Baudolino by Umberto Eco
“I must tell you,” he confided, “I just came back from two years in Germany. It was paradise. It was Germany, but it was paradise. No news. No one waiting for the Messiah. It was so relaxing. Here, you live in a very dynamic state. You are always involved in everything. Always listening to the news. You can’t escape the utopian aspirations of the left or the messianic expectations of the right. You can never relax. People are always arguing about your identity. People are always asking you to decide. Are you a Jew? Well, what kind of Jew? Are you a Zionist? Well, what kind of Zionist? You turn on the television and people are arguing about the borders, about the boundaries between religion and state — nothing is ever settled here. You just can’t relax.”
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman
Jonah cannot comprehend this ambiguity. He prefers to see Nineveh wiped out for the sake of his need for certitude […] God’s pity for Nineveh effectively undermines any hope Jonah might have of finding a settled, predetermined order behind God’s plan.³
Vonnegut by Richard Giannone
Was it possible to be — to become good at being — not rootless, but multiply rooted? Not to suffer from a loss of roots but to benefit from an excess of them?⁴
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
With the decline of religion, what can provide people with the same sense of “belonging” to a community and to a story bigger than themselves? With the decline of community, what can provide people with a structure in which character can be fashioned versus empty moral platitudes? The second question is a concern of James Davison Hunter and Charles Taylor, addressed respectably in The Death of Character and Sources of the Self. The first question was a major concern of Émile Durkheim, who recognized that suicide could paradoxically increase as socioeconomic wellbeing improved. The better-off people were, the more they felt unhappy, which suggested to Durkheim that people suffered not just materially but also existentially from alienation.
Durkheim concluded that those under modern Capitalism possessed too much freedom. He saw a correlation between the rise of freedom and the decline of community. Community limits freedom, for meaningful and deep community necessarily loads individuals up with restrictions, expectations, metaphysical assumptions, and the like. Free individuals tend to long for community, and individuals with community tend to long for freedom, for we tend to desire what we don’t have. We are free and so desire to be bound and grounded, at least until we are bound.
In people being able to choose everything they did with their lives, Durkheim saw that all choices became a reflection of character for moderns — a significant existential weight. When the sky is the limit, if you don’t reach the sky, it’s your fault. Free, everything that happens in a person’s life is his or her responsibility, and this often proves to be too much to bear. When we don’t control everything that happens, it can be easier to live with ourselves and our lot, but when we can choose anything — or at least believe this is the case or have this belief projected onto us by others — we are never free from responsibility, and hence never free from a (possible) connection between what we do and who we are. Our externalities “point to” our internalities, and we cannot escape this “pointing.”
Generally, in Capitalism, people are free to do what works for them, and though this can be good to this, it also means that the larger world doesn’t much care about what we do. We are alone: we are not part of a bigger moral framework in which the world is situated, nor can we relate to our neighbors through an ideology which we all ascribe to as absolute. Individuals still have friends but lack community: individuals are situated in different metaphysical frameworks. When friends gather, rather than meet within a framework, a collection of frameworks share proximity in a kitchen. Rather than exist in the same galaxy, it is as if each of us is our own galaxy, bound by our own theory of relativity, unable to step into one another’s galaxies without bringing the whole thing crashing down. We all share existence in the same universe, but that is about the limit of our commonality. Together, we have each become a lonely galaxy.
Religion once provided a means by which individuals could exist in the same galaxy together, but Durkheim saw that religion was waning. He hoped the family or the nation-state could fill the role that religion once did and provide people with a sense of “belonging,” as was desperately needed to combat the unhappiness brought on by modern Capitalism. But was Durkheim’s hope fulfilled?
This brings us to the main question of this paper:
How can we belong again?
¹Eco, Umberto. Baudolino. Translated by William Weaver. Orlando, FL. Harcourt, Inc., 2000: 480.
²Friedman, Thomas L. From Beirut to Jerusalem. First Anchor Books Edition, 1990: 289.
³Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press Corp, 1977: 55.
⁴Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton. New York. Random House Trade Paperback Edition, 2013: 54.