David Brooks and How to Be a Better Person

David Brooks, in “The Sydney Awards: Part I” (New York Times, Dec. 19, 2011), selects the “best magazine essays of the year.” Like the recent Rolling Stone article, “The 101 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” Brooks’s piece is another list; it has become a journalistic genre, the creation of year-end lists. And, as we said in our post on the greatest guitarists, lists are made for argument. But Brooks doesn’t even let us get to his list before starting his argument, to wit: “Anybody interested in being a better person will click the links to these essays in the online version of this column, and read attentively.” We’re all for reading, writing, and critical thinking, and hopeful that the Toads blog illuminates our curiosity, if nothing else, but wish becoming a better person were that easy.

If, as Norman O. Brown argued, “the fall is into language” (Love’s Body, 257), it’s hard to see how more of it is going to help matters. But we were reminded of something else we read this week, Elif Batuman’s “The Sanctuary: The world’s oldest temple and the dawn of civilization” (New Yorker, Dec. 19, 2011). Elif asks a penetrating question, which links us to a previous post on Brooks, coincidentally: have humans improved over time? Elif puts it this way: “Was the human condition ever fundamentally different from the way it is now?” (82 – but it’s behind the New Yorker paywall). Entire belief systems, Elif argues, depend on how we answer questions having to do with human progress. Is it possible that not only are we unable to improve, but we can only get worse? We see some evidence for this, but if we had to choose, we hold with those who think we’re the same as we’ve ever been.

But maybe Brooks is right, and humans simply have not read enough. Who knows, but we doubt it. When it comes to improvement, to becoming a better person, we’re also reminded of the compliment scene in the film “As Good As It Gets” (1997). “You make me want to be a better man,” the human-overdosed Jack Nicholson character, Melvin, tells Carol (Helen Hunt). No more accurate definition of love have we ever read.

Perhaps we reach a point where we are as good as we want to be, and we stop reading and writing, and that’s as good as it gets. But Melvin doesn’t say that Carol makes him a better person, only that she makes him want to be a better person, and we see him struggle. And Brooks doesn’t say that reading does makes us better persons; and maybe what he meant is merely that those interested in self-improvement might find reading helpful.

Something else: Brooks’s article is a bit confusing, also, for what, exactly, are the Sydney awards? They seem to be something of his own making, but we also find the Sydney Hillman awards. There are apparently two Sydneys, then, both with the purpose of providing interested persons links to reading that is as good as it gets.

Follow-up: Brooks wrote his article in two parts. Here’s part two: “The Sydney Awards, Part II” (New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011).

Related: David Brooks and The Plaque of Alienation; or, the Consciousness Bubble

David Brooks and The Plaque of Alienation; or, the Consciousness Bubble

Are we making progress? And is the progress good? Have humans improved over time? Are we better than our ancestors? What makes us human, and whatever that is, have we been improving upon it? The universe may be expanding; our consciousness is not. Something seems to be blocking our arteries: the plaque of alienation. Yet there are some who are apparently awakening to a new dawn, a new and improved consciousness, and there’s a consciousness revolution afoot, as David Brooks tells it in his January 17, 2011 New Yorker article, under the Annals of Psychology section: “Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.” Not since the 1960s have we seen such an upswell in the commercialization of consciousness.

“We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness,” Brooks tells us. The revolutionaries in this assault on our personal dark ages include “geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others” who “have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind.” Such a list of armed trick-or-treaters makes us want to light out for the territory. But wait, for “far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows.” But how are we suddenly under water? If we’re to have a revolution in consciousness, shouldn’t we be able to talk about it without using metaphors? But there’s more: “They [the revolutionaries] are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has the least to say.” Whose culture? Has Brooks never read Langston Hughes nor heard of the Harlem Renaissance? For Langston talked precisely about “those things.” Has Brooks never read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Thoreau’s Walden? But there’s even more: “Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” Mathew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith,” in Brooks’s view, is now bone dry; and apparently Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth is suddenly irrelevant (in spite of our underwater status), as must be Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul, not to mention the work of Mary Midgley. And Brooks must have missed the film Examined Life, with Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, and Martha Nussbaum. Neither has Brooks seemed to have ever visited the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Theology and philosophy are not atrophying; that’s one of the few immutable laws the brain seems to labor under. It’s what makes consciousness worthwhile, for, as Dostoevsky’s underground man says, “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.”

And where Brooks’s tightly-written scenario takes us is to a happiness moral, much cliched, but no doubt true: we’ve been looking in all the wrong places. “Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income,” Brooks says, siting recent research. The problem, Brooks says, is that “Many Americans generally have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most.” Agreed. But why must Brooks have the imprimatur of science to get to the moral? And is it really a revolution of consciousness that he’s describing, or a simple increase in awareness that comes with maturity and experience? Jung said, “…if we maintain that mental phenomena arise from the activity of glands, we are sure of the thanks and respect of our contemporaries, whereas if we explain the break-up of the atom in the sun as an emanation of the creative Weltgeist, we shall be looked down upon as intellectual freaks. And yet both views are equally logical, equally metaphysical, equally arbitrary and equally symbolic. From the standpoint of epistemology it is just as admissible to derive animals from the human species, as man from animal species.” Jung is explaining how the scientific method came to dominate explanations of life: “…everything that could not be seen with the eyes or touched with the hands was held in doubt; such things were even laughed at because of their supposed affinity with metaphysics.” The science Brooks has come to rely on is what Jung called “psychology without the soul,” for the soul is now inadmissible evidence in the court of science. Jung explained that “It is the popular way of thinking, and therefore it is decent, reasonable, scientific and normal. Mind must be thought to be an epiphenomenon of matter. The same conclusion is reached even if we say not ‘mind’ but ‘psyche’, and in place of matter speak of brain, hormones, instincts or drives. To grant the substantiality of the soul or psyche is repugnant to the spirit of the age, for to do so would be heresy.”

No doubt Brooks could have made his argument citing the poets instead of the scientists. And no doubt Arnold’s Sea of Faith is indeed today as dry as bone dust. Brooks cites the scientists because poetic currency has been devalued. What is easily missed is that the scientists also trade in a currency, as Jung explains: “We delude ourselves with the thought that we know much more about matter than about a ‘metaphysical’ mind, and so we overestimate physical causation and believe that it alone affords us a true explanation of life. But matter is just as inscrutable as mind…It is only our doubts as to the omnipotence of matter which could lead us to examine in a critical way this verdict of science upon the human psyche.” And it is this doubt which sticks to the arteries of our psyche and alienates us from the fun the scientists today seem to be having. We fear yet another bubble.