Read my latest on Splice Today, a response to Alex Perez’s piece on the not-so-lost art of “dirty realism”: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/dirty-realist-protests-too-much
I rewatched Interview with the Vampire last night and it just doesn’t seem dark enough. Maybe that’s a reflection of how my emotional self has darkened after Covid, rapacious politics, and so much social turmoil. But it seems to me that the story, the myth, of the vampire is dangerous because it is Dionysian and feral. It has to be dark. It has to flirt with real evil and suffering.
Interview is too tame, too inhibited. It tries to show evil but it stops at longing for redemption. There has to be heartbroken bitterness (Lestat pretends to be bitter, but he’s just bored and infatuated). And that bitterness has to become so intense that it doubles over into malice. Then we have something. That would be a vampire story fit for 2021.
Anne Rice (who became a super-Christian) thought of the vampire more the way Mary Shelley thought of Frankenstein’s monster: a messianic anti-hero. That’s great. But Rice didn’t come up with the vampire mythos. And when you make a vampire movie, it goes beyond your particular ideas into the greater mythic paradigm that contains all vampire symbolism and stories, especially those of the vampire as a 19th century expression of human suffering and desire, a twisted reaction to the oppressive side of industrial capitalism.
Romance, blood, eternal life, its price, and its consequences only come with the darkening of the world—a rejection of daylight, machines, industry, and Protestant ideas of clean living. The vampire seems like an embodiment of Victorian longing for nature, for Pan, for the Wordsworthian overflow of feelings denied by the western progress narrative and cynical social Darwinism. And so you only get the vampire if you’re willing to accept a certain amount of darkness and violence. It’s why you traditionally have to invite the vampire over your threshold. It has to be your choice to let the darkness in. Of course, you might turn into a rotting corpse or a raving madman like Dracula’s R. M. Renfield. But nothing comes for free in this mythology.
I guess most of us are over messiahs and redemption narratives these days. I think I definitely am. I don’t care about being brought back into the great huddled mass with its dead gods. Maybe I’m looking for a different sort of vampire tale, not one born in the lingering optimism of Anne Rice’s 1990s pre-Christian return. Suffering. Darkness. The Eleusinian Mysteries come around again in a story drenched in blood and derangement. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. That’s where it is for me these days. The vampire archetype still matters, but it goes a lot deeper and gets a lot more disturbing than sexy-but-guilty anti-heroes in velvet, tormented by their otherness, seeking some kind of reintegration into banal conformist culture.
A rhetoric professor of mine used to amuse himself by saying, “The truth is always simple.” By this, he usually meant that accurate-seeming propositions are built from small assumptions, arrayed around a central premise easy to accept as common sense. The central premise is simple. The rest is usually a complex rhetorical exoskeleton designed to protect it. He didn’t believe in a single monolithic truth. A genuine sophist, he looked for the validity of persuasive discourse.
It took a while to understand that his “simple” was shorthand for this idea. But that’s how some people communicate, by elision, ellipses, implication. It gives them room to persuade, to demonstrate, to marshal sources and mould arguments without being hampered by culturally prescribed truth narratives, attestations of belief, professions of faith, declarations of what is real, what all respectable people of good character are expected to think.
I find I’ve increasingly come to resemble my teacher in this way—not in his preference for indirect expression, but in his distrust of the “true” and the “correct.” There seems to be no shortage of sacred truths and respectable opinions in the United States right now. Everyone is suddenly in church.
Maybe it’s the Coronavirus. Maybe it’s the emotional fallout from the recent protests and riots. Maybe it’s because I’m turning 47 this year—not yet old, but no longer young—that I feel like I’ve had enough. Enough newsfeed. Enough hypocrisy. Enough banal evil. Enough stupid authoritarianism and reflexive outrage. Enough identity politics. Enough lip service and moralizing. Enough monetized nostalgia. Enough sadomasochism, dread, and consequences. Enough fake performative virtue. R. Crumb was fond of asking in his underground comics, how much can one man take? I’m at a point where I feel I can answer that, at least for myself.
I’m sick of being told what’s true and false, right and wrong—as if anyone actually knows. I think I’ll need to find a mountaintop soon, or a subterranean cavern, someplace quiet, away from all the respectable people telling me what to do, what to think, and how to feel. America is obsessed with propriety but unwilling to admit it. And it’s only getting worse.
I just read about the Arctic explorer, Augustine Courtauld, who, in 1931, was trapped in a polar weather station for months. The biography made it seem like a dreadful ordeal, and I suppose it was. But the idea of that much solitude is very appealing right now. I suppose I might feel differently after months of it. Then again, maybe not. At least, in that deep isolation, I wouldn’t be waiting in line at the confessional.
For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about Mark and Patricia McCloskey, now immured forever in the pages of the New York Post, which is where I first read about them, along with every other newspaper and social media platform in existence. They are the suburban St. Louis couple who recently brandished their guns at a crowd of George Floyd protesters.
Since first seeing the McCloskeys’ terrified vacuous expressions, I’ve felt that the fact pattern in their dumb predicament is all rhetorical exoskeleton. What really happened? Two mousy attorneys thought their house was going to be burned down by a mob and overreacted. They also happened to be white, irritating to look at, and apparently prone to making terrible decisions—just like four cops in Minneapolis not too long ago. And they could have killed someone. It seems like sheer luck they didn’t.
They said they were defending their property. They said they’d only touched their weapons twice since moving in. They said they were afraid of a “storming of the Bastille” situation (they thought of their home as an 18th century French prison?). They said they were afraid of terrorism. They said they had guns in order to keep mobsters away (The Untouchables in suburban St. Louis?). And they said they support Black Lives Matter. Of course they do.
I imagine them saying all these things in a single exhalation, without pauses, then dabbing their faces with perfumed handkerchiefs. Honestly, Valmont, it sounds like an ordeal. Howsoever did you survive it? Well, dearest, they’re called the underclass for a reason. You have to be fair with them but stern. Violence is all they truly understand. Oh, Valmont! You ravish me!
The central premise, on the other hand, is something easy to accept: white people are afraid. It dovetails nicely with the abundance of twitchy columns and articles steaming out of the New York Times, The Atlantic and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Washington Post, which often seem more like professions of faith instead of reportage: this is what good people everywhere now believe. Rich white people are dangerous. Proof positive of what we’ve been saying all along right here in St. Louis. The truth is always simple, isn’t it?
As a white moderate liberal who believes in the marketplace of ideas, humanistic inquiry, literacy programs, diversity, the possibility of equal opportunity through non-violent reform, and the continued applicability of certain quaint democratic ideals, I’ve been accused by those to my left of willingly perpetuating a racist system (as if I were something more than a nobody with a laptop). Those to my right have called me a snowflake, among other unpleasant things, and accused me of writing thoughtless garbage. I’ve even gotten a few death threats in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Twitter, which now just seems par for the course, especially on social media.
What I haven’t found is anyone willing to agree with me that the riots made perfect sense but the fanaticism of critical race theory does not. Kill people and their friends, families, and communities will respond in kind. They should protest. Everyone should when the police have gone feral. It’s understandable that when people feel oppressed, they’ll act out their frustration until they see changes. At least, they’ll destroy some monuments, burn some cop cars, throw the butt urn down the courthouse steps, and spray “ACAB” on the windows of the local network affiliate. Well, it’s something.
But the current woke gamesmanship being played by our corporate, managerial elite willing to indulge in the worst excesses of critical race theory in order to be on the right side of profitability is repugnant. As a fellow writer at Splice Today put it: “lots of white guilt and centering individualistic narratives of change,” a venting mechanism meant to preserve the status quo: “Class and socioeconomic privilege are preserved and movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too can only exist to support class status.” Put the right slogan on your T-shirt and you can have your BLM cake and eat it, too.
Maybe it’s better to say that, while I don’t know what’s true, I have a sense of what isn’t. It’s a sense that tells me certain perspectives are more profitable than others right now for celebrities, politicians, and brands. It tells me the only way positive changes come about is when people stop trying to leverage the trends, set aside their differences, and work together in the spirit of common humanity and good will. And it adds that such changes are never going to happen if you’re preoccupied trying to storm the Bastille or if you’re out on your front lawn with an AR-15, trying to defend it against the mob.
Mostly, I’m just as tired as anyone in this pathological country. Every government is somewhat horrible and evil. But I’m not interested in pulpits and commandments. I’m not trying to be virtuous or right. I’m not interested in today’s purity test. I didn’t even plan to be in the United States for more than two weeks. It’s been almost four months. I’ve had enough American exceptionalism and respectability to last me at least until our brave new police-free utopia hits its stride sometime in November.
Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters
Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption. This is good. But, man, I’m beat.
The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.
If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.
The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.
In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.
To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.
I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.
“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah
A long time ago, I watched a black-and-white movie about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. The title escapes me, as does most of the plot, but I vividly remember one scene. A young recruit had snuck off to a local village to visit a girl he liked and was arrested for deserting his post. He was brought before his commanding officer, who gave him a lecture very similar to a bit of dialogue in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film I have watched over and over. I think that’s why I remember the scene from the former otherwise forgettable film.
In any case, the lecture went something like this: You think you care about this girl, but you’ve already seen people die all around you. You think you want to go back home someday, have a family, and grow old comfortably. But these are civilian dreams. You are not part of that world. You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The recruit is visibly agitated, angry, surprised. He asks whether they aren’t there to make the world a better place as they have been told—to fight the National Front for democracy and to preserve social order. The commander shakes his head and says: Today, we fight them. Tomorrow, we fight with them against somebody else. Politics changes like the weather. But we stay the same.
I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory. So it may not be exact, but I think I’ve captured the essence of the dialogue. It was a good scene, maybe the only good scene in the movie, but still very romantic in how it evoked the “this life is not for you” sense of doomed heroism we love in stories about the cult of the warrior.
For many years, I’ve rejected this romantic perspective. I’ve thought about professional soldiers the way I’ve thought about sport hunters: anachronisms at best. More often, they seem dangerous and cynical, full of misplaced machismo and the need to justify their existence with bullets instead of brains. So I felt annoyed when someone recently referred to my freelance writing as “being a hired gun.” Not only is that inaccurate—though I can see it in terms of private investigators, lawyers, even lobbyists—but I think it sensationalizes what is basically a very humble line of work.
While there is a lot of professionalism in the field, writing content for media sources and corporations has always struck me as nothing like being a mercenary, a legionnaire, or even a samurai. It always felt more like being a craftsman who specializes in a very specific sort of product. Still, it got me thinking about what a “professional” actually is in a philosophical sense. And now I’m not so sure about these distinctions. This morning, I gave myself a writing assignment, something working writers, especially freelancers, need to do on a regular basis. I set a goal of 700 words in response to: what is a professional?
The Existential Condition of the Professional
I started thinking about that Foreign Legion movie scene and the moment in Seven Samurai when the samurai have successfully defended the farmers against the bandits; though, their friends have died in the process. Kambei Shimada expresses the inherently Pyrrhic nature of military victory: “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”
It’s a melancholy moment that resonates with You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. But, thinking about it in terms of my many varied writing jobs over the years, I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding. Being a professional means walking the path of mastery and radical individualism. So while it may be true that “civilian life is not for you,” such a path seems more like an existential choice than involuntary alienation from normal life.
It seems to me that if you are a true professional, you engage in one thing so deeply and exclusively that it emerges as an aspect of your nature. Your will, your inner self, and this thing you do are indivisible, indistinguishable. Essentially, you learn that it is who and what you have always been. It’s an inner part of your character that has now found expression in your life as some kind of career or activity. This emergence ultimately transcends existing categories of normal, mundane life, realigning your values with the profession as the most profound and worthwhile source of meaning. All else must take second place or no place.
The I-Ching alludes to it in hexagram 32, Heng / Duration: “The dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed.” To embody an enduring meaning is to become synonymous with it, to presence it such that you are its student and its conduit. As Yeats says at the end of “Among School Children,” “O body swayed to music,/ O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
The Superior Man vs. the Inferior Man
Not everyone is called to be a professional in this esoteric sense of the term. Its exoteric definition simply indicates a level of proficiency where one can expect to be paid for one’s efforts. But there seems to be a deeper stratum of self-awareness that emerges in some practitioners. The I-Ching calls this person the “superior man,” meaning that he or she operates on a more profound, more philosophical level.
The “inferior man” is someone content to live more superficially within existing, inherited cultural frameworks. Above all else, the inferior man values gratification and relief from the problems in his life and offers up obedience to conventional society in exchange. Conversely, the superior man seeks mastery and will pursue it to the detriment of family, friends, finances, and even social respectability—which is not to say she automatically gives up these pleasures. Rather, she assigns them second place in her life.
In The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a 17th century Edo samurai in the service of Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, writes “Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.” To a samurai, “awakening from your dreams” means accepting death as the most likely consequence of your profession. It is pursuing the path of mastery regardless of the consequences. And it is therefore the way of the superior man, who embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life above and beyond the conventional joys and trials of mundane existence.
Seduction of the Youth
This way of life can seem very romantic. The young, in particular, are often attracted to its emphasis on integrity and its ostensible clarity. This is how it should be. If the long painful road to mastery didn’t enchant and seduce people from an early age, humanity’s deepest knowledge would eventually be lost to time and mortality.
And yet, very few set foot on the path of Duration fully realizing how much they will be asked to sacrifice. In the fullness of time, they will die to their old lives and be reborn in the image of their chosen profession, which is to say, they will embody this thing which now sustains them, which flows through them, and which has come to define the purpose of their existence.
Consider the difference between these two expressions: he is a dancer versus he dances. The first describes a professional. The verb of being shows equivalence. He = dancer. There is no distinction between the two. Contrast this with the second expression where dancing is something he does. It is an action undertaken by a noun, not an existential state. He does some dancing. It is not what he is.
Many people who are frustrated with their lives, especially teenagers and disappointed young adults, fantasize about being absorbed into the lifestyle of some profession. They think, if only I could be like so-and-so (often a professional athlete, artist, or celebrity), then I wouldn’t have these problems. But becoming a true professional involves as much pain as it does pleasure. It can mean cutting out everything that is not the profession—a high price to pay that becomes a brutal requirement for those trying to progress. Lawyers will sometimes say, “law is a cruel mistress,” which is undoubtedly true for all professions where mastery is concerned.
Who Becomes a True Professional
Anyone can do it, but few will, since the obstacles are wholly internal. Time, age, finances, social permission, and starting ability are ultimately irrelevant because the path of the true professional is a state of mind. Only the inferior man has to worry about those external things, since he functions primarily within the constraints placed on him by others. The true professional, being the superior man, develops his own set of constraints organically by paying attention to his character and the dictates of his heart.
This is a matter of discernment, of self-understanding, which makes the professional mindset possible through a succession of insightful shocks or moments of clarity. Such realizations often come when certain sacrifices have been made.
For example, the time, money, and logistical arrangements necessary for living in a remote cabin for three months in order to finish your novel will produce not only work product but also greater awareness of what you really want to write and who you really want to become. This, in turn, will provide a vision of the next step, the next goal and its necessary sacrifices. Every step entails a sacrifice to be made, something material that will be given and received, a self-insight, and an altered state of consciousness.
In some philosophies, this pursuit of mastery is considered dangerous, an outlaw ethos. It’s seen as “antinomian” (anti / opposite or against + nomos / rule or law) in the sense that it often disregards approved social norms. Those who have become proficient to the degree that they have “awakened from their dreams” have disregarded the desires and statuses manufactured by consensus culture. They threaten the system by their very existence. They have undertaken a path of radical individualism that privileges subjective personal meaning and depends on mastery and self-understanding for forward progress.
It is very hard to control such a person with conventional rewards and punishments. The path of the true professional stands in stark contrast to lifestyles that interpolate people into preexisting categories designed to provide gratification and relief in exchange for obedience in thought, word, and deed. Instead, having transcended superficial levels of meaning, the professional finds himself enjoying hidden pleasures and suffering from unique pains. He can talk about his discipline to beginners and to the uninitiated, but only to a point. There are things that can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, developed through firsthand experience.
There is no Going Back
It’s not hard to see that the path of the true professional, being extremely demanding and fraught with difficulties, is not for everyone, nor should it be. There is something to be said for the joys of a simple mundane life and the fun of dilettantism. Moreover, as you walk the path of individuation, you may come to a sobering realization: once you took the first faltering steps toward what would become a life-defining quest for mastery in your field, there was no going back.
In a sense, as the commanding officer says to the legionnaire recruit, you reach a point at which you have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The path has changed you forever as you’ve sacrificed and been reborn again and again. The Egyptologist, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, expresses this beautifully in Her Bak: the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, a speculative account of initiation into an Egyptian mystery cult where radical self-transformation is the highest goal:
What is life? It is a form of the divine presence. It is the power, immanent in created things, to change themselves by successive destructions of form until the spirit or activating force of the original life-stream is freed. This power resides in the very nature of things. Successive destruction of forms, metamorphoses, by the divine fire with rebirth of forms new and living is an expression of consciousness that is independent of bodily circumstance.
When the dancer is the dance, both emerge as an expression of consciousness, a state of mind above and beyond the movements of the body. This is the reality of the true professional.
As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow
students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.
If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.
A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.
With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.
The ivory tower covered in camouflage.
It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, a conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.
As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.
Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.
When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.
Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.
It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.
Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.
But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.
I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.
The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.
A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.
Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.
Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.
Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.
Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:
The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.
A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.
Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.
We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).
What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.
This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.
Listen. And seek the mysteries.
Today, there was flooding in London. I was supposed to be there. But because I have no cartilage in my knees, I often wake up in agony on barometrically improvident days. Dark days of lying on the bed, focusing on my breathing. Days in which it’s hard to think, much less write. Days of codeine and jasmine tea and misanthropy. Walking from room to room is difficult and leaving the house is out of the question when I’m feeling like this and Port Meadow is up to 22C with 95% humidity.
Strangely, this never happened when I was living in Bangkok, one of the hottest, most humid places on the planet. Only here in the UK will the muscles in my legs tighten overnight, pulling the bones of my knees into each other, slowly, like a form of medieval torture. As with most manifestations of extreme pain, the experience transcends words. Maybe if I brushed up on my German, I could describe it. German seems like a good language for articulating suffering. At my current level of fluency, I can only say things about rain: schließlich, regnet es auf der Wiese. Or something like that. Maybe that’s all I need.
This condition has been going on regularly since 2003 when an orthopedic specialist gave me the option of surgery (resulting in no more pain but having to walk with a cane for the rest of my life) or occasional pain and my normal range of functionality on all the other days. I chose the second option, of course, which I still think was right. But goddamn, son, it hurts.
It’s a shame she won’t live – but then again, who does?
So it’s late afternoon. I’ve been trying to get meaningful writing done all day and a personal blog post is as good as it’s going to get. Lots of painkillers, tea, and sheer meanness seem to have worked such that I can at least get these words down. Lord knows I can’t allow a day to pass without producing some kind of manifesto, story, novel segment, editorial, white paper, or media rant. But, sitting here in my bathrobe, feeling like I’ve been put to the question by the town fathers for leading a black mass in the woods, I’m close to just dosing up, crawling back into bed, and moaning myself to sleep.
Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking. I know. Bad idea in my current state of mind. Still, I keep seeing the image of Deckard and Rachael making out in Deckard’s apartment, which admits of no rational explanation other than I associate rain, flooding, and climate change with the Blade Runner aesthetic. Blame PD James and Alfonso Cuarón for linking those together in my head via Children of Men.
Anyway, Blade Runner‘s about halfway over and Rachael’s been sitting at Deckard’s piano, talking about her dreams. And we feel bad for her because even though she’s sensitive and beautiful, we suspect she’s just some high-end Real Girl noir sexbot insinuated into Deckard’s life to distract him from the real nefarious shit that is likely going down over at the Tyrell Corporation. And every time I watch the movie, I read the moment they kiss in a different way.
Sometimes, I read it as Deckard giving in to the illusion. He knows she’s a replicant and doesn’t really care at that point because they’re both lost souls in a world where the distinction between natural and artificial has ceased to have any meaning—so forget about the fact that you’re lost and come over here.
Sometimes, I read it as Rachael giving in to the illusion that what she’s feeling for him is more than just an algorithm written into her synthetic gray matter by proto-Elon Musk Eldon Tyrell. Giving in because she wants to and maybe wanting is enough or everything.
And yes, if we look at that scene after reading Through a Scanner Darkly, we will have an emotional meltdown because Philip K. Dick was no fool and he understood something when he wrote:
But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away.
So I do this. I think of this. And I listen to “Wish You Were Here” sipping my tea and breathing through the pain while I look at the meadow. And that last stanza, “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ And how we found/ The same old fears” means a lot to me; though, I have never felt more alien in this world.
The Voight-Kampff Empathy Test
Sometime back in 1993, William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” which is a saying that seems wise, then obvious, then wise again the more you think about it. But 23 years of hindsight later, the obvious part seems far more dominant than whatever might have proven insightful. It’s 2016. Has the sheer science-fiction-horror-dread of this moment in time caught up to us from the back end of the 20th century yet? The future is not evenly distributed, at least the good parts where someone like me can get bionic knees. In 1982, Blade Runner gave the world a vision of rebirth after decay instead of the unadulterated Kali Yuga we’re entering now.
Ridley Scott wanted to show us how replicants just want to be loved and how those replicants are really us. Instead, we’re seeing how we’ve failed to evolve beyond the dystopian Reagan-era cyberpunk automatons we fantasized about in the 1980s. We never got past Terminator. Now, all we can say, with any degree of sincerity, is: blame the drugs. But not the ones people were on in the eighties when they handed us the trickle-down theory. Blame the nasty synthetic street drugs that made the best story of the last two decades have to be about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who starts cooking meth to pay his bills. Yeah. Debt. Meth. Drones. Endless war. Doesn’t it add up? Time for your meds.
All our dreams of machine salvation, online utopia, and some vague transhumanist singularity depending on an equally flimsy brain-as-hard drive metaphor became loud, stupid, self-important Neo from the Matrix—our savior, here to make us feel better about being consumers and take away our pain. The fridge logic singularity of Matrix Revolutions was merely the last cynical whimper.
But I’m in a bad mood today. Don’t listen to me. Now we have Trump and Hilary. Now the sweaty holographic fetish reel of decadent and naïve Reagan-era consumerism obviously didn’t work, but we’ve taken too much fluoxetine hydrochloride to care. It was never going to work. It wasn’t built to work. And it was always going to be ugly beyond words.
“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.”
– Count Zero, William Gibson
There comes a time in everyone’s life when a tactical regression is in order. Not the screaming hand-waving hysterics of those soon-to-be dinner for someone with sharper fangs, but a gentleman’s dignified reverse into the security of the kind and the known. Still, you can do nothing without electricity, especially if you live with me in the Imperial Sukhumvit Panopticon, where even breathing requires steady wattage.
I stepped out of the colonial bubble today at the On Nut sky train BTS station thinking about this and about the power disconnection notice I received three days ago. In truth, I thought I paid the bill. But apparently—between working 12 hour days, grinding out comments for 100+ research papers, and worrying about a panoply of things that stretch my angst around the globe such that I’m a true international stress case—I forgot.
So: screaming disconnection dismemberment and summary vivisection unless I pay 3,000 Thai Baht plus a 40 Baht service fee. And I’m like: Fine! What is that, $90 USD? Christ. I’ll pay the motherfucker. Just don’t turn off my juice, okay? Or something like that in a more polite, guest-in-this-country tone. But the Metropolitan Electricity Authority is not amused.
The Metropolitan Electricity Authority does not appreciate my lax attitude toward paying my farang electricity bills. In fact, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority thinks I’ve been running my a/c a bit much, even for a westerner. And so I must pay a fat chunk of Baht. Now. Through one orifice or another. Or they turn it all off and the party stops. See how I like the 90% humidity at 45º C then, eh? So, of course, I capitulate. I capitulate all the way down to On Nut with a gangster roll of 1,000 Baht notes in my pocket and -10 lbs. of water weight from involuntary dripping.
I look for the MEA office for 3 hours in the badly made Bata loafers that are slowly making my feet disintegrate. I receive 4 conflicting sets of directions. I spend 30 minutes feeling vomitous from polluted humidity in the food court of Tesco Lotus, where I am laughed at by 3 highly amused schoolgirls. My handkerchief is soaked.
By the time I find what might be the offices, the secretaries are streaming out of the building and the lights are off. I want to cry because this is how it is to be illiterate. (Aside: you know, I have a PhD. A real one. One that required a dissertation and a lot of high-level academic work. Someone I generally like asked me today if I’m actually qualified to teach research. What should I have said? No? This is where being a creative writer leads you, kids. Caveat scriptor.)
But, yes, illiterate.
I went home. The power was still on. My attempt to pay it as usual at 7/11 seemed successful yesterday. So maybe the MEA is willing to take my payment and look the other way for a change. I do love this country. I just don’t love being a stupid farang. Stay in school. Otherwise, your feet are going to hurt a lot more. Trust me on this.