Even in the pits of madness, the young think they know something, know better.
The righteousness of youth is at once beautiful and horrific.
Sometimes, I'll get these glimpses of my younger self and am at once horrified and thrilled to see such certainty. I knew, knew deep in my loins, that Jethro Tull was the greatest band ever. If you didn't feel the same, it was because you just didn't understand. It was basically the classic Socratic move: all sin is ignorance. If you knew the right way — if you knew Tull was God or that murder was wrong— you'd never act or say otherwise. Which is to say, rather than assume that anyone else had a different perspective that was equally powerful and binding — for instance, that Tull was absurd and Zeppelin was obviously the greatest bad ever — I just assumed they were ignorant.
This certainty stretched far past my love of English folksy, syncopated prog rock. I fancied myself a political creature in the popular sense of the word. I read The New York Times. I pretended to read Das Capital. I was sure there were evil war mongering pigs and the do-gooders. I was sure capitalism was flawed. I was sure of so many things.
After a few years of college, a few blotters of acid, and a healthy dose of Derrida, I became quite certain of my uncertainty. Where I once preached neoliberal socialism, I now preached that everything gave way; that morality was temporary, at best; that politics was for the deluded and foolish; that metaphysics was so much petty nonsense.
My delivery stayed the same: I preached. I was didactic and arrogant. I stuck to my basic Socratic morality. People who didn't feel the same way I felt weren't wrong, they were ignorant. If only they knew better, they'd repent their ways! Then they'd see as I saw.
Yep, my 20s were chock full of cocksureness. Sure, I had a few fears such as AIDS — New York and San Francisco were walking graveyards in the early 90s. But despite the madness of my hypochondria, I knew how the world worked. I was no fool. I knew things others did not. I knew of ressentiment and différance and rhizomes and chiasma. I was privy to a certain world of multiplicity. Other people just didn't get it. They didn't understand.
I live in San Francisco and am therefore surrounded by flocks, by droves and herds, of 20-somethings. And I see that same certainty, that same deep sense of being right. There's a engaging idealism there — they dress and act and talk like they can change the world. And that's beautiful. What riles me is not this idealism but the certainty that underpins it, the belief that they know something others do not. That what they believe is right. To me, it's that scene in Girls when Lena Dunham freaks out on Patrick Wilson: she believes, in all her unwieldy madness, that she knows better, that she's in control: You think I'm a crazy girl?...If anything, I think I'm just too smart, too sensitive, too like not crazy....
Just look at the ease with which 20-somethings hurl their comments online — either emphatic agreement or hateful disdain. In both cases, the comments are defined by an absolute sense of certainty. The comments lack the possibility that the commenter might not know what is good, what is right, what is true. They lack humility. I'm thinking of Thought Catalog, a distinctive condensation of the 20-something geist. And I will never cease to be floored by the advice these deluded bozos (a phrase of endearment) proffer. This is why, despite a teem of articles to the contrary, irony is so conspicuously absent amongst 20-somethings: they're too sure of themselves. Too serious. Irony is the tongue of humility and these sincere kids are too sure to enjoy humility, too serious to be ironic.
It is a great gift of being young: you've yet to glimpse into the abyss, feel the richness of utterly black vertigo. But you think you have! How perfect is that! You believe you've known sadness, that you've wrestled beasts, that you know a thing or two. You feel as though your world view is well earned.
And maybe it is. But not mine. In my 20s, I enjoyed a wondrous certainty. But I just turned 44 and I have had my first real glimpse of humility and I can say: the humility I thought I knew was not humility at all. It was didactic humility which, however you dice it, ain't humility. Faced with resonant uncertainty — financial, romantic, existential, physical — I've had my first glimpses of not knowing anything. I've actually believed, in my very fiber, that I do not know what's good and true. And that other people, despite what appears to be their boring ass lives, might be right! At least from their perspective.
A few weeks ago, I spent about 10 days in a hospice in the Bronx where I spoke with a slew of hospice nurses, doctors, nuns, and rabbis. Tending to the dying day in and day out: Holy moly! That is a life I could not imagine and that, frankly, seems kind of awful. But looking in their eyes, reckoning their style, I saw people who've lead dramatically different lives from mine and have known the cosmos with such profundity. They know things — they know truths and worlds — I will never know and it suddenly made all my well-termed, presumably well considered, intellectual certainties seem like so much bullshit.
The entire Socratic morality vanished. These people believe things, know things, so different and it's not because they're ignorant. On the contrary, it's because they've lived through their lives just as I am trying to live through mine.
Yes, yes, this all sounds idiotic and I no doubt sound like a douchebag. Perhaps I am. But for the first time in my 44 years, I felt profound, beautiful humility. I felt unsure of anything and everything. I felt the precariousness of all beliefs. I felt how we all make decisions, huge life decisions, based on beliefs that will never be certain. Of course, I've understood that my world view perspective is a perspective among perspectives. But I believe now that I've never really believed it, not in my gut. Part of me has always believed that I know something better.
I've discovered that it's easy to profess multiplicity, perspectivalism, humility. But it's another thing actually to dangle within the void without any mooring, without any one place I can say is true and right and solid. I'm talking about an all pervasive humility: a world view made of sand.
And I'm talking about an architecture of the social, of how I stand towards myself, my knowledge, and others. A question of epistemology and ethics at the same time. Socrates claims that anyone who sins is necessarily ignorant. But what if rather than people knowing or being ignorant, people know differently? What does that do to one's own relationship to knowledge? In the Socratic world, the individual's position is secure, grounded in knowing — even if it's knowing nothing. In this other world, there is no ground. The individual is not secure in his knowing, not even in his nothingness.
This can be quite anxiety producing. But the other side of it is it introduces openness and adventure — the adventure of other modes of certainty, other modes of knowing. It demands an evacuation of oneself, a forgetting of ego, and coming to another. I'm not talking about empathy even if there is a component of the empathetic here. The space of social humility is exquisitely complex: I know what I know and know that this knowing is so much bullshit while I know that you know and that you might or might not know it's bullshit and that's ok with me.
Perhaps there is a certainty that drives the world, that motivates change. Napoleon, I imagine, did not know humility. If the workers in Paris 68 were less humble, we might be living in a different world right now. There is no doubt greatness in certainty, in believing that you're right. And there is, of course, a terrible fascism that can come from knowing you're right.
But what life comes from humility? I think, perhaps, not necessarily a better life but a more tender one.