Narcissus Regards a Book, by Mark Edmunson

Wow! Not only a great title, but an essay that lives up to it. I’ll just quote my favorite passages in hope that you’ll go and read the whole thing (emphasis added).

Who is the common reader now? I do not think there is any way to evade a simple answer to this question. Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. […]

The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness. What one buys when one buys a daily paper, what one purchases when one purchases a magazine, is the hypothesis that what is going on right now is amazing, unprecedented, stunning. Or at least worthy of intense concentration. What has happened in the past is of correspondingly less interest. In fact, it may be of barely any interest at all. Those who represented the claims of the past should never have imagined that the apostles of newness would give them a fair hearing, or a fair rendering, either. […]

The academy failed and continues to fail to answer the question of value, or even to echo the best of the existing answers. But entertainment culture suffers no such difficulty. Its rationale is simple, clear, potent: The products of the culture industry are good because they make you feel good. They produce immediate and readily perceptible pleasure. Beat that, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Touch it if you can, Emily Dickinson. […]

And the media have another reason for not trying to shape taste: It p—-s off the readers. They feel insulted, condescended to; they feel dumb. And no one will pay you for making him feel dumb. Public entertainment generally works in just the opposite way—by making the consumer feel like a genius. Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.[…]

Reading in pursuit of influence—that, I think, is the desired thing. It takes a strange mixture of humility and confidence to do as much. Suppose one reads anxious about not being influenced. To do so is to admit that one is imperfect, searching, unfinished. It’s difficult to do when one is young, at least at present: Some of the oldest individuals I meet lately are under the age of 21. It is difficult to do when one is in middle age, for that is the time of commitments. One has a husband or a wife, a family and job—or, who knows, a career. Having second thoughts then looks like a form of weakness: It makes everyone around you insecure. One must stand steady, and sometimes one must pretend. And in old age—early or late—how can one still be a work in progress? That’s the time, surely, to have assumed one’s permanent form. That’s the time to have balanced accounts, gained traction, become the proper statue to commemorate one’s proper life.[…]

The desire to be influenced is always bound up with some measure of self-dislike, or at least with a dose of discontent. While the culture tells us to love ourselves as we are—or as we will be after we’ve acquired the proper products and services—the true common reader does not find himself adequate at all. He looks in the mirror of his own consciousness, and he is anything but pleased. That is not what he had in mind at all. That is not what she was dreaming of.[…]

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2 thoughts on “Narcissus Regards a Book, by Mark Edmunson

  1. Thanks for the link, Rick. This was a very interesting article, and CZ and I discussed it today over lunch.

    I couldn’t help but notice that American life is described as a dichotomy between work and play in the second paragraph of the article. I’ve long noticed it, and my whole life, in some ways, has been an attempt to get around that dichotomy, to rejoin vocation and avocation, as the Frost quote goes. Such attempts often involve relative poverty, I’ve noticed, and doing things for one’s self.

    I also liked the links to the idea of imperfection, and the seemingly contradictory mixture of humility and confidence. Edmundson of course never says it, but it sounds like the soul who has Christ.

  2. Laura,

    I also liked the links to the idea of imperfection, and the seemingly contradictory mixture of humility and confidence. Edmundson of course never says it, but it sounds like the soul who has Christ.

    That was my favorite part of the essay, especially because I didn’t see it coming.

    I do think that Edmunson missed something when he chose the word discontent—or maybe this is a case of where practical Christian doctrine leads to a deeper understanding. We are to be content (Phil 4:11-12, 1 Tim 6:6-8, Heb 13:5), but not complacent. I think it is possible both to be completely accepting of circumstances while still looking for ways to improve them (1 Cor 7:21).

    This is a small point, but I think it is a critical one. Exhorting brothers to unthinking complacency is disingenuous—who can’t see that freedom is better than slavery, or self-sufficiency better than grinding poverty? And it’s here that the Christian has an advantage that ought to be advertised, the ability to accept things as they are without resigning oneself to them.

    Last night I was reading Michael Lewis’s article about the Greek financial collapse. At one point he is talking with a Greek Orthodox monk, Father Arsenios:

    He points to a sign he has tacked up on one of his cabinets, and translates it from the Greek: the smart person accepts. the idiot insists.

    He got it, he says, on one of his business trips to the Ministry of Tourism. “This is the secret of success for anywhere in the world, not just the monastery,” he says, and then goes on to describe pretty much word for word the first rule of improvisational comedy, or for that matter any successful collaborative enterprise. Take whatever is thrown at you and build upon it. “Yes … and” rather than “No … but.” “The idiot is bound by his pride,” he says. “It always has to be his way. This is also true of the person who is deceptive or doing things wrong: he always tries to justify himself. A person who is bright in regard to his spiritual life is humble. He accepts what others tell him—criticism, ideas—and he works with them.

    Now that is wisdom, pure and simple. But the Christian twist is that to ground the approach in humility, something the world knows little of.

    (I won’t say “knows nothing of” because I know some humble atheists. I don’ t know why they are humble, but they are, and their lives are visibly better because of it—which never fails to humble me.

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