Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Road to Character: Chapter 8 (Ordered Love)

In any long writing project, there's a point when the author just gets plain sick of the work. It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, high-brow literary trash or popular garbage, a doorstop or a pamphlet. Eventually, you're sick of the thesis, the characters, the setting, the research, the grand notion you though was so brilliant once upon a time. And it doesn't always happen right in the middle, like you might think - very often it sets in close to the end, when daylight is visible and the thing is almost complete. Ever read a book and thought the ending felt hurried? That's probably why - the writer was trying to wrap the bastard up.

I bring this up because I suspect that Chapter 8 is where this feeling set in for Brooks. This is where Brooks' prose really starts to break down. It might just be because I'm tired of this thing, but I'm spotting weaknesses where there was once an unbroken stretch of beige indistinctness. The writing increasingly has that first draft feel:

[Augustine] was born at the tail end of the Roman Empire, at a time when the empire was collapsing but still seemed eternal.

The metaphors and comparisons are becoming ever more strained:

As a young man, Augustine belonged to a strict philosophic sect called the Manichees. This was a little like joining the Communist Party in Russia at the start of the twentieth century.

Sometimes, it feels like Brooks doesn't realize that he's no longer discussing an early modern figure and uses somewhat anachronistic language:

Augustine's father...headed a family that was somewhere in the upper end of the middle class.

All in all, it feels like this chapter was written with even less care than the ones that came before it. It's like we're in the sophomore slump of these awful term papers.

So we'll stick with the plan - ignore the stuff that Brooks borrowed and look at what we're meant to learn. And this time the lesson is a little complex, which is to say that it's less clear than normal. Mainly it's about the sin of pride (and there's that Catholic flavor again), but there are other little asides that don't have much to do with that. For example:

This is more or less how many people try to rearrange their life today. They attack it like a homework assignment or a school project. They step back, they read self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People...
...Your willpower is not strong enough to successfully police your desires. If you really did have that kind of power, then New Year's resolutions would work. Diets would work. The bookstores wouldn't be full of self-help books. You'd need just the one and that would do the trick.

Take that, self-help books that aren't written by David Brooks!

Shamelessly lifted from Driftglass.
The theme of this chapter is, in so many words, that you can't change. Ever. It's impossible. You think you've changed? Well you can't, not without Jesus "a glimpse of some realm beyond the edge of what we know," thank you Chapter 7. Speaking of which, all that stuff in the last chapter about meliorism and self-control being a muscle that you can improve? That was then and this is now, and now you need to hand yourself over to God the "eternal objective order."

As with everything else Brooks has written in this book, what's contained in this chapter is far too vague to be construed as genuine piety. It is, as it has always been, a lecture, the latest circular from the Pope of the American Center. Those of you reading this who turned your life around in some way - who overcame addiction, who climbed out of debt, who discarded self-destructive urges, who made amends for unhealthy relationships, even those who lost a significant amount of weight - you didn't do it. Brooks knows you didn't do it, and what's more he knows that you have no concept of how to do it:

You can't lead a good life by steering yourself, in the first place, because you do not have the capacity to do so. The mind is such a vast, unknown cosmos you can never even know yourself by yourself. Your emotions are so changeable and complex you can't order your emotional life by yourself. Your appetites are so infinite you can never satisfy them on your own. The powers of self-deception are so profound you are rarely fully honest with yourself.

You're lying to yourself when you think you've changed. You can't help but lie to yourself, don't you understand that? I'm the only one who understands these things, that's why you need to listen to me.

And that's the secret to this chapter and this book - it all comes back to projection. It's an inward journey directed outward because it's so much easier for Brooks to deal with other people's issues than his own. It goes something like this: I'm miserable, ergo you must be miserable, ergo you must change, and the only way you will change is to listen to me. For expert in humility David Brooks, it always comes back around to David Brooks, projecting his own woes outward, turning his own frailties into problems affecting all people so he can diagnose them in others.

All of Brooks' study has still left him totally self-blind, but that was always going to happen because he didn't read those biographies to learn anything new. He read them for the same reason he spent 2006-2012 bumbling through all those scientific accounts. He wanted to confirm his own beliefs - then in objective terms, now in spiritual terms. It's a common affliction among anyone with personal convictions, even (and especially) among those careerist pundits for whom their convictions must be readily disposable. Everyone wants to be right. Everyone wants to be told he's right.

Which is unfortunate because, per Brooks, that's the start of shameful pride.

The proud person tries to establish self-worth by winning a great reputation, but of course this makes him utterly dependent on the gossipy and unstable crowd for his own identity...
...Hungry for exaltation, the proud person has a tendency to make himself ridiculous. Proud people have an amazing tendency to turn themselves into buffoons, with a comb-over that fools nobody, with golden bathroom fixtures that impress nobody, with name-dropping stories that inspire nobody.

I'm sure that Brooks, a man who is sheltered from all of his critics, has a deep understanding of humility. Or is this directed at those critics? Is it possible that this "gossipy and unstable crowd" is comprised of those digital barbarians in the blogosphere who've vexed him so much over the last decade and a half? Am I in that crowd? In short, is it possible that all of these arguments are just to establish for Brooks some sort of internal source of superiority not affected by his detractors in the outside world and all of those filthy facts they lob at him like stones?

Perhaps if I, too, was a master of humility then I wouldn't see the irony here. It seems the first step in that transformation is to realize that my head does not belong on my shoulders but in a closer, darker place.

Stay tuned for the last of the book reports and then the concluding chapter we've all been waiting for.

No comments:

Post a Comment