Brooks Explores Human Nature in 'The Social Animal'

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Writer David Brooks at his home in Bethesda, Md., on Dec. 1, 2009. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

Seated in a booth at Equinox, a generically posh restaurant across the street from his office in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, David Brooks seems shy for a public figure—someone who would rather talk about his heroes Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton than himself. At other tables, men in suits talk in loud voices; Brooks talks in a soft voice, and is wearing a gray sweater, no tie. His media persona, the ubiquitous commentator you see on television, popping up after State of the Union speeches to analyze the president’s performance, is nowhere in evidence. The self-assured columnist we read in the Times has been supplanted by a nervous author preparing for the reception of his new book, The Social Animal. A mint copy had just arrived that morning with no blurbs on the back, only a brief description of the contents adapted from the text. “I don’t think blurbs do much good. I just wanted to explain the book.”

There’s a lot to explain. The book’s subtitle—The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement—conveys its ambition. Brooks’s first two books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, were acutely witty satires of a social group whose name he coined: bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians,” the “affluent educated class” that frequents “gourmet coffeehouses” and issues corporate reports “with quotations from Émile Zola.” The books are smart—Brooks is a shrewd anthropologist of this fanciful type—and hugely entertaining. But they lack gravitas. The Social Animal is of a whole other order: authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.

Its thesis can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them “scouts”) that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are “mental sensations that happen to us.”

Brooks has absorbed and synthesized a tremendous amount of scholarship. He has mastered the literature on childhood development, sociology, and neuro-science; the classics of modern sociology; the major philosophers from the Greeks to the French philosophes; the economists from Adam Smith to Robert Schiller. He quotes artfully from Coleridge and Stendhal. And there’s nothing showy about it. He’s been busy, working on the book over the past three years during the stray hours when he isn’t writing his column, appearing on TV, or lecturing around the country. “I used to play golf,” he says. “I gave up every second that I wasn’t hanging around with my wife and kids.” (He has three, and lives, bobolike, in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md.)

To create a readable narrative from this daunting store of information, Brooks has written the book in the form of a novel, following an imaginary couple named Harold and Erica from womb to tomb. Harold is a diligent student, fascinated by the classics, who grows into a passive, underachieving adult, writing recondite books on American history and stumbling into a job at a Washington think tank. Erica is more driven. She starts her own consulting business and fails; joins an elephantine media corporation that sounds like AOL Time Warner; and ascends to political power as deputy chief of staff in the administration of Richard Grace, an Obama-like president with a “cautious, cerebral, thoughtful, and calm” temperament. It doesn’t quite work as fiction, but the plot is just scaffolding designed to elucidate Brooks’s real preoccupation: how Erica and Harold came to be who they are.

brooks-fe07-vl Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

Early tryouts of the book have been auspicious, he reports in an uncharacteristic burst of optimism. “I read from it last year at Aspen, and a woman in the back screamed out, ‘Will you marry me?’ ” His publisher is sending him off on tour, a rarity in the -budget--challenged book business. “The people at Random House were hugging me in the corridors.”

It’s not hard to see why. In essence, The Social Animal is a book about the human need for connection, friendship, love—what Brooks identifies as “limerence.” “I came across it in a poem—I now can’t remember which one—and liked the sound, so I sort of expanded it for the book.” Behind the elaborate theorizing is Brooks’s desire to articulate a universal feeling: that all of us are caught up in what he calls “the loneliness loop.” We yearn for “community”; we have “the urge to merge.” When two people are having an intense conversation, their breathing synchronizes; laughing to-gether creates a feeling of joy; soldiers drilling in unison experience a surge of power. What drives us, ultimately, is the need to be understood by others.

It’s a little strange to read this ruminative examination of feeling from someone whose life has been largely devoted to dissecting inside-the-Beltway politics and setting the intellectual tone for the Republican Party. The first stage of Brooks’s career proceeded through the stations of conservative journalism, from National Review to The Wall Street Journal, and from there to The Weekly Standard, the influential magazine founded by William Kristol in 1995. But Brooks insists that something has changed in the past decade. Political discourse had grown coarse, he laments. Gone is the civilized era when “you had liberals and conservatives instead of Republicans and Democrats,” a time “before the parties devolved into teams,” each espousing its own “values” in voices grown increasingly shrill. For a high-profile journalist, he seems eager to keep his head down—it’s not a posture easy to maintain when he’s on TV every Friday night and his byline appears twice a week on the op-ed page of The New York Times.

“One of the toughest things about being a columnist is that people hate you,” he said. Hate is perhaps too strong a word; it’s not a sentiment Brooks tends to evoke in people. On the contrary, his balanced views are seen as strengths, not weaknesses. “What’s interesting about David is the part that’s not on the right or the left,” says the liberal author Paul Berman. “He’s a social critic, with a talent for wry, fond criticism of the American bourgeoisie.” But he lacks “a kind of indignation,” Berman notes. He’s insufficiently shrill for Fox News, talk radio, and the conservative welfare state promoted by Washington think tanks—what the writer Andrew Sullivan refers to as “the financial-industrial complex.” “He’s in a very tough spot, like a lot of people on the right,” Sullivan observes. “We’ve all had to grapple with some difficult events, like the catastrophe of Iraq and the fiscal crisis, the seeds of which were planted in the Bush administration. David isn’t institutionally bound to the party line. He has to prove to the right that he’s not a New York Times liberal and to the New York Times liberals that he’s not a certified neocon. So why not go study neuroscience?”

There’s no denying that Brooks has fewer conservative friends than he once did. Their main complaint is that he has become too outspoken about the stridency of the Republican Party. He notoriously called Sarah Palin “a joke” (“I regret that now,” he says), and he no longer supports the war in Iraq, positions that have earned him enmity among many on the right. Brooks himself claims to be beyond such distinctions, and identifies himself as a Hamiltonian conservative—meaning that he believes in both strong government and individual liberty. He’s jettisoned “the Milton Friedman idea: that if you get government [to go] away you’ll have spontaneous order.” As for his old conservative colleagues, “I’m not one of the gang anymore. They’re not as much a part of my social life as they once were.”

His attention seems elsewhere. In Brooks’s view, Washington is obsessed with superficialities. “Our explanation of why we live the way we do is all on the surface,” he says. “Our policies have been shaped by shallow views of human nature. In Iraq, we tried to change the society without understanding it and got it wrong.” He’s openly derisive about the culture of Washington: “This is the most emotionally avoidant city in America.”

Brooks has always been more of a public intellectual than a pundit, driven by genuine curiosity about human beings and the world. The journalist Reihan Salam, Brooks’s first assistant at the Times, recalls his former employer as “an unusual, thoughtful guy, eager to listen. He wasn’t always scanning the room for the most famous person.” The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose research Brooks draws upon in The Social Animal, also praises him as “a great listener. He was there [in Damasio’s lab at USC] to learn.”

Writing The Social Animal has been an exhilarating journey. “The scientists I’ve spent the last three years talking to are truth seekers, unlike people [in Washington]. They’re not technical materialists. They love Henry and William James. They’ve helped me see how the power of deep ideas changes the way you think. It was part of my idea to go down, down, down, to look at moral and spiritual creativity, the deepest issues. You learn the importance of culture, of history—some of the deep knowledge that comes from Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy and theology are telling us less than they used to. Scientists and researchers are leaping in where these disciplines atrophy—they’re all drilling down into an explanation of what man is.” The word “deep” comes up a lot when Brooks talks about his book. He wants to go where few journalists have gone before. “I have the sense it’s a big intellectual moment. You feel the heat. It’s like Silicon Valley in the ’90s.”

Preparing to embark on his book tour, Brooks is apprehensive. “I’m dreading it,” he said. “I’ll feel lonely.”

Atlas is president of the independent publishing company Atlas & Co. and the author of Bellow: A Biography.

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