I began this essay trying to explain why all my writing on The Arkadelphian seems to keep to the same itinerary: something indirect, such as an ostensible music or book critique, twisting into reflexive (and often very personal) directions. The more I thought about it, the more the idea grew. About two months later, I have something rather different entirely.
First, some Greek for you. The words GNOTHI SEAUTON are inscribed on the portico to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the famous oracle resided. Those words are traditionally translated as “know thyself,” and the Roman satirist Juvenal suggested that the advice came directly from the gods. Most Greeks took it as an admonition to know one’s place in society and to live in moderation. Socrates, as his most famous quotation should indicate, took it instead as an invitation to self-exploration. For better or worse, no other idea has left a bigger stamp on my personal ethics.
I understand the downside of this approach. I’ve become a converted introvert, and my habitual second-guessing and tendency to navel gaze can make my writing seem solipsistic. Do people really care how a particular album affected me personally? Does my writing on every meaningful piece of art I encounter have to turn into a creative nonfiction essay? And, worst of all for someone trying to stress his emotional reactions: is this really my voice?
I wrote in this blog’s mission statement that the Arkadelphian is a sort of mask I’ve fashioned. In my everyday life, I’m resolutely un-dramatic and cagey about my feelings. But when I am, in some sense or other, the Arkadelphian, I can conjure up parts of myself de profundis that would otherwise lie fallow. Philip Roth wrote in Goodbye, Columbus that “We did not have the feelings we said we had until we spoke them—at least I didn’t; to phrase them was to invent them and own them.” In that sense, writing as the Arkadelphian is performance as well as catharsis. It’s allowed me to be a little more open about myself, and it’s produced some of the work I’m most proud of.
It’s also produced some painfully earnest writing, which leads us to another Greek word: acedia, which was a precursor to Sloth (of Seven Deadly Sins fame) in early Christian monasticism. It’s a sort of depression that the literary critic Walter Benjamin described as an “indolence of the heart,” arresting any depth of feeling like a track athlete catching her leg on a hurdle. Those early Christian fathers worried that acedia would lead to despair, that sickness unto death from whose bourn no traveler returns.
If despair is cancerous, acedia is anemic; it weakens, and it cheapens, rather than killing outright. Contemporary “irony” is a perfect example. It’s a mode of emotional detachment that allows you to imagine yourself as a sort of Giles Corey, defiantly telling the world’s absurdities to add more weight, even if it ends up suffocating you in the end. Or you might be a Capaneus, the Greek warrior forced to bathe in a rain of fire in the Inferno, who spent his eternal torment shouting to the heavens that Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not his.
If this rebellious self-concept held any water, it might be a useful tool for existentialist go-getters, a la Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” In reality, though, it’s entirely too bloodless to earn those comparisons. At best, it’s an affectation of a wrath far more potent; at worst, a shroud that insulates people from living with anything like appropriate moral seriousness or social responsibility. I may sound like a schoolmarm wagging my finger at Kids These Days, but this “irony”—or simply being too cool to care—is one aggravating symptom of a more poisonous condition.
I’d be overstating an oversimplified case to say that our culture is suffering from despair. I do feel, however, that we are generally enervated by a sort of secular acedia. Not only in the sense that it’s a part of the human condition to which no generation is immune, but also in terms of a feeling of inertia in our arts. The immense dispersion of art in the internet age makes it probably unfair—and definitely unwise—to state categorically that we’re stuck in some creative quagmire. Yet it cannot be said, amid fears of “Retromania” and contented devolution, that there’s not some question of just where it is, exactly, that we’re going with all of this.
There’s a sense, justified or not, that we’re at a collective roadblock as a culture. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike the Modernists of the Jazz Age, there is no strangulating body of conventions to rebel against. Not only are we skeptical of making it new, as Ezra Pound urged, we have nothing spurring us on to do so, no potent cultural agonism or ideology to drive us. The postmodern movement released us from many bonds, but crippling self-doubt was not one of them.
It would be staggeringly presumptuous of me to propose a unified theory for remedying personal and creative acedia. I can only point out what speaks to me. There’s a budding movement—well, quasi-movement—called the New Sincerity. I don’t think it would be unfair to call it the Old Romanticism: Now Featuring Pop Culture. It’s true that this movement, stressing unvarnished emotion and joy instead of a craven aegis of detachment, isn’t revolutionary. Neither was punk rock (which was in many cases simply an impassioned return to rock and roll’s roots), another movement whose notions were often less important than its emotions. The New Sincerity is a concept of rejuvenating potential bound up in two old words: gnothi seauton.
I confess to having doubts about my own writing. My arsenal of literary weapons is typically limited to parallelism, busy punctuation, and the tactical deployment of run-ons. I often repeat myself, and I struggle with the idea of freshness, wondering if even this very essay has already been conceived somewhere before. Nor can I deny that a macaroni-and-Elmer’s-glue portrait made sincerely will nevertheless still be a macaroni-and-Elmer’s-glue portrait. The New Sincerity, I understand, is not a panacea.
But I also confess to having doctrines, as any good manifesto—even one as hesitant and meandering as this one—should. I believe first and foremost that the chief aim of art should be the sincere cartography of one’s own heart, at the risk of veering into sentimentality. We are, after all, the ones who wanna know if love is real. By the same token, I reject cynicism. At the very least, I reject its influence on me, perhaps because of my naïve faith that we have yet to solve our mystery. We often have yet to even acquire clues about ourselves, let alone the world.
Far from a Literature of Exhaustion, we should be suffused with a Literature—an entire culture—of Breathlessness. To despair of the artistic possibilities for modernity, or to stand in perennial rearguard for the next revolution, is to deny humanity itself. Wonder, adventure, and passion are inexhaustible. Even if the world really is as cruel and ignorant as it seems, the fact is that it should never be a question of not enough. As long as we dare to look for the stories and the anthems inside ourselves, there will always be more.