David Brooks tells us that Where The Wild Things Are accurately shows that, for us, the “philosopher’s” way of thinking about the good life is out and the “psychologist’s” way is in. The wild things, just as the tagline tells us, are inside us all, just one of many important ‘sides’ or charms within us. Nightmarishly, Brooks cites one of the worst articles of recent memory, Paul Bloom’s Atlantic essay in which it is proposed that our individual being is a pure fraud. Actually, says Bloom, as Brooks summarizes, “we are a community of competing selves.” As I am working to explore in scholarly fashion, the Bloom/Brooks view makes for a celebration of individuality utterly at odds with the individual. Our sides, charms, or mini-selves, as Emerson suggested much earlier, are the original, natural commodities, the things we seek to appropriate from one another, by consent or otherwise, for our fleeting felicity.

A lot could be said in this vein but the thing to underscore here is that Brooks’s account conceals two important things. First, the central contrast he strikes might really be that between philosophy and art, not philosophy and psychology. Recall Nietzsche’s semi-secret teaching that not just Jewish priest culture but Greek actor culture overthrew Roman noble culture. Roman nobility as Nietzsche means it wasn’t exactly a product of philosophy, but Nietzsche’s conviction that preserving nobility was only possible in the contemporary world via philosophy ought to be considered, I think, in light of his profound uneasiness and careful treading around the problem of the “actor’s faith” that characterizes “really democratic ages.” Second, the psychologist most frequently associated with Nietzsche is Freud, but Brooks isn’t at all talking Freudian psychology when he tells us that “it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work,” or that we don’t secure “the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines.” The trouble isn’t that Freud didn’t endorse disciplined creativity or creative discipline, but that Freud’s vision of life held out basically no hope for the GOOD life. His aim was to make extraordinarily ill people ordinarily sick, and his view of health involved much more coping than curing. Where Freud in the hands of an Emersonian like Richard Rorty becomes a fertility god, democratizing genius and with it the good life, Rieff — whom Rorty cites on the democratization of genius — shows how the rise of Nietzschean “actor’s faith” in democratic ages is dreadfully inimical to the good life. Rieff reminds us that celebration is alien to Freud, for whom the things ‘competing’ within us are to be analyzed into a negotiated stalemate, not channeled into socially productive activity or personally gratifying projects.

No, for those kinds of ideas, one has to turn to Jung (whose masterwork has finally emerged from the family vault). Unlike Freud, Jung’s vision of therapy is positive or optimistic, and highly resonant with Emerson. Of course, in our Emersonian soil, we Americans were able to pump Freudianism itself full of hands-on, can-do pragmatism, divesting it of its harsh, pessimistic discipline of ascetic analysis. Freud discriminated, scientifically, where Jung religiously embraced everything, an equal-opportunity appropriator of whatever poetic visions ‘worked’. Brooks misleadingly associates the philosopher’s vision of the good life with Homeric heroism (just count how many times Plato tells us Homer was mistaken, and what about). But even more importantly, for today’s purposes, he obscures the difference between Freudian and Jungian psychology. According to Freud, not only are we all living post-heroic realities, but approximating health in that reality involves abandoning heroic fantasies. For Jung, by stark contrast, only pan-heroic fantasy can supply us with the meaning necessary to approximate health in the world that we live in. Brooks wants us to think that Where The Wild Things Are is good democratic art because it shows that the best way to save democratic life is by defining health around the useful, prosocial activities we engage in to distract us from the riot of uncontrollable novelties that is our smithereens of non-individual selflets. But Where The Wild Things Are is itself proof positive that we’re far more interested in using theater to distract us from our mundane tasks — theater, where the democratic individual can still live out, vicariously or otherwise, the fantasy of poetic heroism. Unlike Freud, we Americans insist on an ethic of play.

Articles by James Poulos

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