Sunday, August 07, 2005
The Indifferent American
2 Blowhards expresses this marvelously apt insight about American culture that I have been trying to put my finger on for years. I often equated American disinterest in the aesthetic dimension of life as like the Roman dynamism directed at organization, administrations, efficiency, and engineering.
Virgil makes a point in The Aenead that art is for others while war is for the Romans. Appreciation of aesthetic dimension seems effete to us, and may well be. It is possible to be too refined in this world.
I do marvel every time I go out at how many people seem devoted to mercantile considerations every moment of their day, that Americans are terrible conversationalists, and the desire to acquire stuff is so great.
My wife is a school teacher and I avoid every gathering of fellow teachers she attends because they cannot talk about anything but school. I used to try and gather with poets, artists, writers, and such but found them incredibly parochial. They never seemed to know anything about the traditions or criticism in their creative fields. They had no thoughts which weren't selfish or emotional.
(via Terry Teachout)
posted by Mark Butterworth |
I've often marveled at the way French and Japanese cultures have their similarities. Let me rephrase that, given my actual inexperience of Japan: The appeal French and Japanese cultures have for Americans seems awfully similar, don't they? Both cultures are hierarchical and ritualized, with an infinite number of prescribed ways to do things. Stuffy! Yet both seem to deliver mind-bendingly intense rewards.
It seems key to me that both cultures also seem hyper-aware of the spiritual-erotic-aesthetic dimension. That seems to me the real reason so many Americans have flipped for French art and Japanese art. Neither the French nor the Japanese quarrel over the existence of the aesthetic dimension, or of aesthetic experience. It's always there, available. And, when they want to, they simply enter right into it.
I wonder sometimes: Perhaps what drives some Americans around the bend is our native tendency to ignore, repress, or deny the aesthetic dimension of life. We debate it. We politicize it. We get literal-minded and pretend not to know what's being talked about.
Being a gung-ho, hard-charging people, we sometimes exploit the aesthetic dimension. We often seem to want to use the promise of satisfaction and/or transcendence to spur ourselves on. We often prefer not-quite-attaining satisfaction to the actual experience of satisfaction. We take our legitimate yearnings and channel them into self-help, into new products that promise to solve problems, into hard-driving ad campaigns, into fantasies of stardom, and into crazy beliefs ranging from New Age cults to the conviction that somewhere there's a job that will make me happy. It's as though we're determined to frustrate ourselves. We doom ourselves to not making it to where we say we want to be.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we quarrel so over the aesthetic dimension? It's here with us, always: Why deny it? There must be a reason (or three, or ten) why we enact and re-enact this pattern. What in god's name are we up to?
My theory: We tantalize ourselves with the promise of transcendence in order to goad ourselves to greater heights of achievement. We often seem more terrified of not-achieving than we are of almost anything else -- terrified, I suppose, that, if we were to let our dynamism go and shift gears for even a couple of seconds, some important opportunity would pass us by.