Somehow, the rebels of half a century ago have grown up to become the new Victorians. There’s a right way now to eat, vote, laugh, think.
Which means it really shouldn’t be that difficult to make an avant-garde. Here are some of the pieties that it might undertake to profane. That people are basically good. That freedom is the chief ingredient of happiness. That we control our fates. That society is slowly getting better. That we are more virtuous than those who came before us. That the universe coheres in a mystical whole. That it all works out in the end. In short, the whole gospel of self-improvement, progressive politics, ethical hygiene, and pantheistic spirituality. The upper middle brow is as committed to the happy ending as is Hollywood. Tragedy is inadmissible: the recognition that loss is loss and cannot be recuperated, that most people’s lives end in failure and emptiness, that the world is never going to be a happy place, that the universe doesn’t love us.
W.H. Auden described Freud as “no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our differing lives.” I thought of that while reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, where he related Frederick Crews’s summary of one of Freud’s most famous case studies:
Freud was determined to find a primal scene to serve as the fountainhead of Pankeev’s symptoms. He made it materialize through a transparently arbitrary interpretation of a remembered dream of Pankeev’s from the suspiciously early age of four, about six or seven white wolves (actually dogs, as Freud was later compelled to admit) sitting in a tree outside his window. The wolves, Freud explained, were the parents; their whiteness meant bedclothes; their stillness meant the opposite, coital motion; their big tails signified, by the same indulgent logic, castration; daylight meant night; and all this could be traced most assuredly to a memory from age one of Pankeev’s mother and father copulating, doggy style, no fewer than three times in succession while he watched from the crib and soiled himself in horrified protest.
It seems absurdly ludicrous in hindsight, but that’s the thing — how likely is it that we don’t have shared cultural delusions that will be looked back upon in another century with similarly incredulous humor? Which scientific and aesthetic ideas do our cognoscenti see as obvious to the point of being unremarkable? What sorts of things do educated, intelligent people take completely for granted and reinforce among each other?