just like life advice. ideally philosophical rather than pragmatic
Even harder to admit is how depressed I was. As the social stigma of depression dwindles, the aesthetic stigma increases. It’s not just that depression has become fashionable to the point of banality. It’s the sense that we live in a reductively binary culture: you’re either healthy or you’re sick, you either function or you don’t. And if that ﬂattening of the ﬁeld of possibilities is precisely what’s depressing you, you’re inclined to resist participating in the ﬂattening by calling yourself depressed. You decide that it’s the world that’s sick, and that the resistance of refusing to function in such a world is healthy. You embrace what clinicians call “depressive realism.” It’s what the chorus in Oedipus Rex sings: “Alas, ye generations of men, how mere a shadow do I count your life! Where, where is the mortal who wins more of happiness than just the seeming, and, after the semblance, a falling away?” You are, after all, just protoplasm, and some day you’ll be dead. The invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy or effort of will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all your dark insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld. And these insights are the sole legacy of the social novelist who desires to represent the world not simply in its detail but in its essence, to shine light on the morally blind eye of the virtual whirlwind, and who believes that human beings deserve better than the future of attractively priced electronic panderings that is even now being conspired for them. Instead of saying I am depressed, you want to say I am right.
[...] For Dostoevsky--as for such latter-day literary heirs of his as Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Irvine Welsh, and Michel Houellebecq--the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever, the inevitable breaking of some bleak and remorse-filled dawn, is the flaw in nihilism through which humane narrative can slip and reassert itself. The end of the binge is the beginning of the story.
There is a passage in the work of the contemporary novelist Dorothy Allison which may help explain what I have in mind. Towards the beginning of a remarkable essay called 'Believing in Literature', Allison says that 'literature, and my own dream of writing, has shaped my own system of belief - a kind of atheist's religion ... the backbone of my convictions has been a belief in the progress of human society as demonstrated in its fiction'. She ends the essay as follows:
There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto - God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.
What I like best about this passage is Allison's suggestion that all these may be the same, that it does not greatly matter whether we state our reason to believe - our insistence that some or all finite, mortal humans can be far more than they have yet become - in religious, political, philosophical, literary, sexual or familial terms. What matters is the insistence itself - the romance, the ability to experience overpowering hope, or faith, or love (or, sometimes, rage).
What is distinctive about this state is that it carries us beyond
argument, because beyond presendy used language. It thereby carries
us beyond the imagination of the present age of the world. [...]
In past ages of the world, things were so bad that 'a reason to
believe, a way to take the world by the throat' was hard to get except
by looking to a power not ourselves. In those days, there was little
choice but to sacrifice the intellect in order to grasp hold of the
premises of practical syllogisms - premises concerning the after-death
consequences of baptism, pilgrimage or participation in holy wars. To
be imaginative and to be religious, in those dark times, came to almost
the same thing - for this world was too wretched to lift up the heart.
But things are different now, because of human beings' gradual success
in making their lives, and their world, less wretched. Nonreligious
forms of romance have flourished - if only in those lucky parts of the
world where wealth, leisure, literacy and democracy have worked
together to prolong our lives and fill our libraries. Now the things of
this world are, for some lucky people, so welcome that they do not
have to look beyond nature to the supernatural, and beyond life to
an afterlife, but only beyond the human past to the human future.
this whole passage is so good
This essay on the loss of grace in tennis speaks then to the passing of a writer's first ecstatic access to creation. Wallace mourns the loss and maps a paradox that would become the seed idea of later work. The paradox is that although we need to live in peaks, these hypostatic highs of sex, success, religion, love, creation, conception, childbirth, or yes sports, we can only fully appreciate the peaks when they are passed and passing. Why? Because ecstasy's power lies in its wordlessness, its ability to make of us a happy holy blank. Because appreciation is a branch of thought, it is only in falling, in coming down from ecstasy, that we can know that we have briefly touched the ultimate. It is only in the falling too that we try to find words for the sublime [...]
[...] 'And I'd bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I'd add them up. Line them up end to end. You know?' Gately knows very well but doesn't nod, lets her do this on just her own steam. She says 'And soon it would get... improbable. As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I'd get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them.' She left her head alone and cocked it. 'Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?'
Gately remembered some evil fucking personal detoxes. Broke in Maiden. Bent with pleurisy in Salem. MCI/Billerica during a four-day lockdown that caught him short. He remembered Kicking the Bird for weeks on the floor of a Revere Holding cell, courtesy of the good old Revere A.D.A. Locked down tight, a bucket for a toilet, the Holding cell hot but a terrible icy draft down near the floor. Cold Turkey. Abrupt Withdrawal. The Bird. Being incapable of doing it and yet having to do it, locked in. A Revere Holding cage for 92 days. Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight. Withdrawing. Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he'd be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds — he couldn't deal. He could not fucking deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second — less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gullwings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he'd never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses. [...]
The look he was giving her was meant to like validate her breakthrough and say yes yes she could, she could as long as she continued to choose to. She was looking right at him, Gately could tell. But he’d also gotten a personal prickly chill all over from his own thinking. He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. And the projected future fear of the A.D.A., whoever was out there in a hat eating Third World fast food; the fear of getting convicted of Nuckslaugh-ter, of V.I.P.-suffocation; of a lifetime on the edge of his bunk in M.C.I. Walpole, remembering. It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxzema and pain. And this could be done just like the Old Cold Bird. He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like G. Day or R. Lenz: clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.
Joelle and Gately
[...] Yes, my own personal brain chemistry is something I must reckon with, but doing so while navigating a cruel health care system, with the goal of remaining healthy enough to face a laughably uncertain financial future, all in service to surviving a world that is everywhere immiserating, hardly seems a good way to answer “how do I live.”
The best answer I’ve managed to come up with is that you live with intention of making that question easier for other people to answer. For me, the worst aspect of chronic depression (besides the boredom of it all) is the urge to be alone. If you’ve read my previous columns, you’ll notice that I almost always find a way to bring up our beholdenness to others. This is because I’m a lazy writer, but also because the fact of mutual obligation is what gives me the motivation to write at all. It’s also what animates any politics worth having.
I’m not sure if that’s an answer, really, and maybe we all need to fumble towards our own. All I know is that my occasional inability to bear the world is, in meaningful ways, a response to living in a world made unbearable. This can bring you to despair or it can bring you to purpose — today I chose the latter, and I hope I do again tomorrow.
What, you might reasonably sputter at this point, has any of that got to do with politics? But if you've got this far, you've patiently waded through relatively ordinary observations about the anthropocene, guilt and genocide. So stick with it. We're almost there. The point I'm making is that, in political discussions it is increasingly the worst thing in the world to be wrong. Indeed, it's often hard to separate being wrong from being a loser, thick, malevolent, or bigoted.
There's something about social media, in particular, but also the wider culture, that favours zero-sum, win-lose arguments. I often find myself responding to this pressure on social media, but you can also see it in television 'debates'. Not to be precious about this, some arguments are actually win-lose in their essence; sometimes those are the stakes. But it is in the nature of such arguments that we can't encounter other people being wrong without gleefully strutting and clucking over the grave of their rectitude, the tattered remains of their dignity. Logically, that also entails that we can't stand to be wrong about anything ourselves. Which means, we can't stand to learn anything, because in any conversation like that, pedagogy is only ever one-way and takes the form of a punishment beating.
This gleeful grave-dancing of the victors in argument, moreover, looks uncomfortably close to the kind of prideful cock-walking that you might expect from some of the victors of the neoliberal game. At times, dare I say, this form of communication looks a little fascistic, as through difference could be settled through group humiliation. Which brings me back to what I was saying earlier. “Humanity rocks” usually, in practice, means that “humans like me rock hardest”.
If, however, we start from the premise that humanity isn't all that neat, that it doesn't always 'rock', that there is a lot to be wary and frightened of in ourselves, that there are things to be guilty about, that there are failures that are understandable but not okay, that we don't and can't know it all, then we might find the gleeful grave-dancing of the victors (in whatever domain) far more ridiculous and repulsive than the losers. Indeed, we might acknowledge the losers, whether or not we personally like them or their politics, with a certain rueful solidarity, a certain recognition of their predicament. It’s the egalitarianism of universal failure. That’s the sort of pessimism I’m talking about.
[...] can the political impulses that Harris represents, the ones that come out of our generation’s distinctive experience, mature into potent collectivity? Or are they individualist from the root, bound to decay into posture and then a racket—absent the guidance of more seasoned activists, or without connection to struggles more deeply historically or socially grounded?
[...] What is the proper relationship to the past for those of us who want to make a new future?
The more traditional socialist left argues for continuity. We’ve been doing occupations since forever, Maisano said; let’s rebuild social-democratic institutions like CUNY, Henwood said. Socialism may be embraced by the young now, but in this version it still looks and sounds like Bernie Sanders—still a project of recuperation as much as invention, resuming an effort interrupted by the neoliberal caesura. In some guises, such historical continuity is humbling and useful. In others, it’s boomer narcissism run amok, reducing every left-wing proposition from a young person to an opportunity to force the past into the present. “Don’t repeat my mistakes,” cries the old socialist to the new one. The result can be formally radical but quite often conservative in affect and mood, dabbling soberly in the far-fetched notion that you can change the structure of society while everyone stays the same kind of people. This is one way of understanding why whiteness and masculinity continue to bedevil the socialist left, even in its committed antiracist and feminist quarters. A left that maintains a tether to a usable past is bound more tightly to the historical American nightmare. It can’t rush toward utopia, because it’s committed to engaging with people as they are and nudging them along.
The insurrectionary left, on the other hand, wants year zero. The power of the occupation, Lennard pointed out, is that when you step into it, you become someone else. The problem with becoming someone else, though, is that you’re disinherited from your history, so you can’t wield it effectively to understand the present or get ready for the future. It’s life in a permanent now, a condition reflected in anarchism’s traditional weakness when it comes to strategic calculation and engagement with state institutions—those durable, blunt objects. What was predictable about Occupy’s destruction—in fact, what was predicted at Bluestockings that night—was for this reason hard to prepare for until it was already under way.
It is, in its way, a generational question. If you kill your parents, you won’t hear their warnings, and then you’ll eventually just become them without realizing it. If you listen to them, you’ll become them on purpose. The question is how to become new and stay that way, how to be a stable point moving steadily from past into future without a neurotic relation to either—neither clinging nor leaping. This is the existential core of the strategic question on the left. It’s a question about growing up.
The ongoing proletarianization of intellectuals prompts any number of further questions. Should we abandon the corporate publishers before they abandon us? So far we haven’t done so, but we’ve tried — as have many others — to fill the gaps left by the industry’s consolidation and caution. In our own work, should we tend toward more “accessible” language and popular forms — or take the increasing hopelessness of making a living from writing as license to experiment? In search of cheaper rents and fertile ground for new institutions, should we leave Brooklyn and make for the provinces? (Will we cross our displaced academic friends fleeing the other way?) Or do we stay and fight for rent control and the right to the city? And how to reply to the familiar reproach: If you want to change and not just interpret the world, why not give up writing and become an organizer or activist? Part of the answer, at least, is that learning to organize, like learning to write, takes years, and you can’t just substitute one job for the other — we will have to be amateur activists. Another part is that if activists are indispensable, so are intellectuals. The words of Adorno in “Sociology and Empirical Research” (1957), arguing for the Frankfurt School’s own version of critical sociology, come to mind: “Not only theory but also its absence becomes a material force when it seizes the masses.” Just this — for theorists and the masses alike — has been our problem.
These tentative answers to the whole perplex of culture and politics can also be taxed with vagueness and no doubt confusion. We’re trying to figure what to do from an unstable position amid crumbling institutions and generalized crisis. More than one variety of brave and honest, necessarily incomplete response to the dilemma can surely be offered, and still more varieties of evasive bullshit: a good ear will know the difference. We can’t bring ourselves to cheer the failure of institutions that have sustained us — but we can at least be grateful that the collapsing structures are carrying out a sort of structural rescue of meaningful individual choice, in politics and culture. Bobo or ProBo? Siege mentality (“We writers are in this together!”) or sorties beyond the walls: “We’re in this with almost everyone!”? Reform existing institutions, or replace them, or cultivate your own garden, or retire to your Unabomber cabin? Join the traditional intellectuals and seek patronage among think tanks, foundations, rich individuals, and multinational corporations, or do something for cultural revolution? Not that the old Marxist jargon matters too much, adopted or abandoned. What counts is history asking us a question — about our content or purpose in a society of accelerating insecurity, including our own — that one way or another we need to formulate as sharply as possible, since we answer it with our lives.
All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team. The coach is a four-hundred-pound man who had won a gold in Olympic bobsledding twenty years before but has been a complete loser ever since. The men on his team are desperate to win an Olympic medal, just as half the people in my classes are desperate to get published. But the coach says, "If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it." You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk.