The American joy deficit

The Americans,” he wrote (and it is your job to guess who he is),

strive for gold; and their breathless haste … is already spreading to the old Europe… Already one is ashamed of keeping still; long reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in hand, as one eats lunch with an eye on the financial pages … the desire for joy already calls itself ‘the need to recuperate’ … ‘one owes it to one’s health’ — that is what one says when caught on an excursion in the countryside. Soon we may well reach the point where one cannot give in to the desire for a vita contemplativa [contemplative life] (that is, taking a walk with ideas and friends) …

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25 thoughts on “The American joy deficit

  1. No idea who wrote that. Crèvecoeur? More interestingly, though, I pasted the whole paragraph into the Google search window, and a link to this very entry on your blog came up top of the list. How do you get your posts on Google this quickly?

  2. Could it be de Tocqueville?

    Whoever it was, they’d despair even more today. I read that kids between 8 and 18 now spend 7.5 hours per day interacting with a technology toy, be it computer, cell phone, iPod or xbox. Because they multitask they are actually jamming 11 hours of stimulation into that 7.5.

    Doesn’t bode well for the survival of the vita contemplativa in any form does it?

  3. Surely Sarah Palin?

    Or, more probably, Nietzsche. It also sounds a lot like the criticisms the French establishments made of Sarkozy early in he Presidency.

  4. I know who wrote it because I cheated. The internet has made me lazy and allowed my memory muscle to atrophy. I will refrain from revealing who I found it to be. But I will comment on what I read after learning who it was…

    It appears to me that he is lamenting what we call the “American work ethic” and its influence on Europe, which (I think) he sees through idealized eyes.

    I wonder if I concluded that because of who wrote it?

  5. My guess was de Tocqueville too, but only because he was the only prominent European I knew to have visited America. Google Books soon corrected me. (And it sounded too gloomy for de Tocqueville anyway).

  6. Man, the guy surely knew where to find a large audience.

    With substantially shorter travel he would have come to similar conclusions in nearby Switzerland.

    Alas, markets. Bigger seems to be better.

  7. Nietzsche, The gay science.

    But I cheated. I looked a sentence of your quote up in Google.
    But an excess in ‘vita contemplativa’ is also bad. One walks and walks and ideas fly away (or come back but they are stupid).

    It seems you are meditating quite a lot about the hurry of modern, workaholic life.

  8. OK, so we have:
    1 Crevecoeur
    Several Tocquevilles
    1 Twain
    1 Palin
    and several Nietzsches, all disallowed because of Googling

    Yup, it’s Nietzsche.

    I thought it was interesting because he wrote in in the 19th century and it sounds so modern — what with watches and “financial pages” of newspapers.

    Of course, that also provided the hint that it could not be said by anybody younger than 40 today. (“What’s a watch? What’s a newspaper?”). Even though, as Thomas said above, that demographic is especially at risk of losing the vita contemplativa.

  9. I thought it was Kipling, which led me to his — first hand — observations of America, written about a decade after Nietzsche wrote the above passage: 

    “Understand clearly … that money will not buy you service in the West. When the hotel clerk—the man who awards your room to you and who is supposed to give you information—when that resplendent individual stoops to attend to your wants he does so whistling or humming or picking his teeth, or pauses to converse with some one he knows. These performances, I gather, are to impress upon you that he is a free man and your equal. From his general appearance and the size of his diamonds he ought to be your superior. There is no necessity for this swaggering self-consciousness of freedom. Business is business …”

    • Kipling is an interesting guess. To me the quote sounded more “continental”, but it has a bit of Kipling’s voice, too.

      Your quote, of course, is classic Kipling, and explains why he had to go out of fashion for a long time before coming (selectively) back into it….

  10. In 500 B.C. or 2510 B.P. in modern archaelogical parlance, Socrates spoke in about the same terms as reported by Plato. Nihil novi sub sole, amice.
    As for Papandreou he is too busy balancing books to meditate much, save maybe on number crunching or cooking the books.

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