Superficiality Isn't Just Low-Brow Any More

If you think that superficiality is a purely pop-culture, low-brow type thing, think again. Gary Wills writing in the most recent New York Review of Books, says this about a new book on reading the western classics:

This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it.

The review is one of the most brutal take-downs I’ve ever read in the New York Review and is well worth reading in full. He writes that the purpose of the book is to “to solve the problems of a modern secular culture” by reading the Western canon, except that the authors compare some seriously dubious entrants with the some of the heavies of modern lit:

Another thing that may impress the Big Thinkers is that the authors get their glimpses of the sacred from ”œreading the Western classics.” The two classics they begin with are by David Foster Wallace, ”œthe greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether,” and Elizabeth Gilbert, whose Eat, Pray, Love proved its cultural importance by ruling over best-seller lists forever. I know that people often find cultural indicators in what people buy. That is why Big Thinking hovered in the past over Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But Dreyfus and Kelly stretch this approach when they praise Gilbert’s openness to surface whooshiness, her sacred impulsiveness. Gilbert ”œwrites well only when the god of writing shines upon her, only by the grace of the attendant spirit””the genius””who comes to tell her what to write.” They think she is even more receptive to ”œshining moments” than Wallace.

Of course they do mention the likes of Homer. The only problem is they make a mistake that not even an undergraduate would make:

A striking description of the anxiety of choice occurs when Odysseus is trying to decide how to oust the suitors from his home. No course seems clear to him, and he tosses about in irresolution. The Robert Fitzgerald translation (which the authors usually prefer) says:

…He…rocked, rolling from side to side [entha kai entha],
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: so he rolled left and right [entha kai entha],
casting about [mermērizōn] to see how he, alone,
against the false outrageous crowd of suitors
could press the fight.

Has there ever been a better presentation of the anxiety of choice, which our philosopher-authors tell us Homer knew nothing about? It is true that after this struggle, Athena comes and tells Odysseus to have confidence and go to sleep. But she does not give him a course to follow, and she certainly does not spare him the anguish he has been going through.

They then go on to demolish Augustine. It’s really quite terrible. All of this, in the end, is what George Kenney calls “phony intellectualism,” in this also excellent take-down of a young up and coming intellectual from the New School in New York City:

Meis probably doesn’t recognize the hard work involved in thinking or painting, in telling a story, because he doesn’t do much thinking of his own. He’s too busy bouncing from one representation to another, from one exciting moment to another, to be able to settle into a sustained conversation or any sort of profound contemplative appreciation. And that’s the modern problem.

Kenney is, in the last sentence, alluding to the great problem of the modern age–one of which I am most assuredly guilty of myself: not being able to tear myself away. But I’ve found a cure for some of that lately, being busy with a lot of other long-form writing outside the blog, writing which necessitates three or four hours a day of undisturbed thinking on subjects are arcane as Spanish colonial history in Texas and the evolutionary adaptations of coatis certainly helps. But sitting down and just thinking, or reading a book or holding the New York Review of Books in my hands and reading it cover to cover helps too.

I really do wonder, however, if any of it will do any good. The compulsion to comment, opine, is just too strong sometimes. I really do dislike the rapidity of modern communications and pine for a time pre-internet when I had the luxury of time.

Without the luxury of time our experiences become, as Wills writes, one swoosh after another and that’s a shame.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

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  • At 5, I had idols.
    By 7, I noticed most had feet of clay, but I still trusted a few.
    By 14, I didn’t trust/respect anyone but myself.
    By 30, I realized I also have feet of clay.

    My attitude now is that nothing is proven a classic in less than 50 years at least, preferably much longer. This is not to say I don’t find some contemporary writing informative, educational and pleasurable – just that I don’t trust my judgment 100% when it comes to declaring it ‘classic’ and feeling confident it will still be read in 100 years.

    Most designations of what is good/classic/desirable are based on fads and mindsets of the moment, with or without ulterior motives.
    The first time I heard “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”, my immediate reaction was Nonsense! I can almost guarantee that anything both meaningful and true is beyond the understanding of most people. There aren’t fifty million people in the world who don’t have their heads up their asses.

    Retiring Mainframe maven, active curmudgeon, poet, writer.

  • After reading Sean-Paul’s post and the comments of Steeleweed, but NOT having read the book itself, although I read the above-noted Review, I am gently amused. One reason why people write books like this evidently is: as an exercise in pop Philosophy, that is, making Philosophy “relevant” when in fact any attempt to do so without supplying the tools of the trade is like putting an electronics engineer in the role of a nuclear engineer in the middle of a crisis. I’ve read Philosophy at three graduate schools of repute and Wills is correct: it would be better not to try so hard to make Philosophy “relevant”. Roger Federer; huh? Let the original giants make their own case. Help readers (and students who will no doubt have to buy this piece of work for their classes) to understand the views and arguments of Descartes through Russell, or Plato through Newton. Or more importantly if they want to be “relevant”, go to work offering some insight and understanding of the mess of 20th-Century pretenders to the subject of Philosophy. That is tough enough from Existentialism to Phenomenology to Analytics to Linguistics. They seem to do some of this by citing Homer and exploring some of the spirit of Greek philosophy. Give them credit for that, Garry Wills.
    Since none of us have actually read the text, I will let further comment rest to avoid being vacuous. But, like Steeleweed, over the years I have come to know myself a tad better and I have in the past 4-5 years come to this conclusion: too damned many people STILL think writing a book is a big deal; a ticket to intellectual renown (if it is THAT kind of tome). Reminder: worldwide, anywhere between 250,000 and 800,000 ANNUALLY get set in a binding for distribution. In the English language the number is certainly at least 175,000. If the volume is of any intellectual consequence, the number is at least 10,000 planet-wide. Why would anyone want to ADD yet more drivel and superficiality to these numbing figures? Ego; dead-sure we have something not yet said or seen that we simply MUST share w/ humanity? Lots of reasons. Write essays; stay focused and move on to the next exploration of an open mind, wherever it leads. Tonight I go to bed with J.Bury’s ‘History of Greece’. Can’t wait to read how Alexander managed to get all the way to India.

  • I’m always wary of discussing history, or philosophy, or theology… or really, any of the humanities, with others because so many of them do not read the source material. It’s difficult to have a discussion where everything since the Renaissance is assumed to be good and just getting better and better, and everything before then is worthless. Some of my friends are very much a part of that young, up-and-coming intellectual scene Kenney discusses, and they always laugh at my annoyance with their lack of in-depth reading. They don’t have to have read Franzen – a few reviews, word-of-mouth, and flipping through a few pages substitutes for the experience. Then it’s right back to playing with the iPad and listening to music.

    Wills is right – and fashionable superficiality, however quick and rapid its communication process, is no replacement for concentration. It leeches away the ability to hold an idea in focus and examine it as itself, and instead sees ideas only as another rapid-fire blip to be taken lightly.

  • 19th c. novels were pretty cranky about cultural superficiality — which Trollope novel was it (Eustace Diamonds maybe?) that was ruthless about the female villain’s supposed love of The Corsair when she in fact was bored trying to read poetry? And before that, the 18th c. had its battles of the Moderns against the Ancients. Socrates criticized that new-fangled learning through written texts, which allowed so much mental laziness and superficiality. I always wondered if Plato was the dunce of Socrates’ students, since he went out and wrote all the stuff down.

    Longing for the days when you could decide what was suitably deep and intellectual based on the credentials of the writer (“the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department”!) doesn’t generally draw my agreement.

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