We Are All Schizophrenics Now

October 20, 2008

In this month’s Atlantic, Paul Bloom writes about the “exciting” new conception of “happiness,” one defined by the idea “that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another.” There is no “I” which decides from among impulses, whims, and thought-through decisions; there is merely the raging storm of those elements. It is a flawed article.

Let’s begin with his assertion that children do not cause happiness, but unhappiness. He writes:

“Similarly, if you ask people about their greatest happiness in life, more than a third mention their children or grandchildren, but when they use a diary to record their happiness, it turns out that taking care of the kids is a downer—parenting ranks just a bit higher than housework, and falls below sex, socializing with friends, watching TV, praying, eating, and cooking.”

Throughout the article, he conflates the idea of happiness-within-the-moment with happiness-with-one’s-life (I like to refer to the latter as “contentedness” though I’ve drawn a little bit of ire from people who disagree). This is no exception. Bloom draws no distinction between the act of childrearing and the fact of childrearing. The only two solutions are that we are deluded (which Bloom rejects) or that different selves are answering the question — it can’t be that he’s discussing two very different questions, posed to the same “self”: Do you enjoy the act of childrearing? and, Does it make you happy/contented to have children?

His commentary on fiction is both confusing and disturbing:

“Enjoying fiction requires a shift in selfhood. You give up your own identity and try on the identities of other people, adopting their perspectives so as to share their experiences. This allows us to enjoy fictional events that would shock and sadden us in real life. When Tony Soprano kills someone, you respond differently than you would to a real murder; you accept and adopt some of the moral premises of the Soprano universe. You become, if just for a moment, Tony Soprano.”

You do not “adopt” their perspectives. You do not “accept and adopt some of the moral premises of the Soprano universe.” In no way, shape, or form, do you “become” Tony Soprano, or Peter Pan, or Atticus Finch. This is a gross misreading of the idea of suspension of disbelief: it doesn’t mean that you adopt the moral premises of the fiction, or believe that it is real, but that you choose not to be bothered by its unreality while still knowing that it is unreal. This isn’t the first time I’ve referred to Helen Rittelmeyer on this subject, but I really like her way of putting it:

“He can’t really believe it—if he does, he’ll rush onstage to try and stop Oedipus from blinding himself!—but neither can he keep in the front of his mind that it’s just his friend Jeff in an Oedipus mask.”

Moreover, you do not “give up your own identity” and “try on” another. When fiction moves us, it is not because we have exchanged our identity for another, but because we have identified with another; we have not abandoned, even temporarily, our own premises, but have witnessed sympathetically a different set. The only reason that we are entertained by Tony Soprano is because we know him not to be real; this is why the events do not shock and sadden us. The ability to distinguish among reality, fiction, and lies is not a case of multiple selves, but of the capacity for complex understanding and thought.

But most important is that if, as he claims, we can “choose” from among our competing selves, a higher, controlling self must still remain to make this choice. And if that is the case, then all he has done is attempt to change the words we use to discuss the same phenomenon.  The exciting new way of looking at ourselves is nothing more than giving a new definition to “self.”  We ourselves are defined precisely as before.

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2 Responses to “We Are All Schizophrenics Now”

  1. James Says:

    JL – email me in re: this piece and your reaction at once. james @ culture11.com .


  2. […] 28, 2008 An earlier post (“We Are All Schizophrenics Now”) somehow led to an offer to expand it into an article on happiness, self, and multiplicity for […]


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