Choosing inadequacy

About a year ago, I had dinner with a friend who I have known more or less my entire life. We hadn’t seen each other in over ten years, though, not since she started college. During the interval, she became an inveterate social climber – at one point avowing completely seriously that she was open to marrying a rich man if it meant that she could have a flat in one of the world’s most expensive cities. She was also an expert at being woke. The contradiction in her thought processes – her craving for a life of riches and luxury and her woke “eat the rich” attitude – caused me to recognize the fuel behind the attraction redistributionist ideologies have for young Americans.

At some point in her trajectory, my friend had pitched on using the education system to climb the social ladder. In fairness to her, there is a pervasive idea that this is a valid approach; J.D. Vance mentioned it in the conclusion to Hillbilly Elegy. Choosing between the flagship state university and a small private liberal arts college, she picked the latter, which was a “social” school held in high esteem regionally and thought to be intellectually rigorous.

Upon graduating and moving two time zones away for graduate school, she made two unwelcome discoveries: 1) she was behind academically and intellectually, and 2) her college had scant brand-name value in the broader world. According to her, her graduate university’s student body was comprised of the children of America’s elite and “who didn’t get into Harvard.” She held a teaching assistantship for 101-level English literature classes and was discomfited to find that her freshmen students were better writers with a broader sense of literature and the humanities than she. She mentioned that she found out about entire chunks of the English literary canon from them, which is appalling given that she had majored in English at her liberal arts college.  

When Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig died, his executors found the manuscript for his novel Rausch der Verwandlung among his papers. The book’s title in English is The Post-Office Girl,[1] and it tells the story of a 1920s provincial girl who assumes a false identity to join the privileged world of her relatives. Everything works out – until it doesn’t:

Unwittingly Christine revealed the gaps in her worldliness. She didn’t know that polo was played on horseback, wasn’t familiar with common perfumes like Coty and Houbigant, didn’t have a grasp of the price range of cars; she’d never been to the races. Ten or twenty gaucheries like that and it was clear she was poorly versed in the lore of the chic. And compared to a chemistry student’s her schooling was nothing. No secondary school, no languages (she freely admitted she’d long since forgotten the scraps of English she’d learned in school). No, something was just not right about elegant Fräulein von Boolen, it was only a question of digging a little deeper […].

After Christine is unmasked, she returns to her previous life but this time she’s angry and bitter, aware now of the existence of another world, one lost through her own irresponsibility. Most of the book is about the girl’s mental unravelling. When I first read the book, I thought his ending of suicidal thoughts and participation in serious criminality to be melodrama for its own sake. Now, I think he was on to something.

In Zweig’s book, the root of the problem is the anti-heroine’s discovery that what is top-notch in her village isn’t held in the same esteem elsewhere: “[W]hat was the showpiece of her wardrobe [a green rayon blouse] yesterday in Klein-Reifling seems miserably flashy and common to her now.” My friend recounted a similar experience cast in academic terms. She slid through high school and college without any struggle. Upon starting her MA, she had difficulty keeping up with her cohort. Three years after starting a doctoral program, her dissertation proposal was rejected, with the evaluators citing lack of languages as one of the reasons. This last is interesting because it connects to Zweig’s list of faults that expose Christine’s real social standing. In the case of my friend, her background became equivalent to Christine’s blouse: haute couture in one locale and unsophisticated in another.

For both the Bright Young Things of Zweig’s world and my own generation more generally, there is a question over culpability. In the book, Christine’s aunt agonizes over the girl’s uncouth manners and dress, repeatedly reminding herself “how was she to know?” My friend and her parents assumed that “the system” would take care of her. Sure, the public school wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t too terrible and everyone else was going there. The college was the best and most expensive private college in the region, so surely the faculty and advisors there knew what they were doing.

This is not to say that there weren’t red flags if one knew where to look. For example, the college offered only two years of accredited foreign language training. My friend acknowledged this contributed to the problems with her first proposal. However, my friend also admitted that she hadn’t considered the curriculum when she picked the college. Her focus had been purely social. Consequently, the truth is that she chose her path at the moment she picked her values.  The fact that her measurement system didn’t hold up well to broader scrutiny is her fault.

Zweig’s anti-heroine contemplates suicide in response to her inadequacy; kangaroo courts, or cancel culture, are more my friend’s style. Not much has changed over the course of a century. In Zweig’s time, self-destruction was the default choice; in ours, destruction of others is the preferred MO. The source of the anger, though, is the same: envy stemming from inadequacy. Unlike the Bright Young Things, though, the modern generations chose their inadequacy.


[1] Much of the crucial action is set in a Swiss hotel, and Wes Anderson has said that the book was one of his inspirations for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

3 thoughts on “Choosing inadequacy

  1. Indeed. From a bit farther, isn’t hierarchical competition normal human social behavior? And aren’t there always winners and losers by definition? And isn’t the process similar though mechanisms differ in different hierarchies?

  2. I enjoyed the essay but think there are some limitations here.

    First, there are lots of SJW’s who attend top universities and land prestigious positions; I don’t think you can simply pin it on envy or inadequacy.

    Second, while it certainly sounds like the friend made a poor choice of colleges, the idea that she profoundly “chose her path” with her college choice is probably an overstatement. The fact is that we don’t know that she would have done better at the flagship state university. She might have gotten less personal attention there and done worse. And, in fact, in a field like English literature, you could go to Harvard and come out with major gaps in your knowledge, simply because most elite faculty no longer want to teach the canon. And if she’s not a very good writer despite her degree, that suggests that she just might not be all that skilled or bright. While college choice matters, your own intelligence and motivation matter at least as much.

Please keep it civil

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