The Atlantic Monthly
August 13, 2013
One of America’s worst crimes, according to cultural historian and social critic Morris Berman, is the cultivation of a “culture of hustling.” Hustling—the surrender of everything to market forces and the sacrifice of life to consumer culture—is an energizing and often enriching enterprise, but it is ultimately empty, depressing, and destructive.
Berman’s previous books, The Twilight of American Culture , Dark Ages America , and Why America Failed , take the unpopular but persuasive view that the American empire is in freefall with no hope for recovery. But in his latest book, Spinning Straw Into Gold, he explains how he escaped this tedium of "unnecessary" and "stupid" pursuits and found meaning, purpose, and peace in his life by retiring to Mexico after years of working in academia at the University of New Mexico, the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and more.
The book eschews self-help clichés, and doesn’t presume to teach you to be happy. I spoke with Berman over email about embracing a reality that includes sadness, escaping poisonous American values, and how to stop obsessing over results and accept pleasure as it comes.
You write about the "unnecessary," "wasteful," and "stupid" routines, obsessions, and goals that you once pursued and that most of American culture preaches as the means of accessing the good life—careers, professional ambition, the drive for prestige, etc. You have left that behind for a peaceful "retirement" in Mexico, but during your retirement, you've written five books. How do you differentiate between pointless hustling and meaningful work? You write that more people should "let the universe do its thing." How do we do that and strive for work that gives our lives a sense of purpose and source of meaning?
The tipoff for me is somatic. Whenever a project comes to me, one that is right, that is genuine, I feel a kind of “shiver” in my body, and that tells me that it corresponds to something very deep in me, and that I need to pursue it. That has been my guide with literally every book I wrote. Trusting this kind of visceral reaction means that you are willing to let life “come and get you.” It means who you are is defined from the inside, not the outside. In terms of what’s really important, we don’t have much choice, and that’s as it should be. The decision is made by a larger energy or unconscious process, and when it’s right, you know it.
Most Americans have a dull sense that their lives are fundamentally “off”—because for the most part, they are. They hate their lives, but to get through the day, besides taking Prozac and consulting their cell phone every two minutes, they talk themselves into believing that they want to be doing what they are doing. This is probably the major source of illness in our culture, whether physical or mental.
In the film Definitely, Maybe , Ryan Reynolds works for an ad agency and says to himself at one point that he never imagined he’d be spending his days trying to convince people to buy Cap’n Crunch for their kids instead of Fruit Loops. As far as striving goes, Goethe wrote: “Man errs as long as he strives.” Sit still, meditate, just let the answer arise from the body. (It may take a while.)
So much of American culture is results obsessed. You write in your book about appreciating pleasures as they come, whether they are sexual, intellectual, or emotional. Do you think much of happiness is about learning to appreciate pleasure in the moment and not attaching it some tangibly measurable result?
It took me a long time to understand that I, or, my ego, had no idea what was best for me. Some part of happiness undoubtedly derives from a Zen enjoyment of whatever is in front of you, but a big part of it is knowing who you are and being that person. This is ontological knowing, and it’s very different from intellectual knowing.
Your message of detachment from materially measurable pursuits and your encouragement of leisure, creativity, and relaxed living is un-American (I mean this as a compliment). Why is American culture so addicted to speed, movement, action, and "progress"?
This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed . America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat.
It’s also especially hard to break free of that mesmerization when everyone else is similarly hypnotized. Groupthink is enormously powerful. Even if it occurs to you to stop following the herd, it seems crazy or terrifying to attempt it. This is Sartre’s “ bad faith ,” the phenomenon whereby a human being adopts false values because of social pressure, and is thus living a charade, an inauthentic life. It’s also what happens to Ivan Illych in the Tolstoy story , where Ivan is dying, and reviews his life during his last three days, and concludes that it was all a waste, because he lived only for social approval.
You have a fascinating and helpful vocabulary for explaining your key concepts in this book. For those who have not read it, could you briefly describe what you mean by each term? First, and this is the most important one, you write about "awareness" and how it is essential for a meaningful life. How are you defining "awareness"? Awareness of what?
Awareness is the process of becoming transparent to yourself. You start to see through your programming, and the programming imposed by your culture. That’s major awareness; you could wind up derailing your whole life. But there’s also a level of awareness that is more detailed, and which can be cultivated as a practice—micro-awareness.
The number of exercises in this genre is quite vast. There’s one exercise, I think from Rudolf Steiner’s work, that consists of putting a coin on the corner of your desk, say at 9 a.m., and then the next day at exactly 9 a.m. moving the coin to the opposite corner of the desk. On day three, you move it back, etc. It seems like nothing, but after a time a shift in one’s general awareness of the environment occurs. The idea is to break up routine unawareness by means of particular, focused concentration.
You say that "enchantment" is the one thing missing from all our institutions. What do you mean by "enchantment" and why is it important?
Enchantment: from the Latin cantare , to sing. What sings for you? What turns your crank? Most people who work in an institution won’t admit it, but on some level they know that there’s no “song” there; they are just going through the motions. From my own experience, I know this is true of academic institutions, but I worked for a corporation at one point and it was sheer horror. Most of the employees consisted of very overweight women with dull eyes; they were already dead, they just didn’t know it. This would be the opposite of enchantment.
Many people seem to live in their own bubble (politically, culturally, socially). You refer to this as "merging with your narrative" and "becoming a robot." Why do you believe this is so common in contemporary America and how do people resist it in a culture that encourages it?
In my book The Twilight of American Culture , I talk about becoming a “New Monastic Individual”—someone who breaks away from the mass dream and starts living his or her own life. But I have to confess that within the American context, I was not able to do it, myself. The context was just too much for me, too powerful. I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made.
Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill.)
American culture and the entire self-help genre seem intent on denying the acknowledgement of many emotions, sadness included. It is something to "get over." You write that sadness is very important. Why? What do people miss when they neglect the opportunities presented by sadness?
What you miss is depth, because the bottom line is that life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. (Foreigners know this, by the way.) Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. Barbara Ehrenreich deals with this in her book Bright-Sided , which skewers the religion of positive thinking and the happy face. (I would also recommend Janice Peck’s brilliant study, The Age of Oprah , to understand how she is just peddling a pseudo-spiritual version of the American Dream.) To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.
You write that America "used to be much more tolerant of mavericks," and you point to early Hollywood, jazz, rock 'n' roll, Arthur Miller, Salinger, and other great writers as examples. What happened that America no longer has this tolerance?
Over time the hustling culture swallowed everything up. There used to be margins, interstices, where creativity could flourish. But as things began to speed up in this country from about 1965 on, a kind of industrial, corporate, consumer “frenzy” took over, which meant there was no time for anything except getting and spending. It takes silence and slow time to be creative, and those things are threatening to most Americans, because they understand on some level that that’s what health is about, and that they don’t have it. So they are angry, intolerant. Fear, power, and desperation dominate their lives instead.
You write that the "road to redemption is a solitary one." That's a tough challenge, especially in highly religious and nationalistic culture. Is redemption tied to your notion of authenticity? Norman Mailer said that the first and most important virtue is courage, because it is a prerequisite for all other virtues. How do people cultivate the courage to live real, independent, and authentic lives?
I suspect courage is something that is handed down from within the family, something you learn viscerally, by example. Unfortunately, the American family is now in pretty bad shape, and there aren’t that many positive role models around in a dying culture. Literature can help, however; not the lit of heroic stories of derring-do, but just the opposite: literature that depicts difficult decisions and quiet acts of integrity, stuff that’s out of the limelight, and which can add up over time.
The sociologist Robert Bellah, who just died a few days ago, once wrote: “Great literature speaks to the deepest level of our humanity; it helps us better understand who we are.” So I would say that that’s a good place to start. But ultimately, if you are open to it, courage will find you; you don’t have to go looking for it (which I don’t think will work anyway). What was that line from Augustine? “Love God and do what thou wilt.” For “God” I substitute “Truth.”