Solus Ipse

I have developed this theme numerous times in this blog, but it bears repeating in light of one of the most popular sit-coms on television that recently closed up shop. I am speaking about “The Big Bang Theory” which had eleven successful years before finally going the way of all old sit-coms: syndication. The question is: why was it so popular? The answer is complex, but part of the explanation has to do with the central character, Sheldon Cooper,  a genius who is a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. He also has asperger’s syndrome, a condition in which the individual is totally unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He lacks sensitivity and a sense of humor in addition to having no compassion whatever and being socially inept. His behavior ranges from amusing to peculiar, even maddening.

The show also has several other characters including a pretty “dumb blonde” who seems brighter than the other supposedly bright people the show centers around. She may well be at least part of the reason why the show was so popular. In any event, the Sheldon character is most interesting because, as I see it, he is an extension of the way so many of us are becoming: self-absorbed, totally unaware of others around us: solus ipse.

The Sheldon character may have been modeled after the lead in a British sit-com titled “Doc Martin” which centers around a physician in a small village in Cornwall who also has asperger’s syndrome. The difference is that Doc Martin, who also lacks a sense of humor and social skills, is very much aware of others (for the most part they annoy him) — though unaware of the effect his behavior has on others. He is a physician and has a deep and genuine sense of duty to his patients — many of whom would try the patience of a saint! And it is this sense of duty, together with his dawning awareness that he needs to work on his social skills — which must be learned by those suffering from his condition — that makes him a more sympathetic character.

What makes these two characters interesting is that they speak volumes about the fact that so many people are apparently drawn to the two of them. Despite his many strange “tics,” Doc Martin is someone we can identify with and for some strange reason care about. So also, although to a lesser degree, is Sheldon Cooper. I have suggested why this is so, and I will repeat that we care about such fellows because more and more of us are becoming just like them. One thing that many find appealing, I read from the comments others have made, is that they are totally honest: they say exactly what is on their minds. They do not “suffer fools.” And this is true. Both of these characters say exactly what they are thinking despite the fact that in many cases what they say is hurtful to others around them, even those they regard as friends. And both of these characters are similar in refusing to accept any responsibility whatever for the blunders they may commit. Remind you of anyone?

At times, the behavior of such folks as Doc Martin and Sheldon Cooper strikes viewers as sadistic, but this would be so only if they knew they were hurting others whereas these two people do not. If they hurt others, it is collateral damage, something out of the range of their awareness. The question is whether this excuses them. Are we to say “no foul” if those around us are unaware of the effect their behavior has on us and others around us? I think not. These people can be taught how to behave toward others, even if their behavior does not stem from genuine concern. And this is certainly the case for the rest of us who seem increasingly to be trending in their direction. It’s all about awareness and concern for others — and accepting responsibility for our actions.

This is why the trend toward increasing involvement with electronic devices is so disturbing: it encourages a loss of awareness of the real world and other people coupled with a gradual desensitization to the pain of others. It has been shown that it releases dopamine in the brain of users and therefore is addictive, and this is certainly a concern. But as we become increasingly lost in an electronic world in which we talk to machines and they talk back even as they drive our cars, we risk becoming increasingly less aware and less concerned — in a world where a sense of community and the desire to live in common are things that separate us from the wild animals. And from people like Sheldon Cooper and Doc Martin.

Great Art

One of my pet peeves — and I have many — is the rejection of the notion that art and literature can be great. The academic community, especially, has taken the lead in reducing all evaluation to feeling. But, as I have told my aesthetics students for years: art is not spinach! It cannot be reduced to a question of whether or not we like it. Instead of concentrating on the painting, let us say, its imaginative technique, its harmonies and perspective, subtle nuances of balance and imbalance, exceptional style of coloration, we look and say something like “It just doesn’t do it for me.” In a word, we stop talking about the painting and focus instead on our own personal responses. We do the same thing in ethics, of course, where we insist that good and evil are merely words we attach to our acceptance of rejection of certain types of actions — such as rape and murder. “That’s just not the way we do things here in Peoria.” How absurd.

Robert Persig wrote a cult novel years ago titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which he concluded that no one can define “value,” but everyone knows it when he sees it. The same holds true of great art and literature, it seems to me (though experience helps). It also holds true in such mundane things as sports where we all recognize the greatness of a basketball player such as Steph Curry or a tennis player such as Roger Federer. Greatness, like value, cannot be defined, but it is putatively THERE in the world. It cannot be reduced to feelings — though feelings are certainly part of the equation.

There are great writers and great painters, just as there are great composers, dancers, actors, and, yes, basketball players. They stand out from the rest and they invite us to revisit their performances or their works. A great novel — such as Middlemarch by George Eliot — invites repeated readings. It has well defined and interesting characters who remind us of people we know, even ourselves, and thus gives us insight into our our minds and hearts, and of those around us. It is beautifully written, with elegant dialogue and suggestions of irony and humor. And the plot draws us in and takes us on a trip we are sad to see end. A great painting invites us to look at our world again and try to see what the artist saw, adding depth and dimension to the ordinary world. In fact, this is the great crime, if you will, of the reduction of all artistic response to personal reaction: it closes us off to the world around us.

I regard this as part of what I have called in print our “inverted consciousness,” our collective determination to turn away from the world and focus attention on ourselves. It reaches its pinnacle with the aspergers patient who is unaware of the effect he is having on others. But we all seem to be subject to it in differing degrees. However we label it, the phenomenon translates to a shrunken world, lacking in color, sound, and dimension.

I have always thought that this is the real value of great works of art and literature. They open to us a world we would otherwise ignore in our fascination with things personal. Doubtless we should have strong feelings in the presence of great works, but those feelings should not be allowed to close us off to what is going on in the work itself. And it is what is going on in the works that discloses to us added dimensions of our world, makes of it a three or even a four-dimensional world instead of a flat sheet. We need to look, hear, and see the world around us. And this is what great works or art invite us to do.

Sheldon’s Problem

In one of my favorite episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” in which Laurie Metcalf plays a large role, Sheldon Cooper has had a miserable day because his Mom spends the day with Sheldon’s friends. She would rather do that than go to a lecture with him and listen to him trip-up the Nobel Prize-winning speaker. She tells Sheldon she would rather to go to Hollywood so she can talk to a wax statue of Ronald Reagan and thank him for his service to his country!  At the end of the day Sheldon has caught a cold and lies in bed while his Mom rubs Vaporub onto his chest and sings “Soft Kitty.” Near the end of the scene Sheldon tells his mother that he regrets that he hasn’t been able to spend time with her on this trip. His mother asks, “And whose fault is that?” Sheldon replies, “Yours.” Funny, yes. But also a bit sad. In Shelden’s world it is always the other person’s fault. Increasingly this seems to be the same world we all live in: when things go wrong, it is always someone else’s fault.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of The Country features a heroine, Undine Spragg, who marries Ralph Marvell a man with little money but “Old New York” family connections. The marriage goes terribly wrong because Undine cannot control her spending and, like her parents, her husband can’t say “no.” Undine, like Sheldon, blames her husband: the failed marriage couldn’t possibly be her fault. And that is the problem: Undine is a self-absorbed, spoiled child.  No one has ever denied her anything. And despite the fact that these are fictional characters, they both reflect a common feature of our culture.

We may not have Sheldon’s problem — which would require extensive psychological counselling. But more and more of us have Undine’s problem: we are spoiled rotten and our attention is turned inward. I suspect there is a connection here. I have spoken about the unwillingness of so many of us in this culture to accept responsibility for our actions. The problem is widespread. But while I have never discussed the possible causes, I think there is a definite connection between our increasing preoccupation with ourselves and our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our actions.

As we become increasingly self-centered and others become reduced to a means toward our personal ends, and those around us (especially our parents and teachers) confirm this preoccupation with self by gratifying our every wish and telling us how wonderful we are, we grow in our sense of entitlement. We are thus subjected to ego enhancement at every turn. As the ego becomes enlarged, and the world becomes our world, it becomes harder and harder to accept the fact that we may have caused the things that go wrong in that world. It simply cannot be our fault: we are too wonderful. It must be someone else’s fault.

Sheldon Cooper has Asperger’s Syndrome, which may not be treatable. Undine Spragg is simply a self-absorbed, spoiled brat. But her problem may also be untreatable, since she has reached adulthood and it has developed into a character flaw. These are fictional characters, but they resemble us in important ways; as their condition becomes widespread among the population at large, our society takes on the character of those who comprise it. We are used to seeing people duck responsibility and indulge themselves at others’ expense. A few people complain, but on the whole, it’s what we do. It’s who we are.

In 1810 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend John Langdon in which he spoke of kings; he said, in part, “. . .take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and they [become delusional and self-absorbed].” We are all kings today, with little or no political power, but with more power over the things that affect us directly than even the kings of Jefferson’s day might have had. Let us hope we don’t all turn into Undine Spragg.

Sit-Com Philosophy

My wife and I wait eagerly each week for the newest version of “The Big Bang Theory.” In the interim we watch re-runs that we have stored on the DVR, so much so that we can say the lines with the actors. Very funny stuff! It has some of the cleverest writing I have come across on TV and Jim Parsons is the best comic actor I have ever seen. He makes a humorless, self-absorbed character almost likeable. Almost. And when they bring in Laurie Metcalf as Sheldon Cooper’s mother it makes our day. She is perfectly cast as the spiritually certain Texas mother of the brilliant theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper.

The episodes often provide food for thought as well, and Sheldon is a wealth of information, much of which his friends find boring (as do many in the audience, I dare say). But it is remarkably well done. One such episode struck me as worthy of extended comment. It appeared at the beginning of a new season when Sheldon and his three friends return from the North Pole where they have spent three months doing research to substantiate one of Sheldon’s theories.

Sheldon is walking on air as they return to the apartment because he is convinced the data prove him right and he has already announced his triumph to the scientific world  and he now awaits the inevitable Nobel prize which will give his life new meaning. But, as it happens, the data that “proves” his hypothesis was provided by the three friends using the static produced by the electric can opener. When Sheldon finds out, he is humiliated and furious. He is disgraced in the eyes of his peers and must write a detraction which, for him, is a gargantuan task. In a giant pout, he quits his job and returns to Texas and his mother.

During the entire episode, Sheldon’s attempt to put the blame for his humiliation on the shoulders of his three friends raises questions about his willingness to take responsibility for his own actions. It is true that they provided him with flawed date, but he is the one who spread the word about his latest scientific triumph. It never occurs to him that he is in any way responsible for the public humiliation one could say he brought upon himself. He didn’t have to shoot his mouth off! To make matters worse, his friends seem willing to accept the blame, though this is a comic device that makes the episode funny. If they confronted Sheldon with the fact that he is the one responsible for his own humiliation, it wouldn’t get laughs. And I dare say the character would deny it: he’s very good at that. But it would be true. One hears echoes of Todd Blackledge’s attempts to shift blame for Joe Paterno’s recent behavior at Penn State to the media when Paterno refused to take action upon learning that his assistant coach was seen abusing a young boy in the team showers. Only this episode is funny, Blackledge’s rationalization is borderline absurd. But the point is the same: actions have consequences, though we want to deny it.

In the end, we really ought to focus in on the fact that the freedom we prize so highly brings with it a responsibility to accept the consequences of our free choices. You can’t have freedom (even as we understand that term) without responsibility. And vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. In this comic episode, Sheldon has made his bed but he refuses to lie in it. That can be funny when his friends go along with his dementia, but it sends the wrong message. Sheldon is a study in asperger’s syndrome, a condition that renders the subject unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He is so immersed in himself he is barely aware of others at all. As his roommate Leonard says Sheldon is “irony impaired” — a characteristic of this type of personality. (Leonard, by the way, is played by Johnny Galecki who is, unfortunately, talent-impaired in an otherwise gifted cast.) Sheldon must learn “social protocols” constantly just to muddle through a quasi-normal public life. That makes for terrific humor when handled by the likes of Jim Parsons. But it is just possible that we all share Sheldon’s condition to a degree in our self-absorption and our inability to acknowledge responsibility for our actions, not to mention the urge to find someone else to blame for our own mistakes.