The cultural critic Lee Siegel has done what cultural critics are supposed to do and described one of those ineffable conditions of American life: We don't know what to take seriously anymore. Is Brian Williams a serious news anchor or is he playing at being serious? How about Jon Stewart? The New York Times exudes seriousness, but the satire of The Onion can also be very serious. Siegel's new book, Are You Serious?, eventually climbs to a grander philosophical height: We're uncertain how to live seriously. Does a serious person move to the suburbs? Make a lot of money? Have children? Believe in God? As you can imagine, this book has some serious shit in it.
Perhaps that last sentence crossed the line into silliness, which Siegel names as the enemy of seriousness. Yet it's silliness, in the refined form of wit, that moves the culture forward when things have become too stale and entrenched (like, say, in that high-culture heirloom the book review). So people are forever becoming serious, and then that seriousness gets punctured and a new style emerges. Until now, Siegel argues: We seem to have hit a serious logjam, thanks partly to the Internet, which was the subject of Siegel's last book, Against the Machine, where he made a convincing case that the Internet is driving Lee Siegel crazy and is perhaps making the rest of us more sadly generic in our social lives.
Siegel's business-casual jaunt through seriosity begins with the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, who saw the decline of religious spirit and proposed the "high seriousness" of poetry and literature in its place. "Seriousness implied a trustworthy personality," Siegel writes, "just as faith in God once implied a trustworthy soul." The way in which Arnold connected morality to cultural refinement soothed the intellectual insecurity of Americans vis-à-vis Europe and appealed to our ethos of self-improvement. The contemporary disciples of Arnold are those friends of yours who read Ulyssesalong with Ulysses Annotated, actually go to art galleries, and know their way around a Ring cycle. The way they enjoy culture expresses their seriousness of purpose. "Yet Arnold had nothing to say about seriousness in life," Siegel warns. He then proceeds to demonstrate—hilariously, with his own bio—the absurd dangers of being overserious about art and literature.
Siegel was one of those asthmatic, bedbound kids who plow through great books with the vigor of a well-caffeinated graduate student. The highpoint of his intellectual seriousness arrived during college in the 1970s, when he "assured prospective employers of my immunity to distraction by admiringly invoking Aristotle's observation that copulation makes all animals sad." Or when a girlfriend asked him, "What's wrong?" he replied: "Oh, nothing, Spinoza associated desire with disconnected thinking—that's all." He went to an interview at the Social Register thinking that it was a socialist magazine.
The kind of college-essay seriousness that blindfolded Siegel emerged after the Second World War. The GI Bill sent veterans to college and the trauma of the war left many of them literally searching for the meaning of life. American culture was at its middlebrow peak: Catcher in the Rye, Jackson Pollock in Life magazine, Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan. Siegel calls this the Golden Age of seriousness, when intellectuals had real clout; JFK read Andre Malraux while shaving; and we took politicians, sports stars, Frank Sinatra, and Walter Cronkite seriously. All of this seriousness created a gravity that gave weight to more ordinary roles of father, mother, service worker, high-school student.
But along came the counterculture, as Siegel's tour continues on its studiously unponderous way. Its leading figures—Siegel is particularly fond of Allen Ginsberg—noted that this seriousness excluded women, minorities, homosexuals. To be serious now meant to be politically conscious, "committed." During this time, seriousness also got chipped away at by Susan Sontag's camp, which is a serious form of silliness. In the 1980s, conservatives grabbed the mantle of seriousness by declaring that the American mind was closing, and we needed white, male, Christian rigor. That's when the left brought out the big gun: irony. Siegel explains: "You weren't serious unless you were using irony to make the point that the appearance of seriousness was the telltale sign of being unserious." The events of 9/11 seemed to usher in a new sobriety, but Siegel maintains that any purchase the new seriousness had was destroyed with the WMD fiasco and the selling of the Iraq war.
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