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Self and Soul … More Thoughts

When I launched this blog, I envisioned it as venue to explore the history and culture of Jersey City, my adopted hometown. However, the blog is evolving into  a sounding board for my musings on culture, literature, the humanities, and other topics within and without my homestead in the Garden State.

Never fear, Jersey City boosters, an upcoming post will return to the writings of Washington Irving. Incidentally, my post on the connection between Irving and Jersey City is my most read piece, popular with readers in Britain, Europe, Russia, and India. I’m flattered and, more importantly, I hope that a few new souls have discovered and enjoyed Irving’s stories.

My last post reviewed Mark Edmundson’s Self and Soul: a Defense of Ideals. Although I finished the book itself several weeks ago, it has been weighing on my mind and imagination. Recent events in the political sphere and popular culture reveal the pressing truth of Edmundson’s thesis.

In the past week and some days, both national parties held a presidential caucus and primary (I’m not wasting words or energy on describing the difference between the two contests). Most candidates offer platitudes or promise handouts, but present voters with no challenges. How can we as citizens make our communities, our government, and our country better? Don’t worry corporations and politicians will take care of you. What sacrifices might we need to make? None. Why should we change our daily lives? That would be un-American.

Last Sunday, America gorged itself—figuratively and literally—on the materialistic excess of the Superbowl. The audience and the media commentators picked apart the halftime commercials as if debating the fine points of the novels of Proust or the paintings of Cezanne. Men—well-compensated but certainly destined for a lifetime of crippling medical and mental problems—mauled one another for the profit of sports team owners, sponsors, and television executives. This is high entertainment in contemporary America.

Edmundson argues that a society—our society, American society—needs ordinary people and august leaders of the soul in order to accomplish greatness and build a world worth passing on and inheriting. Trapped in a bubble of constant noises and images, how can we conceive of the soul? How can we break free from the world?


The Dreamer, Casper David Friedrich, c. 1935 (Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum).

As noted in the previous post, Edmundson presents no solutions to the problem and no hints on how to construct a new life for oneself. I wonder if shedding our materialistic, mechanistic, and daresay scientific view of the natural world might bring us nearer to a life of the soul. What if we approached the world with awe and enchantment? What if we saw magic and beauty in both nature and everyday life? What if we believed in forces and a power beyond our control and certainly beyond our comprehension? Might we then awaken with a new vigor and a zeal for greatness?

Just a few thoughts …


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