09.24.18 | Mourning In America
A therapist looks at America through the collective lens of all those fifty-minute intimate (monetized) psychodramas and issues his pronouncement about the country: It's unhappy. Profoundly unhappy. He theorizes why we're all so sad.
We're sad because we're grieving over something. But that's not the real issue. The problem is we don't actually know the something we're grieving over. Were there a recognized grief object -- say the loss of a loved one -- the standard talk-therapy might be of help. The grief becomes pathological when it goes so far that its object can no longer be identified. Honest therapists, he maintains, realize that they are not only incapable of doing much about the suffering they are witnessing but that they are actually part of the problem.
We thus enter the Freudian world of so-called interior landscapes and instinctual lives -- the Beast -- to try and make sense of it all. Without delving into the details as to the care and feeding of the Beast, along with its repression, containment, and interactions with other beasts, this pervasive unhappiness might be explained in terms of a terrible loss in confidence resulting from the unexpected dislocation in our country's historical trajectory. Americans simply no longer recognize themselves here in Trumpistan.
At stake is the very undoing of the Enlightenment -- rationality, science, reason, truth -- and with it the question how do we live with each other where nothing is settled and everything is up for grabs. Some optimists bet we are self-limiting creatures fully capable of riding the long arc of history toward progress. Others are afflicted with this inchoate anxiety and end up in the therapist office.
In simpler terms, let's just say Americans need to possess an idea of themselves, a myth of themselves, an explanation of themselves. Without such grace or rationale, without the comfort of their demonstrable virtue and uniqueness, Americans feel themselves sliding towards triviality, and beyond that, toward an abyss that might swallow the whole experiment like a black hole. Or, as John Adams once warned, democracy "wastes, exhausts, and murders itself."
In any case, we must avoid the easy temptation of simple nostalgia, with its tricks of perspective, as we engage in this reckoning (MM, Nostalgia, 7/31/17). America has continuously been up for reexamination and reimagination (MM, Reimagining America, 5/14/18) -- just recall Ronald Reagan preaching a new beginning in his "Morning In America" speech (some years after Carter's "malaise" speech). That said, there does seem to be something far more fundamental, more seismic, underway at this turn of history. A better reference might be The Fourth Turning (MM, The Fourth Turning, 3/20/17).