Eden of Clowns

By William GiraldiMay 21, 2012

America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano

YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD the news: We Americans are a mob of dipshits. In our nation's emporium of "ideas," the madcap and maniacal sell like batteries in a blackout. We can't help it, apparently. We've been dullards since our inception — Boobus americanus in H.L. Mencken's unkind coinage — and so relish our pop-pundits and their orangutan ilk in Washington, our searing rabblement of the religious, our creationists, cranks, crackpots, or any wide-eyed witch in the street. In the slothful spirit of fairness, we like to give the scientist and the voodoo priestess equal measure, and then applaud the voodoo. That we are also a sub-literate breed is probably obvious, and probably the problem in the first place, since quality reading builds antibodies against bullshit. Mention Fernando Pessoa to a Portuguese — any Portuguese — and prepare yourself for an afternoon's colloquy. Toss a pebble into a crowd of Germans and the first person it touches will be pleased to pontificate on the importance of Goethe. Now go say "Walt Whitman" to the next American you run into and you'll be confronted with the vacant countenance of the over-medicated.

But forget the poor plebe — even some of last century's distinguished scholars and writers held American literature to be an anemic enterprise unworthy of serious account. Van Wyck Brooks enjoyed exclaiming the calumny that American artists and intellectuals had no "tradition" to build upon (then he let posterity know precisely who he was when he dubbed Mark Twain a fraud). Mencken, in an uncharacteristic break with discernment, thought Emerson an oaf with no influence, despite the fact that Mencken couldn't look on anything without wearing Nietzsche's eyeglasses; he must have missed those parts in Nietzsche — in the letters, journals, and Twilight of the Idols — extolling Emerson's genius. If you'd like to dine at a banquet of boorish inanity, see Theodore Dreiser's essay "Life, Art and America," in which he castigates our nation for a famine of consequential writers and poets while inexplicably forgetting the existences of Dickinson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James. And Mr. James didn't help, either, when in his biography of Hawthorne he claimed that American air didn't have enough oxygen to let big ideas breathe properly. He sailed for England as soon as he could, and a generation later some of the best minds born on American soil — Eliot, Stein, and Pound for starters — followed in his huffy wake.

In America the Philosophical, reviewer and philosophy professor Carlin Romano has stepped up to offer a different view of American intellectual vitality, one that runs contrary to the dismal Jamesian conception and to such recent studies as Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. Romano reprimands the "vehement" Jacoby for focusing on only "a pocketful of examples" — but the right examples are a lot like C-4: a pocketful will do just fine. Jacoby revealed exactly how we came to be a nidus of anti-intellectual fervor and the kind of irrationality that warps entire time zones. She castigates those who think the carcinoma of anti-intellectualism emerged only recently, when an electronic culture snuffed out the joy of reading and morphed us into a species with eyeballs bigger than our brains. America's pronounced irrational streak is almost as old as the nation itself, and, as with everything else in our vast land, religion lurks at the epicenter: Christian fundamentalism, Jacoby writes, succeeded

in capturing the hearts of a large number of Americans during the very period when intellectuals like Emerson were finding even Unitarianism too rigid. If a combination of free-thought and Enlightenment-influenced liberal Protestantism had been able to meet the emotional needs of the turbulent young nation, the course of American intellectual and religious history would have been radically altered.

Romano demurs: "Instead of viewing the rich debate between American secularists and believers as proof of our intellectual vibrancy, Jacoby saw a dumbed-down culture in which rationalists failed to silence believers with muzzles authorized by the Enlightenment." Please point the way to this "rich debate," and to the unicorn, sir; we shall be pleased to discover them. The last time such a substantive dialogue happened on a national or newsworthy level was when Christopher Hitchens, promoting his bestseller God is Not Great, toured the country to debate with theologians and clergymen on college campuses. The "intellectual vibrancy" never left the auditoriums, and the debates were newsworthy in the first place only because of Hitchens's outsized celebrity. (You can see most of these amusing clashes on YouTube.) The recent commercial success of the New Atheism — Richard Dawkins and company — indeed signals a surge of Enlightenment or Emersonian rationalism in response to rabid religiosity, but there's very little cross-pollination going on. Believers shout to believers, heathens to heathens — a dynamic altogether different from Romano's "rich debate." And Hitchens's pillory of the pious was always consumed more as a diet of entertainment than as a diet of debate.

In his gloss of Emerson's importance, Romano rightly contends that "with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin and William James," Emerson is "the American prose writer who most influenced how other world-class writers saw us." Emerson's seminal "American Scholar" oration at Harvard in 1837 challenged our nation's intellectuals to beget a body of literature and scholarship that could go head to head with the tectonic European tomes of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon. He implored "Man Thinking" — a prototype that would half a century later burgeon into Nietzsche's Overman — to combat "the sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason." Emerson denigrated "the book-learned class" because a strong American intellectual identity would be advanced only by the application of wisdom to living — not by passive armchair perusing, and not by the replacement of erudition with any old jackass's claim of religious revelation. He believed submission en masse to the baser emotions lit up by religion means national and cultural calamity and a reputation for being very stupid indeed. He also knew the value of education, and Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason is really a concise history of how an abysmal educational network failed and proceeds to fail one generation after another. The outcome? A debasement of language and mauling of mentation in every nook of our culture, propagated by vulpine media more pestilent than pox and more effective than schools. Romano has nothing at all to say about education.

But he does have other ideas about our merit. Here's his pitch:

America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: all corroborate that fact.

Let's skip the absurdity of the phrase "most philosophical culture in the history of the world" — how would such a thing be measured? — and just take note of the solecism "marketplace of truth," how "quantity" supplants "quality," and how "cockiness" can't even begin to fill the shoes of "correctness." Notice also the vague avowal of a mysterious but assuredly intense "hunt for evidence and information." Widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority? Resistance to false claims? Has Romano ever sallied forth from the Northeast enclave of academia and so much as driven through Baptist Georgia, Pentecostal Louisiana, Evangelical Colorado, Mormon Utah? Has he ever attended a public school board meeting in Kansas or a tent revival in Tennessee? Amble through the parking lot before a NASCAR race in South Carolina, or through the ruck at an armed Tea Party rally in Montana, and then try to speak with a straight face about an "openness" of "dialogue." Romano's final dependent clause gives him away the most, with the utter pointlessness of its alacritous embrace and the overall fatuity of the claim. What's the intellectual and dialogic value of being intimidating? If Romano means to welcome us to the home of the brave where everyone has the right to his caterwauling opinions, he should at least have the decency to admit that the multitude of those opinions are patently false when not demonstrably harmful. In other words — Romano stands guilty of the very sin he sticks to Jacoby: evidential myopia. M.I.T. and Columbia University might fit the above encomium, but our nation as a whole? A more accurate title for Romano's book might have been America: Our Intellectuals Are Great But Everyone Else Needs Some Help.

Romano strains to keep the comprehensive from devolving into the desultory. He is quite good at entertaining anecdotes about certain philosophers — George Santayana, Richard Rorty, B.F. Skinner, Robert Coles — although he is thoroughly unfit for sustained engagement with their ideas. You will shut this book remembering that Santayana donned a cape, that Skinner built a devise called a "baby tender" and either did or did not lock his daughter inside it, and that the humble Coles wears red windbreakers, but you are unlikely to remember anything about their philosophies for the simple fact that they aren't investigated or apprehended memorably, if at all. What's more, Romano's prose only occasionally rises from a swamp of shlock. A book — any book, about anything — lives or dies by its language: a good idea badly expressed is a bad idea. (There are a few exceptions, like this incisive line about Edward Said: he "grew up sufficiently divided in his soul to make it inevitable that he'd divide others." And about Santayana's philosophy: it has an "intensely personal spine.")

He doesn't begin where he should, with Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans, because Edwards writes "hubristic sentences," a contention that performs the twofold feat of being beside the point and ignoring the fact that Edwards was a master showman and stylist whose sermons lured entire communities across snow-mounded miles, and not just because those people didn't have an Internet connection. You can't fully comprehend Emerson's journey to Unitarianism and beyond or why thinkers like Mencken, Brooks, and Dreiser had such a jaundiced opinion of America without first comprehending the Puritan ethos that sickened them. That's part of what allows Jacoby's book to shine as it does: she understands how American religiosity is inextricable from both American intellectualism and American irrationality. She understands also that much of the most important secular American philosophy — i.e. Emerson and, yes, even the contentedly religious William James — formulated itself in opposition to America's mainstream religiosity while simultaneously ingesting those traditions. Romano, however, skirts religion as if it were an alligator pond, and believes that "one must choose between visions of the early American past,"  which makes the facticity of history sound rather like purchasing curtains. Don't let him or anyone else sell you on the barbarism that history is a creative undertaking. Ignore the Puritanism in our DNA and you will not have an accurate notion of how we evolved as a philosophical creature. Jeffersonian Deism was reactionary, and one wishes Romano had taken care to discuss it.

But he was too busy writing badly. If you're the sort who jots down a writer's clichés so you can be absolutely certain of his linguistic indolence, midway through Romano's book you'll need a second sheet of paper: three black philosophers "shared a common experience" (and never mind that you can't share with someone an experience you don't have in common); in a single paragraph Romano has the great Harvard thinker Charles Peirce "burning bridges" and "making ends meet"; Robert Nozick's famous Anarchy, State, and Utopia "shed light" on the three titular concepts; cultural critic Gilbert Seldes "made no bones" about some position or other; at one point, Coles is "lost in thought." Furthermore, Romano never met an infinitive he didn't wish to split, and he also has a — what's the word? — curious taste for childish hyphenations such as "artsy-fartsy," "fuddy-duddy," "pooh-poohed," and "aw-shucksy."

The chapter "Gays" should probably be called "A Gay," since Richard Mohr is the only American philosopher Romano can think of who has devoted himself to same-sex issues; the rest of the paltry chapter — a scant twelve pages in all — consists of Wittgenstein and Foucault, for whom Romano has issued hasty passports. Were he a more titillating thinker, he might have included Allan Bloom, the conservative darling whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind relished the paradox of how the American intellect shut when it opened too far. His preference for black men, and death from AIDS, were for years a neocon secret, until Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein, practically a memoir about Bloom, left little more to doubt. In The Closing of the American Mind Bloom performed his neocon task of skewering the Sixties counterculture and especially black militants, and an investigation of how Bloom's private shame led to his public pose would have been worthier than rote glosses of two influential but non-American philosophers, especially since Wittgenstein's muted sexuality had no bearing on his intellections.

Another embarrassing chapter is "Native Americans," which comes in at just seven pages while struggling ingloriously to have something to say. "Women" is mostly Susan Sontag and, alas, Ayn Rand, a Russian with a cult whose voluminous dreck is a cacophony of incoherence when it isn't callous pabulum. Since so many in these pages aren't actual philosophers, the exclusion of Mary McCarthy cannot be forgiven. "African Americans" is the most substantive and enjoyable of the PC chapters, but Romano knows full well that philosophy has always been a leisure activity, that thinkers need to be on a perch of social privilege to practice it — hence all the white men. If there are too few black equivalents to Dewey and Quine, well, blacks have been busy with other necessary endeavors across the decades, such as seeking human status. Why is James Baldwin missing here? What other American intellectual — black or white, gay or straight, male or female — was, like Orwell, so consistently correct on the big issues of his time while also being such an elegant stylist?

One wavers between cheering these chapters and cringing over them because PC has an indelicate knack for condescending to the group it purports to protect. Its hidden engine is usually pity, not appreciation. One also wonders if Romano means to make amends. In a 2009 piece for The Chronicle Review he hollered support for the banning of Heidegger's books — the German philosopher was a Nazi — right after neglecting to understand that banning books is an exceedingly Nazi thing to do. He also once began a review of a hostile book about porn — Only Words, by feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon — with the line, "Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book." Romano defended his minatory spew by claiming it was a thought experiment prompted by the book, but it was really just a starved attempt to thieve attention by trivializing crimes against women.

The organization of this book is more chaos than confusion, like a town after a tornado: almost nothing is where it belongs and much is missing altogether. The wonderful Joseph Campbell appears in the chapter "Broadcasters" simply because he was once interviewed by Bill Moyers. Romano devotes eight very horny pages to Hugh Hefner but not a single paragraph to Jefferson or Paine or Thoreau — which is rather like offering a book on American music in which Billie Holiday is sacrificed to some lip-syncing, knuckleheaded minx. "The Print Journalists" omits Mencken even though he was the most important cultural commentator of the 1920s. "The Literary Critics" summarizes only the work of Edward Said, Kenneth Burke, and Harold Bloom, and balks at connecting Burke to the incipience of Bloom's thought. Romano's predictably petulant run-through of Bloom is just his recycled review of Bloom's The Anatomy of Influence, an obloquy that congratulated itself for being gabby, cheeky, and cheap, which is always how the herd of independent minds responds to anything Bloom breathes on.  The several sections on John Rawls appear after the synopsis of cyberphilosophy (a compelling section that should be of interest to the bug-eyed and sun-deprived). The book at least ends where it should: with a love letter to Barack Obama, our "philosopher in chief." Lacking though he is as an author, Romano nevertheless deserves applause for his attempt to broaden the accepted parameters of philosophy and to celebrate, in his patriotic way, the American achievement in thinking. Now if we could only forget Dr. Johnson's definition of patriotism.

We Americans are eager for any orgy of idiocy that promises diversion or amusement, and yet we are a nation with influence and might enough to shame Caesar. How does a nation of unread dopes dominate the world or elect as president a black intellectual? And what of Pound's prophesy in ABC of Reading that "a people that grows accustomed to sloppy writing" — and by extension sloppy thinking — "is a people in process of losing grip on its empire and on itself"? Glance at the annals of the bestseller list and you'll see that we long ago passed from a mere approval of sloppy writing to a torrid support of gorilla-like writing gestures. Mencken thought Americans not only uneducated but uneducable; the United States, he said, is an "Eden of clowns," and yet he never had the heart to leave because, unlike Henry James, he saw much to love here. If Romano had seen fit to nix a dingbat like Ayn Rand and instead examined Lionel Trilling, one of the most crucial thinkers of the twentieth century, he might have proposed that we learn to be comfortable with a Trillingesque acceptance of paradox, dichotomy, antinomy: that we are both brilliant and brain-dead, leaders often in last place, and that Keats's "negative capability" is the only real capability at our disposal. In The American Scene (1907) Henry James pointed out that the United States will stand for almost anything you want it to, but it might stand on shaky legs if, in your enviable ardor, you make it hold too many accolades.

American philosophy — sequestered in academia and lacking a Nietzsche with aphoristic, revolutionary flare — seems sentenced to be the plaything of the few. That is the question at the hub of this issue, the question Romano should have tackled in earnest: how does an academic elite begin a dialogue with an American consumerist culture indifferent or adversarial to thinking? Would philosophy in America earn a sexier reputation if it had a Carl Sagan, a popularizer skilled at affirming its relevance in both the free market and the chapel? "To philosophize means to make vivid," said Novalis, but philosophers generally have a hard time with vividness, and thus with reaching the masses. The province of the vivid has always been the province of our poets, novelists, and dramatists: America the Philosophical thrives in Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Invisible Man, and The Adventures of Augie March; it thrives in Dickinson and Flannery O'Connor as much as it does in Emerson and Thoreau, while The Portrait of a Lady is vivid in a way that Essays in Radical Empiricism can not be. For America the Philosophical, our intellectual creative writers have always been our last best hope.

LARB Contributor

William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, the memoir The Hero's Body, and an essay collection, American Audacity. He is an editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.


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