Before beginning, I’ll note that Joe Carter is soliciting donations to the FT website —please consider giving to what I obviously think is a fine internet crossroads of content.

Tocqueville’s concept of individualism is one of his most helpful, but often gets misunderstood due to our pre-existing usages of the term. For example, while most modern persons speak disapprovingly of self-centered individualism, including the withdrawing type witnessed in the film About a Boy or described in the Simon and Garfunkel song “I Am a Rock,” they talk up the idea of creative individuality, and the dogma of everyone’s right to individual liberty. They might apply the label “individualism” to any or several of these. The term is also used to describe one’s stance towards issues of political economy, whether in a negative sense by progressives, or in a positive one by libertarians. So the possibilities for confusion are many.

Tocqueville precisely defines individualism as the tendency to confine one’s affections and concerns to a narrow circle of immediate family and friends. It is thus most like the withdrawing type of individualism mentioned above, albeit not hostile to friendship as such and not necessarily driven by a self-centered or egoistic motive. It tends to ultimately encourage “egoism” (aka “selfishness”) which Tocqueville says is “a vice as old as the world,” but it is not the same thing.

The withdrawing individualism criticized by I Am a Rock seems generated primarily by fear of being exposed or hurt, and it approaches pathological dimensions. The song closes with the individualist narrator plaintively saying, And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries, and earlier, he obsessively spoke of Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no-one and no-one touches me. Arguably, he is presented as a sort of a polar opposite to the healthy vulnerable sensitive type, the type open to the ministrations of therapeutic psychology and the charms of gentle singer-songwriters. But the withdrawing individualism that Tocqueville describes is far more rationally calculated, and far more focused upon convenience than upon fear. It is less of a psychological condition than a sociological one: “Individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread as conditions become equal.”

Our Peter Lawler, and Pierre Manent even more so, have suggested that the most vital root of this spreading psycho-sociological condition is found in modern political philosophy, in the “word-weaponary” of Hobbes and Locke most of all. It is no accident, Peter and Pierre say, that our social conditions and heart-habits make us ever-more like the unbelievably isolated individuals of the state of nature.

Now the music of “I Am a Rock” is fine—it’s more on the Beatles-esque side of Simon and Garfunkel’s work, and is emotionally quite effective. But lyrically, it is pretty crude. The message is: this guy “has issues”—don’t be like him. It’s bad to disdain friendship and its laughter.  You are a human being, not an island.

Got it. But the drawback, again, is that modern individualism becomes understood as a kind of mental disorder. Which is weird, because one doesn’t write social comment songs about hypochondria and such. Rather, such a song must be able get under the public’s skin. But this is a stretch for “I Am a Rock” because the individualism criticized is too extreme for most to identify with. It is someone else’s problem, it is some other set of bad hung-up people who are the social issue that need commenting on. And let’s face it, that’s the way the worst hippie/lefty types like such songs, and why too many smug social comment songs were made in the 60s.

Simon and Garfunkle did hit home with one line, however, one that does get under my skin:

I have my books,
and my poetry to protect me.

Substitute “political philosophy” for “poetry” here, and I’m sure a lot of Postmodern Conservative’s contributors and readers will understand why it does. I remember a story told by an astute pastor. Visiting Chicago on a New Year’s Eve day, he had happened to stop by the University of Chicago bookstore, and was surprised to find it very busy, packed with studious-looking individuals buying several books apiece. He deduced why—these were all loner intellectuals, who, to get through a New Year’s weekend in which they had no social plans, were purchasing the books they intended to cozy up with. I confess to finding that both a sad, and yet even a slightly tempting, scenario. We eggheads are that way sometimes. The friend-love for wisdom sometimes becomes an eros-love, or even an addiction. Why bother with those around us when we can “sit at the feet” of all those great thinkers?

Of course, Simon and Garfunkel do not quite get it right, as they only look at this in a negative light, the light of “psychoanalytic” explanation. The love is explained in terms of pathology, and not in terms of the worthiness of its object. And so even though a defense of “poets” runs right through Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrical oeuvre , in “I Am a Rock,” it looks as if this fellow’s love of poetry can be reduced to a mere defense mechanism. His books protect him. It is not a matter of his neglecting others out of a love for something genuinely high, not a matter of over-doing it, not a matter of not intuiting the lesson I’m guessing our Ralph Hancock teaches in his The Responsibility of Reason . Rather, were he to go to his psychiatrist, he would be told, “Your ‘love’ of poetry primarily is a way to keep yourself from interacting with real people.”

I grant that the issue may be different with philosophy and poetry. I grant also that I am quibbling here about a use of hyperbole, a use that obviously made an emotional impression on yours truly, and thus “got through” to me even if I now comment on its partial inaccuracy. Still, I think this lyric from Jefferson Airplane’s She Has Funny Cars better gets at the heart of this matter, by coming at the self-isolating intellectual not from the angle of the social-commenter, but from the angle of her lover:

Your mind is guaranteed,
it’s all you’ll ever need,
So what do you want with me?

I’ll leave this “old as the world” issue of the intellectual’s purported self-sufficiency hanging there, because I know it disturbs me, and yes, convicts me to some extent, but also because our main topic remains modern individualism and its accompanying loneliness. Simon and Garfunkel had a powerful take on that phenomenon in the next song we’ll look at, “The Sounds of Silence,” but overall, I’d say that while “I Am a Rock” might be beneficially discussed with junior-highers (seriously!), and while its one line hits home with me, it is closer to the typical shallowness of rock social comment than to its rarer instances of profundity.

Articles by Carl Scott

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