Shanties of Thought
I’ll jump here, or lurch I suppose, to something I am concerned about that I think I am observing accurately. It has to do with what sometimes seems to me to be the limited lives that have been or are being lived by the rising generation of American professionals in the arts, journalism, academia and business. They have had good lives, happy lives, but there is a sense with some of them that they didn’t so much live it as view it. That they learned too much from media and not enough from life’s difficulties. That they saw much of what they know in a film or play and picked up all the memes and themes.
In terms of personal difficulties, they seem to have had less real-life experience, or rather different experiences, than their rougher predecessors. They grew up affluent in a city or suburb, cosseted in material terms, and generally directed toward academic and material success. Their lives seem to have been not crowded or fearful, but relatively peaceful, at least until September 2001, which was very hard.
But this new leadership class, those roughly 35 to 40, grew up in a time when media dominated all. They studied, they entered a top-tier college, and then on to Washington or New York or Los Angeles. But their knowledge, their experience, is necessarily circumscribed. Too much is abstract to them, or symbolic. The education establishment did them few favors. They didn’t have to read Dostoevsky, they had to read critiques and deconstruction of Dostoevsky.
I’m not sure it’s always good to grow up surrounded by stability, immersed in affluence, and having had it drummed into you that you are entitled to be a member of the next leadership class. To have this background in the modern era is to come from a ghetto, the luckiest ghetto in the world, a golden ghetto beyond whose walls it can be hard to see. There’s much to be said for suffering, for being on the outside or the bottom, for having to have fought yourself up and through. It can leave you grounded. It can give you real knowledge not only of the world and of other men but of yourself. In some ways it can leave you less cynical. (Not everything comes down to money.) And in some ways it leaves you just cynical enough.
Much has changed, these past one hundred and fifty years, and few moderns who share Melville’s vocation will have any experience with such things as plowing and building shanties. (Far too many have little experience with praying.) Those among us who are conservative of temperament inevitably wonder what has been lost. What disconnection from raw reality does the man suffer who is multiple steps removed from tangible life, whose every good is constructed by others? What human sympathy drains from a person who has transcended the hardships that the past century has unevenly worn away?
We who make a craft of thinking can string together ideas, and if we write, we fashion them with words. But this painstaking labor raises mere ephemera, and often in desperate throes we cry for the recognition that makes our efforts real. Strange, then, that so many who build only shanties of thought consider themselves above those who construct such things as only a fool would deny.