There’s more to life than helping people

there-is-always-hopeI was writing a comment to my post on activist rhetoric, and I tried to articulate my issues a little bit more clearly. For me, the disquieting thing about activism is that it turns all of life into a series of power relations. And there’s something about that which is very powerful and very true. Yes, our position in society is, in some ways, imposed on us. And yes, it plays a large part in determining where we will live, what we will do, who we will love, the art we will consume, and the ideologies that we will believe. And that may or may not be terrible. But regardless of how you feel about the system in which we live, we still need to live in it.

I feel like there’s a vacuousness at the center of our intellectual life regarding the basic question: “How should I live my life?”

All around me, I see people delving into our culture and our society and asking, “How should I live my life?”

And our top intellectual figures answer: “The world is fucked up.”

Well…alright. But that doesn’t really do anything for me, here, right now. At most, it adds another ethical wrinkle and turns the question into: “How should I live my life in such a manner that I don’t fuck up the world even more?”

So people listen to this conversation and they crawl over to the only solution that’s being freely offered to them. They say to themselves, “Since the world is so fucked up, I should spend my life trying to unfuck it.”

But there’s something about that which seems very sterile. If your purpose in life is to unfuck the world, then where’s the room for art? For contemplation? For love? Obviously, you’ll still indulge in these things, but they’ll become guilty pleasures. And, further, you’ll constantly be called upon to assess them and try to see if they’re part of the problem. You see this in online discussion of books. There’s so little room left for analyzing a book in terms of its beauty. We barely know how to do that. But we have a huge vocabulary for talking about the ways in which a work is “problematic.” I’m not saying that people don’t still think about beauty. I think they do. And I think they care very deeply about it. What I’m saying is that our discourse doesn’t teach us how to talk about beauty (except with regards to its social justice dimensions [i.e. something is beautiful if it portrays, in an honest way, the life of underprivileged people]).

Wait, this is just Allan Bloom’s argument in The Closing Of The American Mind.

Err…well…this is embarrassing.

4 thoughts on “There’s more to life than helping people

  1. John Nelson Leith

    Bloom’s book was published in 1987, and we’re still pretty much talking about the same issues we were then.

    Per Kurt Anderson’s Vanity Fair piece a couple Januaries ago [http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2012/01/prisoners-of-style-201201], we’re also dressing the same, listening to the same music, watching the same kinds of films, etc. as we were a few years after “Closing” came out. Maybe there’s something to it.

  2. BRL

    I think that people endorsing the view that one’s moral obligation is to do the most possible to unfuck the world would agree that living life ruled by such an obligation is indeed often sterile, stressful, monomaniacal. And some of the people I have met who are most committed to doing good (and I mean that in a sincere way, I believe that these people really are doing the good they are setting out to do) are not people I would want to hang out with. It just so happens that the moral obligations we live under are, for the moment, not particularly conducive to human flourishing, just as many of the conditions of the physical world we live in aren’t good for us either.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      There’s definitely something to be said for this. It’s kind of the “Soul Of Man Under Socialism” argument–man will only be able to truly enjoy life when all men have leisure and prosperity, because only then will man be free of the moral obligation to help other people.

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