No es­cape from a dis­qui­et­ing flaw in rea­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Dan Hitchens Wor­ry­ing: A Literary and Cul­tural History By Fran­cis O’Gor­man Bloomsbury, 192pp, $24.99

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.