The Magazine

Seriously Flawed

When a cultural critic doesn’t quite comprehend Culture.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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Judging from old people I know, the question of seriousness used to be far more important than it is today. Those of us in the perpetual age of pre-old are more likely to divide our friends and relations into categories of “racist” or “black,” “sexist” or “good-looking,” fun or boring, (politically) dumb or okay, than to think of them as either serious or unserious. I suspect the urge to make something lasting of life meets the same number of us it always has—but not as early, and so not with the same effect. You can observe its presence now in the 50-year-old man who decides it’s finally time to move in with the woman he’s been sleeping with off and on for a few decades, get married, settle down, and have an abortion.

Here, Lee Siegel addresses the role of seriousness in what he calls our Age of Silly. The Age of Silly features the Internet. The Age of Silly doesn’t read novels. In the Age of Silly, Susan Sontag and John Updike are dead. The right hates the left and the left hates the right, not realizing “their different worldviews are often shaped by similar impulses.”

If you can only muster an eye roll at all this horrific news, then you are a typical member of the Age of Silly, where the role of seriousness (according to Siegel) is not so much diminished as it is complicated and confused. In fact, he writes, we are so desperate to be serious,

We uneasily settle for its impersonation. Which makes us long for seriousness with greater intensity, at the same time that we mistrust its sincerity all the more when we think we might have found it.

In this atmosphere of fatigued knowingness and outrage, it is impossible for anyone to be taken seriously without first appearing to be anti-serious—like Jon Stewart. 

So what does it mean to be serious? Attention, purpose, and continuity are the three pillars of Siegel’s definition. Personally, this means love and responsibility and respect. It means doing your job because it’s your job. The first part of this volume offers examples of serious living (or lack thereof) from everyday life: Clear enough and sometimes touching, Siegel’s little stories rarely stray beyond the obvious. They stop short of those truly grey areas of character where seriousness subtly comes into question.

What about, say, the ambitious, hardworking person who knows a few too many foreign languages for no good reason? Henry James suggested that people who easily pick up foreign languages are unreliable. Is there an over/under on how many tongues can fit in the mouth of a serious man? Marriage is serious, but what of remarriage? Does it signal a courageous quest for eternal commitment, or somehow undermine it? Perhaps remarriage is more like Islam, with the seventh or eighth the equivalent of embracing Scientology.

Alas, Siegel doesn’t really go there. The bulk of his book analyzes politics and culture by looking at the ways various political and cultural celebrities navigate our insecurities about seriousness, for better or worse. Stewart, Updike, Sontag, and Pixar are ultimately serious, in Siegel’s view; Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, and Frank Rich are not. In the curiously mixed camp fall Sarah Palin, Oprah Winfrey, and George Steiner.

Talk of seriousness, as you can tell from these lists, always verges on the snobbish or boring. Especially if Siegel disapproves of the critical style. Irving Kristol ended up as a “cosmopolitan nihilist,” Sarah Palin is “Paris Hilton with sled dogs,” but Susan Sontag was “the only intellectual to have thought explicitly about how to be serious in modern American life.” An overblown style can be redeemed by a knack for the true and witty phrase, which the author of Are You Serious? seems time and again to miss.

There is a saying among theater folk that you can fake anything but intelligence, and for all his excess, Siegel is clearly intelligent. He proves this in his treatment of Jon Stewart’s and Oprah Winfrey’s appeal, and in his skewering of the intellectual contempt for the suburbs. He can see beyond his standard liberal politics, as when he draws a parallel between the Beat movement of the 1950s and today’s Tea Party. And while he may refer to “legislators who bribe, buy and sell instead of legislate”—as if “legislate” means anything else—Siegel values sensitivity and empathy above political agreement. Sensitivity, empathy, and conscientiousness are the common denominators throughout his critique. The fate of seriousness, he implies, rests entirely on the survival of those qualities in our culture.

But does it? The last time I checked, sensitivity and empathy alone can’t produce a vital novel. They don’t seem at all opposed to the moral consecration of envy, or the staging and ticket-distribution of vast festivals of self-pity. No examination of modern culture can be of much use without facing up to envy and self-pity and how they got to be so popular. “Before the coming of FDR,” wrote Eric Hoffer, who spent the 1920s on skid row, America “was singularly free of self-pity. None of the people I talked with blamed anyone for their misfortune.”

Like many tuned-in culture critics, Siegel is prone to miss the exit for the billboards. Saluting Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his jet in the Hudson River, Siegel properly idealizes the passion for doing one’s job as the ultimate form of seriousness. But nowhere does he pull over to ask just where that passion was lost. Perhaps it had something to do with all the precious meanings and prideful empathies everyone started experimenting with once college became a national rite of passage. The sincere quest to be serious, after all, does not quite amount to the real thing.

Alec Mouhibian is a writer in Los Angeles.