The Opening of the American Unconscious

Reading between the lines.
March 7 2011 6:47 AM

The Opening of the American Unconscious

David Brooks solves all our problems in The Social Animal.

(Continued from Page 1)

A classic conservatism also spurs Brooks' championing of the unconscious. If an individual's motivation is too shadowy to understand or predict, imagine the forces that propel an entire society. Government should be limited, modest, and aware that much is unknowable and unsolvable. Brooks hasn't completely given up on the meritocracy. He still believes that "a healthy society is a mobile society … in which everyone has a reason to strive." But he also believes that the current setup of things in America is unfair. If your conscious and unconscious aren't cultivated in an information-rich environment starting from birth, you can almost never join the cognitively adept class that runs the world. The role of government—somehow—should be to build a uniform intellectual and cultural foundation for all. Through schooling, I suppose, and policies that encourage community and strong moral fiber. It's all very …Greek.

We've wandered far from the unconscious and Harold and Erica. The Social Animal, in both its ambition and its occasional ear-shattering hectoring, resembles another product of the University of Chicago: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom wanted higher education to instill core virtues based on classic texts, music, and art—in order to combat mushy moral relativism and the banal horror of MTV. Brooks has the same interest in character-building but he doesn't have Bloom's confidence in our ability to control ourselves. It's almost as if we have to construct society as a playpen for the unconscious: Don't leave any sharp objects around that will cause us to become despondent, make rash decisions, or place high value on the wrong things like money and real estate instead of friends and finding a calling.

I suspect that Brooks has found his own calling while writing The Social Animal—a new seriousness. In his previous books, he practiced what he called "comic sociology," writing things that were sort of true and sort of funny. And some of these riffs were sort of genius. In On Paradise Drive, Brooks goes on about how the "modern suburb enshrines the pursuit of par," which is a moderate life, a life without "tension, hurry, anxiety, and disorder." The state of par is one where "your DVD collection is organized, and so is your walk-in closet … your telephone plan is suited to your needs … your various gizmos interact without conflict." This isn't literally true, but it has the ring of truth, and it makes you laugh.

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In The Social Animal, this point would have been made differently. Brooks would have cited a study that says that men's "pleasure receptors" light up when they are on the golf course, or that the layout of long par 5s brings up pleasing memories of our hunter-gatherer time on the savannah. (In fact, he does mention that oldie-but-goodie.) I liked it better when his insights were unencumbered by their nerd friends. Do I really need brain science to tell me that women like men who seem empathetic? Or that people in long-lasting marriages tend to be happy?

My favorite parts of The Social Animal are when the old Brooks peeks out. At one point Harold works as an associate editor at various Washington-based policy magazines, and Brooks has a great line: "The organizations and journals he worked for were run by paunchy middle-aged adults who had job security and a place in society. People in his cohort, on the other hand, were transient young things who seemed to be there mostly to provide factchecking and sexual tension." "Yes!" I wrote in the margin.

That moment did not have many sequels. The Social Animal is worth reading and debating, but it doesn't give a lot of pleasure. Brooks tries to embody the story of the "revolution in consciousness" in two characters, but they are rarely believable as such. The irony is that he doesn't trust the unconscious. The writing is not suggestive enough—too much is explained, spelled out, referenced, and enumerated. David, you've spent the last 200 pages telling us how puny the rational mind is when compared to unconscious drives and emotion! Where's the story, the heartfelt moments, the villains?

Which is all to say that The Social Animal is an apt reminder of why we need great social novelists. It's not easy to the capture the zeitgeist. You often have to sneak up on it, catch it unawares, or just sort of feel it in your gut. I did come away from the book intensely curious about Brooks' own path. How far will he go in listening to his unconscious desires and in acknowledging that the traditional markers of success—a prominent op-ed perch, say—don't necessarily lead to happiness? How much will he strive to balance his emotional core with his rational thoughts? I'll look forward to reading his novel, or joining his ashram.

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