“For Common Things”

A fresh-faced 24-year-old with a prescription for a better America is way, way out of his depth.

Topics: Books,

In the first paragraph of his introduction, the author of “For Common Things” invokes the ambition at the heart of American philosophy: “to achieve … what Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau called ‘an original relation to the universe.’” Grand, mighty, famous words. They happen, however, to have been written by Thoreau’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Meet Jedediah Purdy: 24, photogenic, sonorous and out of his depth. He comes equipped with a personal myth. Before he went to Harvard, he was home-schooled in West Virginia, where, unlike every other child in human history, he did not resent having to do chores. When asked or when “moved to,” he dug the potatoes, fed the horses, milked the cows and skinned and gutted his pet steers. For recreation, he arranged wildflowers in his sister’s hair and “slathered” mud on his naked body. Purdy was not taught, per se; he was “freed … to learn at home.”

Now, it is one of the advantages of a traditional education that children who suck up to adults too cravenly are methodically cornered and beaten by their peers. Perhaps because he never enjoyed this behavior modification, Purdy seems to have internalized his parents’ boilerplate unhindered. He has grown up to write a book of intellectual-fogy porn. In his bangs and cotton sweater with no shirt, he is gosh-darn wistful that the phrase “change the world” can “no longer be spoken without a reluctant irony.” He identifies Michel de Montaigne as a “sixteenth-century Frenchman” and “the inventor of the essay in its modern form,” as if in hopes of a pat on the head. He takes a dim view of newfangled things like Internet capitalism and genetic engineering, and he quotes W.E. Henley’s “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”) earnestly. He also quotes “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, and “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden. Fine touchstones all, and not a one of them would make Norman Podhoretz uncomfortable.

It made me a little uncomfortable, however, to watch Purdy dragoon Auden into a campaign against Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld is “irony incarnate,” Purdy warns, and as Auden said of Yeats, Seinfeld has become his admirers. No doubt he is now a whole climate of opinion, even. Irony is bad, Purdy explains, because “the point of irony is a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech.” Sounds pretty diabolical, this irony, which Purdy has a little trouble defining. He confuses it with sarcasm, cynicism, skepticism, narcissism, materialism and despair. Perhaps it’s hard for him to track something so unfamiliar. After all, there was none of this lubricity of words and things in West Virginia, where he ate the cows he named.

Irony, of course, has limits, and all the best ironists know it. As Donald Barthelme once noted, “Irony is … destructive and what Kierkegaard worries about a lot is that irony has nothing to put in the place of what it has destroyed.” It is no help to faith, and it’s an impediment to empathy, as David Foster Wallace acknowledged in “Infinite Jest”: “An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity.”

Purdy, unfortunately, has not dislodged irony with faith. He has dislodged it with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Here is his thesis: Long ago, politics was “Promethean” — that is, it aspired to “bring about basic changes in the human predicament.” But then we lost Vietnam, Nixon resigned, the Berlin Wall fell and affirmative action floundered. Nowadays not even socialists find grand politics appealing. Nursing their wounds, good people right and left have retreated from the public sphere. They have insulated themselves from despair with a culture of irony, and they have abandoned politics as suitable only for therapeutic gestures and petty struggles for power. As a remedy, Purdy argues, we should learn to appreciate the value of politics with humble aspirations, like his mother’s service on the local school board. “Precisely this kind of invaluable banality sustains our human world.”

Humility is not a bad sermon, as sermons go. But it doesn’t merit a book — certainly not a book this treacly and disorganized. And despite his preaching, Purdy himself is no more humble than Uriah Heep and just as nasty. For example, in an attack on New Age delusions, he writes, “It is worth noting, however trivial it may seem, that the same cars whose bumpers announce ‘Magic Happens’ are likely to sport the slogan ‘Mean People Suck.’” Well, no, it isn’t worth noting, and it’s snide. Along the way, Purdy also condescends to psychiatric medication (“pills to help people feel at home with any old thing”), identity politics, a fellow Harvard grad (“a warm young man”), management gurus, belief in angels and “plastic surgeons, gossip columnists, and unscrupulous tax attorneys.” He devotes a weird amount of energy to attacking the magazines Wired and Fast Company for failing to achieve an original relation to the universe. Wired, he reveals in high dudgeon, is consumerist.

Purdy is not a disciplined thinker. Strip mining reminds him of integrity, which reminds him of Czeslaw Milosz’s essays about Communist intellectuals. “Mending Wall” reminds him of neighborhood, which reminds him of genetic engineering. At the end of the book, struggling to come full circle, he returns to America’s philosophical tradition. “Emerson distinguished in public and intellectual life between ‘the party of memory and the party of hope,’” Purdy writes, finishing himself off better than he knows, because Emerson didn’t write those words. “The party of memory and the party of hope” is Richard Rorty’s eloquent paraphrase.

Actually, the Transcendentalists would have hated Purdy’s ideal of humble political engagement. As Emerson half-complained in a lecture on the tribe, Thoreau and his ilk preferred to “hold themselves aloof.” “They are not good citizens, not good members of society,” Emerson wrote. “They do not even like to vote.” They were, in other words, ironic.

Caleb Crain is a contributing editor for Lingua Franca.

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