Many years ago where I worked, we got some American interns, who sent “personal statements” in advance. One opened with the sentence “My favourite colour is green, and I don’t like tomatoes”. There is a piece in a recent NYRB by Merve Emre on the “personal essay”. One thinks, perhaps, of Jenny Diski, for whom I used to have a soft spot; but I’ve never really warmed to Joan Didion and the rest. Emre quotes Adorno in condemnation of “a form whose suspiciousness of false profundity does not protect it from turning into slick superficiality”. As ever, I would love to see that in German, no doubt without that jangling echo. Adorno, like Walter Benjamin, is all style; style, like poetry, is all but lost in translation. Emre turns to Benjamin to outline the familiar story of the invention of the bourgeois subject somewhere towards the middle of the C19th. For Benjamin, “the private individual, who in the office has to deal with reality, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions …” Emre sees the personal essay as the heir to those elegant interiors with their whimsically expressive objets, a flaunting of “personality” rather than character. Many aspects of the internet play a comparable role in curating a self-image, simulacra of authenticity; again, this is a well-worn thought, Facebook as mantelpiece. What I did not know is the origins of the American institution of the personal statement as part of the university admissions process: in other countries, it may be considered useful to mention briefly having been captain of the football team, or that you play the harp, but the whole aim there is to display a fully-fledged personality, of the right kind. It seems this requirement was introduced because of antisemitism, to favour WASPs who had been to the right schools, and so could strike the right pose. More than that, since the purpose of education is to serve capitalism, “learning how to game the system was only a sign of the system’s success at shaping applicants’ behaviour”. I can certainly remember at school being repulsed by the suggestion that the school should claim any insight or rights over my “character”, but that made me all the better a bourgeois individualist; in the States, that attitude might well have cost me my Ivy League place, if merited on academic performance alone. Another example is internet dating. Yes, I too once put my toe in that water … and what else is it about but striking the right attitude? Reliable without being dull … someone with depths that promise to resonate. How could that be anything other than a performance, abstracted into a hundred words?
Hostility — both heuristic, and aesthetic — to Innerlichkeit skates on thin ice. One thinks of the Romans, Pliny the Younger, for example, or Cicero: ‘O Romam fortunatam me consule natam’ — ! How can we imagine their inner lives? How is that combination of vanity and unintended self-revelation possible? Still, it was possible, must have been, it is recorded in manuscripts; it is temerarious to assert that they had no insides, just because we cannot enter them. Common sense says: people have always been much the same, underneath. Nonetheless, there was a shift; you see it, in music, with Mozart and Beethoven. It is music to fit the heroic melancholy of the bourgeois in his salon; and there is grandeur in it, that perhaps in future men may not understand as we do.
The question is acute and pressing for me, because over the past year and more, I have been unable to listen to such music. It is as though I had been cast out of the fine house, where the cognoscenti gather on Thursdays to hear quartets. The precious space is still there, but it burns me, as light drives out a vampire. In the same way, I cannot meditate, it is like taking a dip in boiling water. Meditation may well be another folly of the age, self-soothing quietism; be that as it may, the trick no longer works. The question is, have the scales fallen from my eyes, have I seen the light, or is this a kind of darkness?
Today though, I do not know why or how, I heard Beethoven’s quartet op. 18 no. 6 on the radio, and was just able to bear it. I don’t know what to make of the trope that subjectivity is a construct of the Zeitgeist, but what I am pretty sure of is that inner space can’t be fenced off from what’s going on in the street outside. Quietism doesn’t work. There is a terrible smugness in twitching the net curtains and peering out, and wryly shaking one’s head at the folly in the world. We are not immune, because we have net curtains. All are fools together. But does it follow that the singing soul of that music is a beguiling phantasm? I cannot help feeling, still, it is the most true thing there is.