4.26.2017

The Poses of Prose: On Writing, Yoga, and Embodiment


I recently had a realization about yoga thanks to the incredible genius of my teacher, Kia Meaux. I always thought yoga was about these very precise poses, more or less discrete, that could be strung together into a routine to stretch the body, its muscles and ligaments and the like. But, as Kia has taught me, yoga is a practice that's not about stretching per se: it's about becoming embodied. (She likes to say that she can show you all of yoga in one pose. I love that.)

That's an incredibly complex idea: to become an embodied body. At first, it sounds absurd. After all, aren't we already embodied? Isn't that what all this — this flesh, these fingers, these farts  — is? Isn't this my embodiment?

Sure, in some sense. But in another sense, we are actually rarely in and of and with our bodies. I, for one, certainly am not. I imagine myself as a nose on a stick that emits words while ideas flow and ricochet around me. So when I've tried to do yoga, I spend all this time listening to what the teacher says then trying to contort my body into some pose that looks like what she's doing. All my attention is on understanding while my body is only tangentially involved. The result is not pretty.

Kia made me stop all that. A pose, for her, is a set of possibilities. It is a way that discloses as many ways as there are bodies. I start contorting my body and ask: Is this right? She replies: How does it feel? Which is to say, there is no absolute pose. There is a way of sitting with one's body that draws more or less attention to this or that part — the hamstrings, the spine, the shoulders. It's about experiencing that part of the body, not necessarily stretching it. The pose — and its stretch — is a way, not an end: it's a way to being present with the world as oneself.

As I consider her question — How does it feel? — my mind folds into my flesh. My attention is on my body, in my body, and when it all feels as it feels (even if hurts a bit), my attention becomes my body. The pose-that's-not-a-pose is an exercise in being present with my body in the world — feeling gravity's embrace, feeling the muscle extend, feeling the pleasure and sometimes a little pain. The end result is not a limber body or hot ass; those are by-products. The end result is living well with the world.

After a few lessons, I tell Kia: I can't believe the way you move so fluidly in your body, your understanding, your teaching. To which she replies, more or less: That's how I feel about you and your writing.  

This was an incredible moment for me as I suddenly saw writing as a kind of yoga practice. We often imagine writing as disembodied, an abstraction from the world. But, for me, writing is leaning in with my whole self, my body and mind and senses. Writing is a practice of going with ideas, language, moods, and sensations. It's rarely if ever about expressing a pre-formed idea and having it fit perfectly with the words. Writing is not a pose. It's a way.

Now, I've often compared writing to surfing — another thing I have never done and, in this case, something I will never do as I don't even know how to swim. But what I love about surfing is that in order to move, you have to lean into the wave. And then, once there, you have to remain poised. Lean too far back or too far forward and you're gone. It's a constant negotiation of forces, adjustments being made on the fly with the tumult of the ocean. The figure that ties writing to surfing and yoga is the demand of embodiment. But I don't want to conflate all these things; so now I'm gonna stick to yoga.

When I write, I'm looking for a flow — a flow of words, of ideas, of revelations, of affect, and of myself with those elements. I'm not sitting back and composing; I am performing, practicing, on the screen, with the keyboard, with my fingers, with my thoughts, with the thoughts of others, with tangents and dreams, with wisps of notions and fleeting sensations, with all the vicissitudes of language and its grammar and sounds and shapes. As in a yoga routine, I am moving the energy from there to there to there, feeling my way through — for a word, for the stretch of an idea, for an energy, for a flow that, uh, flows. And noting it all. Heeding it all. Experiencing it all. (Well, maybe not always all. But a lot! Or much! Or, sometimes, some!) Writing is not a standing back but an immersion.

For me, writing is not about delivering an answer. As in yoga, there is no telos; there is only flow (of course, your writing teachers may disagree and fail you). The goal of writing — for me as well as for my readers, few and insane as they may be — is not to have a goal but to attain a certain enlivening, a certain waking up, a taking notice, a being present. One might say that the endpoint-which-is-not-an-endpoint of writing is a kind of embodiment: a moving with the world (rather than a taking leave of the world through abstraction, anxiety, fear, ego, and the like). Oh, when in that groove, the words stream, the ideas stretch, my mind and loins and gut all working as a little engine with language and the weight and contours of ideas and sensations to forge....this.

But doesn't writing inherently have an audience in a way yoga does not? Well, that depends on how you look at it. For me, writing is personal. I'd write with or without publishing it as writing is the act, is the making sense, is the stretch: is the embodiment. But, that aside, yoga has an audience, too. When you're moving your energy about, flexing your ass with your downward facing dog and such, you're writing on and with the body. Your flesh, as well as your spirit or whatever you want to call it, is your screen. You are the page, the words, the ideas, the affect, the flow: you are the essay.

Like yoga, writing has a grammar (nifty move there, eh?). Yoga has poses and movements between poses, a vocabulary and a grammar that turns around hips, breath, spine, neck, balance (not knowing much, I'll stop there). What are the poses in writing? As in yoga, there are thousands if not infinite: there are as many poses as there are writing bodies.

For instance, there is the circle: tying the beginning into the end. I use this pose often. In my last post, for instance, I begin with the pleasure of distinction and end with a call to more distinctions. That's a shape, like child's pose, in which there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of give (oy! "give" as a noun is downright fantastic!).

There's the related tangent which, if you think about it, is a sideways stretch. For example, above, I talked about surfing while talking about yoga. 

The non-sequitur — that is, talking about something completely unrelated — is under appreciated as schools systematically beat it out of us. What does this have to do with anything? they scribble madly in the margins (they was often I). But I've come to really like the understated cool of the band, Suicide. 


The failed attempt is a great performative pose. A friend of mine just sent me a great example of this. He was writing about his art, trying to explain it this way and that, but each effort came up short. So he shifts and addresses the nature of the coming up short. 

Alliteration and other forms of mouth filling are great go-tos (note the title of this meandering post. Oh! Meander! That's a great figure for the form of essays in general). While this is often what we imagine as being writerly, it is not something taught in composition classes: the way words fill the mouth, even when silently read. (When I taught comp, I had students read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" out loud in class. We'd go around the room, everyone taking a stanza — who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York/ who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night/ with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls....)I fear if I did that today, I'd be fired, sued, and molested on social media). The written word, after all, is never totally silent. Such is the nature of a phonetic alphabet — the words slither from the page across your tongue and down your throat. Nabokov loved to fill the mouth, almost suffocating you with confection: 

Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please! (From Ada). 

I could go on and on. The shift of address: suddenly address your reader directly. The reversal: take a claim everyone assumes and flip it — belief in god is...nihilism! There are so many prose poses. But none of that matters. The point is to move with. To  keep the flow flowing, feeling good and right or, perhaps, just flowing: if it gets too contrived, change positions. Start over. Shake it off. 

The point is not to think of writing as having a point. It's not about expressing an idea from my body to yours. Writing is a doing. It demands you being present.How does that feel? How about that? And that? It's all a stretch but the stretch is not the endpoint. The goal-which-is-not-a-goal is to feel with the world. It's to notice. To experience. To be embodied.

Oh, here's another amazing thing to realize about writing, a realization akin to what Kia taught me: there are no hard and fast rules. You can split infinitives, end in prepositions, not use sentences. Just ask yourself: How does it feel?

4.03.2017

On Kink and Perversion

I've always been a fan of the keen distinction. For instance, simple and easy. It's quite simple to stop smoking: you simply don't smoke. But that doesn't make it easy. I find such a sensual pleasure in feeling those words and ideas, which are so readily conflated, differentiated. A distinction makes many where there was once one. There's a great joy in such a will to distinguish, an affirmation of life in all its difference.

Here's another distinction that was introduced to me of late by a here-unnamed genius: kink and perversion. In public discourse, these words are bandied about — when they are in fact bandied about which, to be fair, may be more common in San Francisco than elsewhere —anyway, when casually referring to sexual proclivities, one may find oneself conflating kinky and pervy when, in fact, the two could not be more different.

Kink is territorial. It often has a space — a dungeon, a "doctor's office," a boudoir. Of course, this is not a requirement but it is of note that the world of kink often claims a territory, even if only temporarily. And once inside that space, there are all kinds of rules. Behavior is rigorously controlled. Of course, within those controls, there may be plenty of opportunity for exploration and expression. Still, the kink is defined by the fact that it has definition, both spatial and regulatory stipulation.

The non-kink world — let's call it the vanilla world — has space and rules, too. It has the bedroom and, sometimes, the couch. It has unstated rules of behavior: we'll kiss for a while, touch, lick, then do it. During the act, there may be flourishes of surprise — an ass spanked, a throat grabbed, a thigh bitten. But any serious deviation is not tolerated.

The difference between vanilla and kink, then, is not immediately obvious. But the way I see it, the distinction lies in the word kink itself: rather than a straight line, there is a coiled, spiraling, kinky line — more fusilli than spaghetti. Or what Lucretius refers to as clinamen, the curve in the flow of atoms. If vanilla finds the erotic within the blindness of established rules — there is nothing natural per se about vanilla or kink; they are both contrivances and both expressions of the erotic — kink finds the erotic in other places, in other ways, in other rules. (It is, without a doubt, more complex than this; I am less interested in the psychology of it than in the social and semantic distinctions.)

Perversion is something else entirely. Perversion operates without any territory. In the words of Michel de Certeau, perverts poach. They find their pleasure in the territory of others. The pervert is, in some sense, a rhetorician always seeking erotic kairos — or is it kairotic eros? — within the everyday.

Let's take a subway ride. It is a common space in which there are all kinds of  rules, legal and social. For example, we don't sit on someone else's lap (unless it's a parent and child or, sometimes, two lovers). In fact, we usually respect a certain distance between our fellow travelers. This space is not dictated by state law but it is surely dictated and different country to country, culture to culture. We all know these rules.

On this subway, on this common conveyance, we go about our way, dressed for work or galavanting or what have you. And there, on the subway, is our pervert. Let's make it a she just for the goof. Her eyes scan the car looking for that opportunity, a crack in the everyday edifice through which eros flows — a look in someone's eye, a smile, a sandaled foot, and then....an exposed knee. Gulp! Her eyes trace the knee, linger over the bend, drift over the calf, perhaps explore to see if there's a thigh.

There are, of course, such cracks all the time. The doctor's office, for instance: it's a strange place in which being naked in front of a near-stranger is not illegal or even frowned upon. It's even demanded! This is ripe territory for a pervert. Now take all the sandals and skirts, all the exposed shoulders, all the shorts and yoga pants, all the eyes and smiles and scents and suddenly the world brims with erotic possibility, cracks through which eros — a profound and relentless force — can flow.


What makes the pervert so reviled is she doesn't ask permission: she searches, she looks, she finds her pleasure in that social crack (as it were) all without asking. Kink is all about permission. Kink loves contracts and safe words: Chattanooga! and everything comes to a halt — the ball gag comes out, the whip relents, the electrodes stop flowing.

The pervert, however, never asks for permission. For some perverts, this not asking may very well be the source of erotic delight — a kind of rape, even if only with eyes. When we think of perversion, we think of the man in an overcoat, flashing unsuspecting people on the street or the subway. It's icky, for sure. But, ethical judgment aside, what defines perversion is an exploitation of a moment within the everyday without asking for permission.

But this doesn't mean all perverts are criminals or are even icky. After all, how else are we to meet each other, find pleasure in new people, if we didn't take advantage of those propitious moments of, and within, the erotic? We used to approach people in cafés and bars because we were attracted to them, because we felt the tug and pull of eros within the everyday. Is it perverse to note this then act on it? Of course not.

What distinguishes the pervert is that the tug and pull may very well be the limit of the play; she has no desire to ask out the knee. This, here and now, this gaze, the intersection of eye and knee, this play of energy, is itself the erotic moment. It's not foreplay; it's not an initiation. It is an act unto itself.

So let's imagine an ethical pervert, someone who finds the erotic within the everyday but doesn't want to be icky, doesn't want to be criminal, doesn't want to offend. She wants a kind of permission. But the very possibility of perversion is not having that permission. And so begins a complex negotiation of eyes and energies, a complex rhetorical reckoning within the delirious space of the erotic. Perhaps she lingers on that knee but when the person whose knee it is suddenly becomes uncomfortable, she turns her gaze — and her erotic energy — away. But maybe, just maybe, the knee enjoys that gaze. And maybe, just maybe, that knee begins to flirt back with those eyes and now there is an erotic transaction — silent, perhaps, but no less real, no less profound, no less erotic for it.

The ethical pervert has a hard time, for sure. The risks are enormous. There are legal risks — arrest and such — and then social risks: unspeakable humiliation. But perhaps the rewards are equally enormous. Perhaps riding eros flowing through the banal drift of everyday life is a delight worth the risk.

I, for one, have been known to be a social pervert (avec and sans eros). I like to disrupt the unspoken everyday order of things, usually out of boredom. For instance, when I step into an elevator, rather than turn my back and quietly regard the ascending or descending numbers, I face the crowd. It's so simple but it really throws people off. Which eases my own anxiety about being part of the herd. And maybe suggests, however slightly, that there are unspoken rules everywhere and we can break these rules.

For Marshall McLuhan, art is a kind of perversion that seeks to expose the terms of the environment — or what we might call the Matrix, all those invisible but insidious terms that define how we are to behave with each other and ourselves.

Perversion of a sort, then, is a revolutionary act precisely because it never asks for permission. Kink, meanwhile, tends towards the conservative in its will to rules. It may be way outside the everyday matrix but, to the pervert, it's just the new boss, same as the old boss. The pervert seeks to disrupt any terms, regardless of the rules. Of course, the flasher and frotteurist isn't a revolutionary. He's pretty icky. So maybe calling all of this perversion conflates too many unlike things. Perhaps we need more distinctions.

3.07.2017

The Beautiful, Awful Stink of Humanity: On Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight"

I started this essay after first seeing Moonlight, months ago. But I hesitated as the film left me wanting to remain silent, its overwhelming will to kindness hushing my own will to understand and articulate.


In John Cassavetes' Faces — an astounding, confounding film — plot and character disappear as we're left with this teem, this torrent, of affect. It's unsettling, to say the least. His characters are tornadoes more than they are people. And while Cassavetes is often associated with a certain human reality, that just doesn't seem right to me. Cassavetes gives us affect that runs through the human, undoing the human — real, sure, but not human. His people are drips of affect on celluloid canvas — intense and bold and careening. Faces is a Jackson Pollock.

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight leads with affect, too. The plot is secondary to the affect of the film (perhaps that's an overstatement; let's say the plot, while essential, doesn't drive this film). But Moonlight is up to something very different than Faces. If Faces is affective but inhuman, Moonlight is so devastatingly, exquisitely, achingly human.

I use that word "human" cautiously and purposefully. I'm suspicious of it and, frankly, a bit repulsed by it. It's used as a generality that effaces the differences between me and you, the differences between cultures. I think of the famous "The Family of Man" photography show from when I was a kid (I had the book which held a certain weight for me on two counts. It had a photograph by my namesake, Dan Weiner, my mother's cousin who died in a plane crash before I was born. And the book had pictures of topless women, African if I remember correctly, which needless to say I found quite intriguing).  The suggestion is we're all human, aren't we? That we all have families and loves and poops so we're all united.

What's ironic is that using human in this way is dehumanizing. What makes the human interesting, what makes it a vital, living and breathing force is our differences. We live through our horrors and joys, bear and wear them this way and that.

I want something else from this word "human," then. I want a phenomenology that doesn't reduce us to either bodily functions (we all shit, eat, fuck) or bourgeois desires (family, love, a house). I want something that doesn't unite us per se but becomes a principle of our differentiation. (An example of such a principle is "do the right thing." It's always different, depending on circumstance and perspective. This is what I want from my use of the word human: a principle that fosters and proliferates difference.)

The affective teem of Faces makes sense to me. Cassavetes makes films in a world I understand — a decentered world, free of concepts. It's all a play of collisions and collusions, momentary conspiracies coupled with fray, decay, dissolution, madness. In many ways, this is how I've reckoned life: I participate in the transhuman affect of it all, the cosmic flow, the transcendent planes that run through this world. The human is often just too human for me. I've shunned it, choosing to participate as best I could on another plane. My best friends are clouds.

Moonlight gives us something else all together. The affect it proffers is distinctly human. It is the affect of childhood, of being so small and scared and confused and alone. It is cultural discourse and the expectations of what it means to be a man (or be anything, for that matter). It is the affect of memory, the way we live with the things that have happened to us. It is the gestures of regret and forgiveness. It is living this life with other people and just wanting someone to touch your face, to hold you, even if only for a moment. This is the beautiful, awful stink of humanity.

These are such wonderfully horrible aspects of living life as a human being. We live through these childhoods — all these different childhoods ripe with fear and loneliness— and bear these experiences. We are haunted, all of us, by memories and by expectations and desire. And we each make our way as we do.

I've tried to avoid so much of the human, flippantly dismissing the horrors and agony of my youth as I've attempted to surf cosmic planes, making light of romance and friendship, disdaining the social and its exhausting demands. But my past is part of me; my childhood is part of me. I may not be defined by all these memories but all these memories live in me, as me, with me. And here I am, a man in this world who longs to be desired, to love and be loved, to be held and touched. Despite my best efforts, I remain this all-too-human body, this frail and strong creature, this impossible amalgamation of forces and words, of desires and tics, of memories, dreams, and events, of skin and love.

And this is what Moonlight presents with such aplomb. But the genius of this film is that it never raises any of this to a generality. Yes, we all face the affect of childhood, its horrors and joys, but Little and Chiron's experiences are theirs. Yes, we all face the various cultural constructs and their insidious expectations — of gender, job, love, life — but Black's reckoning is his. He is located in his particularity even while we recognize the negotiation of all the factors that define his particularity — his race, class, his gender performativity, his mother, his school, his friends, the moisture of Miami.

What we all share, Jenkins tell us, is that we are an intersection of all these things. We are all particular assemblages. Our particularity isn't outside of this confluence of forces; we are this confluence and their point of inflection. The humanity here is that we all have a set of relations we negotiate and that this set of relations is always different and that we each negotiate it differently. In this way, the film at once gives us radical particularity and a certain strange generality — a generality that will never have been a generality.

And Jenkins makes one more radical move:  within this human teem, he proffers a breadth of ethical acts — forgiveness, bearing witness and, above all, kindness. Jenkins doesn't offer us a way out of the human; there is no transcendence here. What he gives us are these achingly exquisite human gestures — forgiving a mother, touching a man's face, holding him in your arms.

Barry Jenkins' humanity is the most generous humanity: it is made of infinite difference rather than unity or reduction. He doesn't suggest an underlying or overarching unity. He simply, incredibly, gives us the beautiful, awful stink of it all — and the all-too-rare and hence radical gesture of kindness.

2.19.2017

The Creativity of Nihilism: On Tinder, Capitalism, & Fundamentalism


Tinder — like Amazon, Judeo-Christianity, and consumerist capitalism — doesn't create endless dissatisfaction. On the contrary, it is born of a will to distraction — distraction from life: in other words, nihilism.

A married friend of mine asked me the other night if I believed online dating made women more distracted, less inclined to commit, as they could just keep shopping for another man as they do on Amazon — the perpetual search for the best widget, the best toaster, the best man. I said no: the will to be distracted, to not commit, was not created by Tinder. Tinder was created by that will.

It is a will that winds and stretches across borders and time. It is a will to not be satisfied with what is. A will that looks anywhere but here, anywhere but at what's actually happening, believing the answer — contentment, fulfillment, happiness, the best toaster — lies elsewhere. Nietzsche called this nihilism.

For Nietzsche, it is this will that gave birth to Judeo-Christianity in what he terms the slave revolt. This will is so self-loathing, so afraid of this world, that it claims that what's happening — the things you see, experience, touch, feel — is not what matters. What matters is what you don't see: the doer behind the deed. They created a truth separate from the world! Reality, they say, is a lie. Truth is not here. Truth is not what happens. Truth is elsewhere. Go find it.

This becomes religion, morality, No-saying, ego: bending the will to meet an ideal from on high, an ideal outside of life, outside of what's actually happening.

Over time, this will morphs into something else: consumerism. We hate reality so much, we hate ourselves, feel so empty, we don't look to God. We look to Amazon and Tinder. The answer is not what's in front of you. The answer is out there, somewhere in the great catalog of stuff, in a better pair of shoes, in the perfect table, place setting, rug, pants, job, apartment, spouse. I have to keep searching, keep swiping. Why? I tell myself it's because I haven't found the right man. But the fact is: I will never be content because I do not accept myself. Because I hate myself. Because I hate life. 

The defining trait of both morality and consumerism is perpetual discontent. They are born of a will to nothing, to nihilism. Amazon and Tinder and religion don't create self-loathing. It's the other way around: self-loathing created Amazon and Tinder and religion. The will to nothing is endlessly creative. It created religion and morality; it created the ego and the self; it created the suicide bomber; it created Tinder and Amazon.

Capitalism, then, is not a cause of consumerism — or of anything, for that matter. To call it a cause is misleading, a misdiagnosis that only perpetuates the disease. No, capitalism is not a system that causes things. It is a form, an expression, of a will to nothing. It's a form of nihilism born millennia ago (or earlier; perhaps it's as eternal as the God they claim exists).

Capitalism is not a system. It is the expression of a will. To eliminate it, therefore, is not to vote for someone different, not to explode a factory (even if both those things offer relief from the symptoms). To eliminate capitalism one must eliminate nihilism.

One of the more absurd components of the modern geopolitical landscape is that the most ardent enemies of capitalism are nihilists themselves: religious fundamentalists who hate life so much they blow themselves, and everyone around them, up. Consumerism and fundamentalism are born of the same will.

We distract ourselves in any number of ways — anything to avoid what's actually happening right in front of us. So we tether our very identity to what we call politics; we feel anger and outrage at this or that. Which is not in and of itself a bad thing. After all, how can one not feel rage over the casual and systemic cruelty of American governance? But to bring that rage and anxiety into oneself, into one's dreams, into one's home; to avoid being self-present; to avoid being a good wife or husband or friend or even citizen (we all know asshole activists, people who speak for respect while being a huge douche to everyone around them): this is not trying to help others. This is avoiding life. This is nihilism.

(Please, I beg of you, do not think I am against 'activism' as I accept the horrors of reality with a beatific smile of White Man Privilege on my face. On the contrary, wanting to help others is beautiful. It is what happens when you look at what's happening and love life: you want to help. And part of that help might very well involve placing explosives on an oil pipeline or disrupting traffic for weeks and the like. I want to locate political activism in a will other than nihilism. But that's for another essay.)

We avoid and deflect life in all kinds of ways — with sports, news, jobs, drugs (from booze and dope to Ativan and Paxil). Rather than feel the cosmos surge through me, I weep and scream because the 49ers suck or my boss hates me or some racist fascist was elected. Rather than feel great joy in the fact of life, in the everyday, I feel sorry for myself, unfulfilled, angry, and anxious — so spend my time mining Tinder and OKCupid or job boards or online sales. Anything, in other words, to not only distract me from myself but to justify my distraction. My team lost! Trump is awful! My job is hard! I can't find the right man! Isn't my life hard? Of course I feel terrible! Now gimme a drink! Gimme my meds!

Nihilism is insidious. It reads this and say: Fuck you, Coffeen, I can't find the right man! I need to keep looking. And to that there is nothing I can say if that is what you believe; an infinite gap, a différend, separates us. So I'll  say this: the other person cannot possibly be the answer in and of him or herself. It's a relationship, after all! This means you — you who are swiping and swiping — need to do something. Commitment doesn't come from someone else. It can only come from one place: from you, from an internal movement, a leap into the unknown here and now, as you face the otherness of your partner rather than search for a better one (I wrote an essay about this a few years ago: Why It Doesn't Really Matter Who You Love (I don't care, in most cases, for "whom").)

Of course, there are aspects of religion, Tinder, and Amazon that are fantastic. The will to nothing is creative and I've enjoyed many of its spoils. I've met incredible women on Tinder — not to mention gotten laid. I just ordered a new chair for my desk from Amazon, saving me the hassle and humiliation of going to Office Depot. And I love reading the Gospels: Jesus is awesome (he's being nailed to a cross and, other than a moment of despair, is so chill he forgives his executioners — as they're killing him!). But, more than anything else, this will to nothing creates elaborate structures of perpetual misery.

2.16.2017

The Will to Boring

Growing up, there was this refrain in my house: Would you rather live in a world filled with interesting people? Or good people? I was young so I'd stop to consider it. But, in my family, there was nothing to consider. The answer was preordained, the question a ruse — rhetorical in the colloquial sense. Interesting, of course.

In my house, interesting prevailed over all. Each of my parents — an absentee father, a step-father, a mother — have PhDs. My brother was reading Sartre in middle school and holding forth with emphatic despair over the dinner table. Mind you, this was no Algonquin Round Table. It was the usual familial hell of discussions, fighting, and yelling — not about Trostky vs. Stalin but about whether the boys were laughing too hard. But amidst that all, the conversation was driven by an interesting article in the New Yorker, a clever take on something, a political insight (which, I see now, was all New York Times liberal drivel — which is to say, not insightful at all. But it passed as such).

As the youngest by several years, I usually just sat quiet. I liked sports. I loved the Yankees and I liked gym class. For this, I was mocked on a near nightly basis. My only memory of early accolades was one night when we had ordered Chinese take out. I suddenly offered to the room, "I know why they call it Mu Shu pork: it's all this mush with pork." They laughed and I was patted on the head for being clever. I was probably 6 at the time and even I knew that it wasn't so clever. But I learned that that's what this clan of babbling, educated beasts wanted. That's how I'd succeed here. That's how I'd survive: being clever.

Forty years later and a life of being clever, a life of being interesting, has nearly killed me. To be interesting is demanding! It consumes tremendous energy, exhausting one's personal reserves, as it demands not only parsing the word in ever-fresh ways but having to negotiatethe rhetorical circumstances, the terms of the social. To be relentlessly interesting means throwing social agreements to the wayside. Never would I nod along with the group — "Yeah, that W!" or "Oh, that Trump!". Instead, I'd offer an alternate take on it all, inevitably with a hostile, judgmental bite. To be interesting is constantly to be on stage, to be evacuated of oneself — and, usually, an asshole.

This is not to disparage the interesting per se. I want my books to be interesting, my art to be interesting, my films to be interesting. What do I mean by that? I want them to be surprising, to make me think in ways I didn't know possible, to have me see the world anew. I don't want to be spoon fed the same old drivel; rarely, if ever, do I want to be confirmed. On the contrary, I want to be sent afloat, unmoored, put in freefall.

I want all that in order to infuse me with life, to vitalize me, energize me, have me feel the tug of the universe, the spin of the cosmos, the air wooshing by, my few remaining hairs tussling, as I fly untethered from my bourgeois moor.

But to be interesting in the social — that is, to perform the interesting — is a drain as it constantly runs up against the grain of the social. By definition, it rubs the wrong way (even if said rubbing can be immensely pleasurable!).  To constantly perform interesting means always being outside myself — thinking about what others think, how to disrupt it, shift it. It's a posture without poise; it leans too far forward (pace Lohren Green). And, alas, I've found myself flat on the floor, face front.

I've begun to summon a new ideal state. Rather than being the most interesting guy in the room (the more deluded I was — and am — the more the show gets amped up, perverse, ribald and the more exhausting it becomes) — so rather than being this jew clown, as I've dubbed that role, I want to be the most boring person in the room.

This is what I imagine: All these people sitting around a table and me, there, silent. I have no interest whatsoever in appealing to this crowd in any way — not because I don't care for them. Not because I don't love them. On the contrary, because I do love them. And because of this love, I can sit there utterly and completely content with no ambition or effort to be clever, smart, or provocative, no effort to be charming, sexy, good looking. That is, I offer nothing interesting per se — except myself.

Imagine this. Zero energy expenditure. Just sitting in the social without being evacuated in any sense, in any way, sitting utterly unto oneself. But not a solipsist, not closed off, not hunkered down. That would entail a reactive position and, as such, would demand an energy expenditure. It would still be a performance. No, what I am imagining is sitting silent, even if talking; sitting still, even if moving. Every gesture, every word, animated by the élan vital rather than by a sense of social duty, social anxiety, social ambition.

In recent days, I've become acutely aware of all the ways I — and I can say we as in all of us, for the most part — anticipate the social by distending, evacuating, and inflecting ourselves. Before meeting this or that friend, I adjust myself, I ramp myself up or down: I get in character.


And then I've begun to notice all the things I do to maintain this character rather than just drift along with the tides — the cocktails and such, kinds of comments on social media as well as in the social. Here's an obvious one: when people ask me what I do — that quintessential American query — ,I inevitably begin, "I used to teach. Now I do other things." Why? Because I hope that teaching will imply that I'm interesting. If I say I do brand strategy, well, to me that sounds less interesting. But the reality is: Who the hell cares? If I am putting any energy into whether people think I'm interesting or not, I am literally killing myself, emptying my reserves without any return.

So now I have a new will: a will not just to be boring but to be the most boring person in the world. Of course, I should probably qualify this. Because once freed from the teem and torrent of socio-existential obligations, once one is utterly and completely content with oneself without having to perform or judge, well, the boring vanishes. And is replaced with the perpetual surge and hum of life itself. Or at least that's the Nietzschean image of joy, the Taoist image of enlightenment, the Kierkegaardian image of faith. Nietzsche's ubermensch, the Buddha, the Knight of Faith: they are the most boring people in the room precisely because nothing is boring to them.

It's not easy to be boring. Distractions abound. The social whispers seductively, the promise of accolades, flirtation, even fellatio await. The cocktail bar is always locked and loaded, ready to take me somewhere that screams with excitement. To sit still and silent amidst all that, even while talking and moving, is at once the simplest and most difficult task of all.

So how would I answer that family refrain today: Would I choose the world of good people over the interesting? I'm not sure as good worries me. But I know this, at least, and it is a complete turnaround from when I was younger: today, without doubt, I'll take kind over clever.