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Lately I’ve been noting an interesting linguistic phenomenon: the all-purpose word. You come across it most often in slang, especially the slang of children and adolescents. Take “narly,” for instance—a word which, in my limited acquaintance, seems capable of an almost infinite range of meanings, indicating anything from enthusiastic approval to violent hatred. “Narly” seems virtually content-free, its meaning determined entirely by context. But teenagers from Southern California don’t have a monopoly on this particular form of linguistic creativity: educated adults can indulge it too. Let’s consider an especially noteworthy example: the word “lifestyle.”

Allan Bloom says (offhandedly) that the word comes from Nietzsche—who was certainly educated and intermittently adult—but since neither Bloom nor anyone else has come forward with the Original Source, dictionary-writers can find themselves in difficulties. My favorite everyday dictionary, the American Heritage, gives it a go: “A way of life or style of living that reflects the attitudes and values of an individual or group.” Even if one disregards the fact that this definition leans pretty heavily on the very words it is attempting to define, it still doesn’t say much. The new Oxford English Dictionary neatly avoids the quicksand by attributing the word to the Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler, citing as the only definition Adler’s technical and specialized usage, and then quoting a whole series of uses of the word that owe nothing whatsoever to Adler.

It is palpably evident that “lifestyle,” like its lower-class cousin “narly,” possesses very little content. Yet, again like its cousin, within specific contexts, it can communicate a great deal. In fact, it may be capable of containing a whole philosophy in its two syllables—or so I’ve been thinking recently, as I listen to the rock group Talking Heads.

David Byrne, the leader and chief songwriter of Talking Heads, is an interesting fellow: there’s a distinctive, a sharp and sardonic, strain of cultural criticism running through many of his songs that you don’t find elsewhere. There are no unrequited loves in Byrne’s songs; there are few people consumed by wants, driven by desires. Instead he writes about and for people who typically get exactly what they want, in large part because they have been conditioned by the world around them to desire what that world can provide: the right automobile; ethnic or trend-setting foods; a lucrative but not socially embarrassing job; a residence identifiable, in architecture and interior design, with a style that has a name. (Talking Heads’ second album is called More Songs About Buildings and Food.) But the acquisition of such things is not Byrne’s chief interest; rather, he wants to know what the acquirers do next, that is, what happens when you get what you want. For Byrne, “successful” people often bear a strong resemblance to the damned in Dante’s Inferno, for, as Dante makes abundantly clear, in Hell you simply get for all eternity the life you chose on earth.

Dante and David Byrne are strange bedfellows to be sure, but the comparison can be supported by turning to one of Byrne’s tours de force, a song—from the 1988 Talking Heads album, Naked—called “(Nothing but) Flowers.” Byrne’s “narrator” is a man who, with his Significant Other, has realized one of modernity’s most deeply cherished fantasies: suddenly our familiar technological America is transformed into an idyllic, pastoral landscape, its natural beauty unspoiled by civilization. “Here we stand,” the song begins (the melody almost comically sentimental, the rhythms straight out of African pop), “another Adam and Eve / waterfalls / the Garden of Eden.”

But then comes a sudden and unexpected plaintiveness:

From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now it’s nothing but flowers

Our protagonist now embarks upon a litany of bitter nostalgia: “This was a Pizza Hut / now it’s all covered with daisies”; “We caught a rattlesnake / now we have something for dinner”; “If this is paradise / I wish I had a lawnmower.” As he laments his fate, a chorus like that of a Greek tragedy softly but repeatedly calls out, “You got it, you got it”—you got what you asked for. And this new Adam himself ruefully admits, “I thought we’d start over / but I guess I was wrong.”

Nature for him (he understands too late) is mere chaos, without form and void, until given meaning by human culture: “This used to be real estate / now it’s only fields and trees.” Trapped in what has proved to be not a fantasy but a nightmare, he finally cries out (the music stopping dead on the last word): “Don’t leave me stranded here / I can’t get used to this lifestyle.”

It’s a funny song, to be sure, and yet there’s something chilling about that last line. But to explain why, I need to look away from Byrne for a moment.

Recently I was grading essays some of my students had written on Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, that famous novel of South Africa. Some of them were explaining how James Jarvis, a wealthy white farmer from Natal, is changed by his son’s murder. What happens, through a complex set of events, is that Jarvis comes for the first time in his life actually to see the lives of his black neighbors and, eventually, to give them food and build them a church and (most crucially) forgive one of them, his son’s murderer. Of this painful and extraordinary metamorphosis a number of students wrote that Jarvis experienced a “change in his lifestyle.”

I mentioned these essays to one of my colleagues, who told me of some students of his who had written about Book IX of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the Fall is described. He had asked what happens to Milton’s Adam and Eve after the Fall, thinking of their sudden lust for each other (when formerly they had experienced only pure sexual love), their mutual recriminations and laying of blame, their alienation from the God who had been their friend, and so on. But some students said that Adam and Eve suffered a serious transformation of their “lifestyle.”

“Well,” one is tempted to think, “these aren’t expert writers, after all; most of them are freshmen and sophomores, with little experience in literary analysis—or in life, for that matter. They will of course use the everyday words they know.” True enough; but those words also represent the ideas they know, their intellectual and moral categories—the ones they have inherited from their elders or, more accurately, from whatever cultural institutions they consider authoritative. What are the moral implications of the word “lifestyle” in the context of James Jarvis’ life, of Adam and Eve in the Garden?

If “lifestyle,” as I said earlier, is a broad notion, it is also mighty thin, for it flattens all human activity to a single plane: the only dimension it recognizes is the dimension of choice. If all actions and attitudes are functions or components of one’s style of living, then it would appear that one is free to choose whatever style one finds appropriate. This Lifestyle Supermarket is the fulfillment of one of our great cultural dreams: the Self, unencumbered by habit or tradition, exercising the right of pure freedom ordained for it before the foundation of the world, selecting those objects and features, those accoutrements and tendencies, those passions and trinkets which, gathered into its encompassing bosom, constitute its Lifestyle. But if even Adam and Eve, driven in rage and guilt from the Earthly Paradise to which they may never return, may be said to be forced into a new “lifestyle”—if, that is to say, some especially desirable items are permanently out of stock, but there are still others, only relatively less appealing, beckoning from the shelves—if this is what the Fall amounts to, then how is it possible to comprehend the full implications of suffering or loss of any kind, whether in Mozambique or in Romania or in the luxurious American suburb?

To pursue the consequences further, let us think back to David Byrne’s new Adam. He has exercised his sovereign right of choice, and, against all expectation, he hates the world he has chosen. Perhaps he has chosen badly. But what if he had it to do all over again, but would do exactly the same thing? Or what if he chooses to return to the modern technological Paradise, only to (re-)discover that it too—of course, that’s why he wished it away in the first place—is just another Hell? This dilemma, it seems to me, calls for reflection upon all those old fairy tales in which the bolder of three unrestricted wishes manages nevertheless to screw things up: reading those stories as children, with considerable incredulity, we thought that in the same situation we would surely do better. But wisdom may consist not in the ability to choose well, but in the understanding that the power of choice itself bas limits—precisely the limits that we, the fallen and partial choosers, have.

The real tragedy for Byrne’s new Adam is not that he hates the world he has to live in; most of us feel a similar hate at least sometimes, without believing that such frustration makes us King Lear. The real tragedy is that, confronted by such a situation, the only words he has to describe and thus to deal with his pain derive from the worldview I have described: “I can’t get used to this lifestyle.” For if it is true that our young people, by using a certain vocabulary, also use a certain philosophy, then it is also true that when we embrace the philosophy of pure choice, we also embrace its vocabulary; and thus, when our choices do not satisfy us in the way that we believed so fervently they would, we are left not only with empty hands, but with no words capable of describing our emptiness.

It is commonly said that when apparently successful young people—honor students, athletes, class leaders—take their own lives, they do so because they feel enormous pressure to live up to the expectations of those around them. No doubt this is true. But I feel sure that many of them also experience the terrible blankness I have just described. Surely few genuinely wish that they had made other choices: they do not long to be drug addicts or dropouts; they see no “lifestyle” that seems superior to their own. But they feel no satisfaction from having made the “right” choices, and this feeling they cannot understand; nor, in many cases, can they get a convincing explanation from the people who originally told them what the right choices were. Perhaps they kill themselves, then, not because they suffer, but because they have no moral vocabulary with which to describe and hence to grasp their suffering.

When crotchety old grammarians complain about the debasement of language, often they are merely deploring change per se; other times they wax wroth over what seem to most of us relatively insignificant losses in precision, clarity, or beauty. But our language is being debased in the most profound sense when it loses the ability to discern and describe the lineaments of our moral lives. Christians who wish to speak “the language of the people”—and thus talk a lot about what makes up “the Christian lifestyle”—often assume that they can return to their own familiar “religious” language of grace and faith, sin and redemption, justice and mercy, even act and consequence, whenever they want. But the words, and the moral categories they represent, bequeathed to us by our ancestors through Bible, prayer book, and hymn are like most earthly things: they won’t last long without attentive care. And neither will moral understanding itself. There is a kind of packrat principle useful to anyone contemplating cultural or linguistic change: don’t be afraid of moving, but don’t throw anything away unless you’re sure you won’t need it in the future.

Whether David Byrne would agree with any of my conclusions here, I can’t say. He is probably not what I have half-suggested he is, a secular Kierkegaard with a postmodern method of indirect communication. He may be, in fact, merely an intelligent and resourceful cynic, preying (at least financially) on those he despises. If so, then one thing is pretty certain: we have the Dante we deserve.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.

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