The cultural critic Lee Siegel has done what cultural critics are supposed to do and described one of those ineffable conditions of American life: We don’t know what to take seriously anymore. Is Brian Williams a serious news anchor or is he playing at being serious? How about Jon Stewart? The New York Times exudes seriousness, but the satire of The Onion can also be very serious. Siegel’s new book, Are You Serious?, eventually climbs to a grander philosophical height: We’re uncertain how to live seriously. Does a serious person move to the suburbs? Make a lot of money? Have children? Believe in God? As you can imagine, this book has some serious shit in it.
Perhaps that last sentence crossed the line into silliness, which Siegel names as the enemy of seriousness. Yet it’s silliness, in the refined form of wit, that moves the culture forward when things have become too stale and entrenched (like, say, in that high-culture heirloom the book review). So people are forever becoming serious, and then that seriousness gets punctured and a new style emerges. Until now, Siegel argues: We seem to have hit a serious logjam, thanks partly to the Internet, which was the subject of Siegel’s last book, Against the Machine, where he made a convincing case that the Internet is driving Lee Siegel crazy and is perhaps making the rest of us more sadly generic in our social lives.
Siegel’s business-casual jaunt through seriosity begins with the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, who saw the decline of religious spirit and proposed the “high seriousness” of poetry and literature in its place. “Seriousness implied a trustworthy personality,” Siegel writes, “just as faith in God once implied a trustworthy soul.” The way in which Arnold connected morality to cultural refinement soothed the intellectual insecurity of Americans vis-à-vis Europe and appealed to our ethos of self-improvement. The contemporary disciples of Arnold are those friends of yours who read Ulyssesalong with Ulysses Annotated, actually go to art galleries, and know their way around a Ring cycle. The way they enjoy culture expresses their seriousness of purpose. “Yet Arnold had nothing to say about seriousness in life,” Siegel warns. He then proceeds to demonstrate—hilariously, with his own bio—the absurd dangers of being overserious about art and literature.
Siegel was one of those asthmatic, bedbound kids who plow through great books with the vigor of a well-caffeinated graduate student. The highpoint of his intellectual seriousness arrived during college in the 1970s, when he “assured prospective employers of my immunity to distraction by admiringly invoking Aristotle’s observation that copulation makes all animals sad.” Or when a girlfriend asked him, “What’s wrong?” he replied: “Oh, nothing, Spinoza associated desire with disconnected thinking—that’s all.” He went to an interview at the Social Register thinking that it was a socialist magazine.
The kind of college-essay seriousness that blindfolded Siegel emerged after the Second World War. The GI Bill sent veterans to college and the trauma of the war left many of them literally searching for the meaning of life. American culture was at its middlebrow peak: Catcher in the Rye, Jackson Pollock in Life magazine, Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan. Siegel calls this the Golden Age of seriousness, when intellectuals had real clout; JFK read Andre Malraux while shaving; and we took politicians, sports stars, Frank Sinatra, and Walter Cronkite seriously. All of this seriousness created a gravity that gave weight to more ordinary roles of father, mother, service worker, high-school student.
But along came the counterculture, as Siegel’s tour continues on its studiously unponderous way. Its leading figures—Siegel is particularly fond of Allen Ginsberg—noted that this seriousness excluded women, minorities, homosexuals. To be serious now meant to be politically conscious, “committed.” During this time, seriousness also got chipped away at by Susan Sontag’s camp, which is a serious form of silliness. In the 1980s, conservatives grabbed the mantle of seriousness by declaring that the American mind was closing, and we needed white, male, Christian rigor. That’s when the left brought out the big gun: irony. Siegel explains: “You weren’t serious unless you were using irony to make the point that the appearance of seriousness was the telltale sign of being unserious.” The events of 9/11 seemed to usher in a new sobriety, but Siegel maintains that any purchase the new seriousness had was destroyed with the WMD fiasco and the selling of the Iraq war.
Which leaves us in our current state of affairs, with the “vigorous unfolding of seriousness and serious anti-seriousness” stalled. The awesome speed, reach, and flexibility of the Internet to promote and deflate any trend, person, or mood have left us grasping for a sense of what is serious. Siegel has several eccentric examples, some stronger than others, but let’s look at John Updike. Late in his career, the celebrated author of the Rabbit tetralogy became a target of attacks by the likes of David Foster Wallace and James Wood for publishing too much (and crowding out others). “Strangely, it was the vital constituents of Updike’s seriousness—his remarkable productivity, his graphomaniacal compulsion to annotate every lush detail of existence—that had been one of his detractor’s chief grievances,” writes Siegel.
What Siegel sees in Updike’s story is an anxiety about the state of the novel: Updikean seriousness stood in contrast to the decline of the novel’s seriousness—its loss of cultural importance. We are still serious about movies and music, in the sense that people are moved to discuss and debate them, but less so about literature. Siegel’s challenge: Name a novel that has moved you in the last year as a novel did in high school or college. The new generation’s disdain for Updike was given more fuel by his dimissal of the Internet, which he called an “electronic anthill.” The pounding that Updike took belied a deeper concern: It’s easier to criticize a fogey-ish stance than it is to reinvigorate the novel—to make it serious again.
The irony, according to Siegel, is that even as Updike has been put in the attic, writers themselves have become too serious, too professional and too self-consciously literary in style in a quest to separate their work from the common language of OMG and WTF. To be serious is tricky: An artist has to find the vital path between musty seriousness and worthless silliness. Pixar has done it, so has Stephen Colbert.
I’ve only pulled at a few of the provocative strings in Siegel’s book. His argument that Sarah Palin is someone who has signaled seriousness by being willing to humiliate herself on reality TV makes a wild sort of sense. At other times, Siegel floats some nonsense that he knows to be silly.
But I don’t want to leave you hanging without providing Siegel’s answer to the question of finding seriousness in life. He gives us his “three pillars”: attention, purpose, continuity. That could mean being a really competent lawyer. Or being so skilled at being a pilot that you land a plane on the Hudson and save everyone onboard. Or being like Socrates and drinking the hemlock to prove that you believed in your ideas. Just find the thing that makes you “fully alive” and then you’re set. Which is to say that although the cultural and political figures we should take seriously change, the prospect of becoming a serious person remains dauntingly unchanged.