Thursday, February 2, 2012

Romanticizing the Ordinary

Some time ago I read one of those critiques of Facebook—well written, well reasoned, and emotionally balanced. After leveling the usual charges against the defendant, the author made one final accusation: Facebook, in his judgement, tends to "romanticiz[e] the ordinary."

Most instances of the “status” read something like, “Sitting on the couch with a good book and a glass of wine,” or “Went on a bike ride and had a picnic in a park.” While these short soundbites communicate fact, they do so in a way that makes them sound like something from an idealized fairytale. The irony is that our literature and cinema, the arenas that are supposed to present authentic myth, are being demythologized to a realism that presents far less of reality than do the mythological worlds of fairytales. Perhaps the “status” phenomenon is a reaction to this demythologizing: people inherently feel the need for a perfect world beyond ours, so in the absence of its proper outlet (art), the Facebook status becomes the vehicle for the idyllic. The problem is that Facebook does not seek to represent that which is beyond our world, but rather is a mechanism for portraying our world and our lives. The danger is that, instead of seeing earth as inevitably heading towards heaven, we come to identify earth with heaven.

The blogger goes on to comment that this phenomenon of "romanticizing the ordinary" leads to a narcissism that "gives us the illusion that everything we do, even the trivial, is interesting."

I'm not going to protest this description by offering sample status updates from my friends' pages; I am all too well aware that their online lives are not representative of those of most Facebook users. Most people don't use Facebook to pray for each other, discuss elections, (mostly) rationally argue politics and religion, plan real life events, or keep in touch with college buddies who life thousands of miles away. Most people use Facebook to ... well, to say things like “Sitting on the couch with a good book and a glass of wine." At best. And, according to the blogger, this makes the mundane facts of daily life "sound like something from an idealized fairytale."

Ought our lives not sound like fairytales? Ought we not be excited about our dinners? Is it so great a mistake, so great a sin, to romanticize the ordinary?

Chesterton wrote an early story that attempted to romanticize precisely the most common and mundane event of life: being born. The excitement of life—or the excitement that one should have about being alive—became a dominant theme in his writing. He composed an entire novel around the theme—Manalive—and it features prominently in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Flying Inn, and The Ball and the Cross. In Chesterton's most famous novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, the Detective Syme's excitement about ... regularity ... is illustrative.

"The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say! ... You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria,' it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam. ... It is things going right ... that is poetical! Our digestions, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars—the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick."

To insist on the poetry of not being sick is not to insist that we human beings embrace some strange state brimming over perpetually with existential gusto. Life is not all sunshine and roses, or even—to metonomize from a less pleasant though more dramatic possibility—all sturm und drang. The law of nature decrees, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, that human beings' interest in and enthusiasm for their personal terms of existence will "undulate" over time, because the human spirit is constantly affected by the weariable, ailable body in which is it housed. Any attempt to force ourselves into a permanent condition of excitement at life is doomed to failure. (Chesterton describes such a failure in "The Three Tools of Death," when Father Brown gives an astute post-mortem diagnosis of the true psychological condition of a professional optimist.) To feel glad at all times, to sustain permanently that sensation of being in or on the cusp of a great adventure, is neither healthy nor feasible. We need not always feel what we know—that life is an adventure—but still we must know it. We are not called to a state of perpetually elevated spirits, but we are called to a perpetual state of gratitude and vigilance. However boring you may find it, your dinner on the couch is romantic. It is a step up or a step down, an occasion of sin or of grace, a battle lost or won; and a battle most likely lost by your failure to recognize that it was a battle.

To wrest two biblical quotes quite out of context, and associate them with unpardonable liberty: "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places," and "[t]herefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God."

The real danger is not that we will "romanticize" our dinners, and imagine that we have found heaven here on earth. The real danger is that in talking about them so constantly we may etherealize them, render them less real, and forget how dramatic they actually are. We may be tempted to treat these common and familiar things with contempt, when they are really sacred. We may—if you will pardon the expression—deromanticize them.

Let us preserve a worthy reverence, then, for dinners. Tripe and onions, as Screwtape so irritably notes, have saved men from hell. Tripe an onions are a holy thing, "not to be enterprised, nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for the which they were ordained."

Whether or not you are actually preserving those due causes by posting your dinners on Facebook ... is another matter.


  1. Good post! Largely because I entirely agree :), but also because it is well-written, nicely--balanced, and calm. One noteworthy thing about adventures… if you can believe the sentiments and thoughts of people when they are actually in the crush of them… is that adventures do not by their nature only gladden or exclusively 'pleasantly excite'. There's usually an element of real danger, real anxiety, or real boring waiting. There's doubt, indecision, muddied particulars, dubious friendships, and the sober glory of pushing through all the mess in order to do the right thing.

  2. Thanks, Angela! I try for the balance thing, you know. And based on your description of adventures, maybe you should be blogging ... !