I remember, a number of years ago, having a leisurely lunch with my then girlfriend at an outdoor café in Philadelphia. We were the only customers, and it was a nice balmy afternoon. Suddenly, some bozo runs up to the café, his cell phone rings, and he yells: “This is Joe Blow! What can I do for you?” This is what I mean by a Degraded Buffoon—a man reduced to nothing but hustling. He doesn’t say, “Hi, this is Joe Blow, how are you? What’s happening in your life?” No, it’s “Let’s do business!” Nor does it bother him to be disturbing a couple having a quiet lunch six feet away from him—fuck everybody else, I’m Joe Blow! Hard to describe how stupid he looked: crew cut, hatchet face, a bundle of tension. And I thought: yes, this is America, my friends; this rude, stupid piece of trash is who we really are.
…When I left the U.S. (thank god), I think I had a total of three or four genuine friendships, after all of those decades of living there. One thing I discovered about Americans was that they have no idea of what friendship really is, and that it does take love, endurance, and discipline (effort, in short). These are alien concepts to Degraded Buffoons. “Lightweight” is precisely the right word here. Over the years, I noticed that it was not uncommon for people to disappear from my life, and the lives of others, overnight, and without so much as a word of explanation. In a few cases this even happened after a year or two of knowing someone, having had dinners together, having had (I thought) meaningful discussions. And then: poof! They’re gone, and apparently could care less. If you live in a world of noise, cell phones, and hustling, why would any one person mean anything to you? And this is the norm, in the U.S., my friends; what I’m describing—you all recognize this—is hardly aberrant.
You probably know that I have no great affection for the human race in general. Like Louis C.K., I may have even been known a time or two thousand to hate strangers for sheer amusement and recreation. Nonetheless, seeing what a relentlessly vituperative fellow Berman has become, I was reminded of a line from one of Nietzsche’s letters to his friend Peter Gast where, feeling despondent and lonely after the end of his friendship with Richard Wagner, he confessed that “even now the whole of my philosophy totters after one hour’s sympathetic intercourse even with total strangers! It seems to me so foolish to insist on being in the right at the expense of love…”
It’s funny to entertain the notion that Nietzsche’s philosophical brilliance could possibly have been the result of a sublimated need for love and camaraderie, but there you go. Likewise, many of the ways in which people present themselves to the world are nothing but brave faces and compensatory gestures. I suspect that Berman might find himself similarly chastened if he were to actually take the time to get to know people like Joe Blow rather than harshly judging them by a few superficial characteristics gathered in one moment’s acquaintance. I mean, goddamn, I like to think of myself as at least a mild misanthrope, and I’ve had friendships where the burden seemed to be entirely on me to keep the correspondence going, but this ranting old coot makes me feel positively touchy-feely by comparison. Sometimes those friends who seem to vanish from your life without a care were actually suffering in some way and afraid to make themselves vulnerable and ask for help, and you’ll never realize that if you’re too busy dwelling on how much they’ve let you down or what they supposedly owe you. An Auden couplet provides a good rule of thumb: “If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me.” Berman would apparently rather be “right” than forgiving of others’ faults, and you don’t have to be an aspiring bodhisattva to see what a sad thing that is.
Of course, we’re talking about a guy whose latest book is Why America Failed, the third part of a trilogy lamenting/gleefully excoriating our cultural inability to exist in the Romantic/Luddite mishmash of his historical imagination. The historian Steven Ozment accurately described the mindset of those who get too attached to such ideals:
The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.