Friday, June 03, 2016

`Public Sentiments and Private Perceptions'

Occasionally a writer condenses our inarticulate thoughts and gives form to a previously formless mess of intuitions. The result can be a new and useful way to look at the world. In the June issue of Commentary, the screenwriter Roger L. Simon has published “Moral Narcissism and the Least-Great Generation,” in which he diagnoses the latest mutation of self-righteousness. He traces it to his generation, the immediate pre-Boomers, but the distinction is meaningless. Sure, some of the people he cites as founding exemplars of the epidemic – John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, among others – had an influence inversely proportional to their moral sense. As a newspaper reporter I spent most of a day with Leary in April 1993, and found him utterly narcissistic in the psychiatric sense. His relations with others were infantile. In short, he seemed like a moral neuter. Simon outlines moral narcissism like this:

“The short form is this: What you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe—not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be—defines you as a person and makes you `good.’ It is how your life will be judged by others and by yourself.”

It reminds me of the old adage that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their action. All of us, especially when young, indulge in this sort of moral double-dealing. We used to think of such behavior as simple hypocrisy, but the current strain of the virus is socially sanctioned and far more destructive, encouraging any sort of selfishness that masquerades as virtue. Simon develops the idea:   

“It is a narcissism that emanates from a supposed personal virtue augmented by a supposed intellectual clarity. It is what allows Hillary Clinton to go from undergraduate scold to Chappaqua plutocrat with a net worth in the tens of millions without missing a beat, or John Kerry to go from Vietnam War protester likening his fellow soldiers to Genghis Khan to a billionaire with a yacht constructed in New Zealand that he houses in Rhode Island to avoid the taxes of his native Massachusetts.

I read Simon’s piece on Wednesday, during our flight to Cleveland. I also reread an essay by C.H. Sisson, “Order and Anarchy,” first published in 1939 and collected in A C.H. Sisson Reader (Carcanet Books, 2014). Sisson’s observations on the writer’s public role echo with Simon’s thoughts:

“This distinction between public sentiments and private perceptions appears to me to be fundamentally the same as the distinction between good writing and bad. If this in fact is so, it may be said that bad writing is writing which expresses the politically manoeuvrable sentiments and is therefore part of the system of force which is government. Good writing alone may be described as independent of government, and one has intellectual liberty just so far as one has the capacity to distinguish between valid work and invalid.”

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