I am the Spirit of my Age
Montaigne, surveying the wreckage of France during the religious civil wars, pondered his own part in the disaster and wrote,
The corruption of the age is produced by the individual contributions of each one of us; some contribute treachery, others injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice, cruelty, in accordance with their greater power; the weaker ones bring stupidity, vanity, idleness, and I am one of them.My own age is not one of such dramatic horrors; indeed, ours is a fat and happy time with little experience of real disaster. Yet it is surely as corrupt, in its way, as Montaigne's, and like him I find the foibles of my time reflected in my own character with disturbing fidelity.
If I had to list the troubles of America at the beginning of the 21st century, I would say that we have no community spirit or sense of belonging to anything larger than ourselves; that we are so grossly materialistic that we have trouble even imagining any goal for life beyond getting rich; that, indeed, we have no values at all except those of the marketplace. We shun real work in favor of speculation, invention, and whatever strikes us as creative. Our awesome technical prowess has outrun our wisdom, leaving us able to clone human genes into a monkey but unable to decide if that is good or bad. Our attention spans have shrunk to the point that we enjoy 30 second commercials more than the 22-minute TV shows they interrupt. We spend our days rushing about in every increasing frenzy, accomplishing more and more yet valuing what we do less and less. We are powerful and we are rich, but we are completely lost.
And me? I am all of this. I find nothing so ridiculous as our obsession with being thin and our admiration for anorexic movie stars, but I worry about my own weight. I work at something so far removed from production that I can do it without even knowing what my clients have in mind to build, so useless that if my whole profession disappeared hardly anyone would notice. I do it because I like it and can get paid for it. Yet, even so, I long to escape from work entirely and become a novelist or some other kind of creator. My shelves and hard drives are crowded with unfinished essays, first chapters of novels, plot summaries, lists of characters, even one completed but unsold detective story. I can't read about an author's dramatic success without envy and a sense of personal failure. I tell myself that I value work that is real and productive, but what I really want for myself is to do only what amuses me.
I am disturbed by the collapse of community feeling in America, but I have lived in my neighborhood for 6 years now without ever attending a meeting of the community association. I once scoffed at the long commutes of so many Americans, but now my own trip is 80 minutes in each direction. I have worked hard to avoid the pressure of time, but I still can't escape from a sense that there are always a hundred things that I ought to be doing. I read as much as I can, but mostly non-fiction and collections of essays. I lack the patience and staying power to get through a long novel, and my desk is regularly cluttered with things I made it only half way through. I watch my daughter disappear into Harry Potter and remember sadly the time when I could do the same, shutting out the world and reading without regard to the time or even the days.
I was once proud of how little attachment I felt to material things. One of the first things I wrote into my commonplace book, many years ago, was the frugal wisdom of Diogenes: Learn to live on lentils, and you will not have to flatter the king. My plan for life was to shun worldly goods, save money, and keep myself as free as possible from the pressure to earn and spend. I still, I think, have less desire to own things than average, and no desire at all to compete through earning or to compare people based on their salaries. Yet every cent I earn is spent before I see it, and I worry more about money than anything else. I try to keep from fantasizing about sudden riches, but I can't stop myself.
I am the spirit of my age. I have always thought of myself as an oddball and a bit of a loner, different from the ordinary sort of person, but now I have realized that my eccentricity only makes me a more typical citizen of our eccentric and alienated society. I don't mean to sound aggrieved; after all, I don't have any problems that everybody else doesn't have. And the age from which I cannot escape is a rich and comfortable one, with unending diversions for anyone with the least bit of curiosity. Who would not rather be troubled by laziness and boredom than war, the inquisition, or the secret police? I have come, at last, to the understanding that I am a citizen of my own time and place, not unique or even unusual, and I have decided that this is not such a bad thing.
February 11, 2001
"We're trying to have a civilization here!"
--Jerry to George, Seinfeld
Night Train to Lisbon