The “Necessity” of art, privacy, and liberalism

February 09, 2021

This, an older (2018) essay by Lauren Oyler, is really interesting. I think, at its heart, this is a critique of, or a resistance to, the idea that our lives should always and everywhere intentionally, exhaustively, exhaustingly?, political – – caught up in a political struggle for the achievement of an improved polity.

“The suggestion that leisure is crucial calls to mind the concept of “self-care,” which has in recent years transcended its niche popularity among Tumblr users — who are fond of a 1988 quote by the black lesbian writer Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” — to ride into the mainstream on this rationale. Now you can reframe any innocuous pleasant activity as a requisite component of your political practice. Companies and Instagram influencers have quickly manipulated the term to sell more stuff, and guilty individuals have found an easy way to account for their weekly manicures, or the afternoons they spend reading novels. Never mind that no one asked.”

Anyone who has read Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture on the way we talk about vacations as "recharging our batteries," will recognize the worry here.  It's a good worry.

Politics, especially in recent years, can seem so immanent, so imperative, so always and everywhere necessary. I take away from Oyler’s essay the idea that this is a terribly reductive way of living. She may be right.  I’d like to think she is.  Several centuries of liberal political thought suggest she is: effectively she’s arguing for a sphere separate from, living on conditions fundamentally other than, our political sphere.  I too think such a reality can exist, sometimes.  This may be why I remain, I think, a liberal, in the broadest possible sense.

Then again, it is deeply the case that people with different bodies and different skin tones are not so easily allowed these kinds of rights, and in that sense, Oyler’s essay sounds a little tone deaf to me.  Premised on the presumption that such a reality is equally accessible to everyone.  Obviously it is not.

There’s some sort of resonance between Oyler’s critical skepticism about the popularity of the rhetoric of “self-care” and Toni Morrison’s idea of racism as a “distraction”.  I don’t think many people register how deeply dismissive, even contemptuous, that epithet is about racism.  I wonder if it can be stably asserted, by anyone, especially anyone who is not not white.  Even when it is said by someone as esteemed as Toni Morrison, it is shocking.

Nonetheless, I do think Oyler’s core point is a good one.  And a good one, about politics, too, for me—we engage in politics in order to create something beyond politics.  Can we not have a foretaste of that yet-to-come in the here-and-now?

The most literarily powerful counter-voice to Oyler’s position—most powerful that I know of, anyway—is found in Bertold Brecht’s poem “An die Nachgebornen,” a useful translation of which is findable on-line.  Here’s a crucial stanza (translation slightly modified by me):

I would happily be wise.
The old books say what wisdom is:
To turn from the strife of the world
To live the short time of life without fear
To travel without violence
To repay evils with good
Not to sate wishes, but to forget them,
Thus are the wise.
But all this I cannot do:
Truly I live in dark times!


It matters, to me at least, that this poem is Brecht’s apologia for being such a bastard in his life (he was, as far as I know), and that the causes he fought for, with every fiber of his being, all more or less finally became part of Soviet totalitarianism--and so did he.  Perhaps, if he had heeded those old books, something of his legacy would not be so totally stained by the machinations of the system he served.  Perhaps the dream of retaining in some reserve an aspirational region of individuality, selfhood defended against politics, sheer interiority, would have been wiser, for him.  Perhaps, in some ideal way, it is for us as well.