‘All human problems become ones of neurochemistry’

Theodore Dalrymple reviews Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel:

Not reading many contemporary French novels, I am not entitled to say that Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant… [he identifies] the vacuity of modern life in the West, its lack of transcendence, lived as it is increasingly without religious or political belief, without a worthwhile creative culture, often without deep personal attachments, and without even a struggle for survival. …

Houellebecq’s underlying nihilism implies that it is not there to be found. The result of this lack of transcendent purpose is self-destruction not merely on a personal, but on a population, scale. Technical sophistication has been accompanied, or so it often seems, by mass incompetence in the art of living. Houellebecq is the prophet, the chronicler, of this incompetence. 

Even the ironic title of his latest novel, Sérotonine, is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilizational malaise which is his unique subject. Serotonin, as by now every self-obsessed member of the middle classes must know, is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter to which is ascribed powers formerly ascribed to the Holy Ghost. All forms of undesired conduct or feeling are caused a deficit or surplus or malalignment of this chemical, so that in essence all human problems become ones of neurochemistry.  

On this view, unhappiness is a technical problem for the doctor to solve rather than a cause for reflection and perhaps even for adjustment to the way one lives. I don’t know whether in France the word malheureux has been almost completely replaced by the word déprimée, but in English unhappy has almost been replaced by depressed. In my last years of medical practice, I must have encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of depressed people, or those who called themselves such, but the only unhappy person I met was a prisoner who wanted to be moved to another prison, no doubt for reasons of safety.

Houellebecq’s one-word title captures this phenomenon (a semantic shift as a handmaiden to medicalisation) with a concision rarely equalled. And indeed, he has remarkably sensitive antennae to the zeitgeist in general, though it must be admitted that he is most sensitive to those aspects of it that are absurd, unpleasant, or dispiriting rather than to any that are positive.

Houellebecq satirises what might be called the neurochemical view of life which is little better than superstition or urban myth.

“His work, not least Sérotonine, is filled with disgust, as was [Jonathan] Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about. There is gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation.”

Along New Hampshire Avenue

In leaving Arlington yesterday, I took the 38B Metrobus to Farragut Square and then walked north toward Dupont Circle and ultimately toward the Fund for American Studies on New Hampshire Avenue. It still feels very much like winter, but as dusk approached it was a beautiful time for a walk.

Look at some of those incredible trees. I doubt we’d plant trees today that would grow in that way.

‘As we sing, so shall we love’

Anthony Esolen writes on “recovering from cultural dementia:”

Mos amandi, mos cantandi: as we sing, so shall we love.  If we don’t sing, our love will become, or must already be, frail and thin.  Singing is what the lover does, said Augustine.  To know the truths of our faith, but not to sing them, is like knowing that God exists, but never to feel His presence; it is to know that we are loved, but never to feel the race of the heart.

“But we do sing at Mass,” someone says.  Yes and no.  There are songs, but most of the congregation is silent or is murmuring, because the songs are for Mass entertainment, having been conceived in form and content after the patterns of mass entertainment.

No one remembers the words, because the poetry is bad or nonexistent, and no one remembers the melodies, because they are bad or because they never were written to be sung by an entire congregation and its full range of human voices.

If people are defined by the poetry they share – by the songs they can all sing together with maybe one or two prompts to jog the memory, then we are undefined, not a people at all, only an aggregate.

When Jesus and his disciples prayed and sang at the Last Supper, they didn’t have to pick up a hymnal, good or bad.  They prayed and sang from their hearts, where they had kept their people’s poetry as treasure.  What pearls do we possess?

I have watched young Christians go into the world like minnows into Leviathan.  They go with imaginations unformed, and that is that.  They may attend services on Sunday, but they are as worldly as anybody.

So I am issuing a challenge to every Catholic school and parish – a poetic challenge:

First, get rid of the lousy poetry and lousy music. Stupidity is always a vice, says Maritain.  Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter what movies my child watches, so long as he watches movies,” or, “It doesn’t matter what my husband drinks, so long as he drinks.” Get rid of it.  Nobody but the church performers enjoys it anyway.  Replace it with real hymns.  Don’t think you can get those from the big presses, OCP and GIA and such, because they have mangled the texts and dragged them through the mud. Sing the poems, as they were composed.

Second, return to poetry.  The time is short, and the reward immense.  Fifty lines of Tennyson can be committed to memory; five hundred pages of Dickens, not so fast.  Have every student in your schools learn, say, twenty poems by heart.  And their elders, too, might join in – have a Poetry Night in your parish, with the stipulation that every poem be written in meter.

Eliminating the counterfeit from your life and replacing it with the authentic is one of the simplest things to aspire to, and probably one of the hardest things to do.

Along Wisconsin

A view from a morning’s walk along Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown:

I took this on my way to work, headed toward Arlington. I’m grateful for this period of life, where the mornings include scenes as beautiful as this. What lends a neighborhood like this so much of its spirit is its general lack of the derivative and mundane. Even when there’s little activity, the aesthetic of the street is welcoming and lively, hinting at people yet to appear.

February Sunday in State College

After settling in Park Forest Village yesterday afternoon, visiting Mount Nittany’s trailhead, and enjoying Cafe Lemont as evening set in, we joined friends at Otto’s on Atherton Street for conversation and supper. Otto’s Night Owl was perfect; a smooth, creamy Irish stout. This morning I joined other Mount Nittany Conservancy board members for our first meeting of the year, held in the otherwise-closed Centre Region Council of Governments headquarters.

We hit the road in mid-afternoon, making it back to Washington in time for Marymount University’s 7pm mass.

Washington to State College drive

We left Washington, DC about half past six this morning and headed north, taking the scenic route to State College, Pennsylvania from I-70 past Hagerstown and then on along Pennsylvania route 416 to 75 to 522 to 22 to 26. This slightly longer route added about 15 minutes to the length of the trip, but what it cost in time it paid out in terms of scenic beauty: snow covered forests, historic and contemporary barns in every state of repair, winding roads along winding creeks and rivers, and beautiful farmlands broken up by periodic passes through little villages and towns. This wasn’t my first ever Washington to State College drive, but it was my first in nearly a decade and the first since I’ve started calling Washington home.

After a brief tour by car to become acquainted with the town, we headed to the Hintz Alumni Centenaries to decompress in Robb Hall, before walking north on campus and through Pattee/Paterno Libraries to the Nittany Lion Inn for lunch at Whisker’s. Staying in Park Forest Village, here for 36 hours or so.

Joining the board of the Mount Nittany Conservancy

In September I was appointed to the board of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and this weekend I’ll be in State College to participate in the first meeting of the year.

Mount Nittany was one of the first natural symbols for Penn State, and continues to be probably the most recognized symbol of Central Pennsylvania and the Nittany Valley. The Mount Nittany Conservancy was founded in 1981 as a way to continue conserving hundreds of acres that had been purchased for preservation in previous decades, and to create a vehicle for continuing conservation and stewardship of Mount Nittany in its natural and “unimproved” state. The Mount Nittany Conservancy manages more than eight miles of volunteer-maintained trails and a number of scenic overlooks. If you’re not familiar with Mount Nittany, start with Conserving Mount Nittany or check out “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” a talk I gave at Penn State last year:

There’s also “The Story of Mount Nittany,” a beautifully-produced feature on Mount Nittany that will make you feel like you’re right there in Lemont, at the Mountain’s trailhead and ready to hike:

And a few years ago I tried to answer Why Mount Nittany is on every Penn Stater’s bucket list:

In “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” folklorist Henry Shoemaker records some of the American Indian and settler stories that provide a cultural and historical foundation for Penn State mythology, including Mount Nittany as our sacred symbol and pristine retreat, the love story of Princess Nittany and Lion’s Paw, and even the reclusive Nittany Lion.

Yet stories alone have no independent life to speak of; their significance grows from the affection, tenderness, and patience of the reader, from the moments spent in solitude or near friends with the words of a long-dead peer over a coffee at Saints or W.C. Clarke’s. Herodotus or Dante would be nothing without the gift of time and attention paid in gratitude by the living reader. It’s through that gift that we reverence something culturally significant, and make something from the past a part of our present time.

This is what tradition is, if distilled: the continuing act of encountering the past, helping it come alive again in some way, and then in due course becoming a part of the past ourselves as we look to the future. This beautiful notion is encapsulated in an even more beautiful, practical example: The singing of Robert Burns’s 1788 “Auld Lang Syne” every New Year’s Eve. It’s a literal and lyrical Scottish injunction to remember our friendships and honor days gone by on the eve of a new time.

This helps explain why Mount Nittany, by all accounts an ordinary Pennsylvania mountain, is nonetheless sacred for Penn Staters and the people of the valley. As with the stories of the past, we’ve infused the Mountain with a distinctive meaning. Penn State Professor Simon Bronner writes that we “inspirit the land” of Mount Nittany and places like it. We do this in a thousand distinct ways, through hikes alone to learning and sharing the same stories to nights spent with friends around a small fire.

The Mount Nittany Conservancy is what makes our experience of the Mountain possible—specifically what makes our experience of it as a natural space, protected from development, a perpetual part of the Nittany Valley experience. …

Nearly a century before many of us were born, Henry Shoemaker declared: “There is no spot of ground a hundred feet square in the Pennsylvania mountains that has not its legend. Some are old, as ancient as the old, old forests. Others are of recent making or in formation now. Each is different, each is full of its own local color.”

Mount Nittany is one of those Pennsylvania mountains, and the Nittany Valley remains a place where legends continue to take shape. Thanks to Henry Shoemaker’s stories, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s new podcasts, you can get a better sense for why the Mountain matters and why hiking it is such a special experience.

Hiking Mount Nittany is one of those things that finds its way onto the Penn State bucket lists of most students, and it’s something many make a ritual pleasure. A single hike often serves as an occasion for encounter with “local color” of the Mountain and the valley, a color which has a radiance that outlasts every autumn.

Fertility rates and population growth

A BBC report earlier this month examined Hungary’s attempt to spur a “baby boom with tax breaks and loan forgiveness,” because Hungary’s fertility rate is poor:

Hungarian women with four children or more will be exempted for life from paying income tax, the prime minister has said, unveiling plans designed to boost the number of babies being born.

It was a way of defending Hungary’s future without depending on immigration, Viktor Orban said.

The right-wing nationalist particularly opposes immigration by Muslims.

Hungary’s population is falling by 32,000 a year. Women there have fewer children than the EU average.

As part of the measures, young couples will be offered interest-free loans of 10m forint (£27,400; $36,000), to be cancelled once they have three children.

Mr Orban said that “for the West”, the answer to falling birth rates in Europe was immigration: “For every missing child, there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine.

“Hungarian people think differently,” he said. “We do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children.” …

Other points in the government’s plan include: A pledge to create 21,000 nursery places over the next three years; An extra $2.5bn to be spent on the country’s healthcare system; Housing subsidies; State support for those buying seven-seat vehicles.

A few of these policies are things that both Democrats and Republicans have spoken for in America. A few of these things should probably be embraced by both parties here, too. Hungary’s fertility rate is below the replacement rate necessary for a stable population:

The average number of children a Hungarian woman will have in her lifetime (fertility rate) is 1.45. This puts the country below the EU average of 1.58. … Niger, in West Africa, has the highest fertility rate in the world, with 7.24 children per woman.

There are some who suggest that replacement level population doesn’t matter, and that new immigrants are functionally the only reasonable way to stabilize or grow a diminishing nation. I think there are other acceptable answers to that problem. Hungry m might provide some answer.

Curtailing civil asset forfeiture

Mark Sherman reports on today’s U.S. Supreme Court Timbs v. Indiana ruling, which is a major victory for reigning in states that abuse civil asset forfeiture:

Tyson Timbs admitted he’d sold drugs, and he accepted his sentence without a fight. What he wouldn’t quietly accept was the police seizing and keeping the $40,000 Land Rover he’d had when arrested. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with him unanimously in ruling the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government.

The decision, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.

Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines “out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence” because fines are a source of revenue. …

Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, was charged in 2013 with selling $400 worth of heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest but faced no prison time. His biggest loss was the Land Rover he had bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died. Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality.

A judge in Indiana had ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana’s top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.

Here’s C.J. Ciaramella for context on this practice:

2018 was a bad year for civil asset forfeiture, the infamous practice by which police can seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime.

In late summer, Philadelphia settled a federal class-action lawsuit over its aggressive asset forfeiture program. (How aggressive? One 78-year-old pensioner had $2,000 seized after police found her possessing a small amount of marijuana, which her retired husband used to alleviate his arthritis.) The city agreed to drastically curtail when and how it seizes property from residents and to set up a $3 million fund for victims of its sticky-fingered cops.

Asset forfeiture will continue in Philadelphia, albeit in a limited form. But the salad days when police and prosecutors could seize 300 to 500 homes a year, according to the lawsuit, are now over.

Earlier in the summer, a federal judge struck down Albuquerque’s asset forfeiture program, ruling the city “has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, which previously seemed reluctant to interfere in such cases, has agreed to consider an asset forfeiture challenge out of Indiana. … Justice Clarence Thomas also sharply criticized the practice in a 2017 dissent in a different case. “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” he wrote.

When agents of the government can “seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime,” it should be clear enough that there’s a problem.