On Individualism (a Brief and Partial Defense)

Yesterday I was talking with someone who had lived in the U.S. for a few years but ultimately didn’t like it there and moved back to Europe. I asked him what in particular he didn’t like. He said that it was the individualism. There wasn’t time for him to explain what he meant, so he gave a specific example: the lack of public transportation. I agree with that particular point. In much of the U.S., you need a car to get around (with reasonable swiftness). I have managed quite well without a car in New Haven, San Francisco, and NYC, but those are exceptions. Morever, it’s difficult to travel from one part of the country to another without a car (or without flying); trains are expensive and don’t necessarily go anywhere near your destination. Buses can be very slow. In Europe overall, it’s much easier to live without a car (though people buy and use cars anyway).

But just as he didn’t have a chance to explain his point more thoroughly, I didn’t have a chance to speak up for certain kinds of individualism. Individualism often gets a bad rap, not only in Europe but in the U.S. too. People often oppose it to “community,” “cooperation,” and so forth, as though selfishness and individualism were one and the same.

But there are different kinds of individualism. There is indeed the “me, me, me” kind, whose agitation is fed by the belief that you (“I”) either are the center of the universe or should be. That your job is to grab whatever you can for yourself, the rest of the world be damned.

A different kind of individualism, one that I cherish, doesn’t deny or trample on others. Instead, it asserts that in this short span of life, I can do what seems best to me or what suits me best, even if the crowd doesn’t approve of it. This kind of individualism can be found in American poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction (and their overlap), songwriters, scientists, athletes, librarians, and many others. I find this kind of individualism in Hungary too, but it isn’t quite as embedded in the way of life. There’s a respect for privacy here—people more or less leave each other alone—but there’s also an expectation that you follow certain norms, and a kind of pity when you don’t. (This is less true in Budapest and other large cities than elsewhere.)

If there’s something I especially love and miss about the U.S., it’s the spirit of finding your own way. (By the way, I hear this spirit in the music I love here in Hungary—in Cz.K. Sebő, Platon Karataev, and others.) It isn’t always present in the U.S. But I share it with friends and colleagues there. “Your own way” isn’t really your own; none of this is really your own or mine. We’re all subject to influences, forces, circumstances that we might not even notice. Moreover, whatever we do is not only for ourselves; it pours out into the world. The self isn’t even the point. But to the extent that each of us gets to choose what to do with our lives, this choice, with all its limitations and pitfalls, is worth defending to the end.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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