Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 7 (Love)

I was told to keep an eye on this one. You may already be somewhat familiar with this chapter as Brooks already wrote about George Eliot for his column, and really that column was just a heavily condensed version of this very chapter. Charlie Pierce couldn't even make it to the end of that column, which says an awful lot. But the chapter is so much worse that even that suggests. How? Oh, you'll see. You'll all see.


This chapter actually contains two Brooksian virtues for the price of one. The first one is agency, a word that (like "vocation") Brooks is very much in love with. He already wrote about it in that column, but here's how it appears in the book:

Some biographers have said that letter represented a pivotal moment in Eliot’s life, with its mixture of vulnerability and strong assertion. After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

...I'm sorry, that was from the column. Here's what he had to say in the book:

This letter represents a pivotal moment in Eliot's life, with its mixture of pleading vulnerability and strong assertion. After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she became capable of that declaration of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot's agency moment, the moment when she began the process by which she would stop being blown about by her voids and begin to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

Yep. Brooks basically dropped one of his already published columns right into the middle of this chapter. Pages 163 and 164 contain nine paragraphs taken almost verbatim (with minor changes, as seen above) from his column of November 13, 2014. He only omitted the widely mocked "I know some guys" part. And of course several of those paragraphs are dominated by quotes drawn from specific sources, so he borrowed something from himself that he'd already borrowed from someone else. This right here is the kind of commitment to his vocation that Brooks has learned from his extensive studies.

I can't get too worked up over this, though, because of what happens later in the chapter. The other virtue, as noted in the chapter title, is love. Pages 168-174 concern the nature of this virtue. The first two pages concern a relationship between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova which, as usual, is dull but inoffensive and mostly accurate (and a hell of a lot less explicit than anything he included about Bayard Rustin). And then it goes to a place that's far more surreal and existentially disturbing than anything I expected to see in a David Brooks book. You see, Brooks feels the need to dig deeper into the concept of love to discern its utility on his path towards righteousness and the result is something that calls for extensive transcription.

I'm terribly sorry for what you're about to witness:

...love often does several key things to reorient the soul. The first thing it does is humble us. It reminds us that we are not even in control of ourselves. In most cultures and civilizations, love is described in myth and story as an external force - a god or demon - that comes in and colonizes a person...

I wish there was a camera when I first read this part, something to capture the external expression of what I was feeling as I paged through this nightmare of mislaid imagery. It had been characteristically boring up until this point. I wasn't expecting a shock.

Love is like an invading army that reminds you that you are not master of your own house. It conquers you little by little, reorganizing your energy levels, reorganizing your sleep patterns, reorganizing your conversational topics, and, toward the end of the process, rearranging the objects of your sexual desire and even the focus of your attention.

Descriptions of love are usually poetic in some way. That's very important, even when it's somewhat academic, because love is a kind of poetry. A dry, "objective" depiction of love is nothing but a study in madness. It becomes an inhuman, unnatural, disgusting thing that needs to be kept out of the light at all costs.

The person in love may think she is seeking personal happiness, but that's an illusion. She is really seeking fusing with another, and when fusion contradicts happiness, she will probably choose fusion...
...Many observers have noticed that love eliminates the distinction between giving and receiving. Since the selves of the two lovers are intermingled, scrambled, and fused, it feels more delicious to give to the beloved than to receive.

But it becomes far uglier when a person opts to describe love solely in utilitarian terms. A person who thinks of love in terms of how it benefits one's personal growth or, better yet, how it depicts society has shed some element of his basic humanity. He has given away something fundamentally human in service of some notion that, more often than not, offers nothing in return.

...love impels people to service. If love starts with a downward motion, burrowing into the vulnerability of self, exposing nakedness, it ends with an active upward motion.

The irony is that the man who so eagerly sold his soul is very often the one who professes to help others find their own. It's projection on a grand scale - I am lacking, therefore you must be lacking, therefore it falls on you to change. He becomes a salesman, peddling a solution to a problem that his customers don't have.

Love is submission, not decision. Love demands that you make a poetic surrender to an inexplicable power without counting the cost. Love asks you discard conditional thinking and to pour out your love in full force and not measure it in tablespoons.

...Oh dear God, I can't keep this up. The five pages David Brooks wrote about love in The Road to Character are among the greatest literary atrocities I've ever seen committed. They're hopelessly pretentious, but with Brooks you learn to expect that. The prose is stilted and repetitive but again, that's SOP. What I didn't see coming is just how nauseating the metaphors would become or the unreal places he would take his arguments. The whole thing reads like it was written by an alien observer trying to explain to his superiors why the hu-mans insist on holding hands. It's taking something very intimate and personal, something that the vast majority of human beings understand intuitively, and explaining it in the most abstract and high-minded way he possibly could. You want to express your feeling about love? You write a song or a story or an ode, you don't vivisect it.

This section tells me three things. One, I'm no longer sure that David Brooks is a human being. He may be an android, one with wonky programming that causes him to think exclusively in faux academic gobbledygook. I'm not sure if he's always been a robot or if the Snatchers grabbed him recently, but the current model simply doesn't have the hardware to express himself like an organic person would. The only alternate explanation I can conceive involves the mole people and cloning, which still makes more sense to me than the notion that an otherwise normal person who's been married would think in these terms.

Two, I can no longer say with confidence that it won't get worse than this. Remember when I said that back in Chapter 3? Watching Brooks use Dwight Eisenhower to defend his own centrism really seemed like the absolute nadir. Then this happened. I can't imagine how it could possibly get any worse, but all that tells me now is that it can only get worse in ways that are far beyond my brain's ability to comprehend them, and that's terrifying. For all I know, I could turn a page and see the text replaced with a bastardized version of the The King in Yellow, the world would start to dissolve and a shoggoth would roll down the block consuming people. It would be consistent with the trajectory thus far.

Third, and I'm very, very serious about this: No one read this far. None of those people who were praising Brooks for his insight read even a single page of this. I am as confident in that as I am of any single statement I've ever made in my life. I'm used to seeing encomiums to unreadable literary fiction in which all of the quotes the fawning critics give are from the first thirty pages and I know immediately how far they all actually read. In this case, I don't even need that. Nobody could have read this and still lied his way through a positive review...well, unless the critics are also Snatchers.

There's more I could say about this chapter, but what's the point? Read those quotes again. There were five pages of those. Five. Join me next time, I guess. I don't know why you would, you have to know that these last few chapters won't improve. However, if we can all last through two more of these book chapters - just two more, friends - then we'll hit an ending that, from what I've seen, is self-righteous in a way that's nothing shy of glorious. Stick with it.


  1. David Brooks tells people how he wants them to behave. Because he is a soulless creature, he wants everyone to do whatever would be most beneficial to him.

    He's mentioned several times, in a very aggrieved tone, that some people are overly concerned about their personal happiness and not nearly enough concerned about their partner's happiness. ::coughWifecough::

    "The person in love may think she is seeking personal happiness, but that's an illusion. She is really seeking fusing with another, and when fusion contradicts happiness, she will probably choose fusion..."

    Certain people insist on getting as well as giving. This is wrong. She should want fusion, that is, the submission of herself into me. My priorities are her priorities. My happiness is her happiness.

    "...love impels people to service"

    "Love is submission, not decision."

    Doesn't he have anyone left in his life to tell him that "asking for a friend" doesn't fool anyone?

    1. There's probably a lot of truth to that. Brooks projects more than most, so anyone willing to pay attention can figure out what he's really trying to say - the accidental honesty between the words.