Nige asks, “What is wrong with us?” and one murmurs in reply, “Where to begin?” We’ve grown professionalized – a bureaucrat’s dream. I was asked, straight-faced, without condescension, “Do you have a certificate to write about books?” Paradoxically, we’re subjected more and more to the ministrations of the amateurish. Not in the etymological sense, of work lovingly performed, but in the coarsened modern sense of careless, slipshod, indifferent, disconnected, unreliable. Who works out of love today? Some nurses and clergy, I’m certain. Not so many doctors, teachers, welders, poets. My brother does. He’s one of the happier people I know and has never written a resume or consulted a career counselor. What he does is nearly who he is, which makes him a pleasant anomaly.
When I read Nige’s post I thought at once not of a pundit or sociologist but of Cynthia Ozick, a novelist. Nige, I know, is a reader of novels – Nabokov, Bellow, William Maxwell, Shirley Hazzard, Penelope Fitzgerald. In her essay “The Din in the Head,” Ozick argues that the precious quality of “innerness,” the self’s sovereignty, can still be found in a reader’s engagement with works of fiction, what she calls “the inward life of letters.” In contrast to the “din” of digital diversions, Ozick would have us cultivate innerness, (not to be confused with narcissism), the unique “din” each of us hears in his or her consciousness – “the thrum of regret, of memory, of defeat, of mutability, of bitter fear, made up of shame and ambition and anger and vanity and wishing.” She writes:
“But innerness – this persistent internal hum – is more than lamentation and desire. It is the quiver of intuition that catches experience and draws it close, to be examined, interpreted, judged. Innerness is discernment; penetration; imagination; self-knowledge. The inner life is the enemy of crowds, because the life of crowds snuffs the mind's murmurings. Mind is many-threaded, mazy, meandering, while every crowd turns out to be a machine – a collectivity of parts united as to purpose.”
Ozick celebrates “the utterly free precincts of the novel.” Not that readers are nice and non-readers bad. “Is the literary novel, like the personal essay, in danger of obsolescence?” she asks. Of course it is, as always, and shelves sag under the burden of lousy literary novels and personal essays, but Ozick cites her master, The Master, Henry James:
“It [the novel] can do simply everything, and that is its strength and its life. Its plasticity, its elasticity is infinite.”
Ozick quotes descriptions of rooms, including wallpaper, in Turgenev and Woolf. Their real subject, she says, is “incorporeal, intuitional, deeply interior.” Hardly a realm or sensibility amenable to Nige’s “age of incompetence.” To read deeply, with empathy and discernment, is no guarantee of civility – just look around the blogosphere. But there’s nothing utopian in what Ozick proposes. She offers no solution or cure. Her tone is elegiac, not hopeless :
“The din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread – where, in an age of machines addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found? In the art of the novel; in the novel’s infinity of plasticity and elasticity; in a flap of imaginary wallpaper. And nowhere else.”
In response to Nige’s (and our) complaint -- “Perhaps when the going gets so ridiculously good as it has been for the developed world this past half century, skills and common sense wither away, as there is no pressing need for them -- whatever we do, however stupidly we behave, we'll be all right.” – I would urge Marianne Moore’s trinity of virtues: “humility, concentration, and gusto.” That last was a favorite of Hazlitt’s, too.