Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Free to live

Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford, makes in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Don't Pick Up") “the case for breaking up with your parents." She ridicules her own students a bit for being constantly in digital touch with mom and dad. She tells them that when she was a college student back in the 1970s, they DESPISED their parents.
There was one phone per 50 girls in her dorm, and when someone’s parents called, she would yell from her room: “Tell them I am not here.” Why does Prof. Castle think that was the most healthy attitude towards parents? Because she thinks parents throughout the centuries have generally been milder versions of Kronos/Saturn whom Goya so memorably painted devouring one of his sons. She gives a long list of literary examples from English literature from the English literature going back to the 18th century. Prof. Castle does not conclude, though, that some paradigmatic English parents (who, unlike Kronos, tended to treat more harshly toward their daughters) were monsters. No, she thinks this is part of the universal human condition. So a complete and total rebellion against, or even break-up with one’s parents, is the most indispensable precondition for all human freedom. She cites her own example, saying she had not seen her father more than a dozen times over the last 10 years (he lives close by, but had been divorced from hear mother – with both parents later taking a few more marriage vows). Prof. Castle also quotes approvingly from the diary of Virginia Woolf (who had a truly oppressive father): “Father's birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one had known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable.”

It is tempting to follow Prof. Castle’s gospel of complete personal liberation to its logical conclusion and ask: but why should you form any emotional attachment to another human being, make a commitment, be there for anyone else, be faithful, etc. Is there a good reason, if all these things will undoubtedly limit your personal options? This may look like a rhetorical question, reductio ad absurdum of the philosophy according to which freedom equals unrestrained personal choice, and is the top human value. But this isn’t how Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, would see it. In his book, Going Solo (this, by the way, is the title of Roald Dahl's memoir of his experience as a fighter pilot during WW II), and in countless op-eds and video appearances promoting it, he has argued that all the hand-wringing concerning the rising numbers of Americans who live alone is misplaced. In his view, if you want to achieve fully the modern ideal of human freedom, it’s not enough to rebel against your parents. No, you also need to live alone – otherwise, you will need to submit your won needs and desires to those of others who think they have a legitimate claim on your time, attention, energy, resources, etc. As usual, Tocqueville saw it all coming. He loved the kind of democracy and equality he observed in the United States, but suspected they could have a downside. Here is the warning he gave regarding what could become excessive individualism: “Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” It seems Tocqueville saw such confinement as some sort of potential prison for the soul, but that was back in the 1830s. The world has since progressed, and we know better – or at least Prof. Klinenberg does (and the many happy “loners” he has interviewed). Or maybe the two esteemed professors are just trying to be superprovocative, so they can get through the digital clutter?