There is an unremarkable passage from Robert Musil’s, The Man Without Qualities that has nested in my cranium several decades now. I’m not sure why I ever squirreled it away there. Maybe to ready me for fates to come? Don’t ask how I dug it up again:
There are probably people who still lead personal lives, who say “We saw the So-and-So yesterday” or “We’ll do this or that today” and enjoy it without its needing to have any content of significance. They like everything that comes in contact with their fingers and are purely private persons insofar as this is at all possible. In contact with such people, the world becomes a private world and shines like a rainbow. They may be very happy, but this kind of people usually seems absurd to the others, although it is still not at all clear why.
Are there any purely private persons left in the world? Is there anyone who has not yet politized large expanses of their private domains? Holy innocents? I set out to find one.
First, I reviewed the doubtful catalogue of my acquaintances, to start where I knew. But there was not one whose life was not a social experiment of some kind or other. This one won’t douse his child with sunscreen because sunscreen is a raging pest devouring the coral reef. That one only eats heritage rice with origins back to colonial days. But I thought the coral reef was near the swelling sails ofAustralia surrounded by the united might of sharks? Are there reefs here? And why would I need my damn rice to have the exalted linage of a periwigged nobleman? I am fine chewing the hardy squadrons of rice sans cullotte, thank you. No, I have nobody.
But what about the kindred of my former years? Those school friends with whom I drank the mingled whisky and cokes? I decided to call one of them, a burly fellow named Blaine. I even had to call the school to get his telephone. In the old days, Blaine could punch a hole through a wall. He used to be the kind of good guy who took a quick piss in the bushes before knocking on your door. I had only the faintest trial of how the fickleness of fate had dealt with him. He had jumped into marriage soon after school, and right into having children – many boys and girls who ate a great deal. If anyone in all my born days was still capable of squandering time and performing actions without citing scientific authority, it would be he.
So, I coughed a bit, and gave him a ring. He greeted me with the old homespun warmth: ‘Mark Mantel, how the hell you doing!?’ So far, so good. His voice sounded like he had just tossed his rifle over a fence, a cow crunching hay in the distance. However, in no time, he said something that deprived me of all composure. He said, without even a crack in his voice, almost as if stretching and yawning, that he was going out for sushi later that evening. Sushi! That was a bad augury. Imagine such impertinence on the part of Blaine. What had Blaine to do with sushi? My jaw hung open.
After a while, with lengthening shadow on my mug, I ventured to ask what he thought of Trump? I somehow felt, at all costs, I had to know. If even a hearty fellow like Blaine did not salute Trump, then our land will soon be a place harder and harder to run. It might even mean the election really was a Putin-planned hullaballoo, that there may not be a single innocent soul left to defend our freedom, that life might fast become a big free-for-all of every man defending his erudition against all others. It is no small thing when simple plain people are no longer functioning properly.
A knowing, ironical air crept into Blaine’s voice.The subject he covered was the Travel Ban against Muslims, and he chose his words unsettlingly carefully.And soon enough, he launched a full-scale deliberately planned attack against Trump, giving me a real earful of statistics. I had not the least idea how to react to all this. I held the phone from my ear a long while until suddenly he fell silent. Perhaps he too sensed that the old Blaine was nowhere to be found?
Happily, after a long while, I did find one simple soul. A mild, unpretentious man. No theoretical problems to throw him off. A supporter of Trump, even.And it was not someone who shoveled coal or worked at a factory. It was my doctor! I had given him a copy of The Salisbury Review once, just before confessing my habit of potatoes fried in bacon fat. He knew he could talk openly with me. Speaking quietly and reasonably, he turned on his desk lamp, looked straight ahead, and told me he felt Trump was trying to do something good for the country. The disclosure could not have come at a better moment. It made me feel warm and happy. My gloomy self could make it another day.
Of course, the fact that people are more ‘aware’ these days has its good side. Men won’t festively go to the slaughter like before the Great War, straightening uniforms in firm belief that king and emperor have nothing in mind but happy subjects. Clouds of white dust will no longer cover the wagons of innocent faces.
Still, it is not always pleasant when all of life becomes a debate topic. Soon the policeman is bad. The doctor is bad. The priest is bad. Everybody has a higher education. Everybody tracks foreign policy. Everybody knows how to sneer. Everybody feels the holy fire of indignation and is eager to do justice. And all these thinking intellects, of course, soon forget how to love. They explain things from the clever point of view but dare not believe in beauty. But when did it all start? When did people get so clever? When did private experience become a thing of the past? I really forget. What I do remember is a time when nothing was political. One family liked macaroni better than potatoes, and that was that.And now? Now, it is hard to do anything without having reasons. Even alone, you can’t nibble a biscuit without driving the point home to yourself.And it is worse if children are concerned. Doing a pedagogical plan without somebody itching to strangle you is out of the question. Even if you do as you please, the political error of it rings badly in your ears. I think the Creative Class is doing this to us.As we move from industrial to marketing economies, our lifestyles (and especially our consumption) becomes its public business. But they won’t tell you that. Instead they turn your purchases into weighty ethical decisions. Roasting the wrong kind of bird can be as bad as an improper thought. Some bug-eyed person will be there to make short work of you.
What is to be done? I don’t know yet. I doubt we can ever be innocent again. The free and easy days are done. Maybe it will all get so disgustingly perfect that someone will smash it in an exasperated fit? Maybe the irrefutable good of eating organic tofu and powering our hovels with windmills will make us lose all self-control? Maybe all the deplorables will want to live by their own foolish whims again?
Mark Mantel is a lawyer in Richmond, Virginia.