The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman is a thorough treatment of the history of Expressive Individualism and what modernity has come to. The author is a good thinker and writer, but he wearied me by incorporating into his thesis every possible thought and phenomenon that might contribute to the conclusion that “We are all expressive individualists now.” It’s a long book. After a hundred pages I jumped to the last fifty pages, and read the end first, to find out if it was worth the slog. I decided it was: I read every word, and underlined thought-provoking passages on every page.
So I’m glad I read it, and I’m much more glad that Anthony Esolen read it, because his writing is not just good, but sublime, and he calls the book a “mountaintop work.” He wrote a great review, which I heartily recommend. Because you probably want to know if you really are an Expressive Individualist, right?
On Hierarchy and the Reduction of Complexity in the World
“The world is, for all intents and purposes, infinitely complex. Even if there isn’t a truly infinite number of things, phenomena and facts, there is a sufficient infinity of combinations of things, categories of things, potential and real. This complexity has to be reduced to a level that is manageable at the level of moment-to-moment perception (we can only attend to one thing) and action (we can only undertake one action). That is accomplished through the cooperation and competition that is part of the general social hierarchy, which specifies through collectively-established value and through language itself what is to take priority and why.
“The hierarchy says: ‘Here’s what’s valued. Look at that (perceive that) and not something else. Pursue that (act toward those ends) and not something else.’ What the hierarchy truly specifies, therefore, is not the value of things, but the value of behaviors or perceptions that create, maintain or distribute valued things. That’s an ethic. The ethic called forth is a set of principles for acting in the world of value.”
I came to the end of Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, and feel that my engagement with the author and his theses has barely begun. The insights about eternal human longings down through the ages, and even small details about the lives of individual thinkers, will be rattling around in my mind for a long time to come, and I hope to refer to some of them in the future.
In the meantime, I wanted to share here a few paragraphs from the concluding Part 4, “Integral vs. Rational Man.” The goal of the existentialists is here named as integration; not irrationality, as the book’s title might have led us to think. I’m sure the title Integrated Man would not have been nearly as memorable, and unfortunately, at least a couple of existentialists have descended into such irrationality that they were certainly insane.
“Existentialism is the counter—Enlightenment come at last to philosophic expression; and it demonstrates beyond anything else that the ideology of the Enlightenment is thin, abstract, and therefore dangerous. (I say its “ideology,” for the practical task of the Enlightenment is still with us: In everyday life we must continue to be critics of a social order that is still based everywhere on oppression, injustice, and even savagery—such being the peculiar tension of mind that we as responsible human beings have to maintain today.)
“The finitude of man, as established by Heidegger, is perhaps the death blow to the ideology of the Enlightenment, for to recognize this finitude is to acknowledge that man will always exist in untruth as well as truth. Utopians who still look forward to a future when all shadows will be dispersed and mankind will dwell in a resplendent Crystal Palace will find this recognition disheartening. But on second thought, it may not be such a bad thing to free ourselves once and for all from the worship of the idol of progress; for utopianism — whether the brand of Marx or of Nietzsche — by locating the meaning of man in the future leaves human beings here and now, as well as all mankind up to this point, without their own meaning.
“If man is to be given meaning, the Existentialists have shown us, it must be here and now; and to think this insight through is to recast the whole tradition of Western thought. The realization that all human truth must not only shine against an enveloping darkness, but that such truth is even shot through with its own darkness may be depressing, and not only to utopians. But it has the virtue of restoring to man his sense of the primal mystery surrounding all things, a sense of mystery from which the glittering world of his technology estranges him, but without which he is not truly human.”
From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus I can hear the library humming in the night; a choir of authors murmuring inside their books along the unlit, alphabetical shelves, Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son, each one stitched into his own private coat, together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.
I picture a figure in the act of reading, shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book, a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie as the suicide of lovers saturates a page, or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem. He moves from paragraph to paragraph as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.
I hear the voice of my mother reading to me from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs, and inside her voice lie other distant sounds, the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night, a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.
I watch myself building bookshelves in college, walls within walls, as rain soaks New England, or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.
I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves, straining in circles of light to find more light until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs that we follow across a page of fresh snow; when evening is shadowing the forest and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs, we have to listen hard to hear the voices of the boys and his sister receding into the words.
This poem was the perfect one for me to find right now, because I myself have been acting out all the verbs: following, straining, hearing and touring… and listening hard, to the humming of a choir. This choir of authors aren’t all consciously “singing” in harmony, or even intending to write about the same things, but their voices, the sounds, the crumbs I am following “across a page of fresh snow” all seem to be parts of a whole. The rooms I am touring are all in one house; it must be the place where the human soul lives.
My “circles of light” sometimes seem like a 60’s light show, beautiful and confusing, when I am waiting rather for illumination and clarity. So many authors have shined their little lights out into the world, but how many reveal the reality of things?
Over the last several months I have been reading a lot, with no resulting book reviews and few even small illuminations of the sort I might write about here. The Eucharist was very focused and wonderful and I do want to say some things about it eventually, but instead of stopping for that I kept working my way through Irrational Man, which is such a tour de force that it’s hard to know what to say about — everything. It mostly makes me want to read more books that William Barrett reminds me of.
Like Flight From Woman by Karl Stern, which I read some years ago and thought brilliant; but at the time I knew I needed to read it a second time to digest it. Barrett explains the duality of selves in Sartre’s philosophy, how he considers not the “fruitful, excessive, fruitful blooming nature” to be the true self, but only that of the radically free and active man who has projects. Now I want to go back and read Stern on this topic.
But I am determined to finish a couple more books first. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is like another long chapter, maybe the closing chapter, of Western Philosophy, so it will be good if I can move right on to finishing it after Barrett.
On my recent road trip I listened to Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson, a title so embarrassing on several fronts that I considered leaving this accomplishment unrecorded. But even this book, which was about as deep as I could go on all that freeway driving, provided a few revealing glimpses of how ideas from the other books I mentioned play out in real life, especially the central one: What is the self?
About halfway through The Cross of Loneliness I began to have a difficult time knowing what these two men were talking about, but I will finish that book, too, before long. My really easy, small book to read under the covers right now is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I found in the little free library up at the lake.
And then, the sweetest, which will be easy to finish, as it’s like swimming slowly through a small and refreshing pond to the other side: The Scent of Water, which our book club is reading together. It is coming to an end way too fast.
Oh, yes, there are a dozen more sitting nearby, that I plan to continue with eventually, but they are not at the moment as current as these, these rooms full of delicious crumbs that I trust are leading me always to brighter places.
In regard to my own life and reading, I don’t relate to the progression of Collins’s poem, in its hearkening back to the experiences of childhood and youth, and the mood of evening and shadow descending. I am just very thankful for all the good writers I have at my disposal, and for the lovely song that they are trying to learn and to sing.