guilt and shame that probably didn’t do me any good. This so-called puritan mindset can be draining, even when it does have a sensible point behind it. Perhaps even more importantly, there is an interplay between what is on the surface and what lies beneath, and neither one quite makes sense without the other. Puritanism, while admirable in its clarity, oversimplifies.
Now, contrast that puritan mindset with the vision of the English gentleman here:
For a certain kind of English patrician, by contrast, irony is less a figure of speech than a way of life. As a highly Europeanized American observes in James’s The Europeans, “I don’t think it’s what one does or doesn’t do that promotes enjoyment. … It is the general way of looking at life.” The gentleman’s amused, ironic outlook on human existence is a way of engaging with the world while also keeping it languidly at arm’s length. It suggests an awareness of different possibilities, one beyond the reach of those who must immerse themselves in the actual in order to survive.
The aristocrat can savor a variety of viewpoints because none of them is likely to undermine his own. This is because he has no viewpoint of his own. Opinions are for the plebes. To have a point of view is to be as uncouth and one-sided as a militant trade unionist. It would be a threat to one’s sang-froid and thus to one’s sovereignty. To find the cosmos mildly entertaining has always been a sign of power in Britain. It is the political reality behind Oxford and Cambridge wit. Seriousness is for scientists and shopkeepers.
I like this passage because it sums up much about my way of looking at the world. Obviously, I do have opinions, just as the British aristocrats did and do. But, largely because I know there’s a lot that I don’t know, I don’t like to put those opinions front and center, unless they come after a lot of careful thinking—and even then, they’ll probably be qualified with any number of asterisks. I’d rather just observe it all, be amused by it, and offer the occasional sage point where I can.
The problem here is that there is an inherent, unapologetic elitism in that attitude. Still, I think this mindset can be rescued from its aristocratic trappings and have plenty of use for us moderns. Sure, there is a conscious rejection of militant opinions, but it isn’t something haughty or based off of resentment for those people—on the contrary, it merely involves having the self-assurance to be able to laugh at them (and oneself, too!) because it recognizes that life can’t be distilled down to a narrow political screed. It is also actually quite tolerant, because the gut reaction is never “you’re wrong,” but instead “maybe, but it’s probably more complicated; let’s dig a little deeper.” And unlike some theories that recognize the world’s complexity, it doesn’t run away from that, or despair; it laughs at everything and finds a way to enjoy itself.
It’s not flawless, certainly—being able to enjoy things from this distance is something of a luxury, and there are almost certainly some things that do deserve an immediate, serious response. It also poses some obstacles for people who, in addition to musing ironically about world affairs, also need to make themselves a living—quite possibly in one of those frowned-upon “professional” fields. But I think the two can be reconciled reasonably well, and that this worldview could use a lot more adherents.
Now, to the crux of the piece:
The problem is that consumer values in the States have not simply taken over from productive ones. For one thing, the consumer industry itself needs to be produced. For another thing, puritan values are far too robust to yield to strip joints without a struggle. They continue to flourish side by side with liberal and consumerist ones, which is what makes the United States such a chronically schizoid culture…
The centered, repressive, self-disciplined ego of production and puritan values is at war with the decentered, liberated, consumerist self. The two cultures can negotiate compromises from time to time, but there is no possibility of a perpetual peace between them. In some ways, their respective inhabitants are as alien to each other as Borneans and Berliners. No wonder the politicians keep loudly proclaiming that there is only one America.
These two mindsets may be at war, but I think they are more interrelated than Eagleton suggests here; they share a common ancestry that Borneans and Berliners do not. A better comparison might be the Civil War era American North and South, which were bitterly opposed and often unable to communicate to the point that they nearly tore apart, but still were faces of one nation. After a lot of bloodshed they stuck together, but that doesn’t erase all that old enmity, and I suspect that being torn between a rigid “productive” morality and liberal consumerism is at the root of many a person’s malaise. To some extent that is probably just human nature, and we have to live with it. Human nature is contradictory; “hypocritical,” according to Paz, and it only makes sense that the earnestness Eagleton associates with Americans would bring out that hypocrisy. We are simply honest about our competing desires, even if we don’t recognize it.
Now that the hypocrisy is out in the open, I doubt it’s going anywhere—much as it may pain our puritan moralists, consumerism taps into a long-repressed part of the human psyche that would be near impossible to shove back into a box, yet I also don’t think it is strong enough (yet) to alter human nature and take down our desire to live by a moral code. The hypocrisy is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we recognize it for what it is. Recognizing the contradictory forces at play opens us up to the value of looking at things through different lenses. As exhausting or repressive as puritanism may be, Paz points out that the examinations of conscience that come out of it can be superb. While it might not have the most robust philosophical arguments behind it, I do enjoy a good dose of hedonism from time to time, and am skeptical of the incessant moral jeremiads we hear every day. The more reflective, ironic stance praised by Eagleton is a much-needed antidote to the more prevalent puritan and consumerist alternatives, and is well-positioned to embrace and work with our hypocrisy. None of these views alone can guide a person to a good life, but holding them (and others not mentioned here) in mind can contribute to a much richer understanding. And, given its smaller profile when compared to the other two lenses, Eagleton is quite right to plug the ironic mood.