After spending four years of college at an institution that teasingly encouraged me in my belief that life is a purely theoretical matter, I have been confronted at every turn since by the alternative dogma -- the cult of personal experience.
As soon as I came to divinity school, I was told that I actually would be learning nothing important in the classroom (a shame, since this was the only part I was looking forward to) -- and that the only real lessons would come from the aspects of ministerial training I most dreaded -- the ones that were "hands on." When I first started writing sermons, likewise, the first feedback I received was that they would be more interesting "if they came less from things you read and more from your life experience."
Well, that's all well and good for most, I thought. But I haven't had any life experiences, so clearly that option was out.
I couldn't have dreamed then that every group activity anywhere I would go for the remaining years of my life would involve the request to share a significant tidbit from one's own experience. Ministers were expected to have "call stories" -- a road to Damascus moment that explains how they knew that fate had selected them for this particular destiny. At work earlier this year, we were asked to go around the room and share "a formative experience that happened to you over a summer in high school." Ideally a journey we had taken or something to that effect.
Of course, I froze. I came up empty. What I would have given in that moment for a road trip to the Mojave, or a camping expedition gone horribly and comically wrong.
The trouble was -- then as always -- that the only significant experiences I could think of were intellectual ones. The most important thing I could remember happening to me during any summer of high school was the time I went to a conference for my religious denomination and heard a lecture about the human rights movement.
This was important because up until then, I had been criticizing Neoconservatism from the position of a vague and eclectic leftism that promiscuously mixed elements of various ideologies. A dash of vulgar Marxism here. A sprig of cultural relativism there. Beneath it all, however, my actual value system was that of a believer in liberal democracy. And the malicious genius of Neoconservatism was to seize upon the hidden discomfort of the left-wing pseudo-relativist who remains a post-Enlightenment liberal at heart. Of all ideologies yet devised, Neoconservatism was the best at weaponizing the sort of guilt a former Stalinist apologist gets from reading Solzhenitsyn.
It went like this.
Neoconservatism: You Western intellectuals failed to condemn the genocide in Cambodia or the Holodomor in the Ukraine!
Western Intellectuals: *Gasp* Oh no, you're right!
Neoconservatism: Now that I've got your attention, the CIA should torture people and we should bomb Iraqi civilians.
Western intellectuals: Well, you were right about the first thing, so I guess we have no choice!
It's hard to remember now that it was once like this, when the whole ideology has been so thoroughly discredited -- and has been replaced on the Right by a quasi-fascism that makes no pretense to give a hoot about liberal democracy.
But back in 2006 or whenever, you could actually be the person arguing against torture and the mass bombing of other societies, and still feel like you were the traitor to liberal democratic values. So well and thoroughly did Neoconservatism lay territorial claim to "democracy," which it made into a private buzzword, that its critics thought they had to criticize liberalism and the Enlightenment in order to hit at Neoconservatism. They thus willingly and stupidly became the very thing they were accused of being.
So, as a seventeen year-old, to encounter the idea that there was such a thing as a "human rights movement" all this time -- and that it had nothing to do with Neoconservatism... to find that there were people who had figured out (amazing!) that you could support the application of human rights standards in both the means you use as well as in the putative ends you pursue, and that this was not in fact contradictory but a higher form of consistency... well, it was life-altering. For the first time, I realized that you could create a political and moral identity on your own terms -- that you didn't have to choose between one or the other role in the dualistic intellectual schemes that your adversaries construct to their own advantage...
But to explain all of that to a room of people who just wanted to hear my "formative experience" in one sentence or less, so they could be done with the interminable "opening activity," would not have made me popular. It would require trying to reconstruct the entire strange and warped moral universe that a politically naive left-wing teenager might have built for himself in the twilight of the Bush years -- a universe that has already disappeared, and scarcely seems worth reconstituting.
Plus, it wouldn't have got me off the hook of the experience question anyway. Sure, here at least I had a "trip" I could identify. I went somewhere, and I learned something -- even if it was just from another person talking.
But it really just pushes the experience question back a few steps. I'd next be asked to explain how it was that I came to care about politics and Bush and Iraq, etc. in the first place.
The core assumption in activist circles -- I gradually came to realize -- is the same as that in ministry. There are no intellectual experiences. Nobody ever just realizes something or forms a commitment. You always have to have done something in the outside world, or seen something or known someone who made you passionate about a given issue.
In a room full of activists, as a result, one is sometimes asked to explain how you first came to care about -- say -- immigrant rights or the refugee crisis. You discover that everyone else in the circle is able to give some reasonable answer about recent immigrant ancestors, a spouse or loved one who is directly impacted, the time they spent in a visitation program, etc.
Yet, once again, the only honest answer I could think of is a circuitous intellectual path involving Neoconservatism.
It takes even me a special effort to reconstruct it. It was something about the fact that Neoconservatives would always complain that critics of the Iraq war, etc. didn't actually care about the civilian casualties and the human rights issues and any of the other things they claimed to care about -- they really just didn't want to spend money on improving the lives of people far away.
A preposterous argument to start with -- but one that nonetheless managed to rankle with me. So in 2015, when the Western world finally started to notice the effects of the mass displacement caused by the conflicts in the Middle East that the U.S. had in large part touched off, it seemed as if the moral tables had suddenly been turned. Aha! My peacenik heart gave a flutter. So here we have refugee resettlement -- the most obvious possible way to help people displaced by the Syrian conflict and other things that Neoconservatives claim to care about (even as they make them worse) -- and it is actually so much cheaper than raining mass destruction on other societies -- and, unlike raining mass destruction on other societies, it won't have the effect of displacing still more people. In fact, it actually helps people directly, rather than war -- which kills people directly, on the unproven theory that this will indirectly benefit someone else down the line.
So where are you right-wingers now, who just a few years ago were accusing liberals of being indifferent to the suffering in Syria? Why aren't your voices being raised in support of refugees?
The spectacle of Donald Trump firing missiles at Syria because he supposedly cares about the chemical warfare and other atrocities the regime inflicts on its own people -- at the same time that he is personally trying to ban Syrian refugees from the United States and is otherwise unremittingly hostile to the human rights of people displaced by Bashar al-Assad (and the other actors in the Syrian conflict) -- is just the grossest present example of a far more widespread and longstanding hypocrisy on the Right.
Okay, so that's the frank truth as to how I started to care about this issue. Of course, since the time at which I did first start to care about refugee rights and immigrant rights, I have had personal experiences in this work that made that commitment less abstract for me. But the experiences always came after the commitment. I can't really imagine how it could be otherwise. I don't know how you decide to undertake any work involving any issue that would lead to personal experiences, if you don't first have the intellectual will to do so. How could Adam and Eve decide to taste the apple, if they had no consciousness of sin until they bit it?
In spite of such conundra, the creators and influencers of activist opinion are adamant: if you have not had a personal experience related to something, you do not understand it. Life experience is real; intellect is false.
This manages to cancel out in one blow so much of anything I regard as significant in my past that I can't help but react to it with some bitterness. "Thanks," says a character in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook: "That buttons up the strongest emotion I’ve ever felt and disposes of it." I know the feeling.
For this reason, I have always felt a certain personal vindication whenever I encounter a good counterpoint to the cult of experience. The chief of these is the argument that personal experience isn't worth a damn anyways, if it passes through one without conscious reflection.
After all, one needs a certain inner webbing of intellectual schemes and exempla by which to catch personal experiences as they come in. Otherwise, one cannot turn these experiences into stories -- i.e., memories -- that will have lasting value to us once the moment itself has passed.
We know from the philosophers from Kant on that you can't really perceive anything at all until it passes through the categories of the mind. On a higher order, I doubt you can make meaning out of your experiences if you don't first have some intellectual framework -- some paradigm -- by which to understand them. As the philosophers again tell us, experiences can push and strain against the outermost borders of the paradigm until it is forced to reshape itself to accommodate them, or remake itself altogether -- but they must be filtered through some paradigm or other if they are to be comprehended in the first place.
A man of pure action, without conscious reflection, becomes something like Captain Jonsen of Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica. As a pirate of the Caribbean, the captain has presumably lived a life full of incident. He shouldn't be short of personal experience. But when the protagonist of Hughe's novel asks him to describe his life, he is unable to remember much about it. "Jonsen sat on, silent, trying to project his unwieldy mind back into the past," writes Hughes.
Likewise, it is an oft-voiced complaint of certain bourgeois tourists that they have experienced too much and learned too little. That they did something that involved real action, but it seems to have made not the slightest difference to their personalities.
As Multatuli writes in his Max Havelaar: "Others [...] presume to found their claims to experience on vicissitudes they have really undergone, but without there being anything to show that those changes deeply affected their mental lives. I can imagine that to witness, or even to participate in, important events may make little or no impact on a certain type of disposition, which has not the capacity for receiving and absorbing impressions." (Edwards translation throughout.)
Thus -- "The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy," writes Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh. The point being that a boring person will have boring reactions even to interesting things.
A friend of mine put it this way on a recent phone call: "I can't stand it when people say they've gone somewhere overseas, and then they can't tell you anything about it except that the food was good.
"The important thing to being interesting," she went on, "isn't that you've done interesting things, but that you find life itself interesting. Then you can make anything seem interesting."
I thought it was particularly gracious of her to offer this talking point to those of us in the anti-experience camp, since -- as someone currently in the Peace Corps in Tanzania -- she has a better claim than most to living an interesting life.
Some have even gone so far with this insight as to declare that experience itself counts for practically nothing. If experience is dull and insipid unless there is some intellectual skein in which to fit it, then it must be the skein that really matters. That is where the true drama and interest and artistry and adventure of life must lie.
Max Havelaar again: "[V]ice versa, how many people undergo a whole series of emotions without outward circumstances appearing to give occasion for them?" He invites us to imagine "the feelings of a friend of humanity who, without being outwardly involved in the course of events, nevertheless takes a burning interest in the welfare of his fellow-men."
There, you see activists/ministers? I can care about human rights from a starting point that is abstracted from direct experience. Multatuli says so. And we know how you accept the testimony of second-hand authorities.
As with my friend in Tanzania, I thought it was very kind of Multatuli to offer this to the non-experiencers. Writing as a renegade Dutch colonial administrator who was fired for sticking up for the rights of the native people of Java, he too has a plausible claim to have lived -- by anyone's standards -- a life full of experience.
But it is equally plain from reading the novel that Max Havelaar -- like the author who created him, and on whom he is based -- is a gifted and unapologetic self-mythologizer. Perhaps he recognizes on some level that the reason why it suddenly -- in his hands -- comes to seem very interesting to have been a Dutch colonial administrator, who is fired for sticking up for the native population, is because he was able to cast himself in such archetypal colors. The same material in another's hands might have been bland and disappointing.
Perhaps the greatest defender of the view that it is ultimately the self-mythologizing that counts, rather than the life itself, however, is Oscar Wilde. Through all his critical works he articulates what I understand to be a Baudelairean notion of art (as transmitted to Wilde, I take it, through Huysmans)-- the notion, namely, that the essence of art itself is imaginative creation.
Art is thus more interesting, more valuable, precisely to the extent that it departs from reality, rather than to the extent it accords with it. The value of a work exists independently of whether or not it is true or false, grounded in experience or invented out of whole cloth. As Wilde remarks in his Dialogue, "The Critic as Artist" -- giving an unforgettable assessment of the merits of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua -- "The mode of thought that Cardinal Newman represented [...] may not, cannot, I think, survive. But the world will never weary of watching that troubled soul in its progress from darkness to darkness."
So, take that, experience-heads!
Surely by this point we have won the intellectual argument. The only downside with just disowning the pro-experience camp entirely, however, is that they seem nevertheless to be right. Based on my personal experience, that is.
I have in fact found that my sermons became more interesting once I started adding details from my own life, rather than from the leaves of books. I have no idea why this is the case. Seeing that I am as much a stranger to my audience in most ministerial settings as Multatuli is, one would think that quoting from the experiences and insights of one would be as interesting to my listeners as another.
But no, for some reason, it is just better when I am talking about things that I have thought, felt and suffered directly. And so, as much as I kicked against the goad of the experience cult when I was first starting out, I now cruelly give out the same advice to friends who are writing sermons.
"You should talk more about yourself," I say, "and less about things you've read" -- hating to hear the dread words emerge from my own lips, yet knowing all the time that they are true.
There is a deeper reason, however, why intellect cannot gain a total and one-sided victory in the contest with experience. It is that experience is the food and fuel of our intellectual wanderings. Deprive one of the other and it will starve.
As a teenager, I would occasionally nurse a fantasy in which human civilization had come to an end, and I now spent all of my waking hours in a hot air balloon filled with books -- drifting through the clouds and reading.
I don't know how you'd fit so many books in a hot air balloon, and I'm afraid of heights, so I'm not sure this fantasy actually appealed to me all that much even as I was nursing it, but there it was.
The unconfessed truth of that stage of my life, however -- something that I wouldn't have admitted to myself any more than to others -- was that I actually found most great literature extremely boring. So I can't imagine what all I would have found to read at that age that would keep me occupied through so many eons of cruising the atmosphere. The only books I actually consumed without profound effort at that age were ones like Portnoy's Complaint -- that is, novels starring radical teenagers living in middle-class family homes who are trying to shock their relatives by declaring that they are Communists -- because that was the only sort of person that I had any experience of being.
I hadn't at that age owned a home or worried about money or experienced a loss of faith or a bitter disappointment, so books concerned with any of those subjects did very little to speak to me. Yet I'm certain that the number of books in the world concerned exclusively with teenage middle-class would-be Communists -- while no doubt plentiful, given the sorts of people who write novels -- would nonetheless be insufficient to last me through through the rest of my life in a hot air balloon.
In short, there's not a great deal of intellectual satisfaction to be had from art or literature, if you do not have personal experiences that might resonate with it. To be sure, there is some sense in which literature can be interesting for the ways in which it departs from experience, but here too -- you need to have real experiences in the first place, against which to test it, for this departure to make any sense.
Thus, in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, the young Nathan Zuckerman finds himself envying the famous author with whom he comes to live, because the latter has managed to effectively strip his life of all non-intellectual elements. He is living the terrestrial equivalent of the hot air balloon fantasy. Each day is made up of a set routine of close reading, underlining, and annotating works of great literature.
Zuckerman regrets that his own life, by contrast, is of necessity made up of the sleazy give-and-take of earning a living -- in his case, by selling magazines door-to-door. Yet when he meets the great artist, he discovers that it is actually the latter who envies him. "I wish I knew that much about selling magazines," he tells Zuckerman. "I wish [...] I knew that much about anything. I've written fantasy for thirty years. Nothing happens to me." (We can see from American Pastoral that Zuckerman will eventually come to see the value as well in practical knowledge, when he tries to get the Swede to stop talking about his children and get back onto the details of fine glove-making.)
Every writer and reader dreams on some level that they might one day be able to remove all distractions and obstacles from their lives, so that they might concentrate on these two consuming passions with every waking moment. The sad truth, however, is that there's nothing much to write or read about if you don't have experience.
Notes Hazlitt in his essay "On the Ignorance of the Learned": "A mere scholar, who knows nothing but books, must be ignorant even of them. [...] How should he know anything of a work who knows nothing of the subject of it?"
Likewise, every young would-be novelist discovers -- once they are facing a blank sheet of paper -- that they don't have anything much to say. Because they haven't done anything yet, and they haven't learned anything yet.
If one is smart, therefore, one starts to seek out experiences with the hope that they will yield something to write about. As the insipid protagonist of Mailer's Harlot's Ghost expresses this prosaic yet inescapable truth: "If I had any conflict over my future occupation, it was on spring nights in New Haven [...] when I would tell myself that I really wished to become a novelist. Brooding upon this, I would inform myself that I did not have sufficient experience to write. Joining CIA would give me the adventures requisite to working up good fiction."
Alright, alright, so you can't really escape the need for experience. Fortunately, however, you also can't really escape experience either.
You can certainly entertain fantasies of the absolute solitude of the life of the mind. You can try to beat back all the encroaching weeds of sociability and civilization, and live totally wrapped up in an armchair. The attempt, struggle, and failure to achieve this pure solitude and uninterrupted contemplation, however, will become experiences in themselves -- and thus, most likely, the chief subject of one's intellectual and artistic cognition, once one is in isolation.
And supposing one does achieve total intellectual solitude, one still will not be rid of experience. If all else fails, one's psyche will begin acting up under such circumstances -- conjuring nightmares, delusions, horrors. These will be experiences too. To the extent that there is any "lesson" at all in Huysmans's bizarre novel À rebours, I suppose it is this. Des Esseintes -- our finicky and amoral protagonist -- encloses himself in his country estate, only to find that he is haunted there against his will by memories, neuroses, and even by a wicked urge to find religion.
The novelist Alasdair Gray put it this way, in an essay he wrote about his trip as a young scholarship student to Spain: "My tour was spent in an effort to avoid maturity gained by new experience. [... T]hat effort failed. Maturity is either bravely accepted or kicked against, but events always impose some of it."
There is, then, no final victory for either experience or intellect. Both the experience-niks and the intellect-heads are too smug by half in dismissing the contribution of the other. The meaning of life is found necessarily through experience, passed through the strain of intellectual conceptions.
My advice to the living, therefore, is as follows: if you have experienced something intense -- whether positive or negative -- seek out literature or art that resonate with that experience. You will find it only becomes more meaningful, and congeals into more of a memory, for being tested against this reading matter.
Likewise, if you have fallen in love with a particular myth in the abstract, find ways to approximate it in real experience. The latter may force you to readjust your myth -- but it may also lead you to appreciate and enjoy the myth all the more, for being able now to imagine oneself at the center of it.
And finally, if you find yourself facing an experience in your future that you cannot honestly avoid, do your best to mythologize it. So many of us have on occasion to do boring things. And there is no sense at all in doing them in boring way -- that is simply hurting oneself twice over. So if you have to clean a house, find a novel about house-cleaning. (I actually don't know what Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is about, but hey, maybe that would do the trick.) I you are asked -- as I recently was -- to become the new benefits steward for your union local, don't avoid the task because it means slightly more work. Instead, look upon this as the opportunity to finally read all those great novels about labor organizing and feel that they now involve you personally in some way.
Thus, I'm still waiting for that free afternoon when I can run to the book store and get a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
Life is best lived as a dialectical interplay between fantasy and reality, life and art, nature and culture, experience and intellect, body and mind. Each side of the dialogue exists to check and test and ultimately magnify the value of the other. Take out either one, and the other too will whither.
I'd imagine that the best of life's recompense for being a doctor, say, is reading all those doctor novels.