by Sam Buntz
I have found myself surprised and pleased at the quality of the most recent episodes of The Office. It seemed shaky during the last season — whenever characters start pairing off and having babies with each other, and there’s one pregnancy and wedding after another, it usually heralds imminent decline. But occasionally a show can be reborn or find a way to re-perpetuate its old formula without growing stale. In this case, I give plenty of credit to the writers, obviously, but also to Ed Helms for assuming the role of the new boss and to James Spader for being the new CEO. Their characters are certainly amusing, but they also manage to capture and retune certain underlying vibrations that constantly hum at back of the American mind. They are caricatures of particular kinds of Americans and of almost all Americans as they exist within themselves, if not as they exist in public: Helms, like Steve Carrell before him, is a bushy-tailed aspirant, gloriously naive and good-natured, a kind of comic-idiot-romantic-quester (though riddled with insecurities), whereas Spader represents the savvier end of the spectrum, the slick expert with the entirety of Matter and Life perfectly pinned under his thumb.
This brings me to my actual point and my reason for writing — to demonstrate how our pop-culture illuminates the crucial differences between Americans and their British forebears, and, more specifically, how it reflects (if a little faintly) the opposing intellectual stances staked out by two of the greatest essayists to ever live: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Samuel Johnson. If you’ve ever seen the British version of The Office, you’ll immediately recognize how incredibly foreign these personality types (Helms, Spader) would seem in the work-environment of that earlier incarnation of the show. The UK boss, as played by Ricky Gervais, is an absurd failure — he drives his company into the ground in the course of two seasons. The series ended relatively quickly, in accordance with his massive incompetence and persistent mismanagement. Steve Carrell’s boss, to the contrary, tended to fail ever upwards (though he was clearly beset by persistent self-doubts he struggled manically against them). The best the other characters on the UK show can do is to simply keep chugging along in a world where “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”
That’s a famous quote (it would look nice on a refrigerator magnet or a coffee-mug) from Dr. Johnson, doubtless the person most qualified to be called “the mind of England.” I place it here because I think it goes to show how a great genius like Johnson, two hundred and fifty years on or so, can continue to define and comprehend the atmosphere of his nation and illuminate the secret psychological roots of its popular culture. For the U.S. version of The Office, one would need to suggest Emerson as governing sage, the majestic forebear of its assorted zanies. Emerson urges unflagging self-reliance: “If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me.” Dwight Schrute, Michael Scott, and Andy Bernard never lose confidence in themselves — at least not more than momentarily. They are constantly trying, in quixotic style, to reach the unreachable star. The British Office is, to say the least, something closer to a transcription of reality, in all its dryness and hopelessness (except for the Christmas Special, which tacks on an unbelievable–and wholly Hollywood and American–happy ending.)
This might sound like I’m saying that Americans have endless reserves of vitality while the British are at the end of their rope. By no means. The respective genius of each nation is, in his own way, correct. Johnson sees that the we are not sufficient unto ourselves — limited and weak, we can only keep on the best we can, turning to fresh tasks, and (fervent Christian as Johnson was) can try to place our trust in a higher Providence. We can enter into a covenant with a source of goodness outside of ourselves, but the world will continue to be a fallen universe — Johnson’s major poem is, after all, entitled “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (which could easily be the sub-title for the British Office). Emerson, by contrast, knows only a source of goodness and strength within himself –Nature and the orthodox Christian notion of God can only reflect the “Aboriginal Self’s” great qualities back to it. One should sign a covenant with the God within because of how untrustworthy and maliciously wily Nature and the God without must be.
Emerson knows better than anyone that the world is going to beat him down, but he still, ceaselessly, is determined to re-assert himself and his principles. Johnson found peace by sharing the world with God and with his fellow Christians — whereas Emerson, an eternal rebel who quit his job as a Unitarian minister, always believed that “for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts: I [the Self] and the Abyss.” Emerson’s sense of self is un-limited, while Johnson’s is limited. The latter finds peace by locating himself in a divine order, but Emerson sees the deepest part of the Self as the only divine order that there really is. With a little critical application one can easily see how overwhelmingly relevant this distinction is in interpreting the cultural artifacts (like the two Offices) of our contemporary world.
I greatly admire and revere Dr. Johnson, while my temperament is clearly that of an Emersonian. But both perspectives possess immense value. Of course, the British have had their rebels against the Christian-classicist Johnsonian worldview — William Blake and Percy Shelley being foremost among them — and American writers from Poe to Hawthorne to Melville have dissented from Emerson. But in our current cultural situation, at a time when awareness of the central intellectual figures of both of our countries seems to have waned considerably, and the American exaltation of the self is increasingly exported throughout the world and distorted into a merely material exaltation (as opposed to the spiritual and intellectual freedom Emerson actually envisioned), it would seem that a large dose of both thinkers, in equal proportions, would do well to correct these abuses and hasten an awareness of ourselves as both Emersonian individualists and as Johnsonian members of the human species, mortals made of the same clay as Adam. And when we become more conscious of these facts, we are enabled to read and decode the other, less high-brow, aspects of our culture — we can graft them into the larger and more refined cultural picture.
Reading Emerson, we — meaning Americans — understand exactly who we are, what we’re trying to do, and how we’re screwing it up by embracing a variety of self-centeredness far inferior to the Sage of Concord’s. Reading Johnson we get the antidote that prevents our self- reliance from becoming a kind of petulant egotism — and I imagine Britons will be able to find an even deeper resource in his writings, an inlet into themselves. In the end, the difficulty of seeing ourselves and the universe consists in this: being able to know both that the entirety of existence can only come to us through our own senses and intellect, individually, (that’s Emerson) while being able to see, simultaneously, that one person is ultimately but a particle of the whole, of a great chain of being (that’s Johnson). One may, after all, be a particle reflecting the whole — but still a particle. To balance these contradictory notions — that one is “both everything and nothing,” as Harold Bloom once remarked — and keep them balanced, could be called the definition of wisdom. Plus, we enjoy and appreciate our entertainment even more when we sense its resonance with the deeper levels of our being.