“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.'“— C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce
The infamous “Fire Walks” of the Not-Your-Guru Tony Robbins—at which participants at self-help seminars attempt to walk over burning hot coals, and sometimes get severely burned—is but a thin, superficial, NLP-induced version of a concept that C.S. Lewis illustrated in his fantastical book, The Great Divorce.
I’ll say it up front: I find the Robbins Fire Walks to be a sad summation of the thinness of our culture—and the deep desire of people to become real.
In Lewis’s book, the narrator of the story lives in a dull, grey town. He finds a magical bus stop and boards a coach with other people who desire an excursion to some other place—any other place.
They don’t realize it, but the town they left was a kind of purgatory. And the bus they’re on is attempting to take them toward heaven.
As they ascend, their bodies are revealed to be transparent and vapor-like. They discover, to their great horror, that they’re not solid—they are, in fact, ghosts.
When they’re finally let off the bus, they encounter grass so sharp and hard that their feet can’t bear it.
The narrator describes this new place:
Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains…
They were shallow people who lacked depth—and with it, weight—which would have allowed them to walk on the grass. They desired to go back to the grey town from where they had come.
In short, they didn’t want to live a real life. The counter-intuitive point of Lewis’s story is that for those who don’t desire the real things of heaven, it’s quite a painful place. They don’t even want to live in it.
There’s an inseparable link between freedom and desire.
(And the people complained to Moses: “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
The Israelites would rather eat their flesh-pots in slavery than embark on the journey to freedom. And not much has changed.)
We Can’t Have Real Conversations
I thought about Lewis’s story after reading this piece by Peter Savodnik in Bari Weiss’s substack newsletter this week.
Rather than not being able to walk on grass, it often seems to me that we’re not able to have real conversations, “thick” conversations, anymore. Our feet—or our minds—are simply not able to bear them.
It’s worth quoting Savodnik at length here. He’s describing the world after September 11, 2001:
The fastest-growing technology companies didn’t create so much as connect. They connected us with friends and drivers and places to eat and to stay. Uber was great, but no one was pitching apps to tackle joblessness, cancer, alienation.
We talked with more people than ever. The number of acronyms and emojis we vomited out — voicelessly, by way of thumb — exploded. But the things we said were more trite, thinner. Which made everything faster, smoother, “smarter,” and exponentially lonelier.
We were stuck in the middle of this strange contradiction — the more and the less blended together. Which left everything feeling flat. Even those interactions that still took place IRL, which were always being interrupted by a ping or a vibration or someone glancing at a screen, wondering whether more interesting things were happening in this other invisible, parallel universe.
We justified all this the way we always justified things, by arguing that it was more convenient, that we didn’t know how we ever lived without it, that it was impossible to get by without it. But we forgot that it was also impossible to get by without other human beings. We were relieved we no longer had to have difficult conversations — one could simply ghost or delete or block — but we started to think this might not be healthy. Difficult conversations, after all, were important and good, and they instilled character. They made us more real. We yearned for the days before high-speed and we talked endlessly about the importance of authenticity. The truth is, we just missed it.
Then we discovered that almost everyone under 30 had no idea what we were talking about. This was when we knew we were in trouble.
I live in D.C.
People casually say things, upon first meeting, like “So, obviously, we’re raising our baby gender-neutral…”—in such a matter-of-fact way, in such a well-obviously kind of way (I call this the NPR Effect)—that it’s hard to know where to start.
I um-and-uh, looking for the right words to begin a real conversation… (Doesn’t this issue have about 7-layers of unpacking we should be having before accepting that statement at face-value? What does that mean? What premises are we assuming we all agree on here? What———).
The conversation quickly pivots to the latest Netflix show before I’ve had a chance to formulate a coherent thought, or even open my mouth.
The good old spiral of silence kicks in.
Then you realize: We’re all just skating across the surface of the water here.
Everyone is afraid, and more likely not equipped, to drop down and explore the issue at a deeper level. We’re not able to walk on that grass.
Thickness and Continuity
Thick and thin has become an important metaphor for me.
Thin desires are highly mimetic, socially-derived, fleeting, easily blown away in the mimetic winds of the present moment. They’re not able to explore or even kick the tires of current categories and definitions. They lack a moral imagination, which isn’t given in a day.
Edmund Burke comes to mind here.
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
Nassim Taleb is right to think of Burke in regards to the quickly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan:
(BTW: When I googled “thick culture” to see what, if anything, had been written about this metaphor, the first thing I found was a magazine dedicated to “thick” culture—as in “thick” women in thongs. That tells you all you need to know about the thinness of the zeitgeist.)
Thick desires, on the other hand, are rooted in something real. They’re built-up over time; they are like layer upon layer of strong rock that sits under the surface of a pile of leafes; they have a history and continuity.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, my favorite realist phenomenologist (and Hitler’s #1 enemy for a time), wrote about the importance of continuity in a manner that speaks to the idea of thick desires and the formation of a thick personality.
I’ll also quote von Hildebrand at length here because continuity is a critical aspect of thick desires—and therefore of thick culture:
“One of the deepest and essential marks of man as a spiritual person is his continuity. This means not only the faculty of remembering the past, of looking back on what we have formerly known and experienced, but also the fact of knowing oneself to be one though the stream of time and of moments filled with themes varied contents.”
Note: he refers to this continuity as an essential part of integrity.
“It means that man possesses not only one stratum of experience, the actual ‘here and now’ which embraces only a limited content, but that he can retain on a deeper super actual stratum the knowledge of facts and values, and the response to them. Continuity is a presupposition for being fully a person, for the development of a person, for the rich world that a person may embody, as well as for all responsibility. If a man lived only separate moments without any link between them, if he did not know himself as the same being in the past and present, if all that he experienced and accomplished, as well as all that was revealed to him, sank back into nothingness before the actual contact with a new ‘now,’ he would be only a bundle of disconnected experiences. He would be deprived of the dimension of depth…”
Von Hildebrand is speaking of a thick personality as opposed to a thin one, which treats the present moment as the realest and most important one, even if it’s superficial.
Thin cultures crumble quickly. They’re swept away in the wind, swallowed up in whatever strong cultural currents are swirling around. They lack the roots to withstand a storm.
The monoculture by definition is a thin one. It’s flat—of one-dimension (hence “mono”-culture)—and lacks continuity.
All the sins of our past are demons to be exercised rather than parts of ourselves that need to be redeemed.
But I am hopeful.
I just returned from my honeymoon in Sonoma County, California, so I’ve been thinking about (and drinking a lot of) wine lately. I’ve learned that the best wine is made from grapes that live in soil with less water and therefore have to work and struggle hard to find water deep under the surface. The yields of these grapes is lower but—for reasons that are still largely mysterious—they produce the best wine.
This is what a few brave people are going to need to do in our culture. And what these few want will be definitive for the many.
Thank you for reading.
5 Things I’m Reading
Thomas J. Bevan: Why the World Needs More Good Criticism
”They may have become cynical and jaded as a product of years of imbibing lazy and reductive Monoculture pap, but they want to believe. They want to feel. They believe still, in spite of it all, in the redemptive power of art.
Brandon Taylor: the chair is peak jeans in church culture
”never has it been easier to borrow the signifiers and attributes of good art and commodify them to disguise deeply mediocre shit.”
Peter Savodnik: this piece on Bari Weiss’s substack
“In the night, it is easy to vacillate, to feel rudderless, to run toward hope and then sink into despair. To imagine that we are out of mornings and then, no, to know that there will be a new morning. In these moments, one tunnels through the gray, with all the ferocity one can muster, hoping that this will come to an end, that the fog is a precursor to something else, but not knowing, never knowing, knowing that everything is ambiguous, fluid, shifting. Waiting to be remade. “
Haley Nahman: Maybe Baby (substack)
“Last year I wrote about the mysterious intelligence of our bodies and I’ve written often about “the intelligence buried under our moods.” It seems I’m preoccupied, creatively and psychologically, with inherited wisdom. This is probably because my inclination to solve every problem through brute-force metacognition is exhausting.”
Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Book)
“These pathways serve as the world’s central nervous system, connecting peoples and places together, but lying beneath the skin, invisible to the naked eye. Just as anatomy explains how the body functions, understanding these connections allows us to understand how the world works.”