Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999.
Reviewed by John Bedell
When he wrote this book Jedediah Purdy was 24 years old, the offspring of hippies who moved to a farm in West Virginia in 1974, where they plowed with horses and home-schooled their children. They must be very proud of their son; with him, at least, their experiment worked perfectly. He is highly literate, very earnest, and deeply liberal. For Common Things is about the scorn of public institutions he sees in American society and especially among his peers at Harvard, and it is a plea of sorts for focusing more on the things we all share, from air to public schools, and less on getting rich enough to insulate ourselves from the general turmoil.
Purdy is upset about the level of irony in American public discourse; "Seinfeld" is one of his favorite things to complain about. He thinks that irony undermines a serious approach to anything. The ironic mindset refuses to invest anything with emotion, refuses to make any commitments, refuses to make any bets on life that might come up losers, and therefore prevents people from working to make the world a better place, for fear they might look foolish.
This book is a response to an ironic time. Irony has become our marker of worldliness and maturity. The ironic individual practices a style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naivete--of naive devotion, belief, or hope. He subtly protests the inadequacy of the things he says, the gestures he makes, the acts he performs. By the inflection of his voice, the expression of his face, and the motion of his body, he signals that he is aware of all the ways we may be thought silly or jejune, and that he might even think so himself. His wariness becomes a mistrust of language itself. He disowns his own words.While I was impressed with many things about Purdy's book, I would not point to an excess of irony as one of the main causes of our modern ills. After all, we hardly short of irony-deprived political figures. From the Christian Coalition to Greenpeace, they are all around us, and I think most of them are doing much more harm than good. Would Purdy really prefer a nation of Pat Robertsons, Bob Bahrs and Harold Browns? On the other hand, we have quite a few public figures with strong senses of irony. Bob Dole is perhaps the best example, but Trent Lott, who took over his job, can also deconstruct senatorial politics with cool detachment and a wicked sense of humor. The elder George Bush suffered during the 1992 election from his inability to take certain political shibboleths seriously-- remember "Oh, yeah, the vision thing"?-- but he managed to become President. Purdy might do well to read the memoirs of Richard Hillary, an RAF pilot who said he was fighting as much as anything else to prove that a civilized, rational man could stand up to Nazi fanatics. An ironic attitude does not prevent people from making commitments when the stakes are very high.
If American political life is in a bad way, I would put the blame, not on irony, but on peace and prosperity. We ignore politics because we can afford to. This may be, in a sense, a problem; maybe people are happier and feel more fulfilled when they have enemies to struggle against and need to use their wills and wits to survive. But, if so, it is not a problem that I am much interested in solving.
Jedediah Purdy is certainly an interesting young man, and I would expect more from him in the future. But he is young, and as I read For Common Things I found myself musing on what I was like when I was 24 and how I've changed since. It struck me that Purdy imagines his future almost entirely in terms of work. He says nothing about marrying or having children, and a great deal about what sort of work people ought to choose. Family life appears only in terms of his childhood, which he makes sound like paradise, and in the vaguely negative sense of something Americans are too caught up in to care about politics or the environment.
I've never been as focused on work as Purdy--marriage, children, and gardens have been a big part of my future plans since I was 15--but my career ambitions have definitely slid down the ladder of my concerns over the past 15 years. Now I would say that my work life is sixth or seventh on my list of priorities, and when I fantasize about the future I hardly ever think about the work I would like to be doing. A friend of mine recently said to me that she used to imagine that her career would be the inside of her life and everything else would be the outside, but now she finds that her marriage and her future children (she's pregnant) are the inside, and her career is definitely part of the outside.
When Purdy has grown up, fallen in love, and settled down somewhere, perhaps he will have a greater appreciation for the domestic life in which we detached Americans have immersed ourselves, and a better sense of where the political cause of the moment fits in scheme of life. At that point, I'd very much like to meet him and talk to him, and sound him out on the problems of doing good in the world without ignoring our children or succumbing to the lures of power and partisan fanaticism.
July 20, 2000
"If one is to do good, it must be done in minute particulars."
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For Common Things
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I am the Spirit of My Age