A series of contemplative essays on the challenges posed by modernity, with particular emphasis on the United States.
Author David Bouchier (Not Quite a Stranger: Essays on Life in France, 2015, etc.) refuses to consider himself an intellectual, though he does seem comfortable with an “amateur philosopher.” In that spirit, he has composed a series of essays that occupy the cerebral space between scholarly cogitation and sophisticated correspondence, both accessible and meditatively thoughtful. The topics he covers are wide-ranging: education, sexual identity, consumer culture, and the necessary conditions of civilization. Still, there are at least two narrative threads that holds this eclectic assemblage of short pieces together: a defense of a principled skepticism and a diagnosis—he’s not pessimistic enough to perform an autopsy—of the diseased body that is modernity. The author considers this book a “contribution to the literature of skepticism,” and he defends the extreme philosophical caution of the skeptic against the hubristically confident claims of the “True Believer.” “What should stand in the way of dumb belief (but rarely does) is the awareness of our own ignorance. The number of things we don’t know is overwhelmingly vast.” Also, he writes with great passion and elegance about the failure of modernity, or the American dream that eventually transformed into an “international dream,” a sanguine optimism that progress will deliver us all from the pain and encumbrances of life. Its cataclysmic failure threw the world into an abyss of meaninglessness and ultimately substituted “apocalyptic pessimism” for cheerful hopefulness. Bouchier artfully combines lighthearted wit—he believes humor is the “only response” to the absurdity of human life—with analytical seriousness. For all his playfulness, this book radiates gravity, a profound concern with the fate of man. The author’s study lacks originality—there’s nothing here that will astonish the moderately belletristic reader—and it never seems to occur to Bouchier that some version of religion could be defended on rational grounds, a peculiar dogmatism for a principled skeptic. Still, this is a stylistically rendered and intelligent reflection on the foibles of contemporary life.
A ruminatively enjoyable if familiar consideration of the failed promise of modernity.