Day 108: Tuesday
Good Morning Zak,
This letter comes to you from Lecco. I mean I’ll have to copy it into the computer later, but as I write this, I’m sitting at the top of the Castello dell’Innominato, looking down at the long winding ‘branch’ of lake Como, which stretches so far a distance it could almost compete with the length of sentences Alessandro Manzoni used to describe it.
Lecco isn’t far from my apartment in Milan, but culturally it feels like a world away. It’s hard to leave the narrow metropolitan streets of Milan without getting in some angry person’s way. It’s equally hard to leave the endless expanses of Lecco without making friends with at least one random stranger — usually five or six. The mountains are crawling with communitarian Alpine dwellers who are always trying to invite you into their homes… simply because you’re there.
I just read the YA novel Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green. It’s about a girl named Aza and her struggle with OCD as a teenager. The book raises poignant questions about identity, individualism, and personhood. The characters seem to feel that the conformity of modern society prevents them from expressing themselves as individuals:
“I’ve got a theory about uniforms. I think they design them so that you become, like, a nonperson, so that you’re not Daisy Ramirez, a Human Being, but instead a thing that brings people pizza and exchanges their [Chucky Cheese] tickets for plastic dinosaurs. It’s like the uniform is designed to hide me.”
-Daisy Ramirez (AKA a thing that brings people pizza)
I understand psychologists refer to that feeling as depersonalization. It’s a prevalent theme in Green’s book. The main character struggles with obsessive thoughts, which leave her feeling isolated and depersonalized.
In short, Aza and Daisy are trying to escape the conformity and communitarianism of society in order to ameliorate their feelings of isolation.
Before the Green book, I read Making Sense of God, by Timothy Keller. He also talks about identity and individualism. Keller’s grandfather was born near Naples in 1880. When he decided he didn’t want to be a potter like everyone in his family before him, his father said,
“There are only three things you can do: You can be a priest, you can go into the military, or you can be a potter. That is it.”
He was oppressed, simply because he was there. So he moved to America.
Zak, I could almost picture an Italian saying that to their kid today. The American dream is to leave your family and duty in the old country and decide autonomously what new self you want to become. That much individualism is unusual. As far as I can tell, historian Jacob Burkhardt was right, people in the West, especially in America, have more freedom to decide who they are as individuals than at any point in human history. So they should be happy, right?
I think individualism is like Sushi. It’s both good and bad — but mostly just weird. If you have too much, it might feel great in the moment, but you’ll regret it the next morning. Too much individualism, and you’ll end up a hipster with a handlebar mustache, unable to talk to girls about the topical things girls like to talk about. Your conversations will be weird. The words will taste like Sushi in your mouths.
Zak, sometimes I’ve had kind of the opposite of the American dream.
American Evangelical churches are equipped with armrests. There are no armrests between the chairs at Italian Mass. I’m pretty sure that’s so the Italians can poke and bother each other during the homily. Italian’s are all up in each other’s business.
Like, you wouldn’t think it was anyone else’s business how my roommates and I clean our apartment, but I know a doorman who would beg to differ. Apparently I’m like Pigpen from the peanuts. We do such a bad job of cleaning that I track “hair and dust” with me when I walk out of the apartment and into the stairwell.
There are no individuals in Italy. Or at least, there aren’t supposed to be. There’s not supposed to be an armrest between where one person ends and the next person begins.
Sometimes despite myself I’ve had something like the anti-American dream. Sometimes I used to dream one of those Alpine dwellers would introduce me to their twenty-something-year-old Catholic daughter.
Until next time,
P.S. Here are some other wordpressers thoughts on Turtles All the Way Down. One critical perspective and two positive ones:
More on Individualism:
https://katsobservations.wordpress.com/2018/08/02/individualism-is-important/ <=Relates it to modern scientism, which I didn’t have space to talk about in this post.
https://jessicahof.blog/2018/05/04/fade-to-black-an-evil-of-individualism/ <= A Christian perspective.
I’ve also written a bit in reference to individualism and interpersonal relationships.
Zak, I wish more people would write about this topic critically. The individualism of modern society is something that leaves me very conflicted.