Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters
Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters
When I began teaching as a graduate student, publishing in magazines, and generally moving my life forward in visible ways, I learned a difficult lesson that accompanies progress: people don’t like it when you succeed.
They don’t want to see it. They don’t want to know about it. And if they become aware that you are bettering yourself, they will do whatever they can, exert whatever influence they have, to change that. They really would prefer that you sink back into a swamp of stuckness and frustration. And they find it highly offensive if you don’t accommodate them in this.
Somehow you moving forward makes them more aware of their own sense of inadequacy and stasis. And they will not stop trying to convince you, themselves, and anyone willing to listen that you’re really not so special. Your achievements, however modest, can cause friends, family, colleagues, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to behave defensively towards you as they attempt to safeguard their fragile egos. This is especially true if you’re doing something that they wish they could do.
Granted, nobody likes to feel bad about themselves. But it can be shocking when you notice who your detractors are. Uncle Bob? You heard he got drunk at the reunion and offered up a loud unkind opinion about your novel, citing various incidents from your childhood and early adolescence to prove you “aren’t such hot shit.” What did you ever do to him? Juniper, that girl in accounting who wears the big sweaters? You talked to her, what, twice? Why is she spreading rumors about you? You might expect it from a direct competitor (even if there is a modicum of professional courtesy that can dial it down in most cases), but Millie from high school, talking trash about you on Facebook? You haven’t interacted with her since at least 1990. Has she been ruminating about you for 30 years? Maybe so. Or maybe she just looked you up yesterday.
There’s a word for this sort of person: hater, and the first thing you need to know is that haters can be anyone, given that the hate is not really about you. It’s about them. You’re just a convenient projection screen for the hater’s unflattering (and probably distorted) self-image. Unfortunately, the more visible you are, the more you seem to be getting your life together and doing what you want to do, the higher resolution those lousy images will have in the hater’s mind. And it’s far easier to tear someone else down than it is to engage in determined self-work. Some people are born with the efficiency and drive of the domestic land slug.
As much as I agree with Tim Teeman—that “haters gonna hate” is a fundamentally stupid expression “born of our social media addiction, especially Twitter, where brouhahas and firestorms burst into existence, and everyone eventually leaves the arena feeling unfairly targeted and victimized”—there’s a reason it became a viral catchphrase, functioning as an updated version of the old “dog will hunt.” It’s simple. A thing behaves in accordance with its nature. And envy is ubiquitous.
Perform successfully—even in something as minuscule and transitory as getting your creative work published—and someone, somewhere, is bound to suffer as they compare themselves to you. That suffering breeds resentment. And, though it is inherently unwise, resentment often demands a soapbox. Publicly trashing someone can provide a moment of relief, a brief pause in the constant fecal downpour underway in the hater’s inner world. Who wouldn’t seek shelter from that storm, from a grinding sense of inferiority that never lets up?
Still, if you put yourself in front of the public in any way, you’d better be ready for this. Since at least 1880, with the rise of vaudeville, the cheap seats were situated in the top rear sections of theaters. If people up there didn’t like the performance, they heckled the actors and threw peanuts at the stage. It’s where we get the term, “peanut gallery.” And peanut throwing still takes place, only the gallery has now become synonymous with the broad scope of social media. So try not to take one in the eye if you can.
And because flying peanuts are inevitable, perhaps contemplate the enduring wisdom of Father Baltasar Gracián y Morales, Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite Jesuit social philosopher: The envious man dies not only once but as many times as the person he envies lives to hear the voice of praise; the eternity of the latter’s fame is the measure of the former’s punishment: the one is immortal in his glory, the latter in his misery.
The quiet introspective ferret feels he has only been to two kinds of parties: those where people assess each other from behind smokescreens of shallow small talk and those where people get as drunk and as high as possible to avoid being aware of such assessment. Office / department parties tend to be a blend of the two, with clever coworkers staying sober so they can capitalize on the rare opportunity to interrogate / insult the drunkards or make time with someone normally uninterested in them. This is not misanthropy on the part of our gentle introspective ferret. He has simply learned that he likes individuals way more than groups.
Staying home is nearly always a better choice. It keeps our ferret from having to dwell on the loathsome behavior that inevitably comes out in people after a few hours of drinking and frustration. It’s way better not to see it, not to have to recall it, in those the ferret would prefer to otherwise respect. But if he must attend, our ferret prefers to bring his own non-alcoholic beverages and disappear after about 90 minutes of watching people force smiles and reposition themselves feverishly around a room. Also, having a palette-cleansing activity lined up, like a movie or some other distracting event, helps an introspective ferret shake off the bad vibes.
No one cares about what a ferret does at a party anyway. No cares that his drink is non-alcoholic. In fact, they probably don’t even notice. And no one really cares that he left after 90 minutes, unless they came to the party on a mission with the poor ferret in mind, in which case he should definitely scamper out with a quickness after no more than an hour and preferably by the back exit.
In the following days, the drama and innuendo about what happened between various drunkards at the party will become known. But our gentle ferret will be an innocent child of the earth, oblivious and free, a wild polecat in the grass amid the butterflies. For he will be able to tell the simple truth: “I’d already left when X-horrible-thing happened between Bleary Mule and Angry Snake. So I really have no idea.” And people will turn their boredom and obsessiveness on someone more entertaining—Squawking Rooster, perhaps.
blue moon—n. 1. the second full moon occuring within a calendar month; 2. informal once in a blue moon: very rarely; almost never. “blue moon.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 31 Aug. 2012.
Writing counter-interpolative communiques on the night of a blue moon, the Speculator must observe the same ancient choreography that sorcerers, night soil men, two-headed doctors, literature professors, street hustlers, gypsy flower peddlers, and professional dog walkers have known since antiquity: one engages in a ritual dance to accomplish certain ends.
One appropriates symbols—the magic wand, the shit bucket, the mojo hand, the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the too-tight jeans, the bouquet of dyed roses, the dog leash—and invokes the primal forces of creation. One uses obscure terms and appellations and loads them with meaning. One waits for the hour of Mercury, drinking beer and burning incense on the roof, staring at the moon. One observes certain ancient footwork while brandishing symbols to speak truth to power.
Thus change is brought to bear on events and minds; existing chains of causality shift; and new paradigms are born. All from a dance, from preordained steps taken in darkness and solitude, from a Doctrine of Signatures old enough to justify itself (suggesting the monks who would recopy medieval grimoires and write Proven in the margins as a way to attest that the magic operations in question had worked for them, too). All from ostrich feathers and incense and words of barbarous invocation; from a mojo hand with van van rubbed on its seams; or a reinterpretation of Ozymandias in 310b, Humanities Hall, at noon; or a pair of cheap jeans, an imitation Stetson, and a lewd gesture at a passing car. One performs rituals on the roof at midnight, in the classroom, at an altar in the basement made from the door of a condemned house, or on Polk Street in full view of the headlights streaming past like lemon-white balloons.
Consider: when cornered or confronted or dragged into the light, evil thinks of weapons. When given no way out, a fool or an animal fights to the death. Consider also: there is nothing more evil or foolish than a human animal cornered by reason, by sincerity, or by common sense. Thus the Speculator, the peddler selling bouquets of symbolic meaning and tugging on the choke chains of relevance, speaks what passes for the truth of her individual experience while avoiding the retribution of the masses, for whom the bottom line has always been and always will be three hots, a cot, and unlimited cable.
Symbolism can cut more deeply than plain language. Well-honed symbols can be made to resonate like poison from a razor’s edge the way a good venom will echo through the body, taking organs like a general takes land. The Speculator says, let the venom be good. The Speculator says, you are more than your animal wants. Maybe the Speculator even goes so far as to say, think.
Think and avoid being interpolated into power structures that feed your animal wants at the expense of your rational and superarational mind, flooding you with stupid details, with the endless distractions of sitcoms and status updates and the antics of politicians. There are no politicians. There is only the precession of symbols moving along preordained grids, along schematic causal chains, designed to reinforce dominant paradigms that make money to perpetuate themselves. Cities like circuit boards. Telecomunications data streams like enfolded spiderwebs, matricies of obligation, of misdirection, of stasis and social expectation woven in layers.
If we could not telecommunicate, what could we become? The human potential movement says, nothing. The Speculator says, how did we get here in the first place? And maybe the Speculator adds, let the venom be good. Let there be curses, spite marriages, drunken train hopping, total network failure from perpetual IP configuration faults, the throwing of beer bottles from roofs, the dark whisper of rain over the junkyard, the junkyard that used to be the parking lot of a sports arena, the parking lot that housed a circus, the circus that got wet by the same rain that fell on Constantine before he converted and ruined half the world. Because all water cycles from ocean to sky to earth endlessly like the mistakes we don’t remember and are destined to repeat.
But the Speculator must remain mindful of the moon. When the moon enters Pisces, it obscures everything, occludes thinking like water running down glass. There are shapes one knows, certain forms, certain modes of acting, feeling, believing, assuming, receiving. The Speculator sees them as fish at the bottom of a pool, twisting, blurry, just out of reach. And so he writes this essay in the hour of Luna, saying let there be darkness and light and let them dance on the face of the blue moon—like ripples on water made by molten lead or flights of birds on the bowl of the sky or the shapes one sees coalesce in the clouds—and let the dance mean more than syllables in the animal screams of fools.
There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture. As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business. Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.
It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance. And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.” A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values. But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values. What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.
If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant. In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you. Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives. They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in. And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.
Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual. One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self. “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.
It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities. As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours. And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be. If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else? In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes.
Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality. But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing? Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?
Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort. Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness. You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable. Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt. Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.
You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.
A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.” Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.” This was in 2008 or 2009. My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.
I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards. By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future. I was going to travel across an ocean. I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done. And I was going to outlive everybody I knew. As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.
It’s amazing how quickly life can change. You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do. This is the market where I shop. This is the person I live with. These are the faces I see as I walk down my street. This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind. This is me. For the moment, at least, this is me.
And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change. Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it? But you won’t know how to answer. You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant. You won’t know how to recognize yourself. You’ll be a survivor. And nobody actually ever wants that. The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.
Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime. In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience. I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either. Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that. Is that good?
I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things. And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that. I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window. There’s a lot going on everywhere you look. Sometimes, it’s hypnotic. Sometimes, it’s beautiful. Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time. The world is too much. It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational. We’re the ones who make it matter. But do we really?
I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often. If they’re good, you’ll know too much. If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money. If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid. And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid. A fortune teller is like a bad pizza. You paid for it. So you’re going to eat it. You might feel disgusted afterwards. You might not want to talk about the experience. You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again. But you’ll probably be back.
It’s how magical things work. It’s how art works. You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex. And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting. It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring. You write scathing things about it on your blog. You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back. But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum. So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time? Of course you do. Want to know the future? Just let me shuffle these cards.
I took piano lessons as a kid. I was very serious about them. My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university. He was a lot like Mr. Rogers. He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor. He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life. And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano. I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him.
I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos. He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away. Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature. There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star. All we had to do was listen. And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.
Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.” It contains these lines:
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.
And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery. Fabulous. The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly. Our second selves these shadows be. The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below. Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius. I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes. Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.
All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe. One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning. By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down.
In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane. The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past. Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you.
You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful. You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else. You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world. You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers. That is a truly horrible fate. Do you want to win this game? For your sake, I sincerely hope not.