Now this is a truly bizarre column by David Brooks. It begins by plagiarizing Didion. Indeed, his sub-White-Album White Album crib has the truest mark of plagiarism: it corrupts the original prose because it misses the point. I mean, Brooks is not actually a bad writer. He has a facility with language. He's no Montaigne, lord knows, but he's no Ross Douchehat either. And as a competent if unexciting writer, he could surely have cribbed Didion's famous opening paragraph without a dead giveaway, could have deftly appropriated her insights as his own. But, like many workmanlike yet inferior writers, he gets caught by the desire to write prose commensurable to that which he is trying not to copy, and in doing so clumsily appropriates an idiom even as he lazily seeks to invert its meaning. Brooks:
We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well under way. We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control. We’re thrust into social conditions that we detest. Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them.Yeah, yeah, David Brooks. History is a nightmare from which you are trying to awake. Or, you know, something.
But unlike the other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.
Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves.
The stories we select help us, in turn, to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and other things as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.
Now it's worth reflecting on what Didion wrote and David copied:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be "interesting" to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.On a merely stylistic level, you can see the effects of the bowdlerization. Brooks can't manage the rhythms, and he quickly runs out of words. "Things . . . other things." Oh, David.
Anyway, Brooks is looking for a "morally or politically serious nation." He wants to replace one totalizing narrative with another. The "conversation" he finds lacking is lacking in his estimation because it has not yet reached his preordained conclusion. The story of mental unbalance is too pat, says Brooks, too easy. We need to substitite . . . oh, how about a categorical? How about, "evil"? Which is neither pat nor easy, of course. Which is serious.
On Didion's side, she is writing about precisely the sort of radical alienation, ennui, and anomie that could, for instance, drive a man to shoot up an army base. Isn't that inconvenient! Meanwhile, someone at the Times should probably ask Davey to rewrite his term paper. By himself this time.