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Issue 262
September/October 2010
Embodied Wisdom

Reviews

Seeking a New Idealism
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Cover: Small Yellow Bird by Craigie Aitchinson. Courtesy: Bridgeman Art Library

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Seeking a New Idealism

We don’t need more grumpy books that simply complain, says John Naish. The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy by Michael Foley. Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN: 9781847375247

Is our culture really just an absurd place full of gullible idiots – a place where the only sustainable response is to laugh bitterly at it all? This is the world according to Michael Foley’s new book. But it is not all negative: reading it has inspired me to come up with a positive new mantra: ‘Complaining is not campaigning’.

Foley, a novelist, poet and IT lecturer, has unintentionally provided a prime example of why we need to move on from witty tirades about the state of consumer culture to something far more positive. He has clearly fallen out of love with the world. His book, now out in paperback, is chatty and given to flashes of wit. But his polemic soon begins to feel disheartening. It is essentially a bantering tirade against, well, everything.

Despite the word ‘happy’ appearing in the title, this book is not for the seeker of inspiration or solace. In Foley’s grumbling worldview, modern mass communications mean that no one listens any more, convenience is actually a curse, people who go on luxury cruises are completely stupid, all mainstream religion is wicked, young rock-music audiences don’t know how to listen properly, students are impenetrably dumb, and celebrity culture turns everyone into externality-obsessed sex objects who have forgotten how to make love.

His solution is no more life affirming: our daily existence is nowadays so irredeemably absurd that the best we can do is laugh derisively at its follies. Well, perhaps. But are we really so doomed that we have to giggle our hearts black with nihilism in order just to cope? And what got Foley into such a bate? I suspect it has much to do with his life-stage – and our culture’s, too. Foley freely acknowledges that he is middle-aged and sorely disappointed with his academic career. The flower of his youthful idealism has soured into bitter fruit.

This is not so unusual. Now that I am in my forties, I regularly have to intercept internal monologues that begin: “In my day…” But such grumbling has gained currency as entertainment, thanks to the television series Grumpy Old Men. This, in turn, has created the illusion that menopausal negativity is somehow related to the eternal verities of life.

But it has all been said before, and to no effect. Modern life too rushed? Try this quote: “How men are hurried here; how they are hunted and terrifically chased into double-quick speed; so that in self-defence they must not stay to look at one another.” That was the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, on London in 1831. Bah, modern kids? “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all are reckless beyond words and impatient of restraint.” That was the Greek poet Hesiod, on teenagers in 8 BCE.

Foley’s book joins a growing genre that we could call Curmudgeon-lit. This also covers such books as Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Oliver James’s Affluenza, and Is it Just Me or Is Everything Shit? by Alan McArthur and Steve Lowe. The genre has done an effective job of pointing out how modern culture has its many faults. I think we are now adequately persuaded.

Beyond this point, we may drown in our own bile. Curmudgeon-lit is a form of conservatism: we sink into our armchairs and rail at the world. Why try to change things? There’s no point, we’ve ‘gorn to the dogs’. This is the literature of a society in midlife crisis. We remember our past with unwarranted romance. The present feels lumbago-ridden. And the future… Well, what future?

Written with force-ten wit, this genre can indeed be diverting. But we should not be diverted. There is work for us to do. This nihilistic dead-end should be our positive point of departure. At the point of destruction begins the job of reconstruction. The wisdom is ancient: it is embodied in archetypes such as the Indian goddess Kali. It prompts the vital question, where do we go from here? What is the dream we should build upon these ashes? Where is our 21st-century Utopia?

Curmudgeonly complaining aside, the real dreadful truth of these cynical times is that it is considered irredeemably naff and irrelevant to discuss ideals. Bitching about the status quo is cool and clever, but idealistically suggesting radical future alternatives is nigh taboo. Even now, after the consumerist financial system has expensively collapsed, the only mainstream option offered is that we unquestioningly prop it up again (and ignore the fact that our planet is incapable of sustaining such a wasteful system).

There has been no mass protest against this; just a majority slope-shouldered assent. I suspect that this is partly because our culture has become mesmerised by short-term, short-range complaining – this shirt is so yesterday, that celebrity’s life is so car-crash – that the universal picture is lost. Hell, it’s even got me complaining about people complaining.

And all this negativity ignores the fact that countless millions of people in our culture are busily doing their best, through their work, volunteering and social engagement, to help others and to live sustainably. This negativity also ignores the fact that technology is not necessarily a modern social plague: it is merely a tool – a great enabler that, used wisely, could help to realise the positives of our human potential.

Notably missing from Curmudgeon-lit is any hint of human spirituality. (Foley, for instance, was evidently brought up an Irish Catholic and is still bitter about it.) This ignores the fact that our modern-day problems are essentially spiritual rather than logistic. We now have the tools we need to ‘do good’. We just lack the motivation and inspiration.

The lack of any spiritual element in such complaining blinds us to our wider duties.

Indeed, do we really have the right to complain about our minor discomforts and absurdities, when we live as a comfortable minority in the narrow part of the world where water is drinkable, power available and freedom from tyranny taken for granted? Economically, our world is built on the backs of people who genuinely don’t have anything. Perhaps we ought to be focusing our dissatisfaction in that direction.

But Foley seems to have given up on the idea of any human progress. Indeed, he dismisses the whole of evolutionary psychology in less than the space of a page. Personally I think, hope and believe that we can and will move on. To help us, our culture needs to drop the trendy Goth garb of nihilism and strive ever more to develop popular new visions that are enticing and entrancing. A new idealism can draw us from our gloom out into the sunlit plains of our potential. It would certainly prove more entertaining.

John Naish is the author of Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More.

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