Over many years of reading, I moved through books either passionately or grudgingly, retaining only a trace of each in memory. But last December, presented with a handmade journal, I started jotting notes about each book I read. Looking back now, I find scribbles of exhilaration and of disappointment (and several “NF,” meaning “Not Finished”). It’s like the preserved dialogue between myself and each work, and I’m deeply sorry not to have kept such a journal years ago. (Do consider starting one.) Reviewing my notes, I find three especially memorable works I read in 2010: one fiction, one non-fiction, one poetry.
1: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. This is the tale of young Maggie Tulliver and her brother, Tom, she bursting with impulse and intelligence but held fast by the social restrictions of early 19th century England; he, haughty, dutiful and cold, yet the object of her deepest affections. Eliot’s psychological acuity is exquisite. The siblings’ lives change sharply over 15 years and each twist is a surprise, yet their responses are perfectly true to the personalities each manifested in childhood. The pace of 19th century literature can be an adjustment in these impatient times, but this book is worth it.
2: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt. The political treatise of a dying man speaking to a future he will not see. Reviewing our recent history, Judt describes the elevation of self-interest during the past decades and the deprecation of a common good. Social empathy and shared effort must be restored, he argues. One of the sharpest intellectuals of our time, Judt died in August at age 62.
3: Sestets by Charles Wright. Simple, desolate, beautiful. A book of poetry that I read cover-to-cover, gripped, pausing only to make tick-marks in the table of contents beside the masterpieces to which I will return for many years.
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I grew up in a house with a framed picture of Che Guevara on the wall and occasional talk of Marx at the dinner table, so it took me longer than most to realize that I had spent all but two years of my life in a world where, for the most part, those names had lost their credibility if not significance. I spent my high school years, the time when romantic ideals flourish unencumbered, thinking I was a Marxist, a fact which certainly lends credence to the idea that mine is a generation with a good sense of all that is wrong with the world but few to no new ideas of what to do about it. The late Tony Judt certainly believed such a problem was widespread, not only in my generation but the world in general, and his Ill Fares the Land is a reflective account of how we got to our present state from a time when the problem was not how the world was going to change, but when.
Judt’s book focuses on where we went wrong as much as what to do about it because the answers to the two reflect each other: when we forgot the benefits of social democracy, we turned toward a politics that emphasizes our worst traits as individuals precisely by accentuating our individuality; to get back on track, we must remember everything we gained from social democracy (an effective social safety net; remarkable drops in inequality) and return to its ideals. Judt outlines how many of the social policies that we take for granted today come from the early and mid 20th century’s great era of social democracy, and furthermore the ways that, once these policies became ingrained, the next generation began to focus on the costs rather than the benefits and so allowed them to be dismantled.
Yet the public policy aspect of Judt’s book is wrapped around a broader theme: the exploration of how our individual desires can dominate and undermine our politics. One of Judt’s sharpest insights is how the increased privatization of industry that started occurring in the 1980’s coincided with people’s privatization: their retreat away from the public sphere into sequestered individuality. Our preoccupation with material well-being and financial growth and the flock of youth eschewing careers in public service in favor of business school are both indicative of an unrestrained individualism that Judt equates more than once with Hobbes’ nasty and brutish state of nature.
Judt’s main concern, then, is with how we can establish community again, how we can bind together under a common concern, how we can learn to trust each other again. A final vestige of the greatness of community, a case study of what we can achieve collectively but not individually, is represented for Judt by railroads. Providing effective railroad service, or public transportation in general, requires that one serve the unprofitable small markets along with the profitable major commuter routes. Railroads, it seems, are the final test for modern society:
If we cannot see the case for expending our collective resources on trains, it will not just be because we have all joined gated communities and no longer need anything but private cars to move around between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the decline or demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life itself.
Alain de Botton, though, sees our society better reflected in our other prominent form of mass transportation. In fact, many of the societal ills that Judt comments on in his book come out explicitly in De Botton’s A Week at the Airport, written during the latter’s one week stint as writer in residence at Heathrow International Airport. The fear instilled in us every time we go through the metal detector, eyed suspiciously by airport security, puts into practice the fear-based politics that Judt derides; the luxurious lounges for first-class passengers imitate the gated communities into which the affluent retreat to ignore the morally dubious side effects of their status; the immense mall that greets passengers on the other side of security gratifies our excessive material desires; finally, all the machinery in the airport are magnificent examples of our technological prowess, if not our hubristic over-aspiration.
So while Judt wants to see our society reflected in romantic train stations, de Botton actually finds it in the airport. He also is interested in individuality, or perhaps it is best to say that he is interested in individuals and all their prickly details (it is eerie to think that Alain de Botton may be looking through your discarded room service bin in the hotel hallway, or intently watching you bid farewell to your significant other at the airport). The individual stories that de Botton recounts, though, display deep human problems for which the airport is too often idealized as a means of escape. In one of the many somewhat discomforting portraits that de Botton provides, he tells us of traveler David’s carefully planned vacation to Greece:
As David lifted a suitcase on to the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realization: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact that he would be there in the villa as well. He had booked the trip in expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanakopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire.
David, estranged from his wife and kids due to his job, plans a vacation to reconnect with them. But of course the problem is too personal to be solved merely by a change in location. Later in the book, de Botton writes about the drivers hired to pick up passengers from the airport. For both, their interaction “would be counted a success if the other party proved not to be a murderer or a thief.” These basic human problems that de Botton highlights – the difficulty but necessity of living with or trusting in other humans – are again akin to those that Judt diagnoses in his book. But in de Botton’s portrayal, these are not problems with apparent solutions. Politics might be just another escape like the vacations we spend months planning.
Community taken broadly – companionship – is certainly fundamental to human life. Perhaps, however, we use it not only as a way to complete ourselves but as form of respite. We escape into community when we are not satisfied with ourselves, a common enough state for which we maintain a close circle of family and loved ones (or try to at least). It is not as self-serving as it sounds, since we all benefit from it eventually. No one likes to lie in a hospital bed alone (even if it is for a small problem), or to arrive at an airport with no one there to welcome them, as de Botton writes about so eloquently, or even to spend a night at home alone. But all the same we cannot escape from ourselves, no matter how perfect the community. Certainly the common good can often be hijacked by “the fragmented individualism of our concerns,” as Judt writes, but the latter are just as much a part of our human nature as the need for community is. For better or worse, they won’t be eliminated easily.
Our self-actualization cannot necessarily be equated to our interaction with others, even if the two are certainly related. Few authors achieve greater insight into this gap between what we wish for our world and what we have, between our personal ideals and shared reality, than Alice Munro. In the title story of The Love of a Good Woman, Enid, a live-in nurse, is faced with the discovery that Rupert, the husband of the woman she is caring for, committed a brutal murder years earlier for which he was never caught. The knowledge eats at her. “If a person does something very bad, do they have to be punished,” she asks Rupert’s children. And if no one knows about it? “Should they tell that they did and be punished?”
When we come together as a community there are rules with punishments suited to their transgression. For some thinkers, Hobbes for example, this is simply necessary as a deterrent, to keep us safe from ourselves. But for others it is actually an extension of our individual morality: “If you do something very bad and you are not punished you feel worse, and feel far worse, than if you are,” Enid explains to the children. She comes up with a plan to either force Rupert to confess and repent or to commit another crime in order to keep the secret. “You cannot live in the world with such a burden,” she tells herself. “You will not be able to stand your life.”
But as she goes to set the plan in motion she wonders about the repercussions of forcing this man to face up to his crime, about the lives she would be altering, and the potential that lies in letting things slide:
It was still before. Mr. Willens had still driven himself into Jutland Pond, on purpose or by accident. Everybody still believed that, and as far as Rupert was concerned Enid believed it, too. And as long as that was so, this room and this house and her life held a different possibility, an entirely different possibility from the one she had been living with (or glorying in – however you wanted to put it) for the last few days. The different possibility was coming closer to her, and all she needed to do was to keep quiet and let it come. Through her silence, what benefits could bloom. For others, and for herself.
This was what most people knew. A simple thing that it had taken her so long to understand. This was how to keep the world habitable.
Perhaps the gap between our individuality and our need for community is not a problem to be solved but a dilemma to be faced. It is not necessarily a simple matter of finding the proper form of public space to make us flourish. Inserting ourselves into a community always involves sacrifice, letting things slide in order to maintain that community at the expense perhaps of some of our personal desires or ideals.
Like these communities, vacations rarely meet the fantasies of idyllic tranquility that we burden them with. But, as de Botton notes at the end of his book, we always forget the places we visited, the feelings we had there, and the books we read. We begin to long for escape again, to identify “happiness with elsewhere.” We inevitably go back and “learn the lessons of the airport all over again.” Although Judt emphasizes the need for dissent and self-criticism, and warns against fantasies of achieving the perfect state, his description of social democracy can still sometimes read like an idyllic answer to our present downturn. Perhaps, were we to act on Judt’s words, as he ends his book asking us to, we would only learn lessons all over again as well. But considering our lopsided position today in the seesaw between individual desires and collective responsibilities, it would certainly be better to at least start learning again.