That queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive (Infinite Jest)

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive. Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia. 

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

“Epigrams of a Cynic” — Ambrose Bierce

“Epigrams of a Cynic” by Ambrose Bierce

If every hypocrite in the United States were to break his leg to-day the country could be successfully invaded to-morrow by the warlike hypocrites of Canada.

To Dogmatism the Spirit of Inquiry is the same as the Spirit of Evil, and to pictures of the latter it appends a tail to represent the note of interrogation.

“Immoral” is the judgment of the stalled ox on the gamboling lamb.

In forgiving an injury be somewhat ceremonious, lest your magnanimity be construed as indifference.

True, man does not know woman. But neither does woman.

Age is provident because the less future we have the more we fear it.

Reason is fallible and virtue invincible; the winds vary and the needle forsakes the pole, but stupidity never errs and never intermits. Since it has been found that the axis of the earth wabbles, stupidity is indispensable as a standard of constancy.

In order that the list of able women may be memorized for use at meetings of the oppressed sex, Heaven has considerately made it brief.

Firmness is my persistency; obstinacy is yours.

A little heap of dust, A little streak of rust, A stone without a name—Lo! hero, sword and fame.

Our vocabulary is defective; we give the same name to woman’s lack of temptation and man’s lack of opportunity.

“You scoundrel, you have wronged me,” hissed the philosopher. “May you live forever!” Read More

Diogenes — Jean-Leon Gerome

Diogenes and Plato — Paul Ollswang

(Read Paul Ollswang’s fantastic comic Cynicism here)

A Respite from Cynicism

I am a cynic and skeptic of the worst kind, the type of person who claims to be a realist but who secretly knows that he is a hopeless pessimist. And yet I cannot help but feel more than a little relieved and lightened, very much in spite of myself, at our country’s overwhelming endorsement of a new ideology, one that I believe is different and separate from the politics that survived on the perpetuation of the myth of a “culture war.” I’m talking about Barrack Obama, President Elect, if I haven’t been clear enough.

I’m not naive enough to believe that Obama isn’t a politician, fallible like all before him, and I’m not giddy or silly enough to think of him as a Jesusian savior of America. When the conservative movement mocked Obama’s followers for seemingly seeing in the man a messiah figure, what they didn’t understand was the radical break that Obama represented. It is not so much Obama the man that we longed for, but the idea of Obama–the idea of someone radically different from everything that had come before. And in electing Obama–and the idea of Obama–we immediately achieved something, as Americans, that is wholly independent of anything Obama will do over the next four years as President. We showed the world that our democracy works and that we as a people are not the ignorant xenophobic fundamentalists that the Bush administration worked so hard to paint us as.

I’ve been thinking these past few days about Michelle Obama’s infamous comment during the campaign that she felt proud to be an American for the first time in her adult life. The comment was fodder for right wingers, of course, and at the time it seemed like a bit of a blunder even to some Obama supporters. But now I see it in a new way. My adult life has essentially taken place in this decade, the Bush decade, the 9/11 decade (I turned 21 in the year 2000). While I’ve had moments of pride in individual Americans, it’s been hard to see the (regressive) movement of our country in any positive light. I remember being a child, being taught and believing that this was a special country, a different country, a country that people wanted to come to because it was special and different. In my adult life in this decade, I’ve watched our ideological stock plummet around the globe. I’ve found myself, while traveling abroad, having to explain–with quite a bit of difficulty–that we’re not all ignorant fundamentalists in America. That thinking critically was actually once considered patriotic. That America was really a much better place than its elected leadership exemplified. The policies of the Bush administration–and the nation’s acquiescent and apathetic response to them–slowly drained my energy and hardened my pessimism in politics and people into a thick, cynical shell. I am amazed at how quickly the November 4th, 2008 election shattered this shell.

I know that Obama will make mistakes, that he will have to engage in the same kind of political gamesmanship that every other president has had to in order to push their agenda. But again, to paraphrase Obama himself, this isn’t about him–this is about us, the U.S., and our declared mandate for political and cultural change in this country. So while I will keep my skeptical reservations and pessimism about politics and the two-party system that we let dominate this country, I can’t help but feel a restoration of pride and a sense of possibility for this country.