On The Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell
We discuss vulnerability, parenting, the awful equation of parenting with worry, dyslexia, creating new narratives of the self, grief, Leibniz's concept of the plenum, Merleau-Ponty's concept of the flesh....hmmmm, what else? Well, that's plenty.
Although I think I talk too fast.
The Temptation of Untethering
This is why I love writing. I sat down to write an essay about something that's been on my mind. (I don't care for that expression—on my mind—as it confirms our sense of thinking as an abstraction, as something not part of the daily physical world, something left to the admittedly privileged ghetto of the brain. I do not believe that's what thinking is; I do not believe the brain is the site of thought. Thinking is a whole body experience, a moving with ideas, feelings, people, things, memories, dreams, birds, and kisses.
(But that's not what I want to write about. At least not right now. Turns out coercing words and thoughts to follow a subject is often easier said than done. And why do it? Why brush what we imagine as tangents to the side? Must an essay have a center from which other words must align or diverge? Might writing be at once an alignment—albeit emergent—and a divergence? This is how I've always imagined Lucretius' clinamen—a divergence that is an alignment.
This is a long parenthetical. In fact, it might be my first one with paragraph breaks! This brings me a joy that, I fear, is quite private. So be it.)
So I sat down to write something I've been reckoning, thinking, feeling through. And it seemed so clear to me. I'd even emailed myself the nifty title a few days ago so that I'd remember: "Temptation of the Tether." (I'm a sucker for alliteration.) But as I sat down and began putting pixels to screen, that seemed, at best, not quite right; at worst, fatuous.
This, too, is what I love about writing: it is not a transcription of thought. Writing is thinking. The very act of organizing my ideas with words and grammar threw me back on myself while showing me other ways of going. At such a juncture, there is no separation of writing and thinking.
And this, too: there are so many ways to begin. I want to talk about that feeling of being connected—to friends, lovers, to desire, to the social in general—and the will to shed all that, to be gloriously unmoored, adrift in the cosmos without that tug of obligation, of caring, of longing. I keep beginning then beginning again. What's the way in—at least for now? Do I begin with an anecdote from the past? A detail from my private life? A quote from Emerson's "Experience" in which our anchorage is quicksand? Beginning an essay is impossible yet actual as it's always multiple while language demands one word after another.
So I begin here.
It's 1991. I'm lying on this shitty, green, old day bed in my room in the apartment I'm sharing with my Gramps on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I'd graduated college earlier that year; fled to Paris, briefly, where I'd found myself broke, alone, and horny; sought refuge in Prague and Hungary, where I found it, but none that enticed me enough to stay. And so here I was back in New York, working at a used bookstore (Academy Books, now Academy Records), and reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.
|Read this book. Please.|
And this spoke to me, profoundly. It spoke to my growing sense of alienation from public discourse—from the news, from politics, from movies and TV, from what we call society. Who needs the social and its petty ethical demands—its guilt and obligations—when I could have a direct relationship to the motherfucking infinite? As I read that Kierkegaard, my heart beat faster, my eyes grew wider, my self swelled up to meet God in all his absurdity (that's Kierkegaard's word for it: the absurd.)
This is a vision of life, of the ideal life, that I'd carry with me to this very juncture. I'd find it again in Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air so cold few can breathe it, his writing destined "for all and none." It confirmed my experiences in college where I'd started as a social being, organizing for the social good, enmeshed with a group of friends only to find myself, by the end, alone.
And, for the most part, blissful. Nothing brought me more pleasure than the experience of having no one need me—nothing to do, nowhere to be. At these times, not only did I have no appointments, I had no obligations, no one needing to know where I was or what I was doing. This freedom, this untethering, was exhilarating. It still is.
Look around and see all the ways we tether ourselves—so that when the tether is yanked from the other end, we move. Jobs, careers, debts, friends, lovers, animals, family, plants, hobbies, ego: all these things situate us, nudge us, coerce us. And, for many, this affords a sense of belonging, of purpose, of connection. No need to ponder the universe or your place in it. This IS your place in it. So on we go, letting the world yank us. I, like many others, have stayed in relationships past their expiration date because I enjoyed the yank of that tether, even if it was unpleasant. Better to be miserable and tethered than terrified and untethered.
Smart phones amplify these tethers, their dings and buzzes pulling at our desires, our longings, our connections—for better and worse. All those notifications from would-be dates, clients, bosses, mothers, friends let us know we're entangled in this world, we are desired, needed, demanded. It may drive us ape shit now and again but take them away—take away those tell tale dings—and we panic. Oh no! I'm all alone in this cosmos, adrift, nothing to ground me, grasp me, keep me from floating away. The dings fall silent and we fear being untethered.
I've engineered my life to loosen, perhaps to shed, these tethers. I've never had a real job, somewhere I had to be every day. I don't have a group of friends; most of my friends live elsewhere. I'm divorced. But, as a single man, I do find myself seeking the company, the warmth, the intimacy, the desire of women. Which disappoints me. I find myself clinging to this vision of Kierkegaard's Abraham, this vision of freedom, this exhilaration of being adrift and so find my desire for affection embarrassing.
But there is something about this untethering that, while seductive, smacks of asceticism. It feels like a longing for a socio-existential cleanse: with no tethers, I'll finally be clear, be clean, be immaculate. The temptation of untethering is the temptation of the ascetic who believes life exists within the denial of the senses—only in this case it's a denial of the social.
We are, however, social animals just as we are sensuous animals. To deny the social and the senses is anti-life. Just because I find the demands of a daily job, a group of friends, or a dinner party soul draining, this doesn't mean I need to forsake the company of other human beings. After all, much to Kierkegaard's great puzzlement, Abraham returns to his community—to his wife, to his neighbors, and to his son. Abraham never apologizes; presumably, it's never even mentioned again (I can only imagine what little Ike was feeling; that's a book, like the switch of perspective in Gardner's "Grendel," I'd like to read). Abraham could have shed the social for good but chooses to live within a community while enjoying his direct relationship to the infinite.
This demands a dual horizon. One the one hand, we see the limits of the social, its demands, its needs, its tending. At the same time, we see the infinite horizon sprawl before us, all the pettiness of the social disappearing as our eyes zoom past the faces and streets, past the buildings and mountains, past the moons, planets, and stars. It's impossible to focus on both at the same time. And yet that is precisely what's asked of us: to be here and now and forever at one and the same time. To see the faces of those around us, to feel with them and for them, and at the same time, to see those faces disappear as we gaze into ever-receding space.
This dual horizon demands dual communication: to speak the demands of the social while speaking with the infinite at the same time. It is to be sincere and not simultaneously. Kierkegaard calls this irony. It's a nifty trope that, I fear, too often falls on deaf ears here in San Francisco circa 2019. People of all walks of life defer to the univocal and the sincere as my will to irony is read as snarky bullshit. This is one reason I find the social so draining. But that's on me, a man who thinks himself a rhetorician. I am still seeking the voice that entices others while maintaining my freedom.
Of course, this is all just a fancy, long winded way of saying something ridiculously, beautifully, and humiliatingly simple: I like having a lot of freedom to do what I want when I want without the endless yanking of tethers, both social and digital. But I also enjoy loving people, animals, and plants—and having them love me back.
(To write is to tether oneself to words, sense, grammar. In language, one's thoughts can't just roam inchoate and incoherent. The very act of writing—of communicating—is the coercion of thoughts, feelings, and moods. Which is perhaps a good way for me to think about my social tethers: like writing, these relationships need not solely limit and nudge. They can extend, massage, and inspire.)
Hollywood Biopics' Valorization of Banality, or How "Beach Bum" is the Antidote to "Rocket Man," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "First Man"
Harmony Korine's "Beach Bum" is the most explicit embrace of excess I've ever seen. It's unabashed consumption without anything going wrong—no regret, no fear, no tragedy. It is Bataille's visions of excess. And a welcome antidote to the neutering of life we've seen in a recent run of biopics on Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong.
Hollywood biopics are the low of the low. They clearly perform the distinction between copying and repeating: the actors copy the mannerisms, don the clothes and costumes and accents but never inhabit the character from the inside out. They don't repeat; they don't forge something new. They confirm our cliché understandings of history, never risking an alternative reading that might shift the terms of the character, history, or ourselves.
It's always the same shitck: times were repressive; the 60s were liberating; but there were dangerous excesses. Girls had abortions! People had too much sex! Did too many drugs! And so we're are given the dichotomy of repression and excess and told both are wrong. It's the safe, bourgeois center that is the right and good place: have fun, consume lots of goods, but stay working!
So for banal reasons (my friend was feeling sick and a movie theater seemed a refuge), I found myself at a matinée of "Rocket Man," the Elton John story. The very opening of the movie is hilarious and perfect; my hopes were high. Mr. John, dressed in a fantastically hilarious, over-the-top get up, comes storming down some institutional hallway. Briefly, I thought: Great! We'll see Elton John's beautiful excess as a de facto repudiation of institutional control.
But my hopes were quickly thwarted: he's storming off stage to attend an AA meeting. Ok, I thought, maybe he'll undo the sanctimony of AA and the myths of addiction (AA is always presented as the solution to our societal ills rather than a symptom; try bad mouthing AA and you'll see what I mean. It repeats the most dangerous models of "addiction" and "cure." AA may be the best branded corporation out there. And, yes, I understand some people do well with AA; power to them.). But no, that's not what this film is up to. It's quite the contrary.
The very structure of the film is him confessing his sins to the group. As the film progresses, as he tells his tale—his achingly boring tales—he sheds his costume. The costume and all that it entails—his exuberant excess in attire, personality, sex, and drugs—is just that, a costume. The real man, it seems, lies underneath. The real man uses excess to hide his pain, his vulnerability. The truth, we are told, is this scared, regretful man in his underwear. Oy vey.
The thing that made Elton John so incredible, in addition to his crafty melodies, was precisely his excess. Why literally shed his excess, this greatness, just to leave us with this man and his devastatingly uninteresting life? His father was not very nice. Oh no! His mother was not very nice. Oh no!
The whole thing is so strange. The reason there even is a biopic of Elton John, the very reason we're excited to make and see such a film, is that he exuded an excess rarely seen in this life. But then it argues that this excess is all a mask, a facade, and that the truth is that this man had some terribly uninteresting pain in this life—and that is what we should care about. That is the hero: not this life force that took the world by storm but this achingly banal man and his suburban woes.
The frustrating thing in this case is that the film flirts with its own love of excess. It's filled with exquisite, surreal musical numbers. With a few key moves, the film could have been this great celebration of excess as a mode of becoming in this world, this exuberance, this overflowing, this abundance. All the ingredients are there. We could see his terribly uninteresting upbringing and how excess was a line of flight, a way to be that overcame all the nonsense of life. Rather than excess being the mask, it could have been the way of becoming beyond truth and lies.
Please note that I'm not saying that excess can't be a mask or that pain and anxiety are not an important, even essential, aspect of both being-in-the-world and narrative film. They could have shown us his excess, his drugs and sex and costumes, as a complex way of going that includes depression, pain, and anxiety. Because of course it does! It's not a dichotomy of truth and lies, of real and mask, of man in underwear and man in costume. Excess does not efface pain; it supersedes it.
And then I watched "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "First Man" on my TV thanks to HBO. Oy. They were less explicitly egregious than "Rocket Man" but they both offer the same argument: these bigger than life people who've done extraordinary things are really just scared, anxious, sad men. Rather than banality being transformed into excess, excess becomes mask that covers pain.
How in the world did we get here?
Excess is anathema to both the financial and existential economies of life today.
Capitalism clearly disdains it—at least excess of character, excess of drugs and sex, excess of joy. That kind of excess is not productive. (Eeesh! The will to "productivity" is the will to eradicate life and its attending delights.) But the extraordinary excess of Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong is a threat to our resignation to a life of labor and banality. So we take these great men, these great events, and eviscerate them, evacuate them, reduce them to being just like us underneath—scared, sad, anxious. Sure, you walked on the moon. But you're really just like me—sad about your life.
It's all a terrible inheritance from Freud. Freud was embraced in the 60s as a proponent of sexual liberation (something Freud does not talk about). Don't repress your sex! (Which Freud does not say; repression is neither good nor bad; it's an essential function of life). Now that we're done with all that, we've elevated the suffering, sad ego as the truth of life as we're all left feeling a little bit better about our own mediocre lives.
And then I finally watched Harmony Korine's latest film, "Beach Bum," with Matthew McConaughey doing what he does. It's a startlingly simple film: this poet is high and drunk and happy all the time. Playing with our expectations, the film makes it seem like something is going to go awry as some tragedy must befall our hero. After all, excess is a sin. But nope. Nothing bad happens per se. Yes, someone close to him dies in the throes of their excess. But there is no regret or doubt, no retribution. The death is not his fault. Death is, alas, a possible outcome of living excessively—just as death is always a possible outcome. And rather than excess being an obstacle to creative genius, it is precisely the source.
In this age of pain in which suffering, however banal, is valorized as truth, "Beach Bum" is a radical celebration, a bucking of clichés that would keep us in our cages, mewling in pain unto eternity because Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong suffered just like us. Korine's film is a call to arms—the arms of excess.
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