A Clear Eyes / Full Hearts Story

I like to think that we do a good job responding to our readers’ questions.

If we have a weak spot, however, I know where it is. It is the unerring target of the question we receive most often: “What books would you recommend?”

It is a completely fair question to ask. Our work references a great many books that could (and probably should) come highly recommended. And yes, Ben and I are both passionate, greedy readers of just about anything in our areas of interest. You would think we would recommend books all the time.

But we don’t. Yes, Ben published this list…in 2014.

And yes, we fairly enthusiastically recommended Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem.

But in general, it’s a question we answer a lot less often than we receive it.

I can’t answer for Ben, but for me, the reason is simple: I hate book recommendations. When I used to recommend books, it became obvious to me that people rarely took my advice. If they did, they bought the book and never cracked the cover – which is still something, I suppose, at least from the author’s perspective. I’m not being critical. I did – I do – the same thing. I’d ask for book recommendations from people I considered thoughtful almost reflexively, as if reading what they considered most important would give me insights into how they developed their much more comprehensive worldview. Or maybe I’d just buy the book and leave it unread. Or better yet, maybe I already owned it, and it made me feel like we were on the same team in some way. So I made it a rule to stop recommending books. Mostly.

I am going to violate my rule. I’m going to violate it for three reasons:

  • The book is really, really good;
  • The book expresses a sentiment that I think you will find a useful case study in Clear Eyes and Full Hearts; and
  • The book is short, which means we might all actually read the thing.

Give Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland a read. It will be the work of an evening.

“Telling a story at all changes your relationship to the events you are describing.”

My Father Left Me Ireland, by Michael Brendan Dougherty

Dougherty’s book explores the power of storytelling on both the teller and the listener. In a deeply personal and arresting fashion, he examines his relationship with a distant sometimes-father, his present-but-complicated-mother, and a shared heritage that acted as a sort of abstraction layer to better navigate the nature of and connections between each of those relationships. For Dougherty, that was Irish culture and identity.

Like so many of us, for Dougherty that abstraction layer – the narratives of identity, who we are, where we belong – first drifted with his mother’s influence toward Irish nationalistic kitsch. We have written a lot recently about kitsch and Deadly Theatre, most of which you can find by searching the Epsilon Theory archives for the word, “Yay.” Among its most powerful traits is its ability to act as a substitute for genuine connection. That’s an attractive enough trait to make it pretty damned common.

Over time, and with greater exposure to a more cynical world, it is similarly common to become acutely aware of the cheapness of that kind of revisionism. So it is that after early exposure to caricatured versions of what it means to be something, we often revert into a deconstructed, nihilistic revisionism of a different kind. We disbelieve and reject that there might be any fundamental value in these seemingly ‘arbitrary’ associations, ideas or institutions. Nationalism, religion, so-called culture, homeland. All hokey constructs, to be seen for what they really are.

And yet.

“Aloofness misleads us. This ironic distance is insufficient when we are really tested.”

– My Father Left Me Ireland, by Michael Brendan Dougherty

So often, this atomized view of the world, as Dougherty calls it, leads us to and is further reinforced by the process of curation, a kind of picking and choosing of ideas and associations and commitments as matters of ephemeral preference. This process supports a worldview that rejects any kind of natural, primordial connection between us and others, or between us and the ideas that ought to be clung to even when they seem to not be working in some present way. It is deeply cynical, something Dougherty recognizes in the letters his younger self wrote to that distant father.

But was I worth knowing? I doubt it. Not only was I painfully insecure, I was shallow. Someone who approaches life like a curator will exchange his faith for merely believing in belief. He’ll substitute taste where conviction belongs. I was content to slide down the surface of things.”

– My Father Left Me Ireland, by Michael Brendan Dougherty

The cynical philosophy is also a broken one – one it takes the birth of Michael’s own child to begin to repair. And there, I think, is the power of Dougherty’s argument: the family is the thing. Not the family per se (although I think both he and I would argue that has a sort of truth as well), but what we understand so intuitively when we marry, or look at our son or daughter for the first time. We know without the need for kitsch or artificial bombast the unbreakable nature of those connections, and the permanent, unquestioned, unconditional commitment they demand from us. We know without anyone telling us how important it is to help our kids know where they came from – the people who sacrificed, the lives they led, the mistakes they made and the values they kept – and to provide the roots that will permit them to make their own I AM.

And if we can know with no great feat of imagination this living contract between those who came before us and those who come after, how much further can we expand our walled gardens? Can we accept that these kinds of connections can be good or healthy with our neighborhoods? Our towns? Intellectual communities separated by miles but connected by electrons? Cultural institutions like charities, churches, artist communities? Nations? Is there room for the stories we tell to be stories about all of us?

It is something to be intransigent about, as one would be in the defense of a home.

– My Father Left Me Ireland, by Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael’s is a story of Clear Eyes, a parable of the the narrative abstractions and constructions which can create a cheapened form of meaning. Yay, Ireland!

It is also story of Full Hearts, the recognition that there is still identity and reciprocity to be found in stubborn attachment to what kitsch pretends at – the cultural values, connection and uncynical, unfailing belief in the ideas or faiths we believe to be important.

But more than anything, it’s a story about finding a home. Finding your pack.

I think it’ll be worth your time.

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  1. Just finished the book - fantastic. And thanks for the recommendation (the three body problem trilogy was also great).

    The last chapter really nailed a few thoughts. One of my favourites. “On the whole, your generation successfully minimized its own risk of becoming domestic tyrants. But they had done so by handing us over to ourselves, and many of us discovered the tyrant within. To empower me and my generation, everyone pretended that there were no insurmountable obstacles in the way of our finding our true selves. But this gave us the sense that every misfortune or setback was entirely self-authored. Assured there was no judgment from without, our desires and expectations made us pitiless judges of our own lives. We had little resilience to meet challenges; we assumed the adults would just keep removing them and settling things for us. But the message was still clear to us: Your parents had torn down almost all the unjust taboos and barriers. You just needed a good education, and life would be whatever you wanted it to be.”

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