Convivium - Faith in our common life

Convivium Volume 1, No. 3


The Relatively Good Life

by Travis D. Smith

Composed as a therapeutic response to a debilitating bout of depression triggered by obsessive-compulsive disorder, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live is a captivating collection of introspective exercises in Nietzschean life-affirmation by Canadian novelist Ray Robertson. Mixing confessional storytelling with cultural criticism, Robertson's essays inevitably transcend his personal search for meaning and significance and offer up sharp perspectives and friendly counsel for his readers' consideration. Robertson resembles Nietzsche in seeming to say, "These are my values and truths, where are yours?" And yet, like Nietzsche, he cannot avoid intimating that some values are higher, some truths deeper, and some lives better lived. Unlike Nietzsche and his existentialist disciples, Robertson is no radical theorist of superhuman self-creation. Most of his topics are refreshingly mundane, from marriage and music to sex and sleep, from family and friends to drinking and death. His attunement to those natural commonalities that allow us to communicate with and relate to each other despite our differences, such that we may celebrate and commiserate together, accounts for the book's broad appeal.

Robertson excels at evoking recollections and stimulating sympathies such that even his more idiosyncratic observations and inferences feel familiar. Consider his take on carpe diem: one should approach each day with the same joie de vivre that stirs in every maple-blooded schoolboy once the radio announces that it's a snow day. My own sense of kinship to Robertson was, I confess, enhanced by our somewhat similar upbringings, from early childhood in economically depressed southern Ontario towns through crummy part-time jobs during high school to our college days as atypical philosophy majors. We both find the pedantic and sterile analytical tradition of professional philosophizing that prevails in the academy unappealing, preferring to immerse ourselves in the great books of the greatest authors. I, too, underwent a period when Nietzsche seemed to supply the best account of and response to life's aggravations. Beyond Nietzsche, Why Not? is seasoned with references to and quotations from a wide array of writers, philosophical and poetical—Voltaire, Baudelaire, Thoreau, Whitman, Camus and Chomsky, to name a few—exhibiting Robertson's learning and exposing his leanings. While he definitely tends more toward the romantics, he and I find agreement in rejecting the old accusation that there is a war between philosophy and poetry. Given the inextricable entanglement of the rational and arational in human nature, any plausible account of it must give each part its due.

The philosophical and the poetical alike tend toward the transcendent and the otherworldly, transporting us to a realm of ideas and imagination where we may experience a sort of bodilessness that Robertson describes in terms of "living chiefly in his head." Thus, they may be made to operate complementarily. It is unsurprising that fictional frameworks can be used to communicate rational arguments, as Plato demonstrated, or that the most compelling philosophical treatises, such as Augustine's or Hobbes', are also rhetorical works of art. Returning to Robertson, his writings flaunt rationalistic strictures. They are the effluent of a free spirit not haunted by hobgoblins insisting on finicky consistency.

The book's opening chapter on the power of labour to endow life with meaning is among Robertson's strongest. Work can be enriching or degrading, he understands. He is conscious of how bourgeois life shrivels us and wage labour contributes to feelings of alienation, but he does not succumb to ideological fantasies promising the emancipation of humankind through systemic change. While speaking from experience that some jobs have the potential to be more soul crushing than others, Robertson shows sufficient appreciation for the dignity of labour that he cannot support any simple distinction between ennobling and demeaning work.

Heck, the eponymous protagonist of his novel David takes up body snatching—a nothing-is-sacred occupation if there ever was one—yet his soul remains indomitable. (His gruesome trade is, of course, given a humanistic spin, as medical schools do need cadavers.) On a less repellent level, even the work of a janitor should be considered properly human and not essentially dehumanizing, as we are by nature creatures who cannot help making messes and generating waste. The conceit that there is work that is beneath the dignity of free persons to perform but which nevertheless must get done is the reason why, historically, republics were always slaveholding societies.

This is why it was so disconcerting that former President George W. Bush spoke so comfortably of "jobs that Americans won't do" when proposing domestic policy changes regarding categories of workers. The repulsiveness of his job aside, having been born a slave, Robertson's David is mindful of the preconditions of freedom, especially the sacrifices that others have made and the responsibilities that individuals must meet in order to sustain liberal coexistence. Unlike the generation of overstimulated, desensitized and jaded princesses and princes that we seem to be raising in our younger generation, David declares, "To be bored would be an insult. To be bored would be immoral." Robertson recognizes that there is a strong, positive relationship between labour, liberty and felicity, and that relaxation is a delight only after it has been earned.

Whereas Robertson is strong on the role of labour in a free and happy life, Why Not? is conspicuously silent regarding the significance of human communities that extend further than the close personal relationships one shares with parents, a spouse, loyal friends and one's dog. Robertson rightly extols the ability to enjoy solitude, but that commendation is not accompanied by an appreciation for neighbourhoods, local communities, voluntary associations or membership in organizations, the components of civil society that constitute the precursors of political life.

Political activity itself is absent from his account of what makes life worthwhile. Apart from obligatory sneers at the villains one finds on Fox News and in the National Post, his book is largely apolitical. His offhand partisan remarks are balanced by his being unaligned with and unimpressed by mass political movements and utopian programs for realizing global social justice. No urge to agitate on behalf of "secular isms" moves him. It is with respect to his confessed unsociable qualities that the limitations of Robertson's own experiences reveal themselves. He is an only child, a situation he boasts of as privileged, and he has never been a joiner. He admits that he is deaf to the value of those parts of life with which he has no first-hand familiarity, but he doesn't contemplate striking out beyond his comfort zone in order to enjoy life in the company of others more. (I criticize empathetically, having long shared the same aversion, as well as a related fault: discomfort with and in the material world.

I am regularly told that I would enjoy winter more if I took up skiing or snowshoeing, but I'm sorry—I don't do outdoors.) In the spirit of Mill and Emerson as well as Nietzsche, Robertson's book contains a chapter that champions individuality defined as "uniqueness translated into action." It does not concern him that a society too enamoured with individuality is also susceptible to individualism in the not-so-good sense that Tocqueville diagnosed and Hobbes intended—the kind that materializes among proud yet indifferent and disconnected persons, conducive to despotism. Indeed, at one point Robertson mentions that "maybe freedom is overrated." When I interviewed him at the 2012 Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal, he conceded that he would be okay with living under a tyrant so long as he was left alone to enjoy what he likes—a pretty improbable proviso, that. Robertson's view of human happiness is sometimes reminiscent of the Stoics', who attempted to reconcile themselves to the conditions of empire, where the virtues of the active life are unknown. It also reverberates with the Rousseauistic suspicion that social and political activities are usually traps or poisons and undoubtedly obstacles to living an authentic life.

As evidenced in his passionate chapter on art, Robertson is enamoured with authenticity as a concept. He accuses our society of suffering from "a deficiency of consciously chosen, authentically existing meaning." (Me, if I agree with Hobbes on anything, it is that authenticity is overrated. Living in Montreal has taught me to prize even totally phony politesse.) In connection with his yearning for authenticity, Robertson extols wild and dangerous art. As a professed lover of rock and roll for largely the same reasons that Allan Bloom famously denounced it—as a primal wail set to a rutting beat—Robertson reproduces Nietzsche's adulation of the Dionysian. Holding artists to a very high standard, Robertson's damning portrait of Brian Wilson as a pop chart Raskolnikov is particularly harsh.

Rejecting romanticized portrayals of Wilson as a tragic victim with a noble soul, Robertson depicts him instead as someone who simply lacked the ardour and valour necessary to live out the life of an extraordinary artist in full, claiming that Wilson engaged in selfsabotage to supply excuses for his failures. Closer to home, Robertson takes jabs at members of the CanLit community for being beholden to granting agencies and sycophantic toward award committees, craven conditions that suppress creativity and suck the fun out of everything. Like David Mamet, he is weary of problem plays presented so that we may salute our moral sentiments, proclaiming "[fill in the blank] are people too!" Reflecting on his own creative process, however, Robertson cannot be unaware that he resides within a tension. He admires Kerouac for disparaging "attempts at slow, painstaking, and all-that-crap craft business," but when he describes praiseworthy writing, he acknowledges that its composition requires "the minutest attention to detail," repeating a musician's exhortation to "practise your scales" in explaining what it takes to become truly innovative. As regards writing dangerously, Robertson's own social commentary is relatively safe by the standards of polite company in Canada. He ranks good health foremost among human pleasures. He issues a blanket dismissal of conservatives as self-centred conformists governed by fear.

He states a somewhat squishy Hegelianism in remarking that everyone principally desires "acknowledgement, inclusion, appreciation," that is, to feel at home in the world. And he dutifully reminds people to recycle their coffee cups. Another tension arises when Robertson complains about our all-too-human propensity for inventing arbitrary standards against which people judge others as their inferiors, and then he looks down on those whom he regards as insufficiently authentic or otherwise deficient according to his aesthetic lights. Robertson claims that "humour is relativism," but his own wit betrays the fact that there is an irreducible factor of derision in humour. There is something conventionally Canadian about wanting to maintain a relativistic attitude while projecting confidence in one's own superiority as an instance of enlightened and authentic personhood. At bottom, glorifying the transformative power of art is elitist, but in finding ecstasy in Beach Boys hits rather than in concertos, sonatas and operettas, Robertson illustrates the tension inherent in taking pride in one's democratic bona fides.

Forgive me if my next point borders on ad hominem, but another area where the limits of Robertson's own experiences may limit his capacity to serve as a guide to the good life emerges in his treatment of love. He writes that love is ideal to "the degree to which this or that person helped make you you. The you that you wanted to be."

He adds, "To have someone thank you for helping them be happier in their life—however they define happiness—is the highest interpersonal compliment one can receive." Here is where I wonder if it is relevant that Robertson has neither children of his own nor a religious affiliation. His outlook on love disregards its greater manifestations in those who would help you to become better than you ever thought you could be and in ways that you had never entertained or imagined. This is the love that parents have for their children, however imperfectly they practise it, and that God has for each of His children. (Did God command men and women to multiply so that they would learn gratitude? That seems to be the reason why would-be grandparents nag.) Unconditional love is not, as prevailing sentiment would have it, simply accepting someone exactly as they present themselves and enabling them to satisfy whichever appetites rouse them and realize whatever objectives they posit for themselves. That is how you flatter a tyrant. Unconditional love, rightly understood, never gives up on trying to help someone else to become better no matter how much they fall short, screw up and stray. This conception of love is not exclusively Biblical; it is a defining feature of what Aristotle identified as belonging to virtuous friendships. Admittedly, it is not a democratic notion, but just as egalitarianism deplores enmity, it is inherently inimical to friendship. If Robertson's subjectivist account of love seems attractive nowadays, it is because it flatters us, we the children of Hobbes and Hegel. To be fair to Robertson, his own practice contradicts his definition. His appeal to the transformative power of art implies that people can be changed for the better by those who are able to perceive and impart something good and new. The very act of writing this book suggests that he has suggestions for others that would bring them greater happiness if only they listened and lived otherwise than they do. Surely his advice to the Willy Lomans of the world would not aim at assisting them in becoming the best possible buyers and sellers of goods and services.

Robertson's meditations will prove ultimately unsatisfying to many readers, especially members of the Convivium Project. Robertson does not seriously debate the claims of Revelation or examine the habits of believers except to highlight the similarities between religious and psychedelic experiences so that he may recommend the latter. But unlike so many recent polemical tracts proselytizing for popularized atheism, Robertson's book is no screed against religious devotion. Believers who are skeptical of an unbeliever's contributions to discourse on the good life should approach Robertson's book in a spirit of generosity. If Augustine could find values to esteem and partial truths concealed in the writings of the pagans, then there is no reason why God-fearing readers today cannot benefit from this author's endeavour to vindicate life as it is lived in Canada, where evidence amply confirms that prolonged peace and widespread plenty do not put an end to grief and grievance. One might contend that Robertson's perspective asserts the supremacy of the will and as such his "reasons to live" may be rationalizations only and his sources of duty and meaning nothing but vanity. I cannot say with certainty that his ethics can resist the descent into nihilism that characteristically befalls nice Nietzscheanisms as they venture forth from the abyss but never quite achieve escape velocity. I must say that it would have been bizarre had Why Not? won the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, for which it was longlisted, since the 1991 Massey Lectures by that other Canadian Charles Taylor of note may be read as an anticipatory reaction to elements of it. That said, in contrast with the more wilful efforts to impose meaning on life in this world by any means and at any cost as recorded in the annals and deeds of the most hardened of humanists, Robertson's irreverent attempts are much more congenial. Plus, he sports a moustache exactly like Hulk Hogan's, and you gotta love that, brother.



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About Travis D. Smith

Travis D. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal.