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choose lifeIs it possible for a text to be conservative if it dwells upon the pleasures of drug use, celebrates (and deplores) hooligan violence, and shows us the deaths of a neglected baby, the extra-judicial execution of a rapist, and (among others) a twenty something’s squalid death following a stroke brought on by toxoplasmosis? Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel, Trainspotting, and the movie directed by Danny Boyle after the John Hodge screenplay, ask us to ask that question. The main character, Mark Renton, wills a tedious old lady to have a brain hemorrhage, only to think that this is too quick a death and therefore too kind for her. His drug dealer is named Mother Superior, aka Johnny Swan, a heroin-riddled amputee who lies about having served in the Falklands to better succeed as a beggar. Renton’s drug addiction enforces a sort of celibacy, at least until he hooks up with an underage girl. There is lying, cheating, stealing, filth…some of the more disgusting parts are, paradoxically, the most celebrated, and these are quite painful to read. There is also a question: how can one find moral order in a junkie’s “twilight zone ay the senses where nothing’s real”?

In the most famous rant of the book (simplified for the movie), Mark Renton reflects upon the values of modern life: (Warning: the following excerpt contains much foul language)

Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ay sound mind etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a failure ay thir am failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing f—-n junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total f—-n embarassment tae the selfish, f—-d up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.

Well, ah choose no tae choose life.

How do you find order as well as freedom in a condition where the evidence of the senses cannot be deemed reliable, and where our beliefs lack warrant? It is not enough to have social coordination between individuals and peer groups—to hang with the stoners, or to watch football with the jocks, even to be republican or democrat. The mediating institutions of a plural society are no better than faintly oligarchic clubs wherein individuals protect themselves against the Many by consorting with the few–unarmed (and, in Trainspotting) armed bands without any rational claim on our membership within them. This world of conflicted religious and liberal educations looks back upon the world of scripture in despair. In Deuteronomy XXX, Moses writes: “Since a blessing and a curse are so plainly set before us, let us choose life, that both we and our seed may live.” Calvin glosses Deuteronomy as a “Sommaire final” of the law; the “law reiterated,” as Raymond Blacketer’s commentary reminds us. In the context of American religiosity, this summary of the law should be familiar to all schoolchildren. Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ends his address on the Arbella in 1630 with the following imperative: “Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.” Thus, on the authority of the Mosaic law, we live. And that law was pretty precise as to how to live. In Ludlow’s Code (the 1650 code of Connecticut laws), the specific rules concerning how to live according to Mosaic law were received in colonial positive law, even in cases that are now considered outside the scope of governmental regulation: for example, the regulation of idleness, the non-medicinal use of tobacco, and adultery. To some, these laws remind us of the “paternalism” of New York’s thus-far failed laws against large-sized sodas or the FDA’s new proposed laws banning trans-fatty foods; to others, it is sound common sense to which we are increasingly returning. But it is not quite our world, in England or America.

In Roger Ebert’s review, he finds the movie to be primarily about friendship or at least about the pleasures of different types of intercourse with friends—it’s not often sex, and more often about friends individually using drugs together. For Ebert, the book’s puzzling UK success belies the hollowness of a celebration of friendship that doesn’t lead anywhere or say anything. (Having watched 1964’s slacker noir, The Pale Flower, and 1973’s The Long Goodbye, two of his “great movies” that share some of that indifference about indifference, the criticism hold a certain power.) Nonetheless, Ebert mistakes the book’s intention: the book and (derivatively) the movie are saying something. The more interesting and substantial book is basically crying out for reasons to choose life, from a context where religion had provided bold assertions of the value and meaning of life, but no foundation, no groundwork−just oughts. One ought to choose life. Still, one is free not to do so. Against making the choice to choose life stand barriers to that choice: market commodification, hedonism, prideful non-conformism.

The criticisms of market commodification are familiar ones, and have been raised with more force and clarity in other novels and films: American Psycho’s criticisms of the culture of name-dropping brilliantly figures in both the novel and in the film version. Michael Sandel catalogues some of the more important cases in his 2009 Reith lectures and in the 2012 book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Winthrop warns that “if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good Land whither we pass over this vast Sea to possess it.”

The case to be made for hedonism and against life is sketchy: is it a calculus, so that the pleasures of drug-use, when balanced against the pains of reaching into the dirtiest toilet in Scotland in order to retrieve a lost opium suppository, weigh in favor of drug use? Or has the calculus become overtaken by the addiction? Alternatively, the attraction could be of the anhedonic—absence of pleasure or pain, a step further removed from hedonism than either the classical hedonist’s fobidden (kinetic) pleasures or the approval-worthy placid (katastematic) pleasures? For purported hedonists, most people (including these junkies) are both confused as to what pleasure is, and how to get it. Bentham’s axiom, that “pain is itself an evil,” does not result in practical action to avoid pain by these characters in the grip of their “sickness.”

Less obviously in play in modern liberal society but no less important is the criticism of conformism: King Nomos (King Custom), or “the gig,” as the Victorians called it. Now, or at least in the sixties, “the Man.” The straight people are deluded as to the value of things, as in every good romantic criticism of market society, but, as the awkwardly-spliced-in scene (in the movie) of the character’s excursion into Nature, there is no value to be perceived in the unwilled, natural environment, whether it is understood as the sublime or as a moral community with animals. (Only one character in the novel perceives such a community.) All pleasures depend upon conscious, human intervention.

Here, in the absence of any natural alternative to the social life lived by the losers around us, we enter into the real logic of protest: the choice to choose life is not shown to be unjust to those whose socioeconomic point of origin have them starting at an insurmountable disadvantage, as if in a game of tic-tac-toe, they were forced to begin on one of the non-diagonal squares. It is not inauthentic and opposed to living according to nature. Instead, the choice itself is shown to be absurd.

These popular culture books and films are not monotonic—they are genuinely about the experiences of young people, and their groups, their more sharply felt satisfactions, their fears, and other aspects of their lives as dependent, somewhat reasonable beings. Without explaining away these other values, the basic complaint that is shared by all these different strands of genres is the choice between nihilism and something—to call it vitalism would be to use a term that means something else, and it is telling that there is no accepted term for the value opposed to nihilism. (Perhaps “being” is what is sought?) Even in Nietzsche, for whom the term nihilism genuinely means something, values are willed, and that puts the individual of superabundant will in a condition that is post-nihilistic, but not the logical opposite of nihilism. The opposed term that best describes the non-nihilistic condition is theism, by which “we Christians” mean a world that has been willed by God.

The fundamental problem of these books, and therefore of their authors (and, insofar as they are touched by these problems, of their readers), is the unintelligibility of such a world (“the big things, the real things”), and therefore the impossibility of choosing a truly religious life. This is clearly a failure of religious education, and, insofar as Welsh’s Trainspotting is a conservative book with something to say, what it begs for is a renewed and more intelligent religious education. The problem can be reconstructed as follows. To say, “I will not choose life; I choose not to choose” is itself unintelligible in an atheistic world: why would you not choose to breathe, to eat, to locomote? The cynics may have done so, but they professed indifference, and friends led them around so they wouldn’t stumble off cliffs. Still, indifference is not the same as nihilism. “No,” one could say in reply to the cynic, “what the cynics chose to lead is not what I meant by life. Cynicism is either impossible today, or a fiction in any age. Instead, by “life” I mean a life according to these moral rules—you know, the ones that I see other people following. It gets them nowhere, and I am too thoughtful for that. Therefore, I choose not to choose in the manner that they do, thoughtlessly, and instead take a harder and (by my lights, but I must keep this a secret) higher path. I will say that I do it just for the pleasures of the drug abuser, but I multiply my pains; I toil. Therefore, I secretly dissent even from the judgment that I pursue the lower pleasures, by agreeing with the very people I condemn. I choose a higher path to enlightenment, which involves authenticity and the belief that there is something higher, for which I risk the mortification of the flesh, and for which I sacrifice, and suffer, in a manner that these other lazier types do not. I choose to learn from the experience of pain what I cannot from the book.”

This is not a new complaint, or even a new text, with its obviously Christian and Faustian overtones. But the point of these books and films, the thing they say, is that to perform the imitation of Christ is valuable and noble, it is higher than other lives, but (they say) I myself do not know how to explain this, or what I am doing, or why it’s valuable, and how it differs exactly from other penurious and celibate and pained lives. You cannot have protest of the sort one reads of in Trainspotting without Winthrop and Moses explaining that there are now set before us life and death, good and evil, and these opposites exist by the will of a creator. (In another version of the thought, they exist by a law of nature that stands above the will of the creator, although in rationalistic interpretations of divine law, God’s will conforms to the law.) The characters invoke God twenty-six times in the text. The death of the child, Dawn, is a “sin” rather than a “crime.” What cannot be understood by these characters is Will, whether it is the will of God or their own will through which they interpret God’s will, and thus the goods and evils “plainly set before us” are disconnected from practical reason. The resulting protest is not a reboot, it is a criticism from within the Christian tradition of the failure of Christian teachers to explain in reasonable terms why it is that God willed this and not that.

Winthrop concludes his 1630 address by exhorting his reader:

Therefore let us choose life,

that we and our seed may live,

by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,

for He is our life and our prosperity.

What does God command? How must we cleave to that command and put it into practice? These questions—and they are reasonable questions with answers as intelligible as the questions are intelligible—are either poorly addressed in a secular society, or not addressed at all, and the most ardent secularist of the grandest, humanistic ambition should hope that they are made intelligible by someone, even if the secularist’s own work does not aid the understanding. These questions will occur to young thinkers, and they will not dissolve with secularization, or wealth and success, or even with happiness. Therefore, let them choose to question—that is what the book says.

Books on this topic may be found in the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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Published: Dec 17, 2013
Christopher Barker
Chris Barker received his PhD in Political Philosophy from Claremont Graduate University in 2010. He has held positions at Harvard University and Boston College, and currently teaches constitutional history at Ohio University. He writes on the theory and practice of liberty in modern political thought, and also has an interest in literature and politics that has resulted in publications and forthcoming articles on Shakespeare and and Ernest Hemingway.
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3 replies to this post
  1. As Asimov predicted in 1964:

    “mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!”

    And this, amongst other things, is why modern society needs liberal arts educations more than ever.

  2. Fantastic.

    This line bears repeating:

    “You cannot have protest of the sort one reads of in Trainspotting without Winthrop and Moses explaining that there are now set before us life and death, good and evil, and these opposites exist by the will of a creator.”

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