Equipment for Living

The back page essay in the New York Times Book Review can sometimes be the highlight of my Sunday morning newspaper tussle. And these days, just weeks from the culmination of this all-consuming political season, it is a serious tussle getting through two papers, each the thickness of small pillows.

This past Sunday Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, wrote a very humorous piece that I am including here in its entirety. Every book loving soul could write his or her own personal version of being taken captive in adolescence by books and ideas, but few of us could make it this funny. “The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall.” Priceless.

Cultural observer Lee Siegel

Unsafe at Any Read

Kenneth Burke considered great imaginative writing “equipment for living,” and for Saul Bellow poetic and philosophical words were a “poor boy’s arsenal.” Kafka declared that literature “breaks up the frozen sea inside us.” (What a mess that would make.) We now know, thanks to Allan Bloom, that reading the “classics” is the only defense against the closing of the American mind and that — courtesy of Alain de Botton — Proust can save your life. A modest question arises, however: If great literature is so great, why is it that if you act on anything great literature tells you about life, you’re in big trouble? I mean, big trouble.

Let’s start with a couple of harmless tests. Have you gone looking in your memory lately for Wordsworth’s redemptive “spots of time”? First, try to recall what you had for lunch yesterday. Don’t worry, I can’t remember either. How about D. H. Lawrence’s “blood consciousness”? Once you recover this primal state of being, D. H. tells us, you blissfully obliterate your mental and spiritual condition. Volunteers?

Now, I used to swallow this stuff whole. Don Quixote’s downfall was medieval romances, and Emma Bovary ruined her life with novels, but at least they didn’t get bonked by books until they were middle-aged. They had a few decades to live it up. My undoing arrived in ninth grade in the form of Dostoyevksy’s “Notes From Underground.”

The book fell into my hands the way an innocent person might find himself holding a heroin-filled syringe at a party, thereby sealing his sad fate. I had been involuntarily enrolled in what was euphemistically referred to as an “enrichment program.” This was the official name for a “Manchurian Candidate”-like experiment in which happy-go-lucky boys and girls were whisked away from their favorite television shows into a shadowy world of triple meanings, narcotic generalizations and ambiguous imagery. “Notes From Underground” was our first homework assignment.

What buried flaw in my being responded to this perverse Slavic sham is still a mystery to me. But all of a sudden, I started explaining to my gentle, loving parents that common sense was the collective hallucination of madmen. That the idea that two plus two equaled five was “tantamount” (a word I envisioned as a white steed rising heavenward to steadily beating drums) to a “spiritual” (another fave) rebirth.

Rationality, I informed Mom and Dad, was like a dagger in the soul. I said all this through $40 million worth of hardware on my teeth — instead of sending me to an ordinary orthodontist, my doting parents had actually hired a top civil engineer to work on my mouth. I exaggerate, but you see what I mean. And this is how I paid them back. Week after week, I expounded the cult of unhappiness at the dinner table. Exiled to my room, I consoled myself with Camus, who tells us that to live honestly we must ask ourselves every day whether we should take our own lives. There was no agency, on the local, state or federal level, to intervene on my behalf. The die was cast.

Harold Bloom once wrote that literature’s most precious gift is to teach us to be alone with ourselves. Easy to say when you’re surrounded by adoring graduate students. I began to carry around my solitude like a trophy, cultivating anomie the way some of my friends lavished care on their pet gerbils. It was an unhealthy situation.

This wasn’t just baffled adolescent desire rushing with relief into morbid tales of anger and renunciation. Uplifting writing derailed me, too. When, in 10th grade, Antonia Perella (let’s call her) — the love of my hormone-addled life! — finally chose me as her partner at a square dance, I was so afraid of not rising to the occasion that I refused, ennobling my cold feet by summoning to my mind Plato’s vision of love (see “Phaedrus”) as moist wings sprouting from the lover’s body. I just didn’t feel the wings business, I told myself. Recently, I learned from that Antonia had married a professional wrestler. Can you blame her?

But even Oedipus eventually saw the light (or so Sophocles tells us — you decide). Somewhere in my freshman year of college, my mind, thankfully, began to close a little and the world started to open up. I was on the slow boat to recovery . . . and then calamity struck. A “friend” lent me his copy of Bellow’s “Herzog.”

If ever there was a candidate for strict Congressional oversight, it is this cunning little book. Moses Herzog is a professor in the full throes of midlife crisis who writes countless letters to the famous literary and intellectual dead. These scintillating one-sided exchanges, in which Herzog quotes and spars with the great minds of Western civilization, made me feel that I was mastering life as I read them, just as a budding music historian might have the delusion that he was mastering the piano simply by listening to a sonata by Beethoven.

In fact, as I discovered many years later, Bellow was joking. What he wanted to demonstrate, in the figure of poor Herzog, was the utter ineffectuality of the most potent ideas. Thanks for letting me know, pal. Since nobody at the time bothered to let me in on all the fun, I finished “Herzog” as, well, Herzog. At job interviews, I assured prospective employers of my immunity to distraction by affectionately invoking Artistotle’s observation that copulation makes all animals sad. To puzzled women on dates, I expatiated on Hegel and Sombart. “What’s wrong?” one girl asked me as we stared into each other’s eyes and I smiled ruefully. “Oh nothing,” I said. “Spinoza associated desire with disconnected thinking — that’s all.”

And so it went, just like that, reaching the high point of absurdity when I applied for a job at a publication called The Social Register, thinking that it was a socialist magazine.

I had been reading Gramsci by way of Silone by way of Engels on the Manchester working class. So enthusiastic had I become about the sweeping inexorabilities of dialectical materialism that I neglected to pick up an actual, material copy of The Social Register. Grando mistako. If I had, I would have seen that it was not a socialist magazine at all, but a comprehensive directory of America’s high society. My interviewer, a pleasant, 40-ish man in a rumpled white shirt and tie, sat in his Fifth Avenue office and listened politely, his lip curling ever so slightly, to my reflections on hegemony, slave consciousness and “boring from within.” He even walked me to the door.

I hope you are at least partly convinced by the power of my examples. Somehow, we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how literature empowers us. But the idea that great literature can improve our lives in any way is a con as old as culture itself. The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall. “Willing suspension of disbelief”? Code for: distract him while I lift his wallet. The government regulates drugs, alcohol and (finally) bad lending practices. How long can we continue to allow the totally laissez-faire dissemination of literature? Not even a warning from the surgeon general or the attorney general, or some sort of general, on the back of every book?

It was years before I realized that if life is a voyage of sorts then the best thing to do is to keep busy in the depths of your little boat — your life — polishing, tuning, cleaning, repairing the engine that is your own inborn strength, without regard to extraneous aids in the form of culture. Facing it, always facing it, that’s the only way to get through.

O.K., I got all that from Conrad. The fact is that “facing it” has gotten me into trouble, too. I tell you, these people are hard to shake.

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