I grew up in a small town in the middle of New York State. It was like a small family. Everyone knew everyone else and could see the potential in this or that person. As for myself, my family, teachers, and coaches always told me that I would someday be “someone.” My grandmother, who loved Broadway and Hollywood, always told me that I was special. She always said that one day, when I was an adult, my name would be in the lights. I grew up with this kind of hope, but I was not alone. And today what kid doesn’t want to be a famous singer, actor, or musician? Shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, etc encourage such hopes. The small town naivite is shared throughout American households. Indeed, the American dream is not just to have a house, a car, savings, and food on the table; it is to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
But with all of the talk of being someone, there is the possibility that one may just be an ordinary person or, as the classic Guns and Roses song puts it, “one in a million.”
Although Gabriel Josipovici, in his book What Every Happened to Modernism? is interested in the European moment when the notion that you or I could be “somebody,” his insights can prompt American thinkers or critics to look into the historical legacy of this claim in America. It can also show how this moment was the source of jubilation and existential despair. Modernist art and literature, for him, cannot be thought aside from this moment and its offspring.
Josipovici argues that in the Middle Ages the system within which one was born discloses a sense of fate rather than freedom. One’s meaning was contingent on one’s birth. But after the French Revolution that all changed:
No-one in Europe had any doubt that something decisive, whether wonderful or terrible, had happened in 1789. What the revolution did was give everyone a sense that even the most ordinary life could be changed. You were not stuck for ever in the place and role into which you had been born. Everyone was now equal and everyone, in principle, had equal opportunities. By the time Napoleon was crowned Emperor not only did every soldier feel that he had a field-marshal baton in his knapsack, every citizen felt that he too could be an Emperor. (40)
As Goethe, Nietzsche, and Emerson well knew, Napoleon was a world-historical person who opened the door for a new kind of individualism and hope that one could be somebody. For Nietzsche, Napoleon was the arbiter of “master morality” and a model for the Ubermensch (overman).
However, as Josipovici also notes, the Napoleonic ideal had terrible consequences. Now one not only feels one can be “somebody,” but that one may also be “nobody.” We see this, says Josipovici, in Doestoevsky’s most controversial character, Raskolnikov:
He is nobody, he cannot earn enough to help his family, yet he sense that he is destined for great things, that he is a second, Russian, Napoleon…In the end, as the examining magistrate, Porphyry, explains to him, he murdered the old money-lender and almost asked to be caught for the simple reason that, like the rest of us, he prefers to be someone, even a murderer, than no-one at all. (41)
Many characters, notes Josipovici, destroy their lives and the lives of others in order to feel like they are “alive” and unique. In contrast, one can, as Melville’s Bartelby, decide to be anonymous and a nobody. But this decision is fraught with sadness and meaninglessness.
According to Josipovici, it is Kierkegaard who illustrates this decision between anonymity and being someone. The issue, for Kierkegaard, is how to address what is possible. Now, after Napoleon, the modern individual must deal with the overabundance of possibilities:
Already in his first mature work Either/Or (1842), he had begun to explore what it might mean for a youth with brains and imagination to grasp that he was free to do what he wanted and to grasp at the same time that that freedom condemned him to a life of melancholy and inaction, as though the plethora of possibilities made all the actualities seem pale and insubstantial. (43)
On the one hand, a self with no possibilities is in despair (and we see this throughout America and the world). On the other hand, a self with too many possibilities may also be in despair. According to Josipovici, the world without tradition is a world with no necessity. Many of us don’t see ourselves within the narrative of a tradition with its rituals and commandments. For this reason, we feel the world consists of endless possibilities instead of necessities and this is overwhelming. Nonetheless, citing Kierkegaard, Josipovici argues that one must have possibilities or invent them in order to have some sense of meaning:
If one wants to compare running astray in possibility with the child’s use of vowels, then lacking possibility is like being dumb (silent). The necessary is as though there were only consonants, but to utter them there has to be possibility. (47)
The metaphor is apt for out time and is applicable to Europeans and Americans. Without possibility, one is silent or dumb. One can neither speak nor be heard. But if one has possibility, one can speak. However, the catch is that even if one has vowels and even if one can speak, one may still not be heard. Despair is possibility whether one has or doesn’t have possibilities.
But in America, as in the Russia that gave birth to the character Raskolnikov, the problem with the need to be someone is that it can lead to violence. There are many sociopaths who resort to this path. I’ll end with a video put out by Elliot Rodger – the son of a famous Hollywood film director – before he stabbed and shot several people in Santa Barbara. He was born into a world with lots of possibilities for money and success. But since he felt he was rejected as a nobody and lacked the possibilities that other men had with women, he felt that he had to become a murderer and die as a somebody. After Napoleon, this is the dark side of possibility. I’ll end on that note.