On Self-Deprecation

I self-deprecate, often. I come from a people who transact in self-deprecation — Jewish New York of the 1970s, my household in particular, and my adored brother specifically. With a certain emphatic umph, I make note of my big nose, bald head, general lack of fitness, my string bean body, my tendency to act the know-it-all despite my pronounced ignorance, my ardent laziness, my fear of many, many things, my list of failures personal, professional, and sexual.

Socially, it's an aggressive move, all the more so for being couched in the veil of the meek. How is my interlocutor supposed to respond? Is she supposed to nod along? Doesn't this suggest agreement with the low assessment of myself? Yeah, your nose is quite big. How rude!

Is she supposed to counter or qualify my claims? I like your big nose! I think bald guys are sexy! This can be awkward as she may not actually feel that way but simply feel compelled to say it — as if I need cheering up. Which, in this case, is certainly not my intention. But, as I let loose my string of presumed self loathing, I am well aware that, to the goyim, it may look like such is my intention. Poor Daniel! He thinks so lowly of himself! Doesn't he know that having an enormous nose doesn't really matter? And that some women find it sexy? (You can see how this could open a Pandora's box. Some women? But not you? What do you mean it doesn't matter? There is no way for her to win taking this route. Fortunately, cheering up is rarely my goal.)

And for her to counter my claim by suggesting that my failings are, in fact, successes creates a certain tension. Do I then counter her counter? Sure, bald can be sexy. Alas, my dearth of hair fails to achieve that Bruce Willis magic. Which then perpetuates the dynamic of point-counterpoint, mimicking an argument — in which I assume the absurd position of maintaining that I am indeed an ugly loser — where there is, in fact, no argument.

What, then, is my move? Well, the social awkwardness is in fact the key element. In this sense, my self-deprecation purposefully puts my interlocutor in this uncomfortable, perhaps impossible, position. This serves several functions. It's a kind of test as it disallows the usual soul numbing pleasant banter of the casual conversation. I mean, begin talking to a stranger at a party and point out your most conspicuous ugliness and see how they squirm! Deal with this potential social awkwardness! Needless to say, I am not invited to social gatherings often. 

Because there is a way of participating in my self-deprecation without either confirming or countering. There is the teasing continuation — Yeah, now that you mention it, did I leave my keys up your nose? This is a tough one as it is dangerously close to insult. There's the self-deprecating counter-move. Yeah, if you think that's big, you should see the mole on my ass! 

From this perspective, self-deprecation is a kind of social litmus test, an invitation to a certain kind of person to play along. Why? So that, together, we can shed our egos and agree, through our mutual play, that there is nothing really worth taking seriously in this world. 

Because the fact is: I don't care what you do or what you've accomplished and I sure as shit don't care what I've accomplished. And, in case part of me does seem to care, my self-deprecation points to the fact that I don't really care — and you shouldn't, either.

While this can be born from a certain negativity — Why do you have to be negative, Daniel? — it comes from something else, too: from the understanding that everything gives way. That everything we do is necessarily puny in light of the cosmic teem. That the ego is so much silliness; that social posturing is even worse; that all we have is this moment, here and now, so let's tear down all social bullshit and stand before each other with merriment. And this might very well mean effacing ourselves before the other.

Is this negative? Sure. But there is a productivity in the negative that is not solely negative per se. This is where irony exists; this is what irony does: it effaces the things of this world, its words and postures, as it points to indifferent Nature, the merciless Divine, the seething Cosmos or the infinite cosmos, to the everything that exceeds all this. To do nothing but affirm demands clinging to the bullshit of this world a bit too much for my liking — and so I tear part of it down to show the glaring sublimity that resides below, above, and just to the side of this all-too-human nonsense we call our bodies, jobs, lives, selves.

Of course, self-deprecation is a kind of narcissism, too. It becomes a way to point myself out, even my ugliness, in order to draw attention to myself. If I really just wanted to ride the great cosmic wave, why not just keep my mouth shut?

On the other hand, there is something funny in self-deprecation. It's funny in that it destabilizes our social position, makes it weak, unsteady — and one effect of this is laughter. All the great efforts we humans attempt and endure in order to be something are hilarious, absurd, ridiculous. So why not laugh it all off?

And then there is another glaring aspect of self-deprecation: it comes, at some point, from a place of self loathing. After all, there are other ways to be ironic other than self-deprecation. For me to point out my big nose means that, at some point, I believe that I do have a big nose (which I do, duhhh) and that it is something that needs to be noted before it's noted negatively by someone else. If I own my own ugliness, I disarm those who would use it against me. This is, of course, as paranoid as it is true.

My brother and I laugh uncontrollably at what lazy losers we are. We egg each other's self-deprecation on with wild, hysterical abandon. Which, no doubt, has an effect of keeping the other in check, assuring the other doesn't get any holier than thou airs about him thinking he's all that. For us, self-deprecation is a familial warmth and, alas, existential limitation that prevents us from achieving true self love. No third eye for us. We'll go to our graves self-loathing but laughing the laugh of the universe. And that, in its way, is beautiful.

But I've discovered, lo these 48 years, that women don't really enjoy my self-deprecation. It has been delicately pointed out to me that, to women, this self-deprecation reveals an insecurity — and insecurity isn't sexy.

And, worse, the negativity of self-deprecation spreads to become a more rampant, all encompassing negativity. Really? You want me to go on that yoga retreat? Have you seen my downward facing dog? Or: Oy! You want to go dancing? Have you seen me try to move this nose gracefully? Soon, there is nothing left to do, no way to leave the prison of fear and self-loathing.

The reality is self-deprecation becomes all-too-human, as well. It is an easy crutch to avoid the true moment of reckoning face to face with another. Just as bravado and self-seriousness are so much evasive foolishness, self-deprecation has a way of becoming evasive, phony, a posturing — a way of avoiding vulnerability when its great power is in conjuring vulnerability. Everything can become an egregious social posturing. And thanks to a culture that foments self-loathing, self-deprecation becomes an easy way to participate in the social without actually being alive to the world.

What I love about self-deprecation, and why I won't just drop it, is that it creates the space for a coming to the world, what my sweetie might call an authentic moment of self — afraid, alive, a thisness in all its ugliness. The downside is that it becomes a foil, a shtick, another evasive gesture among the pantheon of evasive gestures we call American Bullshit. We all this know all too well, me most of all. I've lived this shtick, as much to my success as to my chagrin. I want what any beautiful person wants: to participate in the abundant joy of the world without my scaffolding, my shtick, my go-to self-deprecation.

And yet self-deprecation has its place. It has its moment. It remains a powerful antidote to smug social seriousness which, to me, is the greatest sin of all. For me, self-seriousness is the ultimate negativity, blinding us to the power of the non-I, the cosmic self, the beauty of the day. Because, c'mon, everything gives way. Don't you know that? (he writes, somehow imagining that he's channeling the folksy wisdom of Frances McDormand at the end of Fargo).

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