The Temptation of Untethering


I often find the tethers of life—jobs, friends, lovers—draining. And so seek to untether myself. But I've come to realize that that is an ascetic ideal, a desire to be perfectly clear of the social—which is, as Nietzsche notes, nihilistic and anti-life.

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.
I won't saddle you with too much talk of Kierkegaard. That's not this essay. But I will tell you this: it's Kierkegaard's reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It's a poignant and, as I realized much later, a very funny book. It gives us two ways to read Abraham. If we read him through the social, then he's a would-be murderer. But if we read him through what Kierkegaard calls the religious, then Abraham is the father of faith precisely because he leaves the social behind as he walks his only son up Mt. Moriah with every intention of killing him. For Kierkegaard, this means Abraham bypasses the social, the ethical, to have a direct relationship with the infinite, with God.

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.)

2 comments:

Lindsay Meisel said...

Why is the feeling of being untethered related to the infinite? I wonder if it’s your finitude that makes feeling untethered enjoyable. You’re all too finite, and this is why the demands of the social make you feel put-upon. If you were infinite, if you had a direct relationship with God, like Abraham, nothing (and no one) would be a sacrifice, because you’d have all the time in the world.

Daniel Coffeen said...

A few fair questions, I think.

I see tethers as worldly, spatial, hence finite. There are no doubt tethers of other sorts; a black hole might be more coercive than the tether of any friend or family.

But the real question you ask is that the end: Why do I find the two states — the social & the infinite — incommensurable? After all, if I'm living infinitely, how could any finitude limit me?

And that is precisely the issue, why Kierkegaard calls his book "Either/Or." There is no 'and.' There is no synthesis; there is only the incommensurability of demands. The demands of local relationships cannot incorporate the infinite and vice-versa. To live is to always be a little schizo — crying deliriously over some girl or death while smiling the smile of the beatific.