5.27.2014

Finding Your Weather

Robert Bechtle paints that hard, sharp San Francisco light so well. I literally squint and cringe looking at this image — and, yes, that is the so called proper use of "literal."
There are these days in San Francisco that are so impossibly crystalline — the sun sharp and bright, the air light and clean — that I fear I'll become untethered from the earth and float unencumbered into the ether.  It's not a pleasant feeling.

Some people, I realize, thrive on such a day, in such weather. Not me. I can't focus or think straight. The light of the sun is so piercing, it makes my head ache. I bump into things, nearly get in car accidents. The air is too light, my thoughts drifting into chaos before dissipating all together.

And then there are these other days in this city that, thankfully, are more common. The city becomes blanketed in a thick, grey coat, a monochromatic shield from the sun. Everything becomes quite still, moving more slowly, more concertedly. There is a weight to the atmosphere that I find comforting, gentle. On days like this, I am focused, sure, with just the right amount of melancholy.


Needless to say, how we go with this or that weather depends on our constitution. There's nothing like being in San Francisco to make this clear. On the same day, you'll find someone in a beanie and parka standing next to a dude in shorts and a t-shirt. I can see both interpretations but only abstractly. As this body with this constitution, I experience it as me: usually cold as I'm a skinny ass dude who burns cool.

But what makes these radically discrepant interpretations of the same weather possible is more than just our individual differences. It's that weather is so much more than temperature. It's wind, light, humidity, barometric pressure all working together in an elaborate calculus of mood and activity. Sixty-three degrees can be warm or cold depending the play of wind and water.

As related aside, I fucking hate the wind. I get mad — which I realize is absurd. But, man, that fucking wind won't stop blowing and fucking my shit up and it never stops or says sorry or excuse me it juts keeps pushing and blowing and getting all up in my shit and I want to punch it in the face but it doesn't have a face so I'm frustrated as well as angry and, well, it's just better I stay inside on windy days. 

But, for me, I think it's mostly the pressure that shapes my mood. I can feel the atmosphere pushing down upon me (or not). If it pushes too much, I feel as though I can't get up; if it doesn't push hard enough, my mind and mood dissipate like so many particles of water sprayed from an ocean wave. There's this perfect atmospheric weight that suits me well — like a cosmic hug, it embraces me, reassures me, prods me, incites me.

My parents sell antique scientific instruments (I didn't make that up). As a kid, my father put this barometer in the living room where it sat for years. I still remember so clearly watching this weighted arm ever so slightly rise and fall, all the while recording the ebb of the atmosphere. To this day, I feel like that arm, my body that recording device marking the atmosphere's push.


Finding your weather is not so obvious. It's a learning curve that itself curves as you change. On sunny days, there's a general cultural assumption that we should be outside doing something. People say things like, I feel like I'm wasting the day! It therefore took me a while to realize that I don't really like going out on sunny days — at least not in San Francisco.

But this is not say that I don't like sunny days. It's only to say that I don't like being outside on sunny days. I do, however, like being inside on sunny days. I like the way the sun is refracted through my drawn blinds.

Which is to say, weather is not only outside. Weather is all pervasive; it is the mood and activity of the air itself. If there air is heavy, you feel this inside as well as out. I believe this is not appreciated enough: being inside on a sunny day is glorious and oft overlooked by the general assumption that a sunny day only happens outside. That's just not true: sunny days, like all days, happen inside, too.

Some people have allergies on certain kinds of days. This is one aspect of weather and constitution that, as a culture, we talk about. But we see these allergies as a problem to be overcome. Pop a Claritin and get yourself outside, silly person! But I can't help but see allergies as continuous with the entire body's way of going with the atmosphere. Isn't my lack of focus on crystal clear San Francisco days a kind of allergy? Just as my eyes might itch or my nose run, my thoughts might dissipate — or cohere.  In fact, that seems like a worse symptom than itchy eyes.

The weather is a complex system just as you and me are complex systems. The way we go in and with the weather is itself a complex system, ever moving, ever morphing, and ever mediated by medicines, moods, needs, desires, and window blinds. Thank goodness for window blinds.

5.25.2014

The Surprisingly & Miraculously Delirious Art of Elliott Arkin


© Elliott Arkin 2013. Image courtesy of MAMAC Nice

At first, there is recognition — Picasso! Van Gogh! O'Keeffe!  This is a moment of confirmation. Yes, I know these! I am of this world!

But this recognition doesn't last long. What the heck are these? Why is Picasso mowing the lawn? What do these figures want from me? We see what we consider great artists, the so-called masters, Arkin taking them out from behind the canvas, as if to say: Behold the geniuses!

But then, in a flash, you realize these are not the masters but figures of the masters. The artist has become the art, the subject has become the object. What was behind the canvas has become the canvas. After all, this is not a biography or documentary taking about Picasso, O'Keeffe, or Warhol.

In some sense, then, these figures are not recognized at all. That is, if recognition is a confirmation of the already known — a re-cognizing — these figures refuse to be so readily processed. We see them, know them, and then in the very next breath are confused by what we see. Why's Van Gogh planting seeds in a garden? It's what Freud might call uncanny, an experience that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. And all quite silly.

© Elliott Arkin 2013. Image courtesy of MAMAC Nice
What are they doing in the lawn? These presumed masters have not only moved out from behind the canvas, they're doing everyday tasks. And they're so small! What was genius is now petit bourgeois, if you will. But so what?

Well, on the one hand, turning these geniuses into gardeners levels them, takes them off their pedestal. They're just everyday blokes like you and me. But, at the same time, it also suggests that you and me could be special, too, that genius lurks in the everyday. One perspective gives way to another perspective — like Wittgenstein's rabbit: one object, two things. 

But it's not just two things. The perspectives keep coming. From another vantage, we see that art is work. It's not the magic of genius but the toil and skill of labor, that art is work just as gardening is.

And then we see that art comes from life! O'Keeffe painted flowers because she loved flowers, lived with flowers. Van Gogh painted of the earth, from the earth, because he lived amongst the earth. Art is everyday in the best sense!

And then, by transforming artists into objects, we see the commodification of the artist in which artists have become objects themselves that are bought, sold, and traded until someone is buying a Jeff Koons poodle for $45 million.

And then, in another moment, we see that these are garden gnomes which have their own history and meaning. In an odd, absurdist move, Arkin folds the myth of the artist into the tradition of the garden gnome. Why? Well, why not? In this simple, absurdist move, Arkin takes art out of the rarified white cubes of the gallery and museum and plops them down in the yard.

My son and I play this game he invented. I close my eyes for three seconds and open them to some face he's making, like I caught him mid-action; I close my eyes again for three seconds, open, and he has a new face; and again and again. The effect is hilarious and a bit unsettling. He keeps changing! It's insane! It's not the continuous morph of existence, forms relentlessly giving way lava lamp-like. This game insists on form but only for a moment. By masking the in-between flow, we introduce a strobe effect: form, new form, new form, new form, a hiccup of becoming. It's delirious.


© Elliott Arkin 2013. Image courtesy of MAMAC Nice

Seeing Elliott Arkin's art engenders a similar experience. While the figures themselves are fixed — they are 3D, not 4D animations — the experience of seeing them keeps shifting in this kind of relentless punctuation: this, this, this, this. I see one thing, one perspective. And then, in a flash, it's a totally different thing — all while physically staying the same. I want to say that these figures are a kind of cubism only not of form but of effect, all these different angles splayed invisibly but palpably before us.

What Arkin manages to do is miraculous: he takes familiar forms — clichés— and manages to make them unfamiliar. And even more spectacular, he takes fixed forms and puts them relentlessly, invisibly in motion. These figures, which seem so readily picked up, suddenly slip and slide, morph, move, and multiply.

This movement is the movement of art, transforming the known into a new known. This is the movement of love, amplifying the play of things, of the world, embracing the complexity of it all. This is the movement of humor, the comedy of humanity that lives as form within a life that is liquid.

5.18.2014

The Failure of Therapy, or What Makes My Shrink So Awesome


I've been seeing this shrink recently. He's unlike any shrink I've seen before (which, admittedly, is not many) and unlike any shrink I've ever heard about. When we picture a shrink, we tend to picture confessing the minutia of our sordid lives and anxieties, the details of how our parents neglected or overshadowed or scared us, the flood of ambivalence we have towards sex or love or relationships, our fears of parenting and dying and working. And the shrink's job is nominally therapeutic: he will help you navigate your all-too-human and decidedly bourgeois worry-drenched lives.

When I tell people I'm off to see my shrink, they say something like, Have fun spilling your soul! What's funny and telling about this is we make an easy and dangerous conflation: we believe indulging all the petty bullshit of our lives is spilling our soul. When it's quite to the contrary! (There's something great about using 'quite' and an exclamation point. Try it, you'll see.)

When we mull over the absurd details of our anxieties, we're skipping our soul — whatever that is — all together. We're just recapitulating the world that is irrelevant but has such credence in our lives. We actually believe that if we get this job or not, if she texts us or not, if mommy loves us or not, matters! That our very lives depend on it! And, in a way, they do in that if we remain enmeshed in the bourgeois crap, we will surely die — perhaps not our bodies but something far worse: we'll experience soul death.

Isn't this our great fear of zombies, that there's this living death? This is why I love Shaun of the Dead which makes zombies an explicit symptom of bourgeois life — working, going to the bar, watching tv, bickering with your lovey; doing it again the next day and repeating ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, our fear of zombies is trumped by our fear of overcoming our bourgeois selves.  Which is to say, we'd rather be zombies popping Adderall, Ambien, Xanax, and Zoloft than give up our fears and become joyful Jedi knights. Or something. Like Luke in the swamp trying to lift the ship, we're afraid of our own power. We prefer the safety and certainty of relentless fear, regardless of how debilitating, to the presumed uncertainty of being free and fearless.

The Peter Weir film, Fearless, nails this so well. Jeff Bridges is an anxious architect, a husband and father, who's terrified of flying. And, sure enough, his plane crashes. But a funny thing happens on the way down: he sheds his fear. As the plane, its hydraulics blown, hurtles to the ground, people screaming and crying, he's cool as a cucumber. He survives the crash but, freed from his fear, he has no taste for the pedestrian life he once lead and basically abandons his wife and child. He's discovered the immense power he has once he's no longer afraid. Where he was once severely allergic to strawberries, he now joyfully eats them by the bowl full.

But everyone around him — his family, the airline's shrink, the lawyers — all believe he's nuts. And, from their psycho-juridico-medical perspective, he is. He's outside a society that is premised on fear —fear of loneliness, fear of failure, and ultimately, fear of death. By the end, he realizes that if he's going to return to his wife and family and work — to society — he needs his fear. At the end, he's once again deathly allergic to strawberries.

And this is his therapy! The return of his fear! From the perspective of a prevailing ideology, therapy is not the overcoming of fear but its rigorous maintenance. Which is nuts!

So much of our therapeutic culture enacts the very sickness from which we supposedly seek remedy. We go to the doctor because we're afraid we're sick and are going to die. The doctors then do anything and everything to keep us alive, pumping us full of poisons that kill us. Anything to keep us alive! Even kill us! But it's this very fear of death that is, in fact, a fear of life. It is precisely this fear that makes us anxious and insomniacs and impotent and....sick. Going to the doctor for remedy is a symptom of the disease we need to cure!

Kierkegaard says it well: death is not the sickness unto death. Death happens just as life happens. Death is not death; death is life. Death — that awful nothingness — is not the end of our bodies but the end of our attentive livelinesss, our vitality.  Death is not the passing of the body. Death is remaining distracted by relationship drama and guilt and fear.

My shrink don't play that fear game. He doesn't want me to return to my bourgeois existence, to all that chatter in my head about my parents, my relationships, my parenting. When I bring one or another of these things up, he says (more or less), Who cares? Shut the fuck up (he curses more than I do). You're bouncing off the walls. Just be quiet. Do nothing. 

Whenever I tell him I trying to do this or that, that I'm trying to be calm, to be this or that, he tells me to stop. Stop trying to do anything! Just do whatever you do and like it. Don't judge anything. Don't assess anything. Don't do anything. When I tell him that  doing and saying nothing sounds like death he says, Yes. Exactly. It is death. You have to move into your death, not fear it. 

This is to say, rather than join the idiotic fear based conversations in my head — Am I good parent? Should I be with this or that woman? Should I forgive my parents? — he shifts the conversation itself. He takes a line of flight, as it were. All that crap, he tells me, is my mind. It's not me. My mind is telling me all these failures, all these ideals, all these ideas of what I should be doing. But there is no should. So every time I say something like, Should I tell my son this? he retorts, Forget what you should do. Do nothing. 

I first saw him a few months after my sister died. I was crying hysterically every day, devastated by her absence, lying about in my pajamas and watching way too much "Chopped." We're sitting there in our very first session and he says to me, more or less: Your sister sounds so beautiful. How lucky you are to have loved her and to have helped her die. What a gift. So why grieve? Why feel loss? This is fullness. She wasn't here; she was here; she's gone again. It's beautiful. In fact, part of you envies her for already having died. 

And then he went on: You're crying because you feel guilty. You think your tears prove how much you loved her, as if you needed to prove it! Stop it. Just feel the love. Death is not to be feared. On the contrary! He tells me I should meditate a few minutes a day. I tell him that meditation is a kind of death. And he says, Yes. Yes it is. Which is why you should do it. I tell him I want to call it quits on this whole life thing and just die. He says: Good. I don't blame you. It looks exhausting to be you. Good riddance! Don't use a bullet but, yes, die. Now that's a bold move for a shrink. There's no: Oh, no, don't kill yourself. Instead, without batting an eye, he says, Yes, kill your self. Don't end your life but kill your self. Great idea. And then he laughs.

He's not a Buddhist but has a Buddhist sense of what it means to be and become. Together, we discuss Jesus, Nietzsche, Wilhelm Reich, Kierkegaard, Castaneda, and yes, Buddha. So if you're not down with thinking about self this way, think about it like this. All that chatter in my head is the Spectacle, the morass of capitalist-consumerist-societal voices all vying for power over my being, keeping me afraid so I'll cower and buy their meds, their cars, their houses, their debt, their demands for family and career and status and accolades.

In any case, what makes my shrink so awesome is that he doesn't offer me therapy per se. He refuses to engage me in the demented conversations in my head. He refuses to indulge my fear with more fear. Instead, he offers me a reminder that all my anxieties are based on nonsense, namely, a fear of death. How can you fear death when death is part of life?!? It's stupid! Rather than engage me in the sick mechanics of my mind, he points elsewhere, to something much more beautiful, much more powerful: a fearless life.

5.12.2014

Negotiating the Abyss Between Us

Recently, my son has been experiencing some intense anxiety. He usually rolls easy. He's funny, talkative, popular, socially adept. But his aunt died this past Fall and he witnessed his father's ugly grief and now the boy is wrestling this thing called life and death.

As his father, it's very hard to watch. I see his pain, his fear, his sadness and I want so desperately to quiet his storm, remedy his suffering. I think of all the things I could say that might be the salve (and the solve), those magic words that will sort his pain into bliss, redistribute his anxiety into peace.

And so I say this and then that. I try to be so so loving, understanding. Then I try to be firm and stern. Then I try to explain rationally. Then I offer some big picture philosophy. Then I get angry. Needless to say, none of this works. In fact, the more I come at him with suggestions, words, concepts, punishments and rewards, the more anxiety he experiences. 

Alas, it is not a problem I can fix. This is all him — his life, his body, his mind, his psyche, his issues. Sure, he's only 10 but that's irrelevant. He is his own person. I can't make him be calm, make him understand, make him eat. I can encourage and discourage but I can't force squat.

What's absurd is that I feel like I caused his angst — my ugliness, my poor parenting, the way I wailed and moaned and snapped as I watched my sister die. No kid — no person — should have had to witness that. The fact that I had to witness it was awful enough.

But just as I can't fix my boy, I didn't cause this, either. Sure, he's responding to me, to his environment. How could it be otherwise? But I didn't cause it per se as that would be impossible. He responds as he responds. Yes, we're always already interacting with the world, always connected, but we are alone in the moment of response, alone in how we react. That responsibility lies with each of us.

This is one reason I am not a fan of a certain psychoanalytic discourse: the all too popular notion that our parents are to blame. Sure, our parents are to blame for various things — for yelling, over indulging, hovering, ignoring, beating. Which is to say, they are to blame for their actions. But they are not to blame for how we respond, for how we are now. That is on you, on me, on all of us. 

Anyone who has ever taught knows this abyss, this yawning gap, between people. This is what inspired Socrates' great epistemological dilemma: How can a teacher ever teach anything new? If it were new, how could the student even know how to ask a question about it? How could the student get even the slightest foothold into grasping the material? If the teacher were teaching anything truly new, it would pass the student by, invisible. We can't make students learn; that is something they have to do on their own. 

None of this is to say we are fundamentally alone. That would be silly as we are all connected, necessarily. It is to say, however, that we are alone in our responses, that no one can finally fix you or teach you anything. You can only learn on your own, by yourself.

There is something, however, I can do for my son. I can not try to say the right thing. I can not try to dissuade him in his anxious reasoning. I can let him be. I can stand back calmly, gently, and simply be there with him as a peaceful presence. 

I say "simply" but, man o man, it's hard. Everything in me screams that I screwed him up so I need to fix him. Everything in me keeps screaming to try something. Everything in me keeps searching for an answer, for the answer, for that magic sentence or magic pill or magic action that will dissipate his pain. 

But that's not the way communication between people works. I can say all kinds of things but, usually, those words will either make the situation worse or else drift into the ether. I need to communicate through my actions, not through actions I do to him. I need to be chill, cool, calm, collected. I need to provide the environment for him to find his peace. I need to model the behavior of calm, not feed his anxiety with my own anxious search for a salve. 

This is for teachers, too. I could explain all kinds of wacky ideas to my students, explicate esoteric texts word by word. And that might be nifty. But, in the end, I realized that it was not my job to teach them Deleuze or Nietzsche, that teaching such things is impossible. All I could really do is model a certain relationship to books and ideas, model a certain joy in thinking and writing and talking with ideas. I had to stand back rather than lean into them (I was always terrible at that.)

I want to turn to words to explain myself, to solve problems, to teach students and lovers and friends and parents. But that is egotistical of me, narcissistic. And, more importantly, ineffective. The best communication is to stand back, shut up, and live a life of peace.  

5.08.2014

On Pornography & Sexual Fantasy


Many people — mostly women — assume porn to be a substitute for the "real thing." Why watch porn if you're having sex? they wonder. And if you are indeed watching porn while dating them, it proves you're not "satisfied" with them, that you're looking around, that you want to screw the women in the movies.

But men don't watch porn as a substitute for sex. Watching porn is an act unto itself, a performative if I wanted to sound all academic and fancy. That is, the sex on the screen is not a representation of the presumed real sex act. Watching porn is itself a sex act (like a speech act). 

The film, Don Jon, understands well one aspect of what men want from porn — not sex but disappearance. Like everyone these days, men want to blot out the day, duck the litany of duties and responsibilities, shut out the noise of digital buzzes and dings. To disappear into the screen, into this bubble of immediacy: there's just you and the images. No social obligations, no politics, no other person to consider. No waiting for that thing you like, no wondering if you're doing it right or if she's done yet. Watching porn is exquisitely solitary and silent (sort of).

This is not to say that porn is necessarily good, that wanting to disappear into its moans and thrusts is healthy. No doubt, peacefully and wholly participating in the cosmic flow is a more rewarding existential route than self-effacing in so much bukkake. It's to say that porn is not solely mimetic but is itself an act that is not reducible to the presumed "real" act of, uh, doing it.

There's a great moment in the midst of sex, a hilarious moment, in which you're doing your thing and you utter in the heat of passion, Oh, baby, I'm gonna slide up your arse! (Why is "arse" so funny to me?) Or: I wanna tie you up and jizz on your face. Or: I wanna see you suck that other guy. Often, she'll stop and retort, Uh, hmmm, eeesh, uh, no? 

But doing it was never the point (of course, sometimes it’s the point). Saying you're gonna do it is the point. The saying is the act, erotic in and of itself. The reality is that seeing her fellate another gentlemen would probably be some combination of hurtful, gross, and boring. (Seeing people have sex for you — as distinct from accidentally and unintentionally seeing people screw — is surprisingly boring. Sex and death, those two great certainties of life, share that banality.)

Now, there are cases of people being too afraid to fulfill a fantasy. Just having the fantasy is great and all but they really do wanna do it and are afraid they'll be embarrassed or that, come come time, they won't be as into it or whatever. This is a different situation. You're itching like all get out to be taken from behind by a six inch dildo but you're afraid. In that case, well, your fear is silly. Who cares? Try it. There's nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.

The point, alas, is this: there is no hierarchy in sex. There is no "real" sex. There are a lot of different things one can do, alone or together, that can be called sex. It's all sex or it's all foreplay, depending on how you look at it. There are different pleasures and different experiences to be had doing everything and anything — watching, teasing, cuddling, licking, rubbing, massaging, tying up, tying down, whispering, giggling, fucking, sucking, biting, texting, Skyping. 

Fantasy is a sex act, too. Which is to say, a sexual fantasy is not necessarily something one wants to do. The fantasy (often) is the sex. I can fantasize about a breadth and wealth of situations involving an equal number of what-might-be-deemed horrific, inappropriate, or illegal activities and have no desire whatsoever to do any of them in real life. Fantasy is not wish; fantasy is fantasy. And none of these fantasies make us "sick." They make us horny.

5.05.2014

Learning to Write: Repetition, Imitation, Relaxation


I had a great English teacher in high school‚ Charles "Chuck" Ashman. We had a reading list of 40 books from 19th and 20th Century British and American writers — Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, Melville, and so on. Every week, we had to write a paper, no more than two pages. One week, we had to write about a quote he would give us. On the other week, we had to write about any two books on the reading list.

There are a lot of great things about this assignment. Mostly, it kept us writing. The papers weren't long so that was never the issue. There was no research to do. This let us focus on writing. There were no drafts, no rewrites. If you flummoxed one week, you had another chance the next week to get it right.

What was perhaps most impressive was that he handed the papers back the next day. And he had a lot of students. You could hand the paper in late — 10:00 — by sliding it in a bag hung from his front door (if you could figure out how to get in the building). But sure enough, the next day, voilà: there was your paper waiting for you in class. There would be very few comments, very few editorial notes. There was a grade and one summary comment that somehow always nailed it.

I remember two papers quite clearly. One was on a quote — "Tis an ill wind that blows none good." I tried arguing that quote was about the fact that there is always something good but that the Vietnam war was, indeed, an ill wind that offered no good whatsoever. To this day, his comment resonates with me: "Your politics interfered with your claims." Booya! Humbling, as I imagined myself both smart and political — a young, stoned, horny Trotsky.

And then there was the paper I wrote on Oliver Twist. Now, to be honest, I hadn't read Oliver Twist. In fact, of the 40 books on the list, I read nine. This was more than most people read; Cliff Notes were the go-to strategy. But as I didn't enjoy reading Cliff Notes, this is what I'd do: I'd read two, five, twenty pages of a book; do the same for another; and then compare narrative strategies. I realized many years later that this was my initial rhetorical training. Anyway, I'd written this paper on Dickens' use of "the Jew" to describe Fagan. I argued that this wasn't the writer being anti-Semitic; it was the writer deploying anti-Semitism to reach his audience (c'mon! I was 16! That's good!). His comment: "This verges on intellectual excellence." I used that same comment, verbatim, when I taught undergrad comp ten years later.

Anyway, by year's end — after writing all those papers, getting immediate feedback, then moving on to the next —  I could write a clear, tight expository essay. This was one of the great gifts of my life and I am forever grateful to Mr. Ashman (RIP). But, at the time, I didn't know it. I was just banging out my papers (although I did want to earn his respect, his A: it was meaningful).

I got to college and was bored. I wasn't intellectually motivated at all. And while I could readily write a paper, I never thought of myself as a writer. It was not a conspicuous source of joy. And then, in the first class in a brand new quasi-department called "Cultural Studies," I read Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, vol 1. Holy moly! The combination of devastating critical insight that turned everything I knew on its head, humor, sweeping claims, and fluid prose melted me. I was in love.

I went to read more Foucault; then took a class on Derrida (this was 1990 and was the emergent craze); then a grad seminar on Gadamer. But it was all about Foucault. I had a crush. So I decided to write an honors thesis in my individualized major (called History of Consciousness, within the history department) on Foucault.

Suddenly, all my writing was this now-embarassing imitation of Foucault-cum-Derrida. I'd have cute parenthetical puns (i.e., "(Re)writing history, Foucault argues...). I'd make dramatic claims about the hegemony and despotism of "Western metaphysics." My undergrad thesis was a ridiculous gushing crush homage to M. Michel Foucault and his way of writing.

At the time, I wasn't conscious of imitating him. I was just writing in this way I had just learned was possible. Mr. Ashman, in high school, had taught me the basic structure of argument, how words met thought met essay. And then Foucault taught me this joy, this play, these reversals of expectation. It was exhilarating.

Sure, it was silly. My writing as a 21 year old was pretentious and goofy (it still is!). But the fact is that by imitating Foucault and Derrida, I was training my writing muscles to perform in new ways. By not just observing but enacting these writerly strategies — these rhythms of prose and argument — I internalized them, made them my own, until eventually Foucault became just another lick in my arsenal.

So, when I was a grad student and began teaching comp to undergrads, I had an assignment on imitation. We'd read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and, afterwards, they had to write something — anything — in that style. Sometimes, I'd do the same after we'd read Nietzsche. I didn't pursue this approach — what the ancient sophists called imitatio — aggressively enough. I'd make them do it once, maybe twice, but not enough to take on that writer's style.

But that was my goal. I wanted them to know in their minds as well as in their bodies that there were these dramatically other ways of writing. I wanted them to be inhabited with other modes just I'd been inhabited by Foucault. When you're possessed by another voice, it extends you, recasting your very constitution.

Through repetition, I learned structure and exposition. Through imitation, I learned a bag of tricks, tropes, turns of phrase, modes of argument from everyone — Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Nietzsche.

But it wasn't until I began to relax, to lean back a bit rather than forward, that I began really to enjoy writing. Up until relatively recently, my prose leaned towards the purple, the precious, and the pedantic. I'd literally lean into my keyboard, into the screen, the pen and the paper, in order to drive my points, wielding language like a weapon: Take that, reader! I look back and see it as basic insecurity: aggressive, pedantic writing as pre-emptive strike, bludgeoning my readers before they could retaliate.

I no longer want to drive my points. I don't care if I'm right. Rather than leaning into the keyboard, hitting the keys with punctuated certainty, I now lean back away from the keyboard and let language and ideas wash over me more sensually. Sure, I'll always tend towards the purple, the overwrought. A man is as he goes, after all. But I don't have to push points; I can let ideas take shape, take form, as they will without pedantry or didacticism.

5.01.2014

Fear and Trembling


My shrink told me an incredible story yesterday. An old friend of his is a Hasidic Jew, devout through and through. This man's young son was terribly sick, couldn't find a new kidney, and died. My shrink saw the man, this father, a few days after the son's passing. And, much to the surprise of my shrink, the man was fine. "Everything is good," he told my shrink, "everything is as it should be."

This is a terrifying story to me. This man, of course, is right — from the perspective of the infinite. When you know that life is all there is and it's always in flow, when you know that all of life is necessarily good and beautiful — that is, when you're joyful — then nothing is wrong, not even the death of a child — and, to that end, not even the extermination of European Jews. But to believe this, to live this, is to leave the social and all the tethers of identity, all those buttresses that seem to make me me — father, son, Jew, man, guilt, fear. And that scares the crap out of me. 

I first read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in the Fall after college, more or less alone and living in Manhattan. It was an awesome experience — funny and scary and strange. I remember lying on the small, weird, old, green guest bed in the weird, small second bedroom in my grandfather's upper east side apartment (I couldn't afford my own place as I worked at a damned used bookstore) and hearing all the resounding traffic noise below. I hope the metaphor of this scene is not too subtle. Two significant aspects of that book stuck with me.

There's Abraham, alone in his faith, standing directly before God, untethered from any social demand and free of any guilt, anxiety, or doubt. It's an intense, romantic image: the man alone with the madness of his life, unfettered by social demands, facing the infinite undaunted. It's remained a perhaps dubious ideal for me.

And then there's Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of the book (Kierkegaard rarely wrote under his own name; his books are fictions, perspectival reckonings of different positions). Johannes is blown away by Abraham. He just can't believe it. How can this dude agree to kill his son, his only son, his impossible son (Isaac is born when Sarah is, like, 110)? Either Abraham's a madman murderer or he's the father of faith (Kierkegaard was at once paralyzed and motivated by the absolute demands of either/or). I always loved how Johannes wasn't quite buying it. There was something reassuring — and nebbishy Jewish — about it. 

But the thing that inspires Johanne’s fear and trembling is not just Abraham's anxiety-free willingness to kill his son. It's that Abraham comes back to his wife after his trip to Mount Moriah! He comes back into the social order and continues being a father, husband, worker, a normal dude shopping at the market. 

After all, taking leave of the social has, in its way, been domesticated. There are the ascetics, the monks, those who recuse themselves from society, living their lives in monasteries without the stresses, worries, and duties of work, sex, which restaurant to eat at. Kierkegaard calls these the knights of infinite resignation. 

It's a bold life, no doubt. But it also simplifies things day to day. There's no silly bourgeois nonsense to contend with — no demanding girlfriends, no stressed out sons, no idiot bosses or soul crushing PowerPoint presentations. Brush away the quotidian demands of life that harass, harangue, and humiliate us and living with God (or whatever you want to call it) becomes, well, easier.

Don't get me wrong. This is not to diminish the beauty, the ecstasy, of living life outside everyday social crap. In fact, it sounds mighty fine. Sure, I'd miss uni and gin and the sweet kisses of a lovely lady on my belly. But, oh, to be free of the hassles! Not to have to have one more conversation about whether I flirted with that girl or not. Not to have to figure out what I'll cook for dinner. Not to have to figure out what my son will eat, how he's faring, all that guilt and angst. Just to concentrate on my relationship to the infinite, all day every day. Oh, lord, that sounds great!

And it makes a certain sense to me. I've had glimmers and glimpses of the plane of infinity. I've felt the surge of the cosmos, my ego and its all-too-petty needs melting away in one magnificent woosh, the teem of becoming surging through me, in me, with me, as me.

But it's always when I'm alone. The moment I enter the social again, the moment I have to talk, answer an email, negotiate traffic I become once more enmeshed within the toils of this all-too-human life and its petty, petty anxieties — worry about my son, guilt about my fathering, jealousy or resentment over some woman. I lose that delectable taste of infinity, its joy and simmering peace.

This is what makes Kierkegaard's vision so profound. It's not that Abraham takes leaves of the social; it's that he returns (and doesn't ask for forgiveness). This is what Kierkegaard calls the knight of faith: to live on the infinite plane all the time while simultaneously living in the finite everyday. 

How am I to live with this ahuman, infinite flow and still be a father, a son, a worker, a human being? How do I talk to a woman who's freaking out about her job and just doesn't believe me when I say it's irrelevant? How do I talk to clients about their brand when, my god, who the hell cares? How do I speak with my mother who grieves for her daughter?  

I encounter many people who confront the infinite and handle the social with the utmost seriousness. They religiously go to Zen meditation classes; attend lectures on this or that wisdom; quote all sorts of folks on Facebook. They look me intently in the eyes when speaking. To me, that sucks all the pleasure out of this social realm, a plane as ripe with delight as it is fraught with angst. If I'm gonna live here, if I’m not going to be a monk, then gimme my uni! Gimme my gin! Gimme my humor! Let me frolic!

I want the resonant peace and wisdom of infinite becoming and the multihued pleasures of finitude. As of now, I see either/or. I want to see and.