That’s David Brooks’ judicious view of the most celebrated novel of the year. It’s too easy to display people today as being empty or insignificant or having nothing left to lose, and it’s natural for literary men and women to be critical of times without obvious exemplars of heroic greatness and romantic love. I’m all for being anti-bourgeois in the sense of denying that being bourgeois–or beings with interests–comes anywhere near exhausting who we are. But I’m not for being anti-bourgeois in the sense of saying that American lives have become bourgeois and nothing more and so are really the lives of “last men.” Souls still have longings, destinies remains personal, and people still display their dignity or unique and irreplaceable status. (I’ll have more to say about FREEEDOM once I actually finish it–it’s worth reading, mind you.)
I, of course, have plenty of sympathy for the Stoic criticism of who we are, as given by “Colonel John Pelham, Jeb Stuart’s legendary artillerist” in Walker Percy’s fictional portrayal of “The Last Donahue Show” in LOST IN THE COSMOS. Here are Pelham’s reflections on what he heard about sexual promiscuity on that expert show: “That’s not the way people should talk or act. Where we’d come from, we’d call them white trash. That’s no way to talk if you’re a man or a woman. A gentleman knows how to treat women. He knows because he knows himself, who he is, what his obligations are. And he discharges them.”
I also have some sympathy for the reflections on the Donahue Show by Percy’s version of John Calvin: “What I have heard is licentious talk about deeds which are an abomination before God.”
So it’s true enough that–insofar as Americans find no guidance in their Stoic and Christian countercultures–they really do have big trouble knowing who they are and what they’re suppose to do. But if Will is right, FREEDOM misses what remains of Stoic and Christian America, and so what some American know about the purpose-driven dimensions of human freedom. And in any case talking and even acting like white trash doesn’t mean we’re not actually much more. Nobody really believes that young Americans are okay with the “hook up” culture and all that, although many may–in white trash fashion-brag that they are.
All this is meant to be a prelude to my account of my wonderful visit to Georgetown, which begin with ME giving a seminar on LOST OF THE COSMOS and ended with a discussion on whether there’s a purpose-driven dimension to our Constitution’s view of who we are–or whether the famous mystery clause is right that our freedom is all about lonesome self-definition in the mysterious absence of natural or divine guidance.