Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Ruminating over Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, I've been considering why I prefer writers like de Beauvoir to others and am concluding that it's the seriousness that they offer. Most writing, even ostensibly serious nonfiction such as philosophy, is often little more than entertainment and amusement, as Professor Laporte noted. As I've mentioned previously, there are commercial and vocational aspects to writing which encourage publishers and authors to attract as many readers as possible, or, in the case of professionals, to advance their careers. Among voluntary readers, the tendency to prefer writing that makes you feel good is always going to be stronger than the tendency to prefer writing that startles or unsettles you. There isn't much of a market for disturbing books, because most people don't want to spend money on something that makes them feel bad. Even so, hardly anyone would be completely happy knowing that they live in a bubble, and if an author can provide just enough truth to leave his or her readers feeling in the know, but without causing them to drastically rethink their worldviews, everyone can be happy.

It is a little difficult to reframe what de Beauvoir does in an American context. She is criticizing her class, and the class structure in America is less defined than it was in France in the last century. Moreover, the language of social criticism in the U.S. has been channeled into narratives such as rich versus poor, white versus black or Native American versus colonist that hardly mention the internal shortcomings of the middle class. Generally, the middle class is held up as a model that provides a life without either poverty or the corruption associated with excessive wealth. Because of the popularity of religion here, there isn't much room for a narrative about an atheist who escapes the oppression of the religious bourgeoisie, which unfortunately constitutes a large percentage of the American population. There doesn't seem to be a de Beauvoir equivalent who trashed the middle-class establishment for trying to force her to live an intellectually bankrupt life: the closest the U.S. came to that was the equal rights movement, which never suggested that life in the middle class was stupid and merely asserted the right of every individual to live in a manner comparable to middle-class white males. From the point of view of someone like de Beauvoir, there isn't much depth to the emphasis on equal rights in the U.S., because it assumes without question that, not only is a bourgeois life desirable in itself, but that religion ought to play an important role in it.

To be sure, over the years in the U.S. there have been minor episodes in which American orthodoxy was questioned. During the 1960's and early 1970's, there were elements of anti-materialism in the hippie movement. However, in that case, the short-lived movement was led by the children of the privileged. More recently, the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, made atheism a popular topic for public consumption, but they haven't made a dent in American culture as of yet. Even the best-known American radical, Noam Chomsky, finds it easier to rail against American imperialism than to critique the American consumer, whom he treats as a victim of corporate greed rather than an intellectually deficient conformist.

A country without a cadre of serious thinkers who are recognized as such by the public will predictably elect presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama and nominate candidates like Donald Trump; the literature will be second-rate, and the national heroes will be professional athletes.

Enough of that. I've started to read The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, which will probably be the topic of my next post.

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