No Self-Mockery, Please, We’re American

Terry Eagleton, The Chronicle Review, July 1, 2013

Terry Eagleton, literary theory, American identity, global education

This is an amusing and controversial take by literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton on the strengths and weaknesses of ‘American collective identity’ (whatever that is …), especially as compared – a la Henry James – to Europe.  Along the way, he makes some noteworthy suggestions for how to reform American education and American culture more generally, as highlighted in the excerpts below.

The thrust of his argument is that too many Americans tend to take themselves and others too seriously, and that they need to learn how to become more ironic. I gather the key to understanding him is not to take him too seriously.

More seriously, Americans need to become ironists as defined by fellow American and neopragmatist Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press) back in 1989:

1. She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;
2. She realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;
3. Insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.

While Eagleton could be understood as suggesting to read more Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Adrienne Rich to gain greater depth, Rorty recommends Proust, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida as exemplars of ironism.

Some highlights

‘Europeans are fine, Americans are good’

Europeans are fine, while Americans are good. This, at least, would seem to be the opinion of Henry James, who knew both civilizations from the inside and never ceased to compare them. Europe for James was the home of style, form, evil, civility, enjoyment, corruption, surface, experience, artifice, and exploitation. America was the land of innocence, substance, earnestness, integrity, barrenness, nature, monotony, and morality. The European self is diverse, fuzzy at the edges, saturated in history and culture; the American self is raw, solid and unified, and lives in an eternal present.

Can one even speak of Americans and Europeans in this grandly generalizing way? Is this not the sin of stereotyping, which all high-minded liberals have learned to abhor? Nobody falls into a general category. Everyone is his or her own elite. As a character in one of James’s novels proudly puts it, “We are all princes here.” […]

On the strengths and weaknesses of American students

Generally speaking, American students are a delight to teach. Yet they are not always able to voice a coherent English sentence, even at the graduate level. Some of them are easy to mistake for Turks or Albanians who have only just arrived in America and are still struggling with the language. Only later does one realize that they grew up in Boston. They tend to tie themselves up in great chains of unwieldy syntax, overlain with a liberal layer of jargon. Disheveled syntax is true of both genders, but jargon is confined largely to the men. This is part of the painful demise of the spoken word in the United States.

Perhaps the real threat to freedom of speech in the United States is not to freedom but to speech. Perhaps the nation will end up free to say anything it likes while being incapable of saying it. Nor is logical precision a strength of American students. Many of them have had their brains severely addled by an overdose of media. Perhaps they should all have a compulsory first year in which they learn nothing but how to think and speak straight, ridding themselves of the language of texting as a clinic purges its patients of cocaine.

Despite all this, no more generous, open-minded, and enthusiastic group of students can be found in the world. American students tend to be courteous, responsive, cooperative, eager to acquire ideas and ready to criticize anything whatsoever, not least themselves. They are also the last group of students on the planet who are prepared to speak up in class. […]

On the conflict between puritanism and consumerism constituting a ‘schizoid culture’ (one of the more challenging American contradictions to embrace)

The problem is that consumer values in the States have not simply taken over from productive ones. For one thing, the consumer industry itself needs to be produced. For another thing, puritan values are far too robust to yield to strip joints without a struggle. They continue to flourish side by side with liberal and consumerist ones, which is what makes the United States such a chronically schizoid culture. […]

The centered, repressive, self-disciplined ego of production and puritan values is at war with the decentered, liberated, consumerist self. The two cultures can negotiate compromises from time to time, but there is no possibility of a perpetual peace between them. In some ways, their respective inhabitants are as alien to each other as Borneans and Berliners. No wonder the politicians keep loudly proclaiming that there is only one America.

What should Americans do? Learn how to mock themselves and take a break from salvation

What should Americans do to be saved? They should try to think negatively. Learning how to mock themselves would be an incomparably greater achievement than landing on Mars. They should stop selling themselves as the finest country in the world because there is no such thing, any more than there are Gorgons and goblins. There should be compulsory courses for all college freshmen in how not to mean what you say.

Above all, they should stop making such a song and dance about salvation. They should try to be less moral, idealistic, earnest, and high-minded. They should take a break from all that uplifting, inspiring, healing, empowering, dreaming, edifying, and aspiring. Then they might be more admirable people. In many respects—in their friendliness, honesty, openness, inventiveness, courtesy, civic pride, ease of manner, generosity of spirit, and egalitarian manners—they are admirable enough already.

But Americans are the first to admit that there is always room for improvement. It is an honorable puritan doctrine. The good news about the citizens of this kindly, violent, bigoted, generous-spirited nation is that if ever the planet is plunged into nuclear war, they will be the first to crawl over the edge of the crater, dust themselves down, and proceed to build a new world. The bad news is that they will probably have started the war.

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