In Ego and Soul, John Carroll aims to look at the beliefs that formerly sustained Western civilization and prove that they have faded away from modern life. Each chapter in the book is devoted to a different element of culture, which is where Carroll claims the main failings lie. Although the book is divided up into four sections and each chapter is clearly devoted to a social trend or value, his argument reads like a haphazard rape and pillage of the modern world.
He begins with a section titled “Battlegrounds”, in which he seeks to define the main areas where we see the manifestations of cultural values: work, love, sports, and lower middle class culture. The last section is the strongest, but by its end, any hope of linear argument begins to slip away.
Carroll is perfectly adept at explaining why Vermeer’s paintings reflect a devotion to work ethic and craftsmanship, or why soccer embodies the purest elements of human aspirations. Unfortunately, Carroll has more material than he can properly categorize. His chapter on love is a tidal wave of pop culture references. He analyzes the appeal of Marilyn Monroe for much longer than necessary to make the claim that she defines eros. Similarly, the film Casablanca, which is cited to define the terms of friendship, is given a full treatment that feels out of place.
Carroll’s entire argument subtly hinges on the chapter “Self-Hatred in High Culture”. He outlines the way that nihilism has defined and determined the course of intellect pursuit for the wealthy and educated. He makes a compelling argument for this, here. At the core of his entire text is Western Society’s “loss of will to live” which stems from this self-hatred. Nihilist intellectuals were the precursors to today’s thoughtless over-consumers. Unfortunately, his book seems to fall victim to it. He criticizes and negates far more than he speculates.
Perhaps it’s his own nihilistic leanings that lead him to create this tornado of a book. Despite strong chapter headings, arguments, and concepts, his examples leak everywhere. In his chapter on democracy, he attempts to link the concept of equality to xenophobia and a lower-middle class passion for sports. These arguments are shakily constructed and rarely logically formed. It boils down to an angry rant on the state of society, littered with fancy vocabulary and theoretical terms that are not defined.
There are some exceedingly interesting points within the text, for example, in his chapter on Tourism, Carroll calls the tourist quest, “a pilgrimage to nowhere.” However, his argument is based on a rather contemptuous perception of Westerners. He asserts that they visit Eastern Temples with no understanding of what they are seeing, and with no respect for sanctity. He never full on makes the claim that the loss of religion leads to the demise of culture, but that sentiment seems to be a driving force behind the text.
Carroll may have a point, but he’s building upon a cornerstone of specious stereotypes. Perhaps what he really ought to have done was write a book about the loss of religious faith. Given a narrower focus, many of his points could be expanded upon and flourish. Instead, he seeks to tackle everything, and in doing so, fails to provide detail or clarity. Carroll’s text is filled with ample material, but his explanation often falls short, coming across like an argument sputtered out by wealthy college kids over a pitcher of beers. These college kids are perhaps examples of the nihilistic and self-hating upper class that he describes, but he provides neither a recommendation or an example of how to overcome this self-indulgence.
Ultimately, the book lands on a bitter, hopeless note. Western civilization may in fact be a bitter and hopeless place, but Carrroll’s tagline, “The modern West in search of meaning” might be recrafted to better reflect the subject matter. The book serves as a representation of our fractured society rather than a description of it. Carroll warns that in the future, people will live in “Neurotic City” which is “all busyness on the outside, but meloncholia and bleached emotion behind the scenes.” Perhaps not accidentally, the same description could be applied to his book.