Even reading something daring in scope and intent - my own favorite in this regard is Bloch's Principle of Hope - provides an awareness of just how much there is to learn, how much to understand, about the world. Anything and everything is there for the taking.
It was with surprise, then, that I read Rob Horning's "Confessions of a Mass Man".
The palpable sense that there was so much more to know, the concrete proof of it bound up in volumes front of me, not only made it difficult for me to imagine leaving the library; it also made it hard to actually start reading anything. I wanted to stay there in the narrow aisle, facing the books forever, contemplating the spines, surveying Contents and Works Cited pages, poised in a moment of perpetual potentiality. As long as I didn’t commit to any one text, I could continue to fantasize about reading them all. Walking away from the shelf would be tantamount to surrender; I’d have to admit to myself how much there was that I would never know, how I was doomed to dilettantism.Obviously, this is a fully human choice. Horning sees himself as one of Ortega y Gasset's "mass men", defined in his The Revolt of the Masses as "constitutionally incapable of appreciating the society in which it found itself."
This sort of library visit was somewhat counterproductive to my studies. I learned to evade that state of petrified fascination in the stacks only by avoiding the library altogether and ultimately by dropping out of school.
Sunk in a mire of “self-satisfaction” and “radical ingratitude,” this new inert generation lacked the autonomy to strive for the “noble life” of ceaseless moral and intellectual struggle. “They are from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside themselves, be it fact or person,” Ortega asserts. “They will want to listen, and will discover they are deaf.”Ortega y Gasset's view of "mass man", however, is really a description of the petit bourgeois, that most reactionary, defensive, frightened of capitalist creatures. Threatened from below by the fear of proletarian victory, envious of the success of the bourgeoisie that always seems to elude them, the petit bourgeois' rage and frustration finds its outlet in fascist politics, anti-intellectualist attacks on culture, and racist and xenophobic attacks on "the other".
Far from the overwhelmed undergraduate, numb and dumb before the prospect and promise present in the University library, I would suggest, rather, that Horning's attempt to see himself reflected in Ortega y Gasset's "mass man" does himself a disservice. One can, I suppose resign oneself to a life viewed as dilettantism. On the other hand, one can dedicate oneself to seeing those shelves as holding the promise of a lifetime of learning, seeing the connections among things that might elude others. Certainly the reality of specialization, as Horning notes, leaves ever smaller niches, to the point where real knowledge and understanding will disappear. All the same, this is not the only possible answer.