No escape from a disquieting flaw in reason
At last, a snappy pop philosophy book that offers to sort out absolutely none of your personal issues. If anything, it will make them worse. “There are,’’ Francis O’Gorman admits, ‘‘serious problems for me with the ethics of writing on worry.’’ Since words are the very stuff of worry, O’Gorman (himself a worrier) suspects reading is unlikely to provide a cure. Sufferers would do better to contemplate the sublime balance of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (‘‘a glimpse of a world without fretfulness’’) or listen to Bach’s contrapuntal fugues, in which ‘‘everything, whatever happens, fits’’.
But O’Gorman is not here to dole out advice: “A while ago, I described this book as I was writing it to a friend. He listened patiently, and rather sceptically. He finally said: ‘Is it like, then, some kind of literary self-help book?’ No. It’s a kind of literary there’s-no-help book.’’
As with a lot of O’Gorman’s humour, you’re not sure how far the joke carries. Anxiety disorders, for one thing, aren’t especially funny. O’Gorman limits his scope to ‘‘everyday’’ worrying rather than ‘‘debilitating and extreme fearfulness’’. But he has clearly been influenced by the literature on mental illness, and he reflects on Andrew Solomon’s aphorism: ‘‘Depression is the flaw in love.’’
Solomon means that creatures who find meaning in connection will be vulnerable to the misery of disconnectedness. Analogously, for O’Gorman, worry is ‘‘a flaw in reason’’. Worriers know the limits of the reasoning mind. Having tried often enough to just think about this rationally, they can see that, behind supposedly remorseless logic, there is usually some hidden belief system. Our minds are not reasoning machines; we are driven by our commitments.
In some enjoyably subversive pages, O’Gorman unpicks a few of modernity’s best-loved fairytales. The ideal of secular reason is that we should trust in ‘‘free and reasoned thought’’, question everything and fearlessly seek the truth. But secular reason has trouble explaining why the truth will turn out to be liberating as opposed to, say, paralysingly awful.
He is sceptical, too, about the widespread assumption that the good life consists in making choices, in pursuing our individual desires and seeing them fulfilled. The burden of endless decision making can make us less at home in the world. And there are sinister political implications to exalting ‘‘choice’’. If our lives are the sum of our free decisions, then the unsuccessful have nobody to blame but themselves.
The historical sweep of this argument is, as O’Gorman acknowledges, itself characteristic of worry: you start off wondering if you locked the back door and within five minutes you’re trashing the entire Enlightenment project. But O’Gorman isn’t condemning freedom, reason and choice; he just wants to register their tragic dimension. We need worriers, he urges, because they remind us not to overrate ‘‘the strength of the human mind and its own capacity to think things through’’. Worriers may be egotistical and vacillating, but can also be attentive and considerate — and they make good team workers. Although sometimes they tire of consensus and take a drastic and reckless decision. (‘‘We usually regret those moments.’’)
A book that lets out such an eloquent sigh at impractical self-help guides, the power of positive thinking and ‘‘the bland happiness of the modern West’’ should be applauded. But the closer you listen, the more it sounds like a sigh of despair. O’Gorman really means it about there being no hope.
Amid ‘‘the unconsoled ridiculousness of human life’’, he says, music and art offer ‘‘only fleeting comfort’’. ‘‘ Human beings are happier with lies.’’ In the same vein, he thinks the great thing about social media is that it makes room for our fantasies: ‘‘The very distance such sites create … allows us to admire those we hardly know.’’ It seems a rather sad fate for this book’s resolutely sceptical world view to end up nosing through a near-stranger’s Facebook photos.