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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

American Anxiety

The American, incessantly restless, seems to find a home in his eternal buzzing. On pages 609-611 of Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes the American as both having “gravity,” drinking at home rather than partying, while also doing “everything in a hurry.” How can the American be measured and brash at the same time? Pride, to Tocqueville, is the source of this duality. In pride the American finds repose in himself, hungry to be great—but precisely this pride pushes him to lose himself in the possibility of how to be great. Submerged in his two worries—one to be great and one about how to become great—the American’s repose is the cause of his restlessness. His gravitational pride brings about his agitation.

Pride is the home of the American. It causes his “gravity,” the tendency for him to remain within himself. Tocqueville writes, “In democratic countries even a poor man has a high idea of his personal worth. They find it pleasant to think about themselves, and gladly suppose that others are looking at them too. This disposes them to measure their words and their behavior carefully and not to let themselves go.”2 The American feels eyes watching him at all times. He dresses himself for this show, keeping his “self” close, while “measuring” that which others can see. Believing that he has great “personal worth”—that he will one day be great—he bears the weight of the value of his entire life by retaining himself. Because he wishes to become great, he finds a rest in himself, so none will ever think less of him.

The American thinks he can become great because, around him, he sees others flourishing in many ways that he could also take up. “In a democracy,” writes Tocqueville, “if necessity does not urge a man to action, longing will do so, for he sees that none of the good things all around him are completely beyond his reach.” He projects himself onto the men around him and sees that he could do anything. He becomes serious because he is “habitually preoccupied with some dangerous or difficult project.” Though he knows he could be any flourishing man around him, he is constantly endeavoring upon one path to success. His pride unfolds as constant projection—on a path to later become great.

The American is on one path at any given time, but in his mind he knows that there are several before him. Tocqueville writes, “in aristocracies every man has but one sole aim which he constantly pursues; but man in democracies has a more complicated existence; it is the exception if one man’s mind is not concerned with several aims at the same time.”3 Pride can unfold in a broad multiplicity of projects; the American can undertake many different tasks to become great. He could work in industry, carpentry, farming, politics; each produce successful men. Because the American faces such a great amount of possibilities, he finds himself anxious about what he should do. Even while woodworking, he worries about whether he should campaign instead. The American is both anxious to prove himself and anxious about the vast array of possibilities of proving himself.

Tocqueville summarizes the double anxiety of Americans on page 610: “No men are more attached to their own way of life, which would lose its savor if they were relieved from the anxieties which harass them. They love their cares more than aristocrats love their pleasures.” The American finds rest in his fundamental desire to prove himself, which brings him to the constant rush of his various cares. His “way of life” is projection—a way of living unified only in name. At home in himself, he finds his “self” constantly dissolving into different callings. But he holds himself close in the gaze of others—so he gathers up his projects, carries himself in a reserved, dignified fashion, pretends he is on one path; yet within his mind, he remains anxious to be seen as great, and anxious about how to become seen in this way. The very drive to be fixed and successful in the eyes of others gives the American double anxiety.


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