On Individualism

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.

IMG_2068Lecco 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.


Day 43: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

So you might know that in ancient Greece an idiotês was what they called a person who withdrew from society and kept private.  We might say, someone who kept their head in the sand.  In the context of Athenian democracy, this type of individual was viewed very negatively, since individuals who kept to themselves rather than engaging with society were seen as a threat to the political system—a system based on public discourse.

By the way, the word īdiotês is based on the same Greek root as the English word “idiot.”

But you’d have to be an idiot to think that knowing the Greek somehow gives you a more proper understanding of the modern English.  If you subscribe to this line of thinking then you are falling for what’s known as “the etymological fallacy.”  That’s a fancy term we non-elitists use to stigmatize certain elitist philologists—people who clam to have a superior understanding of proper uses and usages as a result of their knowledge of where words come from.

“Proper,” by the way, comes from the Latin adverb proprius, which is close in meaning to the Greek word idios.

These days, the general consensus is that language is best understood in terms of both diachronic and synchronic analysis; this means that we need to look at not only where modern words come from, but also how they relate to other words within the same modern language.  A proper idiot is clearly not the same thing as an idiotic idiot.  Right?

The one type of analysis I haven’t seen anyone yet consider is metachronic analysis.  Perhaps, an idiot is not merely distinct from an ancient idiotês nor merely from other people who exist synchronically—at the same time and in the same society.  An idiot, in the truest, fullest sense of the word, is an individual.  Someone who must be analyzed outside of time all together.

Maybe human identity isn’t only about other people who come before or at the same time or even after.  Maybe it’s also about the human as an individual.  A man who chooses to wear a yellow bow tie exists not only in relation to past and present fashion trends.  He also exists outside of time all together, in relation to all possible men with and without every possible kind of neck piece imaginable.

A good philologist is someone who also considers unusual uses and usages…

Until tomorrow,


Pigeons Rummaging

Day 21: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I got my hair cut on Saturday, and now I have the exact same hair as literally every dude in Milan: long on top, short all around.  I’m using “literally” in the hyperbolic sense of the word.  If my memory of English serves me, this is an acceptable usage, but correct me if I’m wrong.  It’s been a while since I’ve lived in an English-speaking community.  Anyway, the point is, I’m sure not everyone in the city has this hairstyle; I just haven’t seen the guy yet with a different one.

In any case, negotiating the cultural obstacles to getting a haircut is a bigger accomplishment than you might think.  I usually try not to worry too much about what people think of me, but it’s hard for a bum like me not to feel at least a little bit self-conscious about getting his hair cut in the fashion capital of the world.  Anyway, it’s settled now and I can relax.  I’ve disappeared as an individual into the fabric of society—at least as far as hair is concerned.

The other day I found these pigeons rummaging through the leaves in the park.  Their tiny little feet made these exquisitely subtle crinkle sounds as they walked.  It was like a delicately woven web of white noises.  All I had was my cell phone, but I thought I should try to record them even if the sound quality isn’t the best…

In the picture, it’s a little hard to see the pigeons clearly.  They almost kind of blend in with the fallen leaves.  But I think that was an intentional part of the aesthetic they were going for.  It’s a poetics of invisibility.  Their sounds also almost disappear into the fabric of the surrounding sonic environment.  You might not even notice them when you first start listening.  That’s what makes it so interesting.

For a similar effect, take a plastic wrapper and crinkle it next to your ear. Then contemplate the complexity of human identity as you chew on the candy inside.

I was going to include the Tom Lehrer song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” in this post, but I listened to the lyrics again and realized something: I hate that song.  I mean, Zak, I don’t get emotional about too many things, but poisoning innocent pigeons?  The poor defenseless little creatures, you hardly even notice that they’re there.  No offense, but anyone who thinks that’s funny is sick.

Until tomorrow,


Plagiarizing Pick Up Lines

Day 19: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

As you know, I have a bird back home named Jerry.  Jerry is able to speak basic American English, but he has a heavy conure accent.  So far he has learned how to say “hi Jerry” and “hi there,” and he spends a lot of time repeating these phrases.  It seems like, for Jerry, these two greetings contain most of what he wants to express in life.

But let me ask you a question, Zak: what if this weren’t the case?  What if Jerry suddenly decided he wanted to learn more phrases?  For example, what if he learned how to say “I love you” or “I am a self-aware moral agent capable human-like empathy.”  This second phrase might be very cute to show people at parties, but should we believe what he’s saying?  Does the fact that English is Jerry’s second language effect the credibility of the things he asserts in it?

By the way, Zak, I just found this hilarious cat picture online:

Speaking of second languages, when I learned ancient Greek, I spent a lot more time than I normally would writing about “the boy leading the oxen through the field.”  This is a fairly interesting topic.  I could maybe justify writing a page or two about it; as I remember it, though, my Greek writing for the first couple months expressed an almost obsessive fixation with boys, fields, and oxen.  It was all I ever talked about.  “The boy leads the oxen through the field.”  “The boy plows the field leading the oxen.”  “The field would about to have been plowed if the boy were to lead the oxen through the field in order to plow it.”

Zak, while these sentences were all great works of literature, do you really think readers should have believed that they expressed my genuine sentiments about boys plowing fields with oxen?  Of course, in normal life, language is clearly not about parroting back phrases you’ve heard somewhere else.  If that were the case, every online blog would be fixated on the same things—like cats or inspirational catch-phrases or Fw: Fw: Fw: How I Made a Fortune Blogging and Hilarious Prank Gone Wrong!!!!

For some people love and dating is a fixation like this.  I am given to understand that boys, when they’re not plowing fields, sometimes speak a second language to pick up girls.  (On which, see bizarrelovetriangleblog)

When I first came to Italy I sometimes would accidentally use words or phrases that were either archaic or very formal.  This was because most of my Italian up to that point had come from books and literature I had read, some of which was very old.

This made for some awkward conversations…

I’d meet people and they’d ask, “so what’s your story?” but then they wouldn’t believe me when I started to answer, “midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood…”  I didn’t understand the problem; it seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable answer. If an inspirational blogger ever tells you to be true to thine own self… I won’t say they’re being inauthentic, but it is possible they’ve learned English from reading Shakespeare.

For some English speakers, when they think of Italy the first thing that comes to mind is Dante, for others it’s more or less spaghetti ? I think that’s what that is.

Maybe Jerry should start a blog.

Until tomorrow,