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A provocative critique of modern frivolity and a guide to being serious in an unserious age
We used to live in a world run by serious people: politicians and religious leaders, writers and artists, journalists and academics, lawyers and business executives, who approached their work with maturity and mindfulness. Today it seems as if most of these figures have all but disappeared, leaving our country and our culture in the hands of amateurs, ...
A provocative critique of modern frivolity and a guide to being serious in an unserious age
We used to live in a world run by serious people: politicians and religious leaders, writers and artists, journalists and academics, lawyers and business executives, who approached their work with maturity and mindfulness. Today it seems as if most of these figures have all but disappeared, leaving our country and our culture in the hands of amateurs, buffoons, and professional clowns.
Yet, according to Lee Siegel, seriousness has been elusive in every age, and every age has its own particular obstacles to living seriously. In a unique combination of fiction, memoir, history, social criticism, satire, and spiritual reflection, Siegel illuminates our contemporary distractions of profit, popularity, and instant pleasure as we search for ways to be serious in culture, in politics, and in everyday life.
Are You Serious? is a thoughtful and enlightening exploration of seriousness in all its incarnations, from the heights of intellectual endeavor to the depths of political conflict to how the word itself is used in ordinary situations, from romance to business. Siegel lays bare the forces in modern life that create the silliness all around us, and he describes how seriousness may be attained through the qualities of attention, purpose, and continuity, in satisfying lives forged in bonds of work and love.
An intriguing examination of the power and precision of words.
Culture critic Siegel (Against the Machine: How the Web is Reshaping Culture and Commerce—and Why It Matters,2009, etc.)begins with a 1904 cartoon and ends with a discourse on today's political climate. Despite its title, this isn't really a "how-to" book, but rather a dissertation on the evolution of seriousness by both ordinary and extraordinary people. From Plato to John Stewart, Siegel traces the concept of seriousness throughout the ages. While retracing the lineage of seriousness is only marginally interesting, the author's frank and witty discussion about our modern linguistic habits provides much more entertainment. He takes particular umbrage with the ubiquity of "serious" as an intensifier (as in, "That girl is seriously hot"), or the insertion of "I mean" or "like" before a statement. The book reaches its zenith when the author—in all seriousness—breaks down the subtle nuances between using "seriously," (I'm seriously upset = I am calm and want you to listen to me) and "fucking" (I'm fucking upset = somebody's probably going to get hurt). Near the halfway point, the narrative settles into a long political simmer but still continues down the path of examining the broken poetry of words like "cool," "idea" and "truthiness." Siegel ends on a salient note, with a lucid interpretation of "hero."
A seriously serious investigation. Seriously.
Only in America could reality become a trend, as in "reality
television." But then, only in America do we take time out for a
"reality check," as if anyone so far gone as to lose their sense of
reality would actually know what to check in order to get it back.
I mean, get real. Of course, only in America could the admonishment
"get real" be a reproach, and "unreality" be a sin.
Now that we're on the subject, only in America do we say "I
mean" before we say what we mean, as if it were an acceptable
convention for people to go around saying what they didn't mean,
and it had become another convention to make the distinction,
before saying anything of consequence, between meaning and
not meaning what you are about to say.
Already I'm, like, getting dizzy. Which raises the question of
why Americans distance themselves from what they are saying
by putting "like" before the description of something, as if people
are nervous about committing to a particular version of reality, or
to a direct, unmediated, nonmetaphorical experience of the real.
In a society like ours where reality is so slippery that we actually
now have a whole branch of entertainment explicitly claiming
to depict it, the urge to be serious is very powerful. I don't
know exactly when the words "serious" and "seriously" began to
perform the function of an intensifier. But using them that way
speaks volumes about our yearning to be serious.
That is a seriously beautiful sunset. That girl is seriously hot.
That is a serious CD collection. Those are some serious abs. My
favorite is, He is seriously funny. Meaning: Not what passes for
funny. But truly, authentically, honestly, originally funny.
Seriously funny. So much of the life around us has been seized by
advertising and Hollywood, so much of our experience has been
caricatured and "branded," that we use the word "serious" in an
attempt to reclaim experience for ourselves. It's a way to
distinguish the originality of something from all the many imitations
and copies of the thing.
When we say, "That is a serious hamburger," we mean that it is
not like all the hamburgers we have seen in ads and commercials.
It is not the proverbial hamburger of childhood outings with Dad,
or of stoned, late-night, teenaged visits to McDonald's, White Castle
or that Greek diner. No, "that is a serious hamburger" means
that is a true hamburger, unlike any imitation or copy. It means,
At last! I am having a fresh, original experience of a hamburger
that exists in fullness of being beyond all the cheap replicas of a
burger. Likewise, serious money means not the tired, trite,
wearyingly familiar image of money. Serious money is life-changing,
status-transforming, "I'll never have to work again" money. It is
not simply a thing to be possessed. It occupies its own category of
being. The $7 billion that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is
worth qualifies as serious money. Barack Obama, with his millions
in book royalties, does not have serious money.
My dictionary traces the etymology of "serious" back to an
Old English word meaning "heavy" or "sad." I have my own
fanciful origin of the term. I like to think that the word is somehow
tangled up with the Spanish verb ser. Ser means "to be"
in Spanish, but it is distinct from the Spanish verb estar, which
also means "to be." You use estar to describe a mood or an emotion.
You use ser to describe identity or the particular traits that
make up the essence of a person. Estar implies temporariness;
ser connotes permanence. In that sense, "serious" is a state of
being in which you are fully aware of who you are, and what
your place is in the world at that moment. You are also aware
of who someone else is, and what their precise relationship is to
you. That is what you expect when you are told that someone
is "serious"; that what he or she does will follow from who he
or she is. We spend our days floating along on a train of disconnected
feelings and moods, waiting for the moment when we
suddenly become aware of the connection between who we are
and what we are doing.
You might say that estar is an artificial state of being because
it is contingent on the forces that create our moods and cause
them to change. Ser, on the other hand, is wholly natural. It is
how we live in clarity and conscientiousness. Ser is organic
seriousness. When people say that they are searching for meaning,
they are saying that they are trying to find something serious
about which they can be serious. To live meaningfully is to live
I know what some of you are thinking. This guy is making too
much of a hamburger. Siegel is being too serious. In fact, the
attraction and the aversion to being serious is a pendular American
motion, as we shall see in a later chapter. A constant fear runs
through American life, that you are either too serious—and thus
depressed, in the Old English sense of the word—or not serious
enough. As Abraham Lincoln, one of the most serious people
who ever lived, wrote to a woman he was courting:
I have commenced two letters to send you before this, both
of which displeased me before I got half done, and so I tore
them up. The first I thought wasn't serious enough, and the
second was on the other extreme.
As we've noted, in contemporary American life, "serious"
seems to be used more frequently the less its meaning is clear.
"Serious" occurs in the most diverse and contradictory contexts.
It has traveled far from Arnold's snobbish use of the term, and
even beyond Beerbohm's realms of laughter and absurdity. Yet
the impulse behind the use of the word—the desire to be serious!-
- remains constant.
"If you wanna be taken seriously, you gotta have serious hair,"
Melanie Griffith says in the movie Working Girl. She turns out
to be right, though neither highfalutin' Matthew Arnold nor
mischievous Max Beerbohm would have had any idea what she
was talking about. In The Godfather, Don Corleone tells Virgil
Sollozzo, a gangster newly arrived in town who has joined
up with a rival crime family, that he has agreed to meet with
him because he has heard that Sollozzo is a "serious man." The
don means that Sollozzo means what he says, but Sollozzo is
also serious in another sense: he ends up nearly killing the don
and murdering one of his sons. You might say that Sollozzo
turned out to be too serious, while Don Corleone was not serious
Even exemplars of Arnoldian high seriousness are of no help
in clarifying what "serious" truly signifies. Arnold's foremost
American disciple was the literary critic Lionel Trilling. What
fun Beerbohm might have had with him. About sixty years ago,
Trilling offered a provocative insight into the social construction
of seriousness. "It might be said," he wrote, "that our present
definition of a serious book is one which holds before us some
image of society to consider and condemn." In other words,
Trilling scorned what he regarded as the "middlebrow" notion
of seriousness. For Trilling and other intellectuals of his time,
"middlebrow" meant art—or taste in art—that pretended to
value difficulty and complexity but settled instead for easy
sentiments and simple ideas. In Trilling's eyes, social outrage was
an instantly available emotion that provided the appearance of a
complex, critical attitude toward society, and so it often served as
the quickest route to "seriousness."
Trilling was thinking of—to use his mildly ironic phrase—
"commercially successful serious novels," like those of John Steinbeck,
James Gould Cozzens, and James Jones. We don't have much
socially conscious commercial fiction anymore. Rather, Holly wood
has taken on the function of holding "before us some image of society
to consider and condemn." Think of the award for Best Picture,
bestowed upon the film considered to be the most serious of the
past year. The last five movies, as of this writing, to have won the
award are: Crash (2005), a movie about racial and ethnic prejudice;
The Departed (2006), a movie about police corruption; No Country
for Old Men (2007), a movie about the way violence, greed, and
sheer chance expose the sham of social harmony; Slumdog Millionaire
(2008), a movie about the rottenness at the heart of capitalism;
and The Hurt Locker (2009), a movie about the sickness of war.
But was Trilling right? Are these movies pretending to be
serious by taking up "serious" themes that are actually emotionally
and intellectually facile? Or was Trilling, like so many
other elite intellectuals, a seriousness snob who felt the periodic
urge to renounce his own serious nature when he found it
reflected in contexts that were unfamiliar and even inhospitable
to his own?
The meaning of "seriousness" is seriously elusive. We spend
our days searching for a way to be serious. We exhort our children
to be serious. We look for serious people to associate with,
to befriend, to fall in love with. We search for serious work. We
get tired of all the buying and selling, of all the numbing routines
that fill our days and consume our time, tired of the petty but
necessary white lies that we have to tell and endure being told.
We want to feel that there is a purpose to our lives. We want to
feel that our experiences add up to something that explains our
experiences. We wish to stop thinking about our self-interest, just
for a minute, and get caught up in something larger than ourselves
We want to be serious.
Yet we don't want the busy, transactional, ego-gratifying
world to pass us by. We do not want to get weighed down by
lugubrious seriousness, by the Old English origin of the word.
Maybe that's why "serious business" has become such a universal
expression. It captures our ambivalence about being serious.
Serious business is not just business as usual. It's fresher and
more original and more consequential than that. At the same
time, it's not so out of the ordinary that it takes us away from the
importance of attending to our business.
Still, for all our ambivalence and confusion about how to be
serious, and in what degree, our yearning to be serious persists.
It makes its way into our speech again and again.
"Serious" as an intensifier is as ubiquitous, if you will pardon
my crudity, as the word "fucking." The two terms are like the
respectable and the unrespectable sides of the same social coin. We
may say, for example, that something is "fucking great" or that
something is "seriously great." "Fucking great" means that there
is something asocial about the thing that is great, or at least something
asocial about the way we think about the thing. It could lead
us into turbulent waters. "Seriously great" means that no matter
how great it is, it will remain within the bounds of what is normal
The modulations are infinite. "I'm seriously upset with you"
means that you are upset in a way that cannot be captured by
all the many representations of being upset that we have been
flooded with throughout our lives. You are "seriously" upset; you
are upset in an unprecedented way. You are also upset in a way
that has purpose, attention, and continuity. That is to say, there
are going to be consequences to your being upset. You are going
to stay focused on being upset. You are going to follow through
on being upset. But being "seriously" upset means that you are
sticking to the rules. You are not going to be hurtful. You are not
going to do anything reckless. If you are "fucking upset," on the
other hand, then all bets are off. The still-taboo word is out of
social bounds. It means that you are probably going to do something
that is equally out of bounds. You might be reckless. You
might hurt someone.
Excerpted from Are You Serious? by Lee Siegel Copyright © 2011 by Lee Siegel. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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chapter 1 The Urge to Be Serious 9
chapter 2 My Comical Struggle to Be Serious 21
chapter 3 Notes Toward a Definition of Seriousness 31
chapter 4 The Three Pillars of Seriousness 47
chapter 5 A Brief, Eccentric History of Seriousness 57
chapter 6 Seriousness in Culture 77
chapter 7 Seriousness in Politics 163