10.29.2013

Living with Ghosts



William Burroughs was long interested in the question of immortality. His perfect novel, The Western Lands, is an exploration and indictment of the Egyptian path of mummification. Too bureaucratic, Burroughs said. But his critique was more profound. Besides being an exclusive right of the rich, besides being fraught with risks (a crappy embalmer and you lose your entry to the Western Lands), the Egyptian blueprint makes a crucial mistake: it assumes the body matters. Forget the body, Burroughs said. I'll get immortality through a transposition of my being into the virtual world: I'll live forever through writing.


William Burroughs, in powerful ways, lives with me. So do an array of other dead men — Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari. I feel so close to Burroughs that I in fact have his picture on my refrigerator, stuck there with a green magnet along with all the no doubt brilliant scribbles and hilarious photos of my son. (What are pictures but ghosts, traces of lives lived? My refrigerator door is a haunted house.) When my son was very little, I'd hold him up and point to the picture and say Who's that? And he'd point his little finger and say, Bill.  


My son — now nine — is afraid of ghosts. So I always tell him that ghosts are not bad, they're nothing to fear. We live amidst ghosts all the time, everywhere. What do I mean by ghosts? Well, I mean the virtual presence of things not here, of things dead, perhaps even long dead. We all know this whenever we rent a new apartment. There's a presence there, a mood. I'd call it an energy but I think people believe that's a fruitcake word when it's anything but. We know this when we wake with last night's kiss still on our lips: the lover is gone but something remains.  

This is what I tell my son. Mind you, this does nothing to placate his fear. In fact, it probably makes it much worse. Holy shit! Ghosts are everywhere! But I don't relent, annoying father that I am. Because I believe it's important to reckon the palpable, invisible presences that pervade our lives and that we, in turn, forge in our very wake. We live with ghosts; we make ghosts; we are ghosts.  

In the case of a writer, of course, this something left behind is words. Words are spectral bodies themselves, these minimal physical traces that contain whole and quite particular universes. A writer, however, does more than leave words: he leaves constructs, ideas, ways of thinking, affective experiences of all sorts. And not just any old experiences, not clichés which have no "owner," but particular experiences. He leaves his style behind, his distinctive way of processing the world: he leaves an algorithm, a way of living. Indeed, despite being dead, Nabokov, Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Lou Reed have all birthed innumerable artists following their styles (or trying to, as the case may be).  

People who are not artists create worlds and experiences, too. And these experiences linger with greater or less intensity with different people. I think of my Gramps, a Polish immigrant, left wing civil liberties lawyer who radiated a kind of patriarchal, if gentle and wise, fortitude who really liked scotch. Every time I drink scotch now, I feel him at once in me and looking at me, as if sitting across the table at the Parma, the old school Italian Upper East Side institution. He literally inflected my metabolism, the way I drink — heartily but with dignity, with control (even if it's just a facade). Despite being dead 16 years now, Gramps continues to live with me in a very real way. 

For the past five months, I've been spending considerable time in my childhood house. And, man oh man, it's haunted by all sorts of things; without Valium, I'd be up all night talking to ghosts. As I walk through the lush, green streets of my home town, I find myself weeping as I see, as I sense, all the pathos of youth and aging before me.  I went over the handlebars of my bike right there, careening down the hill and feeling immortal; I used to cut through that path to get to elementary school (walking to school at age 8!) and always getting poison ivy; I got a blow job in a car parked over there; I tasted my first mango there late one night, out of my brain with pleasure. It's all right there, present to me. 

Now, you might say: That's just your memory, dude! There's no presence. Ghost shmost. But what is memory other than cohabiting with ghosts, with traces of yourself and others, traces of experiences and things and lives?  As we live, we take up experiences of people, things, foods, places. They make their marks, visibly and invisibly, more or less intensely. We are made of traces of people and experiences. 

Over the past few months, I've witnessed my sister dying. I feel awkward and unsure writing that here; I've avoided saying it in previous posts as it feels too personal for the world. I hope in mentioning it I betray nothing of the event's magnitude, nothing of her privacy, and ask nothing extra of you (personal tragedy has a way of making readers more forgiving; that is not my goal here. I want my readers generous but critical to the end.). Anyway, I recently spent 10 days by her literal death bed in hospice as she lay in a coma. 

The doctors there speak of her journey, her transition. I'm not sure about all that but clearly something is happening as her body shuts down (I was going to say slowly but it's happening much faster than it is for you or me). She is  making some kind of transition, shuffling off this mortal coil (if ever there was a time to quote Shakespeare, that seemed like it). She is not quite dead but she is becoming-ghost. 

And yet, as I've been saying, we are always already becoming-ghost. We live with, and indeed as, our past selves and experiences. In some sense, then, I've always lived with the ghosts of my sister. She and I live 3000 miles apart, we spoke two or three times a month, but I lived, and continue to live, with her unbounded and generous love. I mean that in the most real way: her caring and love for me from when I was a small boy and my brother, sister, and I all slept in the same room in an Upper West Side apartment until now is my existential buttress, my tether to the social. It is her ghost, and the ghosts we created together, that let me live my odd life of solitude.  

But, all that said, there is a devastating difference between her being alive and being dead, between her spectral presence and her physical presence, even if they're always intermingled. Death makes demands of phenomenology that I don't think it's prepared to answer. Some of my more Buddhist inclined friends — Buddhist here meaning that distinctly American phenomenon that is quite beautiful but a far cry from the dutiful temple bound Nepalese version — anyway, these friends tell me all sorts of things that sound like this: She's beginning her transition but it takes several weeks before she enters this or that plane. For me, that's all fine and dandy but is as abstract and unreal as She's just dead or She's making her journey to heaven (or, in my case, hell). All I can reckon, the only thing that makes sense, is my experience with her.

What does it mean — for me, not for her — that her body will be no more? Well, despite the fact that I keep trying, I can't call to talk to her (Alexander Graham Bell was an advocate of the séance and saw the telephone as a way to communicate with the dead.) I keep reaching for the phone to call her to tell her how I can't believe this is what's happening, how unbearably sad I am, how this is totally fucked up. After all, she's the one I'd always call in a situation like this, something emotionally intense. But I can't call her. 

And that defines a limit. Her stop-you-in-your-tracks radiant smile will no longer light up the room. When I'm dealing with this or that emotional intensity in my life, she will no longer be there when I call, no longer calm me down, talk me through the angles, help me understand, or simply let me feel loved when there seems like no one else. She will no longer mother her children. 

Still, every day I reach for her. And while I can't call her, I do find her here and there. For one, I look at pictures of her — pig-tailed, holding me in my birth announcement; dressed up for her first prom; her wedding day. Photographs are incredible, these exceedingly powerful presences. In fact, I put one into this blog then deleted it before publishing: it was too powerful, too intimate, too much as if I were putting her here without asking. It felt rude. Photographs can be potent ghosts.  

But, when I feel stronger and more sure, I realize I don't need to reach for her. She's already here and always has been. She has always lived within my very fiber — not to mention the fiber of her children, my brother, my mother, and everyone who ever knew her even just a little. But, frankly, I don't care about those. I don't know those. The only thing I know is how she lives within me. I will never be calmed by her voice but her presence will always calm me, will always be the love that lets me exist at all. Is it the same as having her lively, vital self I can touch, talk to, laugh with? No, not even close. In all honesty, her passing feels like my disintegration. But just as she is transitioning, I am transitioning, too, to a different kind of knowing of her. Rather than calling her on the phone, I'll have to lean into her presence, a presence I will nurture until I'm gone. A good ghost is the ultimate gift.  

My now is built with ghosts of all sorts — some horrific, some banal, some exquisite. There's Burroughs with his wry, dead pan humor, slicing through life with dextrous madness. There's Nietzsche's careening, spot on passion that has me reckoning my will at every turn. There's my Gramps teaching me to drink, unknowingly and probably to his chagrin. And there's my sister, still here, always here, giving me the very ground that is my self. 

We all live with ghosts. To live, alas, is to create new life with the dead. And to try and leave a good ghost in our wake.

10.24.2013

Towards Humility


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.

10.18.2013

To Think Feelingly, To Feel Thoughtfully

I don’t think the opposition between thinking and feeling, between heart and mind, makes sense. It just doesn't feel quite right. And yet clearly there is a difference between thinking and feeling.

It seems to me all thinking is a kind of feeling. I don’t feel — I don’t think? — it’s possible to say anything, do anything, without expressing some kind of feeling. This is not to say there is a one-to-one correlation between what one thinks and what one feels. I can think a happy thought but feel depressed. And vice versa. 

I taught a class on joy — Whitman and Nietzsche and such — while rotting in a pit of nihilistic depression. Then again, thinking and teaching about joy was a respite from my mayhem, a light amidst my darkness. So while there is not a one-to-one correlation, there is indeed a correlation, necessarily. Even the so-called strictest of rational rationales expresses some kind of sentiment, some expression of one's feelings.

We are affective creatures, after all. Sentiment of some sort pervades our every fiber. (This is not to say that affect and sentiment is the same thing; a pedantic distinction but I'm sticking to it!) I was going to say we're sentient creatures and, now that I have said it, I kind of like it. To be sentient suggests, in the same breath, that we are feeling creatures and creatures capable of thought.

And I like that feeling is the same word we use for the most visible of our senses — touch — and our invisible experiences: our emotions, our feelings. Why do I like it? As a Derridean, I’d say it’s because the blurring of borders — the intertextuality — is a delight. As a Deleuzian influenced by Merleau-Ponty, I’d say it’s because I find the folds of domains, the marbling of the visible and invisible, exquisite. It’s a thought that makes me feel good. 

Where was I? Oh, yes. I was going to say that all thinking is a kind of feeling and vice versa but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. All feeling expresses thoughts but not all feeling is in and of itself the act of thinking. In fact, it rarely is. Usually, we just react with feelings that are rote, that are not a creative assemblage of elements at all but a regurgitation of the most banal bathos. Feeling is Pavlovian and that is not thinking.

It’s rare to question one’s feelings. After all, it’s how I feel, dammit! But sometimes, perhaps even often, our feelings are stupid. Or at least mine are. I feel stupidly at times when I wish I felt smartly. Jealousy is the most obvious thing I feel that I think is stupid. You're going out with an old boyfriend so I feel bad and jealous! Or when my mother gives her 10 millionth piece of unsolicited advice and I snap: I'm 44! I know how to live my own life! Jeez, what a stupid douche I can be! What stupid feelings!

But this is not to say that all feeling is stupid. Surely there is thinking that is itself an act of thinking, situations in which the emergence of the sentiment is a movement of images, concepts, and ideas that is lively. In this case, sentiment is a creative assemblage.

I have recently been enmeshed in a profoundly emotional milieu — yes, I wrote milieu, mostly because I enjoy how affected it sounds; I have been accused of affective writing which, alas, is not an accusation I would ever parry: on the contrary, I lovingly embrace it — as I was saying, I have been enmeshed in an exceedingly intense emotional situation: the dying of a relatively young woman, someone very close to me. I’ve encountered so many familiar narratives by a breadth of people feeling a breadth of things. She’s a fighter! She’s a mother fighting for her children! How did this happen?!?

I don’t mean to disparage these feelings. And while they may or may not resonate with me, I’ve tried to think myself into different feelings. This is not to mitigate my intense, my sublime, sadness. It’s to try and feel thoughtfully. And one thought I’ve had is that this is the sublime: it is the torrent of the cosmos that exceeds all concept, all understanding, that shatters all narrative and logic. It is what I might call a pure event —an event without a way to narrativize it. I feel the sublimity and think the sublimity and this sounds and feels right to me. 

I will no doubt continue to think and feel a wealth of things about this event. So when I say feeling its sublimity is right, I don’t mean right as in right for the world, as in proper or true. I mean that it sits well with me. I like this phrase, this idea: something — an idea, a feeling — sits well with me.  

And this is where things get really complicated. How do I know if what I think is a good thing to think? Does something sitting well with me mean I am too comfortable, nestling in cliché? Or, on the contrary, that I have found a good emotional-conceptual resonance that suits my constitution?

When I was younger, I was often seduced by an idea, by its affect which I’d try to adopt as my affect. I remember when I first read Derrida as junior in college — in 1989! — and I suddenly thought, and felt, that I was singlehandedly wrestling millennia of Western metaphysics. I saw myself as harassed and harangued by phallocentrism and the metaphysics of presence. The translation? I enjoyed being a pedantic prick. 

After college, I experienced a backlash to Derrida. Where I once thought I felt his liberating effect (and affect), I now found his thinking cold. I wanted heat, man! I wanted passion! Intoxication! I drank bourbon from the bottle and wrote on a typewriter and spent hours in the Beat section of City Lights Books. Yes, still a douchebag but of a different sort, with different ideas that spoke to different feelings.

In grad school, I learned to think a certain way: I began to enjoy the mechanics of thinking itself. I enjoyed logical constructs and disruptions to these constructs (yes, the Foucauldian caesura afforded me a special delight). Over the years, my thinking became what I thought was more controlled (even if, in the eyes of others, still quite sloppy — even emotional). And I enjoyed this thinking; it gave me pleasure, like self-massage. But was it what I felt? 

This kind of thinking purposefully turned a blind eye to my feelings. If I felt otherwise, it was because I was weak. I needed my ideas, my thinking, to reshape my feelings, to discipline me into being a new kind of being (yes, I was reading a lot of Nietzsche). But this is the worst, most dangerous hegemony of ideas, of thinking, of rationality. It's ideological fascism of the self.  

Where does this leave me? If my ideas can't be trusted to be emotionally resonant and my feelings can't be trusted to be thoughtful enough, how am I to think and feel?

My project over the past few years, executed through this blog, has been to think feelingly and feel thoughtfully. I'll have an idea  — say, the concept of tolerance — and I'll think about it while I let it permeate my body. At which point, I question how it sits with me, how it resonates with me emotionally which, in turn, lets me refine or rethink of complicate the idea.  

Sometimes, the movement goes the other way. I begin with a feeling such as, say, how I react to my mother, and try to discern the ideas that inform it. Those ideas begin to inflect how I feel and my feelings shape the idea and I try to land somewhere — somewhere new, somewhere complex, somewhere that feels and thinks right.

Deleuze and Guattari write of a body without organs (BwO), the body as a continual flow punctuated by local zones of intensity. This probably makes more sense to an acupuncturist than an MD. But this is how I am trying to think and feel my thinking and feeling and the relationship between the two. I am reengineering my body so that ideas can seamlessly permeate and pervade my feelings while my feelings, rather than just being rote reactions, burble and bubble with my ideas.

I recently watched the writer, Junot Diaz, give a talk. What I found alluring about him is how he moved so elegantly through experience, sentiment, and concept, weaving them into beautiful, powerful constructs. Watching him work out an idea, watching him express himself, was an education  — he'd close his eyes, lean back, lean forward, as if davening and massaging an idea into words. His was a body without organs.

Ideas tested and inflected by sentiment are, to me, richer, more delicious ideas. They resound more fully, more powerfully. And feelings that are shaped by ideas, that are themselves a thinking, let me feel more smartly. I want a thinking and a feeling that sit well with me in the best possible sense. 

10.09.2013

Of Solitude & Love

When I picture myself joyful, I am inevitably alone. There's no one else even in sight, no distant drone of freeways, all worries of money and familial guilt abated. Usually, I'm in the desert, the vast arid landscape and enormous black sky enveloping me,  feeding me, nourishing me. It's just the cosmos and me, getting it on.


I remember when I first read Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling, living in Manhattan after college, alone late at night and my whole world pulsated. What blows Kierkegaard away is Abraham utterly alone in his decisions, utterly alone in his faith, walking up that mountain on the way to sacrifice his only son. Yes, I thought. This is the challenge of life, this is the challenge I want to take up: to be utterly alone and utterly strong and intimate with god. This felt right to me.

I found a similar image years later in Nietzsche who writes of being on the mountain top where the air is cold. You need strong lungs, he says, to breathe air at such altitudes. Below, the masses tarry and whine and lead their little lives but up there, o, up there the view is magnificent. He didn't want any company. He asked you to climb your own mountain. To which I replied with a most emphatic yes.

Nietzsche said great men, great thinkers, don't marry. Kierkegaard proposed then broke the engagement and then obsessed over it for the rest of his life. Me, I married. Something in me wanted company, wanted love, wanted a beautiful warm body to hold and know, someone who cared about whether I was sick, someone about whom I could dream and for whom I could do sweet things. And then I bred to have more bodies, more company, around me. But that life didn't suit me and so I left that situation and now find myself in a funny place between solitude and the social. I spend days alone not talking to or seeing anyone — except my son.

The social distracts me, exhausts me. I end up spending my vital energy tending to the tics and politics of people. Not that people are bad or wrong. I love people. But I find that I don't metabolize them well. People, for me, are like rich food — heavy on the gut, trying on the digestion. They don't move through me as they should: they either get stuck, plugging up the whole apparatus, or else run through me like so much, well, you get the idea. I don't consider this misanthropy. I see it as a question of my metabolic system: you don't eat gluten, I don't see people.

Recently, I was talking with a wise friend of mine, someone who has lead a magnificent life of travels and adventures and loves. When I told her my feelings about solitude, about why I spend so much time alone, she was taken aback. I live for love, she told me. I love to love. I love to give myself wholly of and to and with another person — not as a way to abandon myself but as a way to feel and experience that cosmic surge. Where I find so much distraction and exhaustion, she finds vitality. For her, this is not just a matter of being social, going to parties, making chit chat. No, she scans the world, eats the world, looking for people who will ignite her already hot embers, who will incite and inspire and move her.

This blew me away. How could this woman who is so conspicuously vital and smart and alive find her energy, find the seething cosmos, in other people — in the precise way that depletes me? I began to interrogate my own propensities, my assumptions, my attraction to Kierkegaard's Abraham and Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Am I avoiding the cosmos in my solitude? Could it be that my desert — real and metaphoric — is a retreat rather than a reckoning? Should I be seeking the social? Should I be looking for love (oy, why do I hear Johnny Lee all of a sudden?)?

When I look back at the times I've felt most alive, most vital, I've been alone. I've felt an ecstasy and connection to the universe to make my hair stand on edge, make every cell in my body vibrate. Sometimes, this has come when writing. Am I alone when I write? Is Merleau-Ponty entwined with me even then? Perhaps we could say I'm not really alone. In which case I'd say maybe it's not aloneness as much as solitude I crave. I don't to want to hear the voices or breath of others, even if they're sitting quietly in another room. I don't want to feel their presence; I don't want to consider their needs. So while books are a kind of social, I suppose, they're so much quieter than flesh — and less immediately demanding (but still demanding in their own way!).

But when I think about when I've been happiest, it is certainly with people — cuddling mornings with my son, frolicking on acid with Matt in the weird Philly night, prancing about my hometown out of my brain on this and that singing the theme to the Odd Couple which has no words.  These moments were not distractions; they were not silly or frivolous. They, too, were cosmic surgings, a resonating with the universe.

To state the obvious, I don't think there's a right way to experience the fullness of life. It all depends on your — or, in this case, my — way of going. Clearly, the cosmos is in the Sonoran sky as much as it's in your sweetie's eye. Nor is there an absolute dichotomy of solitude vs. the social. I lead my relatively solitary life knowing full well there are at least a few people who think of me, care for me, love me. In many ways, this has been a buttress maintaining my solitude: it's easy to be alone when there's a torrent of love, even if it's not in the same room.  

Maybe what attracts me to Kierkegaard's Abraham and Nietzsche's mountain man is not their solitude but their certainty. I may say the line between solitude and the social is not absolute but there are real decisions with real implications that I have to make. Living in San Francisco, spending time with other people is different than living in a mobile home in the New Mexico high desert, miles from anyone.

When I was talking with the same wise friend of mine, I found myself saying to her that I was waiting. For what? she asked. I couldn't answer her. Am I waiting for my son to be old enough to live on his own so I can flee this dyspepsia of social life, go to the desert and sever my social ties once and for all in order to feel the seething cosmos all the time?  Or am I waiting for the love of others?

10.03.2013

Against Tolerance

One of the great catchwords of neoliberalism is tolerance. We must tolerate gays and people of color and Muslims (as long as they're not, you know, all covered in black or, no duh, terrorists). This pretty much sums up white liberal nonsense succinctly: we might not like all these weird, gross people but it's our ethical obligation to tolerate them. After all, we can't just, you know, get rid of them as that would be not right and stuff.  America was built on tolerance! So we must tolerate them (just keep 'em in their own neighborhoods that I might visit, once in a while, to add some color to my life — no pun intended).

Oy vey. I'll come out and say it: I have a hard time tolerating tolerance. But not because I am opposed to people who are, uh, different. It's because tolerance is such an egregiously condescending word — as if this was all our (whose?) world to begin with and now, oh, we have to put up with all these odd and distasteful people. As if we were not all different! As if difference was not the very stuff of life!

So I don't want to tolerate difference. I don't want to tolerate queers and blacks and browns and commies and kikes and retards and cripples. I don't even want to tolerate white middle class liberals. Nope. I want to affirm them.

I don't want to find myself begrudgingly accepting anyone or anything — ok, maybe I'll tolerate the occasional bartender in a vest or a backwoodsy beard on my barista. But as for all those other freaks and miscreants? Nope, no tolerance from me. I wanna love them, affirm them. And hopefully ignore them because just like you, I'm a weirdo too and I don't really care what color you are or whom you fuck or wanna fuck or how you fuck.

A word, then, on respecting and ignoring people. To ignore other people is sometimes to respect them. It's to assume they have their own lives, their own kind of happiness and distress and ecstasy. Of course, I also ignore those for whom I have no respect. But in this case I'm talking about two different modes of respect: a fundamental or natural respect for someone as a form on the planet versus a respect (or lack thereof) for someone within the human social. I'm talking about the former here: to ignore people who are different than me is to respect their fundamental presence on this planet. If I find myself tolerating them, it's as if I assume I was here first and they entered my space. Which is absurd. 

Now, I don’t have to respect your authority as my boss or co-worker; I can very well know and believe you are an incompetent douchebag. At which point I might or might not tolerate you. I may, for instance, throw a knipshit. Or quit. Or ignore you. But I still respect that you are a different human being and that, alone at night, you wrestle your strange demons just as the rest of us do. Only your demons are your demons and my demons are my demons and that’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok: it’s beautiful. I may not tolerate your douchebaggery but I love your oddity as a form on this planet. I love that your demons are ugly and weird and very much your own. They make the world more colorful. I don't have to like you to love that you exist.  

I truly believe that tolerance is dangerous. It is one of those words and concepts that sounds right but that actually works to placate, to justify, our racism, homophobia, our disgust with things that are different — such as loner misanthropic horny hebes. While the distinction between tolerance and affirmation may seem pedantic, the distinction is everything. Tolerance is predicated on an architecture of entitlement. It’s a sensibility that breeds hatred. Affirmation, meanwhile, fosters and foments a multihued life.

If tolerance is nearly passive, performed begrudgingly, affirmation asks something else of the affirmer: it asks for a reckoning, for a recognition of the other that may yield ignoring but, first, demands empathy. Tolerance is something you do behind your back, while looking away. Affirmation demands all of you; it demands your presence within this life, your attention to what's around you, a reckoning of this life. 

Affirmation begins with the radical idea that all there is is this life. That all there is is difference, that there is no foundation but that everyone and everything is different and flows with the cosmos and, yes, it’s beautiful. There is no alternative to life. Life is not to be tolerated. It's to be affirmed — or not, as the case may be.