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Arts and Letters

Brooks Brothers

How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, David Brooks, Random House, pp. 320, $30.00

Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, Portfolio, pp. 269, $30.00


Although it was published more than forty years ago, Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System has enjoyed a curiously long life. On its face, the book is a squint-eyed tour through the social order of Ronald Reagan’s America, in which the president himself embodies a society whose manners and standard of culture are drifting ever more dangerously into the environs of its lower orders. (Fussell reserves nothing but malice for the Gipper, even for his suits, which he says make Reagan look “like a prole setting off for church.”) But beneath the partisan exterior is a sharply observed study of American self-deception, of how disparate groups of people living under different circumstances all vainly flatter themselves that their customs are more dignified and correct than those of the people below them on the social ladder. Fussell presents an anxious society, where remaining in the upper orders requires a process of rejection—of the current, the showy, the superfluous—of anything that might lead others to suspect what you already fear: that you have fallen down a rung. It’s an analysis that correlates nicely with Evelyn Waugh’s observation about class in mid-century England: “everyone thinks he is a gentleman” and “everyone draws the line of demarcation immediately below his own heels.”

What I find most remarkable about Fussell’s survey is that even he cannot escape his own system; he is as much a creature of it as anyone else. Class ends with a discussion of “X people,” those who Fussell argues have recognized the rules of the American class system and exempted themselves from its strictures. These are the people, Fussell writes, who are simultaneously bohemian, talented, self-cultivated, self-employed, independent-minded, sexually liberated, ambitious in the kitchen, technologically savvy; in all ways comfortable and carefree—in short, “a sort of unmonied aristocracy.” X people come from all classes; the only thing that binds them together is a shared notion that “moving up” is a crock and it’s better to live as you please. They are great readers but not intellectuals. They are loving parents but disdain traditional familial models. They could very easily join the ranks of the socially responsible, but they prefer to pursue their own arcane interests. “On they go,” Fussell writes, quoting E.M. Forster, “an invincible army, yet not a victorious one.” Fussell counts himself an X person, and he invites you to throw off your yoke and become one too.

Of course, the invitation is a farce. There is no escape from class. We have another term for an X person now, one unfortunately no more felicitous than Fussell’s appellation. It’s “Bobo,” bourgeois bohemian—and no one dreams that a Bobo has freed himself from the constraints of class. In fact, quite the opposite. The Bobo is the most class-bound person of all. He may be free from the old hang-ups, but all he has done is replaced them with new anxieties about the ethics of his interests, i.e., his consumption, whether it be of consumer goods or technology or ideas or religious belief or entertainment or news media. And the Bobo shares the usual anxieties about falling in the estimation of his peers; the only things different are the status markers. This at least is what David Brooks argued in 2000 in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, where he coined the term and re-interpreted Fussell’s X people as little more than a pretension of the upper middle class’s more “creative” members, whose sudden rise was empowered by a shifting global order. Still, Brooks conceded, Fussell was right to identify them as something new in American life.

“Every once in a while, in times of transformation, a revolutionary class comes along and disrupts old structures, introduces new values, opens up economic and cultural chasms,” Brooks writes in a retrospective on Bobos. “In the 19th century, it was the bourgeoisie, the capitalist merchant class. In the latter part of the 20th century, as the information economy revved up and the industrial middle class hollowed out, it was X people.”

Brooks has made a whole career since the publication of Bobos in writing about X people for X people. More often than not, the subject is himself. (It goes without saying that Brooks counts as an X person under a clause in Fussell’s definition: “the more gifted journalists, those whose by-lines intelligent readers recognize with pleasant anticipation.”) And lately, he’s become skittish about the promise of his class. X people, Brooks argued in the aftermath of the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and the 2020 presidential election, have in the last two decades constructed a byzantine system of inequality in the United States, motivated in large part by a desire to shore up their own social standing. They have created an order where they are no longer outliers—“the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers” of that one Apple commercial—but the ultimate insiders: tech lords, finance bros, social media mavens, who have re-arranged American society in their image. And it’s an awkward arrangement, where a fashionable, conscientiously unmannered class, which had traditionally run alongside the upper orders, now presides over them and everyone else. But the result is the same old story: a consolidation of wealth around relatively few people in the same cities as ever, only this time with shakshuka and ketamine.

“Somehow, we imagined, our class would be different from all the other elites in world history,” Brooks admits. “In fact, we have many of the same vices as those who came before us.”

It’s unsurprising then that for the old vices Brooks prescribes old solutions. His latest book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen is a self-conscious repudiation of Bobos. Brooks suspects that he, by picking out the trend lines in upper-middle-class life of the late Nineties, played some part in the self-glorification of the Bobos and the mainlining of their peculiar brand of narcissism. “But now I’m after bigger game,” he explains. “I’m bored with making generalizations about groups. I want to see people deeply, one by one.” This is not, strictly speaking, a true claim. How to Know a Person is filled with generalizations about different groups of people—Brooks is primarily concerned with cohorts he terms Diminishers (selfish, bad people) and Illuminators (self-giving, good people)—and the only person who gets singled out for an extended “seeing” session is Brooks himself. Not that there’s anything unusual in that: introspection can be a powerful aid in perceiving your world more clearly. After all, Brooks says, the whole exercise is an attempt to see in other people the dignity he sees (or wants to see) in himself.

Why do this? I suspect one reason is that Brooks is growing old and looking back on his life with some regret. He has adult children and a second wife. He works in a world in which young upper-middle-class strivers classify him and other upper middle class Boomers in the most uncharitable ways. I imagine that, as Brooks begins to think about death, he finds that questions about what your refrigerator says about the average income in your zip code no longer seem all that pressing. Now the important questions are more like these: Have I lived well? Can I still live well? and, often, Why am I not happy?

He has developed some serious scruples—religious, moral, personal—and seems to be searching for an out from his past, and not the one of ultimate despair. That was the path taken by his oldest friend, Peter Marks, to whom the book is dedicated. Brooks devotes an entire chapter to ways in which he was unable to prevent Marks, who “saw a world without pleasure,” from committing suicide. From Marks, Brooks learned what anyone who suffers from depression already knows. The disease is unclassifiable; it defies definition or even explanation. It is contagious, and there is no cure. “We can only try to persevere through a leap of faith,” Brooks speculates, “through endless flexibility, and through a willingness to be humble before the fact that none of this makes any sense.”

Depression, melancholy, ennui—whatever you want to call it—is of course an ailment specially suited to X people. It often settles in only once you find yourself free from material concerns and external pressures, when you find yourself unexpectedly available to court despair as a sort of leisure activity. It can take many forms. The type of depression that Brooks and his peers are wrestling with is, I think, similar to that of the “certain philanthropist” in The Picture of Dorian Gray who spent twenty years of his life trying to get some unjust law altered. When he finally succeeded, “nothing could exceed his disappointment. He had absolutely nothing to do, almost died of ennui, and became a confirmed misanthrope.” This is the outcome Brooks fears for the Bobos: they were the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers—until they got everything they wanted. Now there is nothing left to consume but sadness. Brooks is as much at sea here as anyone else, and he doesn’t see land in the distance. The best he can do is prescribe a platitude—to develop “the simple capacity to make another person feel seen and understood”—and hope the Bobos don’t drown.

There are other cures on offer. A surprisingly popular one comes from the other Brooks, Arthur, whose Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier (co-authored with Oprah Winfrey), appeared around the same time as How to Know a Person. There is a strange affinity between the two men. (The humor of their shared name is not lost on either: “Are we brothers? Married?” David joked before a recent debate. “David and I are not married,” Arthur, ever the straight man, clarified.) If David is the most astute observer of the Bobo class, then Arthur is its most complete product. Arthur Brooks grew up in Seattle. His parents were professors, and he was a gifted, if lazy, student. Rather than finish college, he ran away to Spain, where he played the French horn in the City Orchestra of Barcelona. When he returned to the United States, he collected a series of impressive-sounding degrees. Throughout most of the Obama era, he led the American Enterprise Institute, where he hauled in truckloads of money and delivered hundreds of speeches. Since 2019 he’s taught “the science of happiness” at Harvard, churned out a book on the subject every year or so, and served as a happiness columnist at the Atlantic, where he frequently draws lessons from his own life to help his readers optimize theirs.

“I dedicate my work to lifting people up and bringing them together, in bonds of love and happiness, using science and ideas,” Brooks writes as his “simple personal mission statement.” His big idea, which he has proposed in more or less the same formulation for the past half decade, is that happiness is a mathematical problem that can be solved with data analysis. Studies show that certain people with certain habits are happier than other people with other habits. Achieving your own happiness is actually pretty simple: all you have to do is collate the data and pick out the “happiest” habits and then apply them to yourself. Et voilà! You’ll be flourishing in no time.

Brooks offers himself as proof of the method’s efficacy: “In the years since I made this life change, my own well-being has risen a lot. People notice and remark that I smile more, and I look like I’m having more fun in my work. My relationships are better than they were,” he writes. “I still have plenty of bad days, and I have a long way to go, but today I am comfortable with my bad days, and I know how to grow from them. I know rough times will come, but I’m not afraid of them. And I am confident that there is a lot of progress in my future.”

It is easy to mock this attitude. In fact, in some quarters of the media class, it’s a pastime. But it’s unfair. Besides, Arthur Brooks’s tendency to treat life as something in which you must maximize your return on investment is hardly unique to him. It’s the credo of every self-help guru. It’s a belief that many ambitious, half-educated people have swallowed for as long as there have been self-help gurus. And, for what it’s worth, it probably signifies something uncomplimentary about the state of the “serious” institutions—Fussell called the phenomenon “prole drift”—that Harvard and the Atlantic host and promote what have traditionally been considered low ideas. But Arthur actually does have something that sets him apart from all the other wannabe Dale Carnegies. He, like David, is honestly concerned about the predicament of the Bobo, of what to do when you have acquired everything you want except for happiness. Unlike David, who looks to his own experiences for answers, Arthur turns to external sources. Big data provides the matter, but the form comes from a more unlikely source.

While in Spain, Arthur became enamored of the writings of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, and, for my money, one of the canniest minds of the twentieth century. Escrivá realized early on that his was an age of acedia, sloth, “sadness in the face of spiritual good,” as Saint Thomas has it. He saw that although droves of people were taking desk jobs, making more money, and generally raising their standards of living, they weren’t any better off than before. In some ways they were worse. The problem, Escrivá resolved, is that soft, comfortable living makes it easy first to forget about, and then, when you have remembered too late, to despair of, God’s mercy. We love to make excuses for ourselves, and, when we are free from material want, we can make as many excuses for our monstrous habits as we please—until death’s embrace. (It’s no coincidence that Escrivá was noticing all this in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War.) Escrivá offered a twofold solution. The first part involved convincing his followers that their work—all work, no matter how dull—is a gift from God and must be done well for His glory. And the second part, the harder part, was to make them actually do it well, to treat their desk jobs as Carthusians do their work in the Grande Chartreuse. “Don’t say, ‘That’s the way I am—it’s my character,’” runs one of his famous exhortations. “It’s your lack of character. Esto vir!—Be a man!”

Arthur Brooks takes up the first part of Escrivá’s program, but for the most part downplays the second. (It’s a hard sell, even for Catholics.) “For people of a spiritual or religious inclination, the trick can be to join your physical labor to the metaphysical,” Arthur writes when he introduces Escrivá’s writings in Build the Life You Want. “It can be done, and you can do it, whether you are traditionally religious or not. But that requires an understanding of the next pillar for building the life you want: finding your path to the transcendent.” What does that path look like? Arthur has some suggestions: regular meditation, going to religious services, and reading “wisdom literature.” Nothing too strenuous. And for those who throw up their hands and say, “I don’t get it. I’m just not a spiritual person,” he has some gentle advice. “Then just do one thing: go outside and connect with the outdoors,” he writes. “This is one of the most time-tested ways to have a transcendental experience.”

I am aware that Escrivá was known for his affinity to the outdoors—he hid from Spanish communists for months in the Pyrenees—but I struggle to imagine this canonized saint’s agreeing that taking a walk outside is something you do to “have a transcendental experience,” or, for that matter, using the term “transcendental experience” at all. He was notoriously skeptical of that kind of thing. “Your heart weakens and you clutch at some earthly support,” he wrote in The Way. “Fine; but take care that what you grasp to stop you from falling doesn’t become a dead weight dragging you down, a chain enslaving you.” And he knew very well that on the whole his advice was easy to misinterpret; it is just as easy to read The Way as a self-help book as it is to use it as a guide for spiritual direction. The funny thing—and I know this from personal experience—is that as soon as you start doing that, treating the spiritual life as an arena for self-improvement separate from any serious notion of God or sin, of heaven or hell, the way to despair is short.

I think Arthur Brooks knows this, too, and would shudder at the idea of someone repurposing a saint’s teachings to “optimize” his own earthly life. Anyway, when Arthur talks about his own spiritual life, he lists two salutary practices—attending daily Mass and praying the Rosary every day with his wife—that anyone reading him would do well to follow. But people don’t generally go to Mass or pray the Rosary to become happier. People go to Mass—daily Mass—because they believe what happens on the altar is the focal point of human existence. People who pray the Rosary every day do so because they believe that through it they speak to the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are fearful practices, and once you start doing them, no longer can you think in terms of happiness and unhappiness—but rather of heaven and hell.

So why does Brooks only mention them in passing? I don’t think he is a cynic. But it does seem like he doesn’t trust most of his readers to understand them. And maybe he’s right: it is a hard fact that Mass and the Rosary don’t chart neatly onto the art and science of getting happier. There is no self-improvement in the spiritual life; only failure, repentance, and the grace of God’s mercy.

As I was reading Brooks and Brooks, my mind kept returning to a throwaway line in one of Muriel Spark’s novels. Spark describes an absurd character, a false mystic in Munich, who, when she is discovered, flees to Paris, where she sets up shop as a psychiatrist. After a decade or so of playing this role, it becomes natural to her: “She lost her German look simply by living in France, eating French food, breathing French air.” The lady is a certified psycho, but if only she were real! Is this not the dream of the X person, to throw off your whole past—to escape your parents and forebears—and invent yourself anew? And is it not the tragedy of the Bobo that the project always ends the same way? The harder you try to build the life you want, the more trapped you become in a miserable class of your own design.