Wilson reminds us that the inner-directed/outer-directed model is a construction that, according to Riesman, does not really exist, but is merely a type “based on a selection of certain historical problems.”1 No one is either one or the other, much like the labeling of left-brain/right-brain people; all are a combination of both. Wilson adds
It may be true that many people spend their lives in a state of more or less contented other-direction, that others (rarer) have achieved a certain stability of inner-direction, while a third group, basically inner-directed, spend their lives in a state of other-direction with sudden violent outbreaks of rebellion to achieve flashes of inner-direction, after which they may relapse contentedly back to other-direction for a long spell.2
The main point behind all this is the question, Why do people, especially Americans, feel less significant in this “modern” world than they once did? Or is this seeming insignificance simply an inferiority complex indicative of our age? According to Wilson, it is not.
. . . this species of self-mistrust is taken too much for granted to qualify as a ‘complex’. It is at once a man’s attitude towards himself and his belief about the world; it conceals, that is, a generalisation about mankind, a judgement about the ‘stature of man’. The ‘other-directed’ tend to divide the world into ‘ordinary men’ and ‘extraordinary men’. (Many European celebrities have noticed the respect with which the American treats anyone who is regarded as ‘extraordinary’—the case of Dylan Thomas offers a recent example.) The extraordinary man seems to belong almost to a different species.3
This is even more true today than when Wilson penned these words in 1959. Masses of people look to Hollywood celebrities and music stars as if they were superhuman! The latest films are replete with comic-book superheroes. Sports stars dominate our culture. Almost at any given time on social media, such as Twitter, sports “heroes” are trending. I don’t know if this is the case in Europe today, but I suspect that this malaise has found its way around the world by now.
In general, Westerners no longer feel significant. There is no longer any real meaning in their lives. Instead of standing on the shoulders of Western giants, Western heroes, they must set themselves up some false hero to feed their need for meaning, someone they can live their lives vicariously through. Most do not believe they can be heroes themselves. What happened to bring this about?
Wilson points out the manner in which Americans use the word, genius, to describe what they feel are extraordinary individuals. Such and such are “born geniuses”, but Europeans would understand that anyone is capable of genius, or has the potential to develop it. Europeans use the word as an adjective, but Americans emphasize the noun. They see “the gulf between the ordinary and the extraordinary,” and label certain individuals as geniuses.4 For Americans,
This amounts to a fundamental self-depreciation: an ‘other-direction’ that takes itself so much for granted that it has become a sort of self-confidence.5
Wilson is of the opinion that Americans possess a sense of realism about the world and themselves that prevents them from seeing themselves as significant, or as able to achieve anything extraordinary. There is something about the American mindset that causes them to believe others are more capable. This is hyper-other-directedness. It is a “dubious realism (dubious because it does not really ‘face facts’ but only a self-chosen set of facts that leads to self-depreciation)”.6
As an American, myself, I have experienced this in my own life. As far back as I remember, I have felt myself inadequate, not up to the task of anything extraordinary. Even after studying philosophy, positive thinking, and various religions for thirty years, I still sense this, even though I am more aware of human potential now than in my earlier days. It is, more than likely, a trained behavior that is endemic to most Americans. It seems those born into more affluent families may develop less self-deprecatory attitudes, but I’m sure this is not a hard and fast rule. Without a doubt, it runs deeper than this.
In contrast to the American mindset, Wilson offers the figure of Goethe. Upon being asked by Eckermann (Conversations with Goethe) “what he would have done if he had been born in less fortunate circumstances, and, instead of ‘drawing the big prize’ in the lottery, had ‘drawn a blank.’7 Goethe responded, “Not everybody is made for the big prize. Do you think I should have done such a stupid thing as to draw a blank?”8 Speaking as an American, I cannot conceive of myself saying something like this. I’m sure my feeling is not the same as all Americans. I’ve known some that, indeed, possess this level of confidence. How to account for this powerful feeling of positive inner-directedness?
Wilson points out some important points concerning Goethe’s seemingly haughty response:
Goethe’s comment reveals more than a certainty of his own powers; it reveals a confidence about his ‘luck’, his destiny; the ancients would have put it that he was certain of the ‘favour of the gods’. Implied in his reply is an assumption about the relation between a man and his ‘destiny’ (to use the term for want of a better). Such an assertion, indeed, has many implications. To begin with, it could never be based on the premise that man is a worm who longs for meaning and purpose in a universe that has neither: there is no sense of tragic irony here, no feeling of man’s insignificance in a hostile or indifferent universe (as with Thomas Hardy). Nor does the remark ‘Not everybody is made for the big prize’ indicate that Goethe considered himself a different species from the rest of mankind: he was not a man to feel that he had achieved his eminence by pure luck, by the accident of ‘being born a genius’. On the contrary, it implies a denial of luck, a belief that, for the man who understands the ‘workings of destiny’ and trusts himself; eminence is only a matter of hard work and determination.9
It seems to come down to being cognizant of one’s destiny, as well as much hard work and determination. One’s destiny includes one’s innate gifts. Not everyone has such profound gifts, as Goethe did, but most can be good at something if they work hard and have a strong self-reliance. Goethe exhibited sheer genius, of a certainty, but, for some reason, he possessed an indefatigable will to be successful in all his pursuits.
Wilson, Colin. The Age of Defeat. Aristeia, Kindle ed., London, 2018
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