My latest on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/america-s-sad-comedy
“[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; and that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
No one, not even the healthiest person, is immune to the vicissitudes of life and death. Or, as the T-shirt says, “Eat right. Stay fit. Die anyway.” There’s always the runaway bus, the surprising terminal illness, the stray bullet, the jet engine falling through the roof, the unanticipated venomous snake, the sudden vertigo on the bridge, perhaps even the rational consideration that you should go out while you can still pronounce your own name.
We laugh at the absurdity of such things—what are the chances!—until the Road sweeps us off our feet. And we learn firsthand how all attempts to insulate ourselves against death are futile, given that death is an indispensable complement to life. Get one, you get the other, and no amount of wheat germ and sit-ups will save you.
How will you die? Do you ever seriously ask yourself that question? Or do you, with such middle-class arrogance as to tempt a corrective bolt from the heavens, ask, How do I want to die? As if it will ever truly be in your power to decide. We immediately think of suicide as the supposedly ultimate act of self-control over life. But is it? When Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out because he could no longer write, was in great physical pain from an experimental surgery, and was depressed, what actually killed him?
If those things had not been operative in his life, would he have pulled the trigger? If my high school friend, Michael G., hadn’t been angry at his philandering plastic surgeon father, would Michael have dropped a ton of acid and fried himself on some power lines? We’ll never get a chance to find out. But we all ask questions like this about somebody we used to know. Are their suicides really voluntary acts or did the gods just decide, in their boredom and perfection, to flip the switch this time?
Is Putin executing families on the streets of Bucha or are there deep historical and psychological forces working through him and the war criminals under him, like primordial daemons written into human DNA, like the Balrog awakened when the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep? Can one man understand anything, do anything, by himself, of himself, without the proper aesthetic, sonic, kinetic, temporal, and existential keys being invoked? Do you seriously think you have a valid answer to this?
Answerless, I’ve been asking impossible questions. I’ve been thinking about the protean nature of death, pointless literary conceits, stupid war, initiatory dread, insufferable hubris, prescient science fiction, and the Lovecraftian titans shaping our world, which we commonly name deregulation, tribalism, debt, pandemic, climate change, populism, structural violence, siloed thinking, and imperialism—all alive and well in various daemonic and mundane forms, visible and invisible, physical and metaphysical, and actively determining our lives this very minute. As a result, I’ve been, understandably, a bit more gloomy and mordent than usual. (Ah, c’est la vie. It’s my blog and I can cry if I want to.)
But it’s an interesting conundrum, choosing to presume that one has or can someday have control over one’s life up against the Old Gods, Lovecraft’s very alien titans from beyond the pale. We’re inclined to cite the aforesaid “corrective bolt” and call it fate, but it seems a bit ill-advised to anthropomorphize what we don’t understand, which evidently includes most things in life. British art-scene tantric, Phil Hine, puts it like this in his Pseudonomicon:
The Cthulhu Mythos displays a recurrent mythic theme; that the “titanic” forces of creation and destruction—the Great Old Ones—have been cast forth from the earth and “forgotten” by civilised humanity and its narrow, materialistic vision. However, whilst they may be forgotten, they are at the same time ever-present, lurking at the frontiers of order, in places where the wild power of nature can be felt. They are chaotic, in the same way that Nature is chaotic, and they retain their primal power since they cannot be “explained” (i.e. bound) or anthropomorphized. They exist outside linear, sequential time, at the border of “Newton’s sleep.”
We can (and, to a certain extent, we must) impose a rational false consciousness on our perceived experiences to stave off insanity. But the world, as we’ve known from our earliest years, is not rational. And we suspect we’ve always been unfortunately (or fortunately) out of control. It seems like a cop-out at first but, the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that the whole point of this circus is to buy the ticket and take the ride, as Dr. Thompson famously said—to bear witness to how the alien machinery of life does its work.
The non-linear, non-sequential, non-Euclidean, inhuman angles underlying our reassuringly tidy Potemkin assumptions seem fairly determinative if we can only catch a glimpse of them in the Malthusian depredations of capitalism or in the eyes of a dying loved one. Maybe we don’t need to get better, get clean, get saved, and get ourselves together, since we’re always-already coming apart. Instead, as Luc Sante’s anonymous speaker pleads at the end of “The Unknown Soldier,” maybe we need to think of ourselves as verbs, not nouns:
[G]ive my eyes to the eye bank, give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches, put my teeth into rattles, sell my heart to the junkman. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike, plug my spine to the third rail, throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.
Today, I was advised to get an editing and proofreading certification from one of the many professional associations available to show potential clients that I am all business and not, as one would otherwise assume, a crank. Three decades of professional writing, editing-for-hire, and proofreading won’t do it. The representative who cold-emailed me on social media made it very clear that no matter how good I think I am, no one will take me seriously unless I’m professionally certified. Luckily, she discovered me in time.
When I asked her if board certification exists for copy editors and proofers, she didn’t respond. I’m still waiting, but I know the answer. With a website, a PayPal account, and a fictious business name, you can establish a certification program for anything obscure and unregulated, say, antelope sign language. You can then offer membership in a professional society based on your courses and the money flows in like sweet milk from heaven when people called to interpret for deaf antelopes feel insecure and go looking for a stamp of approval.
You’ll pitch your service to the rubes with a great convincer: “Since there are no objective, widely accepted standards for professionalism in antelope sign language, you need our very formal, suitable-for-framing certificate to set you apart from all the dilettante competitors and desperate poseurs trying to steal your business. You need this.” I recognized the come-on immediately. It’s how you sell a diet supplement, a tinfoil orgone collection helmet, a Learn Fluent Inuit in 20 Minutes-a-Day DVD set, or a religion. You define the subject matter, identify the anxiety it produces, and offer a solution.
New religions always do this, since their subject matter is and must always be vague. At a science fiction convention in 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” Like most of Hubbard’s material, it seems to have been cribbed from other sources—in this case from a letter written by George Orwell in his multivolume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters. But the principle is sound. Give people something in which they can believe and posit yourself as its source or sole mouthpiece.
Interestingly, the Orwell-Hubbard dates may not match up. Multiple volumes of Orwell’s collected works were released in the 1960s and, though it’s obvious earlier collections existed, it’s unclear which Orwell resources would have been available to Hubbard in the late 1940s while he was busy doing ceremonial magic in the desert with Jack Parsons and seducing Parsons’ girlfriend. But we do know that, by 1948, Hubbard had left Parsons and overt occultism behind, well on his way to following through on his million-dollar scheme.
No matter how many conventions Hubbard attended, boats he owned, and storefront e-meter salons he opened, the comment about starting one’s own religion would follow him for the rest of his life and hang over his grave like a feculent mist. Orwellian cynicism has always seemed perfect for the Church of Scientology. The organization has appeared, at least since the early ’70s, much more interested in abusive litigation with a side of organized crime than in any sort of enlightenment or spirituality.
Still, America loves a new religion, the sillier and more coercive the better. Americans will love it twice as much if the guru requires lavish compensation for his wisdom. It’s one of the perennial obsessions at the heart of the culture: we’re all looking for Jesus the Businessman, whether he comes as a computer inventor, an online bookseller, or an electric-car spaceship fetishist. The more he up-sells us and demands to be loved for it, the more we’ll celebrate him. If he can do this and offer us certificated in-group status, we’ll make him a fixture in our lives.
We want to be saved by someone who shares our values: money, cleverness, exclusivity, salesmanship, and the sado-masochism of the workplace as spiritual praxis. It’s the reason why, at one point, Oprah commanded the reasoning and libido of 51% of the population, why Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket looks like a giant dildo, and why graffiti near 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, used to read “Steve Died for Your Sins.” He unquestionably did.
But there’s an even deeper reason Hubbard and comparable messiah figures are able to operate until they go out of fashion and either become despised by the crowd that once adored them or go insane: no one has any stable concept of what’s real, including the gurus themselves. They’re making up the landmarks and mapping the terrain as they go along.
In fact, the fluidity of unreality, virtual reality, meta-reality, fandom, curated identity, and the floating demimonde of the so-called “knowledge marketplace” underlying these things is so popular and ubiquitous that it has become more convincing than religion ever was. We’re looking for the next lifehack, supplement, or belief system to stave off our perpetual nervous breakdown because we have no idea what’s going on. Sign me up. Get my Level 1 Proofreader’s Certificate and Associate Membership Card.
Black Mirror, Ready Player One, and The Matrix are horrifying mostly due to what they imply about this desperate capacity to turn anything into religion, even down to the most banal and mechanistic corporate sensibilities. And pandemic lockdown culture has not helped. When Covid spread across Asia, I was living in Bangkok and noticed a line of herbal supplements being marketed in the malls by a popular Indian guru as protection against the disease. The layout was very glossy. There were life-sized cardboard standups of the smiling guru presenting his product at pharmacy endcaps. People were buying it because they didn’t know what was real. The guru was defining the problem and offering a solution. L. Ron Hubbard would have loved Covid-19.
As Mencken put it, “There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.” But what they offer is certitude and certification in an uncertain, uncertificated world.
I’ve had many mad, bad, dangerous housemates and roommates over the years. Depending on the rental market, I’ve lived with family or in some kind of shared arrangement with people I hardly knew, without much concern or preference either way. Given that work and other life changes have caused (forced?) me to live in 13 different countries in the last decade, worrying about who’s belching in the attic or in the bedroom next-door or in the bed on the other side of the partition would have been unwise and unhealthy. But sometimes—sometimes I realize I’m living with a maniac.
Maybe she’s loudly bipolar. Maybe he’s 3D-printing a gun, terrified Mossad is following him. Maybe she’s carrying on a deep love affair with heroin and likes to pass out in your bed. Maybe she comes home violently drunk, crying and breaking your dishware (never ask me why my very small collection of plates and bowls don’t match). Maybe her ex-boyfriend is a vicious nutcase who keeps threatening to burn the house down. Maybe he’s a swinger and hosts loud fetish parties. Maybe he’s a stressed-out evangelical, thinks you’re a devil worshipper, and slips into your room when you’re not there, looking for evidence of black magic. I’ve experienced all of these maybes. Each one was lovely and ended as well as you might imagine.
People, the Lizard King says, are strange. That’s unquestionably true. But I’m so low key (headphones, up before dawn, early to bed, focused on my work, meditating every day, cooking small meals, careful about cleanliness) that I might be the ideal housemate for weirdos. With me around, they always have enough space to engage in moaning S&M without worrying I’m going to kick open the door with a fire extinguisher. By all means, leave your sex toys in a shoe box out on the kitchen table. I don’t eat there anyway. Feel free to get naked and OD on my toilet. I’ll drive you to the ER just like last time. Pilfer my food, even when I put it in my sacred fridge zone. Et cetera.
So I suppose my previous housemate’s self-righteous veganism was small potatoes. The fact that he dressed like an 18th century Japanese shopkeeper and constantly commented on my (inexpensive, minimal) wardrobe or non-vegan food choices was really nothing. That he brought his secret Tinder dates over when his girlfriend had to work at night and had loud banging sex on the other side of the wall was not my business. Him regularly contaminating the atmosphere with cheap cologne was negligible. Things could always have been worse—like the unrelenting termite infestation where I’m living now. But I digress.
I tell myself at least he wasn’t making bombs. And I honestly do want everyone to get laid, smell the way they want, and be well fed. Let there be golden copulations as far as the eye can see. Stir fry your flaccid tofu with your vegan cheese substance. Watch anime late into the night and have a nice relaxing wank. It’s a free country and that has nothing to do with me.
I don’t even care if you constantly make snide comments and strut around the place acting superior. You can be superior. Just let me get my sleep, brother. Just find someone to deal with the termites. Just let me follow my routine and stay out of my way. I’m a freelancer. I work at home, online, with words and I don’t get days off. I can only maintain that life if I practice rigid self-discipline and minimalism. Let me be minimal. Because if I don’t have time and space to write, I disappear. The carriage turns back into a pumpkin. The glass slipper cuts my foot.
I’m simple. I like to keep everything that way because it means productivity and me making a living. Complicated hasn’t treated me well in the past. People may be strange when you’re a stranger. But this time, please OD within walking distance of Urgent Care. And when you’re dousing yourself with Axe Wild Spice, please ventilate. It’s okay. I understand. We’re fumigating the house on Tuesday.
I’m offering a short fiction writing course (actually three courses in one), designed to take someone from the basics of story writing all the way through the publication process. If this is something you’re interested in, take a look at the link below.
I’ve had an noticeable influx of new subscribers here recently, something for which I am profoundly thankful.
Thank you for spending time on my words.
Thank you for your emails—encouragement always matters to every writer.
And thank you for subscribing, whether paid or free. Whenever someone follows my newsletter or my blog, I’m reminded that I have an audience, that people are paying attention, which is priceless.
I have a lot of work planned for 2021. The journey continues.
I’ve been running The Writing Expedition for almost two decades in one form or another. It began as a Blogger travel blog when I was living in Bujumbura, Burundi, and grew into kind of nexus for all my publications and writing projects. This, my Pressfolios site, and my Substack newsletter have been really professionally useful, way more than the various Facebook pages I’ve started over the years. If you follow me here, especially if you’re a long-term reader of my posts, I’m grateful. It’s been a long road out of Africa to the UK, Austria, Ireland, Estonia, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, France, Thailand, Japan, and back to the States. Thanks for traveling with me.
Sometime in the next two weeks, you’ll notice some changes to this site that have been pending for a long time. Bluehost will be its new home (though the domain will stay the same—there’s nothing you have to do). The obnoxious advertisements will (thankfully) be going away. There will be discussion forums for asynchronous writing workshops. I’ll also be offering some Zoom courses and private tutorials, covering beginning through advanced fiction writing, the magazine publishing process, how to win writing contests (I’ve won a few), increased editing opportunities (books, and short pieces, fiction and nonfiction), and story doctoring (which means you’ve written something but you’re stuck—we work on unsticking you). My newsletter will be picking up again and my podcast will finally be getting underway.
I’ve been a bit dormant (for me) over the past two months, publishing one magazine short story, two columns in Splice Today, and a small collection of blog posts. Mostly, this is because I moved to a rural area on the big island of Hawaii and just needed to rest, meditate, and take a semi-working vacation for the first time in 10 years. It’s been glorious, but now it’s time to get busy.
Things I’m not going to do: spam you with advertisements or engage in aggravating e-marketing foolishness. Most of what I’m offering will be through this site. But I want to make this announcement, say thanks, and remind you that I’m still here, still inflicting my ideas and opinions on an unsuspecting world . . .
A profound bit of wisdom from Alan Watts.
I rarely repost to this blog, but I feel that this issue is so critical I’m going to make an exception. If you’d like to view this as a PDF, I have made one here: https://app.box.com/s/m8znyevfwkkllpyowtut3xmvtd3vifao
The URL of the letter is here: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/
Harper’s describes the letter like this on social media: “A statement signed by 150 people incl. Bill T. Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie expresses concern over the illiberal trend intensified by our national reckoning.”
My compliments to Harper’s for publishing this.
This is the text:
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
July 7, 2020
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Marie Arana, author
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Kerri Greenidge, historian
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
|Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writer
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Maschek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.