I recently read Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”. It’s very provocative, and definitely something I would recommend to anyone. Probably the most interesting assumption in it is the notion that the human spirit can evolve…that people can be different from what they have been, not just in their actions, but in their souls. Oscar Wilde believed that the necessity of acquiring property preventing people from manifesting their full personalities:
“With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, and healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life accumulating things and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all…..It is a question whether we have ever seen the full experience of a personality, except on the imaginative plane of art.”
There’s something interesting about the notion that mankind possesses some heretofore unseen ability for expression, not just in art, but in action as well, that is suppressed by the conditions under which we live.
The bulk of Wilde’s essay is given over to statements about the philistinism, conformism, and stupidity of most people on Earth (under the existing system) that I think may preclude agreement with his points (although the point of reading Wilde is not to agree with him, it’s just to enjoy thinking about something very strange). Statements like these:
“As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for a very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property and admit of its accommodation as long as he himself is able to order these conditions to realize something of his life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiescesce in their continuance.”
Or, even better, this one:
“To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wing is blwing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.”
The whole essay is very concerned with the force of personality made manifest by artists and all those who’ve managed to free themselves from drudgery. It reminded me very much of this quote by George Orwell from his essay “Why I Write”:
“The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all–and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.”
And that in turn reminded me of a quote from the sitcom Modern Family where Mitchell (who is in his 30s) tells his 5th-grade stepbrother Manny:
“But this is the funny thing about growing up: for years and years everybody is desperately afraid to be different in any way, and then suddenly, almost over night, everyone wants to be different… and that is where we win.”
And that made me think of a conversation I was having with someone recently about why I don’t read much fiction written for kids or young adults. I was saying that there’s a lot of wish fulfillment in those books. They’re about someone who’s a little different, and whose differences make them special. And I don’t like that, just like I don’t really like any of the above quotes.
And the reason I don’t like them is because of how compelling I find them. Sure, I’ve often gotten off on thinking of myself as special and of the rest of humanity as some kind of herd. We’ve all done that…(vis this xkcd). But isn’t it so perverse to think of millions of people reading the same book in their living room and thinking, “I am so special”.
I went to a Lady GaGa concert a few months ago, and I found the rhetoric she deployed to be totally bizarre. She kept saying things about how this is a safe place, where no one will make fun of you for being different, etc. And I kept thinking, “Since when is being a fan of the most popular pop star in America enough to enroll you in some kind of persecuted minority?”
Living in society is kind of weird, because on the one hand your experience of yourself is so real and so immediate and so important. But on the other hand, no one else really acknowledges that. To them, you’re just a set of effects. You’re a set of pictures and sounds that sometimes impinge on their lives, while to yourself, you are a cascade of sensation. To yourself, you’re the whole world.
Thinking of yourself as “special” or “different” or “gifted and willful” or “an artist” is a way to reconcile this problem. What you’re basically saying is that other people are wrong to treat you the same way you treat them. Whereas they are not of great importance to you, you should be of great importance to them.
And that kind of succeeds in bridging that cognitive weirdness. But it is also such an other-centered position. When you start trying to assert your own specialness, you do so by carving out a relationship between you and the mass of people, and asserting that this relationship is what is important about you. In the Modern Family quote, Mitchell “wins” because he is different. Lady Gaga’s audience is special because they like Lady Gaga and everyone else, presumably, doesn’t (which is false, everyone loves Lady Gaga).
By trying to assert one’s individuality, one becomes much more dependent on society than one was before, because now, if, for instance, everyone else becomes weird in the ways that Mitchell is weird, then he is no longer special.
And that seems like a loss to me. Because the fact is that human beings are not special, when viewed from the outside. We’re all made of the same sort of stuff, basically. But we don’t have to view ourselves from the outside. We get to view ourselves from the inside.
People aren’t special, so much as they are incommensurable. It doesn’t matter how different I am from you, because I can never be you.
I don’t think that other people’s experience of the world is less full than mine, or that their lives are less rich. Probably I am just the same as them. And that’s okay, because the fullness of their life does not detract from the fullness of my own. Everything is new to me. I have very little idea of what to expect from life. I have very little idea about what kinds of things are even possible. Even if we’re all doing pretty much the same thing, and thinking pretty much the same thing, and experiencing the same things, that’s okay…because they’re still pretty interesting to me…and it seems almost a betrayal of that fullness of sensation to spend so much time and so much energy on worrying whether I am different from you.