Is there anything worse than someone who describes himself as a hopeless romantic? It’s all just so . . . well, utterly unromantic! Just imagine young Werther or someone else equally caught up in his own feelings sitting around in a circle where people give various self-characterizations and the turn comes to him and he just goes, “Well, I’m a hopeless romantic deep down, so . . .” Awful, isn’t it?
But what is it that gives such an innocent phrase this stale and unconvincing flavor? It seems there must be certain feelings that we can’t explain in such a self-aware and explicit way without the risk of being about as inspiring as a speech from Amy Gutmann. I mean really, even if you were, for example, “passionate about helping people” or “in love with writing” or whatever other terrible, terrible things you managed to spew onto your cover letter . . . even then, who would, deep down, buy any of it?
It’s almost as if anything resembling conviction today is destined to be trite. And this is a small step towards what is, I believe, our ultimate human destiny — total self-consciousness. Forget Marx and his class struggle, Kant and his gradual progress, this is the real teleology, and the end of it is the triumph of irony and the evisceration of the unreflective soul!
Do you see what I mean? There had to have been a time when a student could write a paragraph like the one above without then having to delve into meta-nonsense in the paragraph afterwards and yet . . . I can’t resist! Can’t resist describing the voice in my head that chuckled and said, “well, isn’t this all a bit rich” and can’t resist presenting something that I really might (might!) believe to be true with a slight shrug and a wink as if to say — well, if you do happen to disagree just remember, this wasn’t supposed to be all that seeeeeerious.
After all, what’s safe anymore? With each status, each tweet, each snapchat, each mupload, each selfie, activities we used to do just for their own sake become the stuff of personal advertising. And none of it even has the decency to pretend to be something else. At least there used to be people writing “private” diaries and letters who could claim they were writing for themselves and not posterity . . . complete bullshit of course, but still, there’s something to be said for the pretense.
Of course the unreflective soul or just pure action in itself is usually a myth. If Rousseau got one thing right it’s that once we formed societies our thoughts and actions could never again be self-contained. And nobody is exempt! Even a man like Grigori Perelman, a genius mathematician who has turned down prestigious award after prestigious award in his field, can be dismissed with a simple “ah well, he probably just likes coming across as a maverick.” And so like any persistent dogma, self-consciousness can subsume its opposite.
And I can’t be the only person who gets the creeps when they hear that every story that can be told has been told. I can’t be the only person who cringes when they hear creativity described as a marketable skill. And I certainly can’t be the only person who thinks that the jobs that are taken the most seriously might not be quite as serious as people assume. But when one’s own life becomes an advertisement for one’s personal brand . . . well, what do you do then?
And isn’t it odd that we would rather put up with a self-conscious asshole than an unconscious one? Why would we rather hang out with people who make the conscious choice to be a terrible person than people who actually don’t realize they’re alienating everyone around them? Well, he can laugh at himself! Well, he knows what he’s doing, he could do otherwise if he wanted! Yes . . . but he doesn’t.
The essence of conservatism — an old man begging that we just let some things be, that’s how I tend to feel sometimes. But let’s look at the other side here, the side of conviction, the side of unconsciousness. And, can we be honest here for a moment; people with true convictions are downright frightening! But at the same time, even if they may be deluded, there’s something endearing and necessary about them.
Self-consciousness is not self-empowerment. It is the selling of one’s image to another. It may have always been our driving principle, but it’s only now that we’ve become so honest about it. And so go all the apocalyptic implications — the audience triumphs over the artist, life as marketing, the extinction of individuality.
Yet the only obstacle to self-consciousness is group-consciousness. It was once religion that provided this, then the nation, and then . . . well, it will only become more and more fragmented. But in groups, and perhaps in groups alone, we can be unconscious and, strangely enough, perhaps at our most individual. Nobody could unironically say things like “I love my little!” or “He’s happy, he’s jolly, he’s fucked up by golly!” unless this held true. And yes, it’s easy to hear stuff like that and roll one’s eyes, but isn’t there something reassuring about it?
And so we return to the person who dared call himself a “hopeless romantic.” And we return to our irritation that someone could ever say something so trite. But why does it make us sick? The way I see it there are three options. 1) We are yearning for a time when such things could be said in good faith 2) We are intensely scared that maybe it is being said in good faith 3) We are right to be annoyed at what is ultimately someone trying to come across as deep. And I think I would speak for many embittered souls out there if I were to say, Lord may it please be the third one.