Let me save some lazy reviewer of James Poulos’ new book, The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us From Ourselves, the trouble. The temptation here would be to say something grasping at wit about how it’s a book less about “the art of being free” and more about “the art of free association.”
To cite examples just off the top of my head, the book riffs on Taylor Swift, Shakespeare, Between Two Ferns, Descartes, Marilyn Manson lyrics, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Rorty, Peter Thiel, Milan Kundera, Marilyn Monroe, Bret Easton Ellis, Stanley Kubrick, Schopenhauer, Batman, Pynchon, The Monster at the End of This Book, Chesterton, and, at more than one point, Poulos describes popular GIFs used on social media for the benefit of readers. What’s more, frequently the most disparate cultural and intellectual touchstones end up on opposite ends of the same sentence. The very first sentence of the book even declares, “This is a weird book for people who feel like they might be a little crazy.”
So then, you might be asking yourself, just what the hell is this book about? Well, mercifully the title is straightforward and essentially accurate, but don’t get your hopes up just yet. While de Tocqueville may be the wellspring from which Poulos’s cultural firehose derives, taken on his own, de Tocqueville is rarely a source of clarity. “Democracy in America” is more quoted than read, and more read than understood.
That’s because de Tocqueville’s ambitious goal was to describe the American experience as it relates to the American experiment, which by its nature is an incredibly complicated endeavor. “Democracy in America” contains multitudes, and untangling the web of startling insights has proven enough of a difficult and rewarding task that we’re still talking about it two centuries later.
It is inevitable that any attempt to wrestle with this complexity will necessarily reflect that. Poulos is an energetically intellectual man and his neon-streaked take on the nineteenth-century French aristocrat doesn’t retreat to anachronistic thinking. Instead, he wrestles with the relevance to the scope and breadth of a twenty-first-century America that de Tocqueville may or may not have seen coming.
A Deconstructed Self-Help Book
If I may slip here into Poulosian argot, the TL;DR of those last few paragraphs might be that Poulos has tried very, very hard to say original things regarding a man about whom much has already been said. Since my task as a reviewer here is more conventional and decidedly less original, let me make the kind of comparisons that reviewers are supposed to make, with the caveat that Poulos has done something decidedly unique.
First, it resembles the work of Matthew Crawford, best known for the bestseller Shop Class as Soul Craft, a writer who has managed to make very pure and abstract philosophical inquiries accessible and relevant. Like Crawford, Poulos is identifiable as a Man of the Right, albeit one decidedly uninterested in conservative orthodoxies. Then there’s a kind of obsessive and frenetic concern with the cultural ends of postmodernism one might associate with the essays of the late, great David Foster Wallace. (Again, while this did not define his work in a political sense, Wallace also evinced a surprisingly conservative moralistic streak.)
Poulos himself has something to say more specific about the book’s purpose. After declaring the book a weird book for crazy people, he spends most of the lengthy introduction explicitly preparing the reader for its crazy shifts in tone, warning he will be gloss over “matters of ultimate concern”; mix the high and the low brows; comingle “the profane and the sacred.” The closest he gets to a definitional idea of the book is that it’s a deconstructed self-help book. The contention is that it’s become hard to help ourselves, largely because we’ve redefined what it means to be in way that we don’t recognize:
The self-help industry is great at giving us perspectives on the whole, or slices of it, even as its many niches and particularities make claims to a level of transcendence, completeness, or universality that’s forcefully compelling. Movements, memes, gurus, cults, and New York Times bestsellers—you know, crazes—rise and fall, flare and fade away. But we’re still here. And, as usual, we’re left holding the bag. What’s in the bag? The self!
Identity Distracts Us From Equality
A related key insight here that Poulos wrestles with throughout the book is that, for many reasons, we tend to think of our existence in terms of identity, and this distracts us from focusing on our shared humanity. “Even where it appears that our differences overwhelmingly define some aspect of life, de Tocqueville wants us to attend fully to the underlying equality that in fact makes those differences manifest, relevant, and, open, incredibly annoying,” he writes.
So if the art of being free—that phrase is directly cribbed from de Tocqueville, for what it’s worth—is escaping the prison of self, how do we do that? Well, Poulos suggests a clever rhetorical device to short-circuit our inclination toward narcissism:
In this book, I want you to envision three basic characteristics of our underlying equality—but not by using adjectives, the way we so often do. I want us to use adverbs. Fear not, there’s a method to the madness here. Throughout this book we’ll be consciously rejecting today’s prevailing obsession with identity in the sense of whoness. Rather than focusing on who or what we are, we’re going to focus on how we are—because our howness tells us more of what we need to know about being than our whoness does.
While we reflexively hear adjectives to declare what we are—I’m rich, I’m bored, I’m fine, I’m awesome—we can train our ears to hear adverbs announce how we are, even though it sounds odd or outlandish at first: I am, richly; I am, boredly, and so on. See the difference? So picture with me the following three elements of our equal howness, First, we are crazily. Second, we are selfishly. Third, we are melodramatically. Again, don’t worry: we won’t be taking at face value these three characteristic ways of how we all are. This whole book is a sort of extended inquiry into what the hell these defining adverbs mean, a query that can only be answered in reference to how they show up for us in our everyday lives.
If I may embellish upon Poulos, a contention seems to be that part of the reason modern life is lived so crazily, selfishly, and melodramatically is that many of the conditions of existence and human nature are fixed in ways we don’t like. Thinking in terms of earthly transcendence isn’t helpful, and creates a degree of cognitive dissonance that leads to unhappiness. That is to say, we can never live in a state of total freedom, but we can, however, live life freely to varying degrees.
With Great Freedom Comes Great Responsibility
In other words, mastering the art of being free means coming to terms with the fact that freedom has its limits. Later on, Poulos aptly suggests that his book might as well be retitled “The Art of Dealing With It.” By the end of the book, the codependence of freedom and responsibility are laid bare in a conclusion that Poulos has addressed to his son:
Beyond Tocqueville’s horizon, it is not an end in itself to successfully cope with the constitutive craziness of the world. It is not enough to master the art of being free. It is not even enough to be friends, not even with fellow sons.
All these things must look beyond and above themselves—in our case, to you.
To a world where you are free from an enclosed and universal economy of lies.
A world where my protection is great enough to prepare you for that freedom, but not so great that it makes you ashamed to live and freely speak through it.
A world where you are free to be fatherly no less than sonly.
But, again, we’re perhaps getting ahead of ourselves in asking what’s the ultimate point of a weird book for crazy people.
Crazily, Selfishly, and Melodramatically
The book is an experience as much as it is a matter of edification. In between the introduction and conclusion are a series of heavily footnoted chapters about a variety of weighty topics, where Poulos cleans out the Augean stables of the western canon and popular culture. (PSA: Don’t skip the footnotes, or you’ll miss the bit where Poulos explains how he almost ghostwrote a young adult novel for the Kardashians.)
The chapter titles are, in order: Change, Faith, Money, Play, Sex, Death, and Love. But again, asking what’s in a name doesn’t begin to summarize Poulos. For instance, the chapter on Faith begins with Poulos’ attempt to make a simple declaration: “It was supposed to begin with the words I am a Christian.” What follows is a series of looping and recursive observations about the meaning of that simple statement that Poulos untangles without necessarily undermining the sincerity of the statement. The conceit here has more in common with metafictional authors such as the aforementioned Kundera than your typical essayist. That makes sense, because the next chapter on money is a similar unwinding of his as yet unsuccessful attempts to write a novel.
If this all sounds like Poulos’ book is written crazily, selfishly, and melodramatically, well, you’re not wrong. At times, it is also written maddeningly, indulgently, and, to my mind, wrongly. But before you consider this any sort of devastating criticism, know that these same critical adverbs have also passed through the minds of a great many readers who have attempted to read de Tocqueville’s presumptive doorstop. The inescapable conclusion is that Poulos has written a wildly original book with more insights than shelves of more pedestrian books that address narrower topics in more detail. Say what you will about Poulos, he stays true to title he borrowed from de Tocqueville.
After this, no one will ever accuse him of failing to write freely.