Saturday, June 15, 2019

David Brooks Falls in Love

In some ways the story is banal. Aging and largely overrated “narcissistic blowhard” trades his aging wife in for a new younger model. I trust you will not object to my describing David Brooks as a “narcissistic blowhard.” After all, he himself coined that epithet and he himself applied it to himself.

When you are David Brooks you do not just fall in love with a devoutly religious younger woman. You package it as a spiritual awakening, pretend that you have discovered, or re-discovered God, and write it into a best selling book. You do not just believe that you have found your eternal reward here on earth. You do not just exclaim that she is the reward for all of your labors. Hosannas all around. Joy to the world... but especially joy to Brooks' self.

Apparently,Brooks new younger wife is a devout Christian. She was his research assistant. We suspect that she is a wonderful human being, because the besotted Brooks has bought her spirituality and her beliefs, with no reservations. One suspects that she was not a home wrecker. The first Brooks marriage had pretty much dissolved before he took up with his assistant. I for one do not know the story and am willing to give the happy now-married couple the benefit of the doubt. Brooks makes clear that his first marriage was over before he discovered true joy with his new wife... so we will grant him the point.

As Brooks tells the story of his spiritual awakening, he was bereft and forlorn, undergoing what religious mystics have traditionally called a dark night of the soul, when he suddenly, and of a pace, discovered the God within all of us.

Andrew Bacevich quotes the epiphany that the Times columnist experienced while stepping off a New York City subway in Penn Station. Dare I say that anyone who finds God on a New York Subway train is far more spiritual than I am. A normal human being would be appalled at its inefficiencies, and by the degradation to which New Yorkers are subjected by that ineffective and inefficient system.

Brooks, however, saw something else:

Normally [he continues] the routineness of life dulls your capacity for wonder. But this time everything flipped, and I saw souls in all of them. It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth in each of these thousands of people.

I have not read the book. I have no great respect for people who use invented words like: routineness. I do not plan to read the book, filled, as Bacevich says, with “poppycock,” but perhaps we would all have been better saved if Brooks had not found redeeming features in the New York Subway system. And if he had found something more constructive to do than to pry into the souls of his fellow subway passengers. To plumb the infinite depths of the souls of thousands of people feels like a Herculean task. Might he not have done better to mind his own business?

Such banalities are no longer within the Brooks purview. He has conquered the world of journalism. Even with his limited talent, he has gained untold fame and fortune. So, he has set out on a quest to find what he calls “joy,” which exceeds happiness and which involves spiritual fulfillment… and a younger, prettier wife.

This tells you that Brooks got rolled. He is not the first master of the universe to think that he owns the world and that he cannot possibly be seduced. He will not be the last. It’s not the reward you get for achieving worldly success. It is not, as Brooks makes it appear, Heaven on earth, a foretaste of eternal life. It is far more banal than that.

Bacevich renders us yeoman service by describing Brooks’ soul’s journey toward joy:

That summer, hiking in Aspen, Colorado, surrounded by natural beauty and reading from a book of Puritan prayers, he experienced “a sensation of things clicking into place, like the sound of a really nice car door gently closing.” He felt a sense of deep harmony: “that creation is a living thing, that we are still being created and we are accepted in it.” And with it came a sudden recognition that “there is an animating spirit underlying all creation.” After his visit to Aspen, Brooks writes, “I realized I was a religious person.”

He now embarked on a journey of spiritual discovery, encouraged by friends who among other kindnesses showered him with over a hundred copies of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He also fell in love with and eventually married a devout Christian woman, who had been his research assistant and is twenty-three years his junior.

Brooks is perfectly at home with banality, so he does not remark that his highly personalized sense of spiritual transcendence is really all about him, and about nothing but him.

Considering that he spends a considerable portion of his new book inveighing against the highly individualized and selfish strain in current American culture-- with which we are inclined to be sympathetic-- it would have been better for him to have noticed that his own spirituality, which makes him something like a Jewish Christian or a Christian Jew-- he cannot make up his mind-- derives from a long and distinguished tradition of Christian mysticism. It dates to the Middle Ages. It ranges from autobiographies of St. Catherine of Seina and St. Teresa of Avila, through the main medieval guide to spiritual awakening… Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Journey Toward God. The Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum.

Apparently, Brooks seems to believe that there is something original in writing about his personal experience, even if he must pretend that romantic love, especially romantic seduction, represents a religious experience. I suspect that he has not read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. About that I hope that I am wrong. And I do not know whether he is familiar with the greatest piece of confessional literature in the Western canon-- that would be Augustine’s Confessions. Those who prefer a more secularized, yet still spiritual version of confessional literature will enjoy Rousseau’s Confessions… and many of his other writings. Dare I note that there is nothing conservative about this.

Above all else, Brooks seems to want to escape from practical concerns, from empirical matters... to feel liberated from... personal responsibility, perhaps.

Brooks pretends that he has found God. But, as distinct from the earlier Christian works, all of which are great works, Brooks does not place his joy within the context of an organized religion. He seems to be looking for something more personal, more individualistic, and less attached to a real religion.

Spirituality without religion is the bane of our current existence. It is the goal of much of what passes as psychotherapy today. The problem is not merely that it does not cure anything and does not diminish mental distress. The problem also is that it leaves you vulnerable to cult leaders. When you become detached from social groups, when your joy, as Brooks calls it, merely involves your personal relationship with God-- or with Anne, as it were-- you will be more easily be seduced by any cult that affirms you experience as a higher truth. If it is a lower truth, disguised as a higher truth, you are in trouble.

Brooks is correct to attack our current infatuation with hyper-individualism, but he does not seem to understand that he has been caught in it himself. And then he believes that once he has found spiritual transcendence, he is ready to fall in love. In truth, this is what therapy promises. One of the reasons we are at the impasse that Brooks analyzes correctly, is that people have been living their lives according to the rules set down by therapy. These rules promise that once you have found yourself, and have gotten in touch with your deepest spiritual feelings, you will find true love.

Bacevich quotes Brooks’ last sentence:

Love emerges between people out of nothing, as a pure flame.

As Bacevich says, this is poppycock. It is a metaphor, the kind that mystics have often used. It is not quite Cupid’s arrow, because it lights up the darkness and warms your cold selfish heart.

Obviously, thiatsentence gives the game away. Classical mysticism directed people toward God. Those who set off searching for God maintained a foothold in organized religion. Mystics attended services and had their own confessors. Brooks, however, is confused about which religion he belongs to. He finds true love, the kind that you can transform into a best seller. And, in the interest of modesty, slings the mantle of spiritual transcendence over it.

We wish him and his wife every manner of happiness. But, please do not pretend that he is showing the way toward God or toward spiritual joy.


whitney said...

I read David Brooks book The Social Animal when it came out and I enjoyed it. I was in the hospital after a horrible accident and pumped full of opiates so there's that.

Webutante said...

Very well done, Stuart. I suspect his joy for now is a combination of making an idol out of feel good spirituality as well as an idol out of romance.

Remembering Augustine's famous early pre-conversion prayer....Lord make me holy/celebrate (or something like that) but just not now....

Webutante said...

It's celibate not phone does that all the time. I should proof read more diligently.

UbuMaccabee said...

I predict that Mr. Brooks new-found spirituality will soon have him hectoring everyone about the role government can play in making this a better kind of society; "the kind of world we want to live in" strain of Christian socialism. Government urging us to reject atomistic individualism in exchange for government led initiatives of togetherness through environmental activism, social justice, and privation. I'd rather be bowl alone, thanks.

Eddie Coyle said...

Family Guy clip - Peter is asking questions of God about who goes to Hell.
Peter: "How about people who say they are not religious but spiritual?"
God: "Straight to Hell, the boiler room of Hell"

Should start at 1:25 point-

Sam L. said...

Say what Brooks said, say what YOU will, I can't wrap my mind around Brooks finding religion. Can't believe it.