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.
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
Long ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.
Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.
I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.
I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.
I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.
We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.
Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.
For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.
In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.
Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.
But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.
Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:
In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.
In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.
Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.
So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.
Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.
Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.
“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.”
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum
Woke up this morning thinking about Sally Yates—how standing up to President Trump seems to have dramatically influenced the course of her life, how I’ve watched part of her emotional transformation through social media, specifically Twitter, and how her public narrative seems to reveal and confirm things I’ve suspected about the nature of personal meaning and career.
She seems to be undergoing a kind of emotional rebirth. As someone who works primarily in the emotional mind—emotional intelligence being the primary resource for teaching and doing creative writing—I have learned to recognize when someone is emerging into a deeper, more meaningful emotional life. She certainly is, even if only by a slight degree.
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning consistently seems to prove out: it doesn’t matter what we do or where we are as long as we can find or create meaning for ourselves. And so I return to the question of my own career, my own meaning. When I think back to the teaching I have done, I’m faced with the choice of believing that most of my professional life has been meaningful vs. meaningless. Obviously, I prefer to think my work has made some kind of difference.
It’s hard to believe in things I cannot see, but I have to nurture a certain degree of faith in the teaching and writing I’ve done. Sally Yates, someone who has lived primarily in the analytical mind, is now at the beginning of something new—one hopes, something emotionally significant and transformative. To see someone publicly come into being like this is to bear witness to a largely unnoticed dimension of human experience. It’s something that sincere teachers get to see more often than any other profession.
(or: Footage of a Canadian Treeline in a Time of Goats and Perdition)
I watched it last night and was going to write a review entitled, “Why Snakes on a Plane is Better than The Witch” but I realized there is no comparison. Snakes on a Plane has snakes, Samuel Jackson, and a plane. The Witch has . . . the treeline and a message at the end informing the audience that it was based on actual accounts of 17th century witchcraft, making us wish they’d studied plot structure a little more closely back in the 17th century.
Oh and everybody dies except Thomasin, the ingenue, who has two expressions: dumbfounded fear and hysteria. Because, you know, there’s a witch out there who lives in a hut like Baba Yaga and likes to get dolled-up as Snow White with lip implants. But that’s neither here nor there. She’s got a veiny beast-arm with which she kills children. Sometimes shit floats in the dark. This is some serious business. It’s a witch, people. Come on, now.
I’d warn about spoilers, but it’s not possible to spoil something that has been rendered un-spoilable by stripping it down so far that the possessed family goat has more gravitas than the entire cast. Katie Dickie is a brilliant actress, reprising her nutcase mother role from Game of Thrones, but now in a bonnet. She gets three expressions: dumbfounded fear, hysteria, and maniacal hostility. William, the bewrayed, misunderstood husband, who knows a lot about scripture but who is somehow as effective in life as a suburban husband in a Lorrie Moore short story, gets two: grief-stricken and fearfully enraged.
The rest of the family—the spooky eyeliner-wearing siblings, the chickens, the brother whose sole purpose is to eventually meet the beast-arm—are plot furniture. They each get one expression: ye oulde dumbfounded fear. Maybe the chickens also get the poultry version of bitterness, since they happen to be better actors but, due to species-bias, they are relegated to supporting roles. Hollywood, man. The sickness is deep.
Overall, The Witch is a lot like the Big Alligator in the Sewer movie you go to see in the afternoon when your air-conditioning breaks down. Only Snow White isn’t that scary, the Devil isn’t very present as a supernatural menace, and the treeline is under-utilized as a character. I almost want to say that Deborah Harkness could have written a better screenplay—which is saying something, since A Discovery of Witches is one of the worst novels I’ve ever had the misfortune to attempt. Yet it seems better than this.
Where is the Devil? Out there, in the woods, right? Oh yeah, that’s the beast-arm’s function in the story. Wow. Or possibly the Devil is hiding in the fear-wilderness of the human unconscious? Sure, that works. That’s what Hawthorne gives us in “Young Goodman Brown,” a story that manages to make you feel a little more paranoid and insane every time you read it. And then there’s WGN America’s Salem, in which evil is a very real, very tangible, very transformative presence—which is what we need in a movie like this. And that is definitely what’s missing–aside from, you know, an interesting plot and characters. Hence, the superiority of Snakes on a Plane, which doesn’t even try.
You can’t rely on repeated expressions of dumbfounded fear to make the audience feel something. You can’t explain the flatness away by saying, “Well, these backward rubes were religious fanatics. So, you know, there’s your paranoia and human unconscious at work!” No. I don’t care if they were a settlement of Juggalos who fell out of a time machine. It doesn’t matter who we think they are. What matters is how rounded they are as representations of real human beings to whom we can relate.
We have to feel what the characters feel. And we can’t feel anything if all we get is constant two-dimensional dread. Put simply, in order to feel afraid we have to have the experience of not feeling afraid as well. We have to know and relate to the characters as extensions (projections) of what we feel and what we care about. But there is no balance in this film.
At the very end, when the ingenue decides to join up with the goat, who speaks like Sir Lawrence Olivier with strep throat, we think there’s going to be some big reveal, some payoff that’s going to transform all the open-and-shut dumbfounded fear into something else. Maybe Thomasin will show us something new about herself that adds depth and ultimately makes us give a damn.
Nope. She’s buck naked, floating, laughing like Janis Joplin. Roll credits. And you just wasted 93 minutes you could have spent walking through the woods of Ontario. So mote it be.
Moving to Bangkok has been very formative thus far. Among other things, this city has challenged me to enter states of discomfort linguistically, energetically, intestinally, sometimes interpersonally. But this has not been a bad thing. I think it has been the kind of discomfort necessary for growth. As I approach six months in Thailand, I can say without a doubt that I have evolved. My sense of who I am as a social being has changed; the way I envision my future has changed; and the way I contextualize experience has changed radically.
In fact, I’ve been spending so much time absorbing this culture, trying to grasp its surfaces and my relation to them as an outsider, I haven’t had much time or space to work on anything beyond the most essential concerns: my teaching, my fiction writing, my day-to-day wellness. Everything may be constantly changing, constantly in flux no matter where we are, but the speed of change in Bangkok, the sheer pace of life, could be legitimately described as overwhelming.
I’ve had to allow for a certain adjustment period. And I’m lucky in that I work with a fascinating group of English teachers who seem to include a high degree of cultural adaptability as part of their professional skill set. So I’m in good company. I live in a very friendly hybridized intellectual space, which has helped.
But still, the sense of space in Bangkok, its division and reunification, the way it gets compartmentalized (and sometimes abruptly disrecognized) remains mysterious. Human space, psychological space, seems pressurized here in ways I never experienced in the West. The psychogeography of the city—the points where concepts and bodies overtly intersect—is always a matter of relativity, of negotiation, sometimes of extreme tension.
So I don’t have the civic narrative down yet. I’m still learning how this place is unfolding. Every city is a story being told from multiple points of view at once. And this one—the concrete, frenetic, crowded, brilliant, astonishing Bangkok in which I live—remains enigmatic, at least for me.
The structure of what I write is the structure of my emotional life. My fiction isn’t autobiographical in any overt way. Yet how I approach my subject matter depends on the way I see the world and myself in it. Therefore, conceptually, perceptually, structurally, I write the narrative of my life the way I write any narrative—certainly in words but, in a deeper sense, in images. Strung together in the mind, they form a constellation of emotions unique to me. The physical manuscript is a chart of these moments, an inner star map, a personal zodiac that makes it possible for others to see what I have seen and feel the way I have felt. The secret of such navigation is not in the words but in the structural relations between them, not in any given star but in the proportionality of the constellation.
This is my current understanding of creative writing: building associations between emotional states instead of focusing on monolithic things (characters, paragraphs, settings, scenes). A character is a humanlike set of particularities that exist in relation to something else. A paragraph is a movement, an emotional gesture. A setting is an environmental set of particularities, also significant insofar as it relates to something else (even to the eye of the reader, Mr. Fish). A scene is all of the above moving together and in relation to all the other scenes. And all of it exists for one purpose—to map a structure of intricate emotional movements that took place first in my mind, now in yours.
Is this difficult or complicated? Not really. But it is more honest, more elemental (-ary), than saying, “according to so-and-so, a character should do X, Y, and Z in a dramatic scene.” Focusing on X, Y, and Z misses the point. I don’t write to fulfill a preset arrangement of static constituent categories. I write to move my reader. And that is just as dynamic, relational, and variable as any emotion I might feel.