Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Seven-Forty Story

Any time I talk about my car, I talk about the car it's not. My original Volvo was a 1986 240 that I owned from about 1997-2001. That car had 152,000 miles when I bought it, and I drove it an additional 100,000 miles before I had to get rid of it. I loved that car. Every time you turned the key, it would roar to life but instantly stall if you didn’t put it into gear right away, as if doubting your intentions. I found that charming. It was heavy, slow, unresponsive, and had a slew of mysterious, intermittent problems. Once it took thirty tries to get it to start. The windshield wipers died during a rain storm only to come back to life when it was over. The warning lights on the dash constantly indicated grave problems that the car somehow kept at bay. "Service Engine" the dash would implore along with an image of an oil can (indicating a leak?), an old fashioned icon of a light bulb (one light, somewhere, was always out), a green upward pointing arrow that meant that overdrive was engaged or disengaged, and other indecipherable flickerings. The dreaded "Check Engine" (the difference between "service" and "check" can be equated to with "curable" and "terminal") would sometimes light up, only to fade when you drove over a bump or turned a car. Apparently, the car too grappled with its own mortality, facing it head on one moment only to suppress it again when the everyday road conditions proved too distracting.

"These are no ordinary malfunctions." I'd think to myself with admiration. Problems take on a certain grandeur when their causes are unknown. Who knows? The lights, the stalls and the sputters might a manifestation of anything--sacred, mystical, demonic, forth-dimensional, mechanical (I grudgingly concede). People with untraceable hang-ups delight me in the same way. Their dysfunction, though probably just a childhood holdover they're incapable of recognizing, is fodder for endless speculation: what in the world are they reacting to? Do they see something in the world I can't? Do they have some inside info gleaned from another realm? Is that why they refuse to talk on the phone, avoid bleached flour, retreat into hiding and so on?

I won't go on and chronicle the wonderful life I had with that car. I won't recall with dog-eared fondness the day I got it up to 100 MPH in about 10 minutes, I wont tell you about this certain rise in a certain part of a certain road that I love to drive because it made the car creak in the most comforting way (just like the handles of my childhood bike), I won't dramatically restage the time the back window was shot out and how I turned on the back wiper thinking the cracks in the glass were ice. Nor will I describe the circumstances of the loss of that car, because this is not the story of my old Volvo. This is the story of the Volvo 740--the car of the present.

The 740 of course was at a disadvantaged from the get-go. I left the old Volvo with the dealer the day I got the 740, so of course whatever I saw when I was wrenched away from my old car was going to look insufficient. It didn't help that the 740 was in excellent shape. With less than 100,000 miles and a pristine exterior, this was a car that had clearly been treated right. While most car owners would appreciate such I thing, I saw it as evidence of the car's lack of mettle. Untested, and free of battle scars, I saw no reason to respect it. 90 odd miles of road experience was nothing compared to the 250,00+ miles the 240 had put in. The comparisons were beginning already. And though I didn’t want to admit it, I probably sensed I was unfit for a"nice" car. Knowing what I demand of cars (both emotionally and mechanically), I knew this Volvo would only degrade with me at the helm. Perhaps I wanted it pre-degraded, like the 240, so I wouldn't have to blame myself for its decline.

Like some sort of sentimental story of love, loss and rebirth, the early days with the 740 matched very closely the story line of emotionally closed-off widow unresponsive to the love of a plucky young orphan in her charge. The car's icy cool air conditioning, clean interior and willing start all left me impassive and doubtful. "Sure it starts okay now" I'd think, with the typical skepticism of those afraid to love again. "But how soon with it start stalling? Probably any day now." No matter how low-maintenance and pleasant the car seemed, I remained impervious to its charm. When I spoke of it, I always had some sort of subjective complaint. "The 240's just feel more solid," I'd say. "These 740's seem more plasticy. And the shifting seems jerkier. My old car…" and of course I'd use this as an opportunity to revisit the golden days and golden flaws of the old 240.

The years passed and the car did degrade but rather than interpret its problems as the long-awaited emergence of its charm, I saw them as just flaws. When the car began leaking oil, it was a perfect opportunity to say "The 240 never leaked oil. It barely even used any oil!" I dutifully fed the car a quart of oil every week, but, like an adult child taking care of a invalid parent with whom she never got along, within my very caretaking there was an element of disregard. I never used a funnel when pouring oil, nor did I make any heroic effort to keep it from spilling. Once, the spilled oil ran down the engine casing and caught on fire. I remember looking down at the flames with a complete, even sociopathic, disinterest in what this might mean for the car's survival. "So it burns." I thought, without making a move to stop it.

The interior of the car began to resemble the old 240. Since Volvos in the old days had no cup holders, my center counsel served as stand-in. Coffee after coffee fell over, eventually producing a layer of loose change fixed and suspended in the hardened spill. It was a little like those fossilized bugs preserved in amber. But while the interior was taking on all the mystery and history and artifacts of my existence, the outside of the car remained as nice as ever. No rust, and a perfect paint job. Occasionally, I'd draw attention to how perfect it was, as if that was the only reason I tolerated it. "Well, its okay" I'd say, with a purposeful lack of conviction. "At least it looks good from the outside."

Not for long. On the way back from school one day, a Gordon Food Service truck hit the car, crushing the left fender, shattering the side mirror, crumpling in the passenger side door and ripping off the trim. Because of insurance nonsense, all I got was $500 to fix it, far below what it would have taken. So now the car was officially, in the eyes of all seeing Kelly Blue Book, worthless. Rather than embracing the car because it was now, really and truly as shitty as the 240, I used this as an opportunity to sound the death toll. It seemed it had nothing going for it now. By all accounts, this should have been the end.

And it seemed it was. By some miracle, I had a job that was high paying for a few months. I bought a new Ford Focus and gave the Volvo to my parents to deal with. Perhaps it would have been sold or junked, but the title was lost, so it languished. During this time, I was experiencing the joys of a non-Volvo, new car. No mysterious problems. No uninterruptible warning lights. No counter-intuitive controls. My relationship with this car was all-business. But I wasn't happy. The car pinched a nerve when I tried to cross my legs during my long commutes and I missed having a feeling towards a car. I was truly indifferent to the Focus--a contrast to the showy indifference I had towards the 740. Maybe indifference so strenuously displayed deserves another term. I suppose I missed whatever you'd call that feeling.

Months passed, and the title of the 740 was never found. My mother, with her typical impulsivity, fixed some of the its internal problems. I no longer had my high-paying job. So when my mom offered to take over the Focus and give me the 740 back, I said I had to think about it. A few more drives with the Focus--so dull a car it didn't ever rise my ire for its dullness--I decided to take the 740 back.

The whole situation with my car reminded me of a young adult book called "The Witches of Worm." The plot goes like so: a young, troubled girl finds an ugly wormy black kitten whom she dubs "Worm". She bottle raises it seemingly just to kill the time. It grows up to be a mean-spirited creature that incites her to do bad things. She half-seriously speculates that it's possessed. She continues to feed and take care of it although it disgusts her. Eventually, she and another troubled youth try to exorcise the cat. The cat escaped, runs away, falls off some ledge outside and the main character thinks he's dead. But he isn't. That night, alone with the more subdued cat (who knows if this is from a successful exorcism or exhaustion) she says "I was really sorry you were dead." That line has risen unbidden in my mind over the last ten years. It’s the most couched and conservative of compliments, and what a strange tense! So few people would ever have the occasion to say it. And I love the grudging agreement she has with the cat. I love the notion of grudging agreements.

I suppose I was really sorry the 740 was dead. When I got it back, all the resentment came back to me, but this time with a kind of glory. How sublimely familiar it was! There's a line by Emerson that says something about how great writers show the "alienated majesty" of our rejected thoughts coming back to us. Is that what I experience when I sit down in that car with a combination of resentment and fellow-feeling? The great tiller of time should have dragged the 740 under by now but there it sits in the coffee-shop parking lot. Silently witnessing my days, it sees how so few are worth witnessing. In my favorite poem, "Days"--also by Emerson--he describes how unimpressive his affairs are in the lofty expectation of the days themselves. An alteration of his quote will serve:: "And under [the 740's] solemn [headlights] I saw the scorn."

The 740 and I have don't have a relationship. We have an arrangement. When I open the car door and sit down, I feel everything is acknowledged. "Yes, I'm a mess. Yes, I regress daily. Yes, my daily doings are nonsensical." I'm forthcoming because the car is now so saturated with my flaws that how could I do otherwise? The filth, the disrepair, the noble bearing--all my paradoxes made manifest. The 740 serves, if nothing else, as a holy place for my vices. For that reason, I grant it a grudging respect(although the 240 probably could have performed this role better, I have to say).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Venerable Personage

I am not a central player at the place where I'm now employed. No one looks to me for nuanced advice on handing the administration, no one turns to me for measured diplomacy when tensions run high among the faculty, no one breaths a sign of relief when I agree to take on the thorniest of thorny issues, no one ever makes the comment that "with McFawn at the helm, by god, I think we just might make it through." No, I am not a central player, and probably that's best: I would get too far into the role, be all things to all people, and then forget (or get too lazy) to hide that I was all things to all things to all people, and people like nothing less than when your all-thingness isn't exclusive. My cleverness doesn't backpedal well, so when my divided loyalties and two-facedness were outed, I'd have no recourse but to avoid eye-contact and halfway shrug.

I make up for my lack of this type of centrality by sitting smack dab in the middle of it all. I plop myself down right there in the main office, right in the hub of all the activity. All around me, copy machines, mail slots, computers, printers, secretaries and staff function and whir, while I sit still, only moving slightly to turn a page or find a pen. Sitting so quietly and so centrally, I might look, to an alien observer, as if I were the cause of all this scurrying, as if all these bustling people and machines were working so hard so that I, honored as I was, might remain unperturbed.

In my central spot, I see a lot of comings and goings, a lot of pleasantries exchanged, a lot of papers being gathered and disseminated: in short, there's not much to see. However, there is one venerable personage, as Hawthorne might say, who makes himself known several times a day when I'm there. He's probably in his sixties somewhere, maybe older, and uses one of those canes with the three pronged base. I say he "makes himself known" becomes every time he appears in the office, he does so with a strange air of purposeful conspicuousness.

Because he uses a cane, he is, maybe unfortunately, more conspicuous by nature. A cane and two feet, however well orchestrated their routine, make for a dissonant approach. At first, I speculated his conspicuous personality might be a response to the cane. Perhaps he's disgusted by the implications of trying to downplay the limp and the cane; perhaps he thinks that would smack of shame and meely-mouthed denial. In defiance of such a simpering response, he proudly doubles his conspicuousness by piling on the strange mannerisms. He always talks: sometimes he mutters to himself in mock-annoyance, just quiet enough to be out of earshot, just loud enough to wish you were closer to see if you were indeed making his words out right. He seems to find a lot of reasons to talk to office workers, and his end of the conversation always is loud and general enough to sound like an announcement.

There's also a lot of theatrical emphasis to his movements. He'll smack his hand down on the main desk, in the same manner as someone smacks the hood of prize car after calling it a "beauty." He'll tear his mail out of the mail-slot as if anticipating it might give him a fight, and when he talks to office workers over the counter, he puts his whole forearm up there and leans in--an overstated gesture of familiarity and heartiness. Sometimes he gets a look of dramatic puzzlement on his face, as if sending up the image of the befuddled old man who wandered into too-modern times. "What's a PDF file? Eh?" And when he can no longer maintain anyone's direct attention, he addresses himself in an amused tone, perhaps reminding himself of his next task, or admonishing himself for forgetting what his next task was.

The overall impression he gives is of someone who wants to be engaged. His out-loud observations seem to be beg to be put into play and bantered back from somewhere else . On the other hand, his way of speaking is addressed to everyone, and therefore to no one. Responding to him directly and personally would seem strange, like thanking the intercom at Meijer's for mentioning a sale in aisle C. But since I don't shrink from addressing the un-addressable, I've thought about responding to him in some way. Yet something about the look on his face pulls me up short. How is it that someone who seems to socialize with the world-as-a-whole would look so downright unsociable?

It might be that all his presentational joviality is not really social at all. In his actions and talk, he seems to acknowledge everything a passerby might think of him: "Sure I have a cane! And don't you forget it! Watch me bring it down with conviction!" or "You're damn right I'm from another time. And you're doubly right that I don't belong here one bit! See! I don't understand the way things work 'round here! " The function of his whole persona might be to preempt these perceptions of him. By displaying that he knows what he is, no one can think to themselves 'I've got the old guy pegged." Still, what's point of it? What is he preventing or encouraging by this showy self-knowledge?

I've seen this behavior in other old men, and in a recovering alcoholic. People who have a weakness that they believe they can't hide sometimes make a show of acknowledging it. The recovering alcoholic had what seemed to be a purposely unpolished manner, a way of saying "It would be absurd for me to act poised or in control of anything with my history." Old men get into playing old men to confirm they're in complete acceptance of their lot. This venerable personage might consider both his age and his cane a weakness, one with which (he tells himself) he's made a mirthful peace. And it is this he so forcefully displays. Still, displaying such a thing so strongly is actually off-putting. Imagine a conversation where two people excessively introduce themselves:

"Hi, I'm McFawn. I am in the marginalia of society. I make notations on what I see. I scrawl, but the world is in typeface. Does that make me an iconoclast? You're thinking I think that I am. But believe me, I am too skeptical to believe in iconoclasm as anything more than inverse conformity. And I know that has no inherent worth."

And so on. Nothing is more antisocial than trying to control someone else's perceptions past the point where they would even bother to perceive. But there's still something appealing in it. People who announce themselves tend to talk more freely, tend to be more amusing, and often have the delightful habit of speaking in confidence with strangers. It's as if they figure everyone already knows them because their introduction is built into their mannerisms. This is a charming misperception.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The MonaVie Problem

Isn't there some old-timey Hollywood phrase that goes "You should be in pictures?" I always imagine that being said to some dazzling ingĂ©nue working as a waitress, who would then be inspired to shed her small-town ways and head to tinsel town. I've always wished for my own version of that--dreamt that some advertising executive would walk by me someday and blurt "You should be in advertising, doll face!" after overhearing me effusively praising a product or giving blow-by-blow commentary on a Consumer Reports article. The truth is, I've always been "into products." Not that I'm a big consumer by any means. In fact, I spend most of my money at the U-Scans at a trio of area Meijers. Still, I say I'm into products because of how truly enraptured I get while shopping. I cast off my ego and lose all sense of time while scanning shelves, reading the backs of packages, comparing their color-schemes, musing on their brand image and, as an afterthought, deciding whether or not to put it in my basket. (I am exclusively a basket-shopper. Having to navigate and control a cart takes away from product contemplation--and general peace of mind--I've found) And when I do buy something, I'm convinced it’s the best. "I love anything with Arm &Hammer on it" "You absolutely can't go wrong with 3M." "I trust Panasonic. I really do." And of course my most ringing product endorsement is that of older model Volvo cars, even though I seem to love them for the implications of their failings rather than any particular merit. "I love how they hang back when you accelerate! As if they're saying 'who are you to hurry me?!" "I love how unresponsive they are! Like they're too dignified to hop-to just because you turn the wheel!"

I'm the very symbol of brand-loyalty, and the best example of the power of packaging. Anything that's got a crisp, minimalist bent will find its way into my basket. Playful, we're-in-this-together-this isn't really-advertising copy gets me too. And usual bottle shapes? I try to overuse dishwashing liquid just so I can re-purchase Method brand dish soap, in the hourglass bottle. While I know I'm being taken by advertising tricks, I sure do love the wooing. If something wants to romance me with aesthetics, wit, and mock familiarity, by all means. If only my fellow man would put such efforts into my beguiling!
So I should be in advertising! That was today's mock epiphany. But, just to give it a shot, I thought I'd "reconceptualize" a particularly bad brochure I came across. MonaVie is an extremely expensive luxury health drink that comes in wine-style bottles with a label of hushed hunter green and burgundy. The packaging gets high marks, but the brand image is schizophrenic at best. If you care to read on, I suggest searching "MonaVie" on the net so you can see the before to better appreciate the efforts of my after. In my attempt to court to rich folk, I use the tried-and-true method of behaving as if I was too respectful of their "taste" to tell them what they would and wouldn't like. Rich folk like advertising that grovels like a handmaid. "Here's a product, my lord. I know your taste and discernment is so far above mine that I wouldn't be within my rights to tell you its good. But let me humbly offer it for your perusal." ***************************************
The MonaVie problem.
Description: MonaVie is a high-end nutritional drink made from common and exotic fruits. MonaVie, rather than being stocked in health food stores, is offered to the public through door-to-door type distributors, in the mold of Mary Kay products etc. The problem with MonaVie's promotional materials is twofold. First, they seem to want to distance their product (and warrant its fine-wine price) from "health drinks" by marketing it as delicacy and a luxury item. However, much of the promotional materials push MonaVie as a super-charged health-product. These two threads of MonaVie's appeal are never brought together, giving the consumer an impression that MonaVie is neither a bona-fide health product nor a legitimate luxury. Though their brochure ends with boasting that MonaVie "challenges the notion of what a health drink should be", the nature of this challenge is left unsaid, again leaving consumers to think that this so-called "challenge" is nothing but empty copy and a bluff.

Companies with this type of distribution system have an image of shiftiness and desperation in the public's imagination. "Door-to-door salesmen" have about the same reputation as used-car salesmen when it comes to integrity and forthrightness. For this reason, MonaVie needs to work extra hard to make their enterprise, and product, seem legitimate. Particularly because MonaVie wants to present itself as luxury product, they need to counter the stereotypical image of their business model (high-end products are not normally linked with this type of distribution). Unfortunately, the language of MonaVie's brochures is both vague and effusive--the traditional marks of evasiveness in selling. Cases in point: "MonaVie is an exquisite health drink destined to make a profound difference in the lives of countless people of the world" and "it is designed to bring you optimal levels of wellness as well as the finer things in life." These phrases are typical of the copy in their brochures. The language is unclear, and sounds more like much like a carnival-barker selling snake-oil rather than a pithy description of an upscale product.

If I were to work on MonaVie's campaign, I'd begin by writing copy that stressed the uniqueness of MonaVie over its health benefits and quality. Without doing this, consumers will be leafing through the brochure asking themselves "what's this stuff again?" By making a clear statement that situates MonaVie in relation to other health food drinks and "the finer things," readers need not wonder. MonaVie truly is unprecedented, and this fact needs to lead their campaign The vast majority of heavy-duty health drinks are marketed to either the organic/co-op consumers or the serious athlete, and majority of expensive beverages are alcoholic. Since MonaVie wants to market itself as a health drink to status-conscious buyers, they need to reconcile MonaVie's images as both nutritional and designer. Here's a sample of what I'd do.

MonaVie: Your Sensibility. Your Style. Your Health. Your Choice.
You discern. You upgrade. You opt for leather. You spot a knock-off. You buy the original. You trust your taste. But when it comes to nutrition, you find yourself at the mercy of experts. You're told you need certain vitamins, but you're told not to take vitamins, you're told to cut carbs, and then carb-load, you told to eat only fish, or avoid them altogether…Your reliable radar of quality seems useless in the world of daily values, doctors, and diets. Yet taste is more than a sensibility. Its more than a preference. Its an innate ability to know the difference between what's quality and what's hype. MonaVie is a designer health beverage that doesn't condescend to you. It doesn't switch stories. It doesn't tell you what you should and shouldn't drink, or what you should and shouldn't like. That's always been up to you. What MonaVie does do is throw out the old distinction between health food and delicacy, indulgence and benefit. Monavie is an artful blend of nineteen fruits purees, including the rare acai fruit of the Amazon. It’s a powerful medley of antioxidants that has been shown to neutralize harmful free-radicals in the body. But you don't need to broadcast that to your dinner guests. Don't ruin the magic of their first sip with logistics. They can hear all about its health benefits after they stop raving about the exoticism of its flavor, the sensuality of its texture. MonaVie. It's more than a matter of taste.

Monday, July 24, 2006

On a Different Field

In last week's New York Times Book Review, there was a wonderful essay on memoirists by Benjamin Kunkel. Kunkel begins with a complaint about today's memoirists: they only write a narrative of corruption and redemption, illness and recovery, loss and the bounce-back. Kunkel wonders if there's more to life than the little arc of conflict-resolution packed into every strife. Addicts recover, grievers move on in a way befitting the deceased, terminal diseases may or may not subside but the agony is eventually traded for insight, people seem to lose their way just to better appreciate the well-beaten path. Kunkel criticizes these cycles because, in his mind, returning to "baseline"--be it health, sanity, or peace of mind--is awfully unambitious in itself. What of the Romantic writers, and what of Thoreau? Rather than sanctify personal suffering, these writers tried to address the wider, communal suffering that society inflicts upon its members. For Kunkel, an individual's triumphs over personal circumstance amount to little if one never uses his newfound vigor to tackle the more diffuse, more tenacious suffering of everyday life.

Overcoming the Self and its attending circumstances rather than taking on society is like David battling his insecurity while Goliath goes on his merry way. Kunkel is right in pointing out that few memoirists frame the big struggles in terms of daily life and thought. His reading of this seems to be that most people want to avoid these larger issues, out of cowardice or complicity. That's likely true, but why is this the particular way we avoid it? Why think of your life as an up-down-up cycle, and why make that cycle presentational, in the form of a memoir? One answer might be that personal trauma, being acute, immediate, and readily explainable, is simply more manageable. "I was beaten" is a lot easier to say then "I get a shifting sense that every new big thing in pop-culture is but another harbinger for the void." An end to the beating and appropriate therapy/epiphany would solve the first scenario, while the second is unsolvable. If the end is coming and pop culture seems to be heralding it, what can be done? You could "shoot the messenger" by getting a Phd in Pop-Culture and then make a career out of deconstructing Reality TV and MySpace, but there's no PhD is void avoidance.

The behavior of memoirists is like the behavior of anyone who knows they are trapped. In Beckett's Endgame, the two characters gripe over the condition of their garbage cans because griping is all that can be done. The elderly, often doubly trapped in nursing homes and failing bodies, get "crotchety" and "fussy" because they need more and more solvable problems as the Great Unsolvable moves ever nearer. The draft in the room can be fixed if I just summon Nurse So and So…the tea can be served hotter so it actually is warming…the racket down the hall can be silenced if I complain…Creating (or locating, depending on your view) a million little surmountable problems is a way of boosting morale in the face of death. Likewise, by focusing on immediate, personal problems and presenting their solutions as meaningful, memoirists tacitly admit how insurmountable any challenge is outside the self. The irony is that the language of memoirs is often so "inspiring," but the message-behind-the-message is anything but. The narcissism of memoirists isn't ego, its desperation. All there is that can be redeemed, reworked, and recovered is the self. Anything larger is a lost cause.

If the contemporary memoirs' backdrop of fatalism wasn't bad enough, their endings in trophy epiphanies might be even worse. While many memoirs begin with a bleak sketch of a life terribly derailed , they always end more soundly on track then every before with a cargo of insight for their pains. Self-pity may open the book, but self-esteem uniformly ends it. "Feeling sorry" for oneself is a cue to get motivated and enlightened, and a shameful thing should it last too long. The problem with America's disgust at self-pity--and the accompanying belief that one's problems can be solved--is that feeling sorry for ourselves might actually be the most authentic response to our world. But by showing self-pity as a weakness and a delusion that must be overcome, memoirists recast the universal sense of dissatisfaction with the world as personal failing. In this way, memoirists, although they claim to pride self-searching and clear-headedness, actually do their trade in denial. The book may end with sobriety and success, but it also leaves off where the generalized suffering, as Kunkel puts it, "of being a functional adult in a corrupt society" begins.

What would be more of an accomplishment, in life and in writing, would be to find an eloquent mode of self-pity. Not the self-pity borne of extraordinary trauma, but self-pity as a reaction to the overall plight of humankind. Although Oscar Wilde's De Profoundis came out of his imprisonment, his sorrow at himself isn't something to be gotten over. Wilde sees his former life as remarkably colorless, even with its gaiety, exuberance and wit, in comparison with the heightening effects of self-pity. He's sorry for himself, but also sorry for the universal: the inevitability of the end of play, the limits of wit, the fact that mirth only comes in fits and starts, and will never steady into a way of being. The insight Wilde finds is not a way out of self-pity but a realization that self-pity is a more authentic--and braver--response to the world then a willed jauntiness.

Kunkel mentions that one of the appeals of memoirs is that "everyone suffers" and that we "pretend to curious democracy of trauma." While this may be true about our rhetoric about suffering, the lived reality that memoirs leave out is that our suffering, because it has become so particular to the individual, is actually more isolating then ever before. If each of us is born with a task list of thing to overcome (divorce, loss, drugs, whatever), our life must necessarily be a lonely act of checking off plights, one by one. Not matter how deep our support group, the "overcoming" is ultimately a solitary act, simply because no one else is assigned our same difficulty. This certainly explains the memoirists compulsive need to disclose, confess, air the dirty laundry and lay it all on the table. This isn't just a gesture to bring the audience closer, or a flashy show of candor. It also serves to show the deep loneliness and sense of unreality that suffering brings. We wouldn't talk so obsessively about personal suffering and trauma if there weren't some sense that our suffering isn't shared or even quite real.

This need to announce our suffering, and lovingly recount all its dark details, is a way of calling out across the expanse of the self and hoping to hear a "I feel that too" echoing back. But there wouldn't be so much urgency to trot out our personal pain if an acknowledgement of universal suffering were part of the way we interact with each other. Instead, we're always "doing well" we're always "getting over the divorce," "getting clean," "recovering slowly but surely" and remembering, above all, that it’s a "process." What we studiously avoid saying is that even after we've checked off everything on a tribulation checklist, we still suffer. Whatever the cause of that is--be it an ill set-up government, an unimaginative pop-culture, or just the omnipresence of death--we can't ever be sure, because we're always trying to fix the self, just in case that's the problem (it would be like a mechanic only checking the carburetor when a car won't start. Even when he's sure the carburetor's not the problem, he'd convince himself that there was still something wrong with it to prolong his tinkering.) The denial of self-pity is also a barrier to our empathy. If we refuse to believe in the reality of our own day-to-day suffering, if we choose to believe that the self can be manhandled into not only sobriety, health and clarity but into happiness as well, then we choose not to believe that there might be larger reasons to suffer. And if we look upon ourselves with disdain for our own unresolved suffering, then we can't help but look at others that way as well. Another person's unhappiness will always seem just a little weak, just a little indulgent, no matter how much we claim to empathize with them.

In American underdog sports films, especially in scenarios where the team is going to lose (but still battle gamely for the sake of pride, or to honor a newly dead coach, or whatever) the shots of the game are so exhilarating. Rather then the grim, un-evocative look of the "game face," the look on face of these losers is one of wildness, of mirth, of the abandon and risk that comes from losing without shame. And as the game unfolds, the losing team's plays become bolder, more foolhardily, perhaps, but more spectacular as well. The camera then pans over to the dominant, winning team, who, while still sure of their win, is thrown off by a losing team who acts so little like losers. Rather then denying that they're losing and deludedly trying to win, or knowing that they're losing and just going through the motions, this team seems to take the fact of their predetermined loss as cause to cavort. Perhaps someone on the winning team would grunt, through his mouthguard, that they seemed to "be playing on a different field, a different game. And by the looks of it they're winning." But I doubt, in this whole scene, that anybody on the losing team would call attention to his personal weakness in the game-play. "I'm just a little hesitant on defense; I need to work on that." Wouldn't that interrupt the rhythm of the joyous rally-for-rallying sake? Wouldn't that personalizing of the loss be counter to the communal spirit of the thing? I'd like to read a memoir in that spirit--a chronicling of the euphoria and pathos that might come from a shared acknowledgment of a fixed suffering, and a somewhat fixed world.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Exhuming Hawthorne

Readers of this blog may be unaware that I occasionally receive emails from people looking for advice. Most recently, an emailer who refused to leave his name (for obvious reasons) wrote me with a last-ditch request for help. I’m going to post his letter and my response for other readers who may be struggling with a similar problem.

I am an avid reader of your blog, and enjoy your pithy handling of the truth. You see like the sort of person who could be depended upon for wise counsel. Anyway, screw this, let me just get to my question: How would a person go about exhuming a famous body? None of my so-called “friends” seem to have any advice for me on this, other than “get help.” So that’s what I’m doing. I hope you can help me and I look forward to your reply.

Dear N/A-
Rather than answer your question with a stock template, let me just give you what I would use as a plan for exhuming Nathaniel Hawthorne. Remember, each exhuming-under-false-pretenses case is different. What works for one body may not work for another. So please just use this as a guide.

Yes, I admit, I have thought about exhuming Hawthorne. For a while, it was a real obsession. Sometimes, after reading a particularity delightful passage, a troubling pattern of feeling would be set off. First, I’d experience an incredible, but demanding, joy. I was euphoric: ‘such a fine-wrought feeling towards the world! Such a thin little latticework of perfect humor!” But the euphoria felt uncomfortable, as if it were demanding some action of me. As I writer, you’d think the euphoria would demand my own opus in response--would demand that I rise up as successor to Hawthorne. But it was too uncontrolled a feeling for that. Wordsworth didn’t say “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility” for nothing. The best condition for writing is when all your ideas appear picked-over, forcing a choice among the healthiest of a thin lot. Hawthorne, in these moments, would give my mind the appearance of overabundance, thus making the choice of a single idea impossible. Every thought appeared equally lush--too lush to choose from, and too lush to render in words should you make yourself choose. Euphoria, though a heightened feeling, is actually a great leveler. No thought of mine had the distinction of being higher or lower than another. Sometimes, after reading Hawthorne, the differentiation of ideas, thoughts, and moods all seemed illusionary. I had only a single, perfect thought.

I suppose the nature of a perfect thought is that it is too good for the thinker that thinks it, and therefore my “perfect thought” was really only half perceived in my own mind. It had something to do with the solemn, bittersweet mirth that was to be had by looking upon the world as if it were a darling misguided child. Mostly, it had to do with feeling perfectly aligned with Hawthorne himself. “My mind is in perfect sympathy with Hawthorne’s!” I wanted to shout from the rooftops, shoving aside all those lovers who clamber up there to pronounce their love for so-and-so, as if that’s even close to as shout-worthy. But then, the terror “What next?” Lovers, immediately after shouting their love from the rooftops, can follow up that impulse with a slew of other, equally strong impulses: sex, marriage, children etc. But what follows a triumphant cry of sympathy with Hawthorne? Some action seemed to be demanded; some wild escalation of act and feeling, far outside of the range of mere writing. Here is where the exhuming impulse began.
I began thinking about exhuming Hawthorne both because I wanted some real-life act to follow up my feelings of “perfect sympathy” with Hawthorne, and because sometimes I doubted Hawthorne ever existed. The past--the books, the ideas, history itself--occasionally looks to me to be a background fabricated for our present after the fact. Its as if we appeared on earth all at an instant and some god, force, whatever said to himself: “Shit! Don’t want them to know that I just plopped ‘em here yesterday. Better conjure up some ‘past’ for ‘em to give them something they can all refer to.” Hawthorne was just one of those fabrications, explicitly designed to be moving to someone like me. Seeing some of Hawthorne’s corporal substance would perhaps put this line of thinking to rest. But in other moods, I sometimes think, “Corporal substance? Who needs it? And what the hell would it prove, anyhow?”

But back to your question. If these impulses ever overtake me, I do have a plan to exhume Hawthorne. From the anecdotal and idle research I’ve done, it seems that bodies are exhumed for only a few reasons:
1. To move the body to a more fitting location, I.e. where it should have been originally.
2. To subject it to another autopsy because the original was incomplete, inconclusive, or executed by a corrupt doctor, bent on concealing foul play.
3. Because of some mystery that needs to be cleared up.

If you want to exhume a body, the first order of business is to pick which one of these options look most viable. If you aren’t family, option one can be tough. You can always claim you’re related to the deceased, and then claim you found a letter in his hand demanding that he be interred somewhere else. For those of you who wish to pursue the false claim to blood-relation route, here’s how I’d do it. If I wanted to pretend I was part of Hawthorne’s lineage, I’d try to find some undocumented years in his children’s’ lives. For instance, Julian Hawthorne (Hawthorne’s son) was a schemer and a crook, and landed himself in jail. I’d claim that while in jail, Julian, in keeping with his low-down ways, impregnated a simple prison cook, who happened to be my grandmother. To really verify this, I’d probably need to bribe a historian (to claim there was “some indication that Julian Hawthorne had an illegitimate child“), a prison administrator (who could “find” documents that proved my grandmother worked there during Julian’s stay) and perhaps my grandmother herself, who would have to admit to once being a simple prison cook of easy virtue.

But you really want to limit the amount of people you need to bribe, and I’m afraid this route would involve the most bribing. After convincing the world I was Hawthorne’s heir, the forging of the note would involve a whole new set of bribes. I’d slip the historian another few hundred to claim the note was authentic, and probably have to bribe Hawthorne’s real heirs to keep their mouth shut. And, I imagine there would be legal bribes as well, as simply forging a note that says: “I, Nathaniel Hawthorne, would far prefer a burial anywhere but in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where I would no doubt become little more than a tourist’s curiosity along with the other ‘great minds’ buried there.” probably does not necessarily green-light an exhuming. And a big problem with bribing more than a few people is that you’re bound to run into one self-righteous schlub who has too much “integrity” (read: you lowballed the bribe) for this type of deception.

On to option two. For this option, you need to find indication that the deceased did not die of natural causes. Hawthorne wasted away over a period of a year or so, so I could claim that he was being slowly poisoned over that time. Again, maybe I’d blame this on Julian. I could claim that Julian was anxious to make money off of a “Last Days of Hawthorne” biography, and figured he’d speed along those last days and thus his payday. Hawthorne’s documented physical complaints are so vague that it would be easy to find a poison that’s effects seemed to match the description of Hawthorne’s condition. His stomach complaints and lack of appetite surely correspond with the effects of mercury, deadly nightshade, hemlock or something. And it would be easy and entertaining to scour Julian’s own writings to find isolated phrases indicating resentment towards his father, phrases that indicated, perhaps, a sociopath turn of mind. A few people in the medical and forensic profession might have to be bribed for this. For one thing, I’d have to claim that Hawthorne’s bones would be etched by the poison (as I doubt much soft-tissue still exists), thus making the exhuming the final word on Hawthorne’s death.
But as much as I’d like to give poor Julian Hawthorne some much needed attention (I sometimes check his books at the library and notice only one check-out stamp from twenty years ago) I don’t think pursuing this option would be interesting enough. Exhuming a body under false pretenses is a lengthy process. As dullards like to say about life, its “a journey, not a destination” so you better be sure that the deception itself is going to entertain you for this unknown duration. So on to option three, and the option I would actually choose. If I was to exhume Hawthorne, I would make things way more complicated. Here’s my idea:

Expertise is basically just insisting upon the significance of some obscurity. So, to establish myself as an expert on Hawthorne, and to set the stage for the exhuming, I would use Hawthorne’s childhood “lameness” as my starting point. Anyone familiar with unimportant Hawthornia should know that Hawthorne, as a young boy, hurt his foot, causing a several year long on-and-off bedridden-ness that some biographers credit for incubating Hawthorne’s “fancy.” Even after Hawthorne recovered, his gait and carriage was always a bit peculiar--his head a bit cocked, his stride a bit uneven.

Using this snatch of Hawthorne trivia, I’d claim that Hawthorne’s lameness wasn’t from a foot or leg injury, but was instead evidence of brain-damage. I’d theorize that Hawthorne had a brain injury that not only made him move unevenly, but also resulted in his particularly vivid imagination. In a fall, Hawthorne’s brain was compacted into itself at a critical moment of development. Rather than healing normally or remaining predictably damaged, Hawthorne’s verbal and visual centers became entwined, growing in and around each other. This condition created an imagination that saw pictures in words and words in pictures. Basically, Hawthorne saw the description of an image with the image---there was none of the typical lag in perception that causes us to search for words to describe something. Likewise, Hawthorne was able to read a description and see the described image unfold simultaneously. Words and images overlaid each other, and the only problem Hawthorne had was trying to write for an audience that didn’t have this same ability. “He had to translate--nay, degrade--his brilliance for the masses.”

Next on the agenda would be finding a malleable neurologist who would support this theory, and would insist that verification could easily be found in Hawthorne’s skull. “A mid cranial crack with an indention straddling both hemispheres would indicate the verbal and visual center were most likely collapsed into one.” he’d say, making the case for the exhuming air tight. I’d chime in with “it would be an incredible window into the nature of creativity” and soon enough I’d be watching a crane slowly lifting and swinging a half-rotted casket high above a back-ho dug hole.

All I’d have to do is find a neurologist with the right combination of reputation, insecurity, and undirected mania, waiting to be applied towards a baseless theory of a layperson. I’d start hanging around hospitals or practices or wherever neurologists hang out, quietly observing different doctors until I found my target. I’d look for a doctor with a loose temper, a sense of injustice, an unrequited hope to be a forerunner of something, and not just your garden-variety brain-tinkerer in the trenches.

I’d bride him or charm him, or, more likely, charm him in the act of bribing (What could be more flattering than saying I’m willing to pay for your lies? The poor sap would feel like a real hotshot if even his lies fetch a price). From that point on, it will be all glossy multicolored pictures of brains, all pointers tapping on significant graphics, all expert testimony, all telling Hawthorne quotes and impassioned presentations to the medical/literary communities and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Authority. And of course there’d be the dog-eared ethical debate weighing upsetting the rest of the deceased against solving a mystery. Curiosity would win out, and soon the casket would be lifted from the earth and lowered to above-ground, and then shipped to a forensic scientist where the skull would be gingerly poked and prodded, measured and weighed. But before that, the instigator of this investigation would ask for a few moments alone with the remains. And in these moments, curiously enough, there wouldn’t be any examining of the skull that had been the subject of so much speculation, nor any quiet, respectful silence at the repose of a muse. Instead, should we be given a glimpse, we’d see a young woman writhing on the bones of her predecessor, insensible to anything but her own thought: “Substance. Finally the substance.” Hawthorne, who has alternately described his own art as shadowy, airy, and concerned more with the clouds and sky than the solid earth, hardly seemed to lend himself to the triumph of substance and reality that is exhuming. From the beyond, the past, the imagination, Hawthorne was forced to perform a cameo role as a bit of carbon-based refuse. Whether or not this was a comfort to her is unknown.

When she came to and rearranged the remains to cover her tracks, the neurologist and all the followers of this story would be surprised to see how little she seemed to care about the outcome of the investigation. “Funny” they’d say, “I could hardly keep McFawn’s attention on the results of Hawthorne’s skull-scan. She’s seemed indifferent to the whole enterprise ever since she was alone with the body. How strange.”
Hope this helps.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Until then

Soon I'll be back with a few words on suffering. Until then, you can check out my essay about my Study of Love class at Bookslut.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Originally a Standing Still At, A Standing*

I have a tortured relationship with nostalgia that I refuse to acknowledge as tortured. For example, imagine you have in your hand a lump of half-fired clay that is supposed to represent a giraffe in the mind of your five-year-old now turned twenty-five year old. Imagine wondering if you should throw it away or merely repack it back in the box from whence it came. Imagine you turned around and I was there. You would see an expression of icy rebuke in my eyes every time you ran your hand’s over the “giraffe’s” ill-formed neck. Should you begin to talk about the how delighted your then five-year old was to present it to you twenty years ago (by way of excusing keeping it), my expression would darken accordingly. If that didn’t convince you to chuck it in the trash (and, sadly, my darkening expression never has the influence I think it should) I would speak up. “Look, throw it away. You don’t need an artifact to remind you of your child at five. You obviously remember him quite clearly. And, since you never even look at the damned thing (you keep it in a box, for god’s sake) what’s the point of keeping it? Your memories of your child are not tied up with that lump of clay, your superstition is. And its pure superstition that the loss of an object would alter a memory. In fact, if you throw it away, it would take on the idealization of pure memory, un-tempered by a visual fact. Any image that exists in memory alone is always superior to a present day image to which a memory is tied. Your daddy’s old Ford is glorious in memory—but if you saw it again it would break your heart. Throw it away! Maybe in the foggy grandeur of memory it might come to actually resemble a giraffe!”

This, to me, seems like an airtight appeal. Little memory totems always disturb me—old Christmas cards boxed for posterity, a baby’s best dress kept for the ages, a drawer full of crude drawings and homework from a bygone pre-schooling—it all makes me shudder. I can see a particularly eloquent Christmas letter being kept, a landmark scrawl on old homework, perhaps, but to keep this stuff indiscriminately bothers me to no end. But why? At first, I thought it bothered me because it was pathetic. There’s something sad, even feebleminded about keeping things out of sentimentality. But it was worse that that. I think it frightens me because it indicates a central unbearability of adulthood: the piling up of mirthless superstition to deal with loss.

Superstition may seem too strong a word for keeping a broken children’s toy or a dried corsage. But superstition seems only fitting because, obviously, there is some belief (conscious or no) that an object from the past contains the past itself. And the language of memory is all tied up in magic: “I can see it now” someone might say before retelling a cherished memory, as if a specter of the past is rising up to help them. “Yup, that takes me back” another might say while looking at the old now-abandoned diner where many a teenage night was spent musing on the future. The idea of an image or object taking someone back—even metaphorically—is magic enough. I’ve also noticed that old artifacts from the past are oftentimes—if not most of the time—tucked away in a box, a scrapbook, an inactive drawer. Somehow, just having them, without even accessing them, must be a comfort. Or, perhaps, the not-accessing is part of the superstition. Just to know that the lumpy old clay giraffe is there when you need to be “taken back” is a profound reassurance. Yet you seldom look at the giraffe because then, then, you realize that it doesn’t take you back as fully or as movingly as hoped. In fact, if I wasn’t there to interrupt you with my withering looks, and you handled the giraffe for a few minutes more, you’d soon realize that you were only transported half-back by it, only enough to remind you that you—and the god-awful giraffe—are a couple of isolates in the unyielding present. Neither one is going back. So perhaps people keep these objects, but keep them out of sight to avoid testing their magical properties, and thus being disappointed by their powerlessness. Keeping the magic of objects untapped is a way of keeping the faith in that magic intact.

Superstition itself doesn’t bother me. It’s unavoidable. Some things really do look like signs, and some days are lucky, and sometimes that something in the air just begs to be called magic. But the sad truth of adult superstition is that it is the superstition of fear, loss, and dread. Children themselves are the most superstitious among us—they might, for instance, arrange their stuffed animals in such a way that the bear is given a wide berth from the bunny so when they both spring to life after bedtime the bunny has enough room to flee. And so on. The difference between children’s superstitions and adult’s is that children believe in magic (they really think the bear and bunny come to life) while adults use superstition to preserve a magic they cannot fully believe in. Memories, and their attending objects, simply aren’t as enchanted as we would hope. So there is this delicate game, this hiding and hoarding of objects, to try and make a little magic of what is irretrievably lost. Nostalgia is a way of trying to make a potent, present day feeling make up for what we lose. “Yes, those days are gone, but at least I have these warm and wonderful memories.” But it’s not enough and we know it.

The innocence of children is beautiful, but the innocence of adults is more so, and more achingly so. To believe in the power of that giraffe—and of memory itself--is to have a profoundly stubborn naivetĂ©. And that sad little belief, everyday shaken but never quite lost, lends adulthood a kind of pathetic sweetness, unbearable to witness, and almost unbearable to feel.

*The title of this post is an old definition of superstition. Standing still at the old memory drawer, perhaps, waiting for its magic.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Slide Turned On End: Abstraction & Microaestheticism

Art or Amoeba? Maybe They Aren't So Different After All

The strange resonance of abstract images has never been fully explained. Some critics have argued that no image can be truly abstract, as every mark on the canvas resembles something already seen. Abstraction, then, is not so much an aesthetic experience but a game, almost as childish as the old peg-and-hole boards. A viewer’s pleasure comes from deciphering the seemingly indecipherable, much like a child triumphs over finally seeing the round peg as round, and finding its corresponding hole. Abstraction is a game of vague resemblances, and an activity in the high subjectivity of personal response. One viewer may see a geometrical shape as an anvil, another as a blocky bull’s head, and still another might see it as a piece off a fender. Viewers know that their interpretations vary, so they have the double satisfaction of both creating something concrete out of an abstract, and knowing that concrete is all their own. In that way, abstraction again seems to tap into our toddler-dom: young children revel in figuring things out, and revel all the more when something is all theirs. Merely watch two toddlers in a sandbox, and inevitably you will hear a possession-battle: That’s my pile! Don’t use my shovel! Abstraction is a sandbox, shovel and bucket that is always all your own.

Or perhaps we accept--and even support--abstraction because it does not aim to trump the world’s order. So many human endeavors try just that—we have homes cleanly divvied up by geometry, ruled language, and behaviors that aid in giving the whole human race an air of dignity and coordination. If one glances down from a descending plane to a metropolis below, the success of human choreography is evident. Roads run straight or curve with fair warning, cars weave in and out of building but rarely into them or each other, people bustle towards goals which further the project of people-bustling. The lack of chaos is remarkable, considering the natural anarchy in each individual by virtue of individuality alone. But, of course, the order humans impose upon the world has nothing on the world itself. Should nature act up, we are, even now, at a loss. Abstraction acknowledges all that, and seems to taunt the world with its vying disorder. If our order can’t control the world, perhaps our disorder can cow it into submission. “You think that earthquake/plague/scant resources is chaos? Well getta load of this!” So says the abstract artist to all uncontrolled phenomenon.

While these theories have their validity and certainly their share of worthwhile implications, a new theory of abstraction has recently appeared that aims to traverse all that treacherous topography between the physical and metaphysical. “Microaestheticism,” a term coined by Dr. Markus O’Hara, is the study of abstraction as an innate desire for our smallest origins. This theory attempts to bridge the longstanding and perhaps mutually preserving gap between art and science. O’Hara sums up its basic starting point: “Humankind yearns for its amoebaean roots, hence, Abstraction.” Microaestheticism asserts that abstract images hit a primal cord in us because they strongly resemble microorganisms. “Or, the smallest bits of us” O’Hara adds. We’re sitting in his office in Concord, Massachusetts. O’Hara—a biologist by trade—explains his entry into the art world. “I was on my way to a conference on DNA lithography in Illinois, when I got lost. I stopped at an art museum, called the conference directors, and realized that I got the day and time wrong. I missed the damn thing” O’Hara gives a little shameless smile, acknowledging that brilliant minds are allowed leniency in planning and daily alertness. “So I figured, what the hell, I’ll look around for a bit I guess. And what I saw there was nothing short of remarkable,…” At this point, O’Hara is clearly ready to launch into a dog-eared tale of the humble beginnings of Microaestheticism. It’s clear that his enthusiasm for his idea, and its story, never abates even in repeated retelling. O’Hara, a rather shrunken looking man in his mid-sixties, is fond of spreading his arms wide to show how wide-reaching his ideas are. He does just this at his opening line “I saw science and art merge once and for all…”

O’Hara claims he glanced at a work of abstract art—a Kandinsky, he thinks, and was immediately struck by how similar it was to some of the rare amoebas he was working with at the time. “I thought I was hallucinating. I mean, here was something precisely like what I had under the slide just that morning!” So precise was the resemblance that O’Hara thought he had lost his mind. “I nudged this person next to me and said—I mean, I realize how absurd this is now—I said “is that a blown up slide of Grayson’s amoeba, I mean, is that the guy’s er…inspiration?” O’Hara reports that all he got in response was an “I think not” and some advice about brushing up on his at history. O’Hara however, was sure that he had hit upon something significant. “The more I walked around looking at this so-called abstract art, the more I felt like I was looking at a bunch of blown-up slides turned on end.” O’Hara was sure that there must be some explanation. When he returned back to his university, he quickly arranged a sabbatical to study this phenomenon. “I lied to the department. I said I was going to study a new way for extracting antibodies from fungi—specifically truffles. There’s no way I would get a sabbatical to look at a bunch of art.” O’Hara is clearly pleased at his effortless deception. “Those morons heading up that department haven’t a clue. I used all the truffles they ordered for me to make dinner for a group of art critics.”

Clearly, these truffle dinner-parties were a success, because soon O’Hara had created a buzz among art critics. By this point, O’Hara had his firmed up his idea. “I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves, and our origins—the cell, platelets, and our ameba ancestors--in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art. We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.” At first blush, this hardly seems like the type of theory to garner any sort of following. The fact that it has might be more a reflection of the art-world’s permanent scramble for the “new” rather than a reflection of its merits. Still, O’Hara is prepared for resistance. “Look, I know this theory is hard to accept. We all want to believe that we appreciate art because its “beautiful’ or somehow or another special and apart from out daily lives. But the fact is we appreciate it because its life—only magnified.”

I must have dropped my neutral reportage face because before I knew it, O’Hara was leading me down to his basement, where he housed his “evidence”. “Look at this” O’Hara produced a glossy photo of a striated blob. “This is a virus—the common flu, to be exact. And now look at this.” O’Hara now pulled out a reproduction of Paul Klee’s work. “Is that uncanny or what?” There was a slight resemblance of line quality, but uncanny seemed like an overstatement. Always alert to skepticism, O’Hara supplied the explanation. “If that virus was just a hair turned right, and caught during a moment of replication, it would match the Klee painting exactly.” O’Hara went on to compare a who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoan, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.

But if O’Hara is right, does this mean the death of art? Couldn’t we just blow up microscopic images to experience a more direct and accurate connection to our “bits” as O’Hara refers to them? Isn’t art just inaccurate biology in O’Hara’s view? “No.” O’Hara seemed as if he had been waiting to hear this, and before summing up the most sweeping virtues of his theory, he again threw his arms wide (strange that a man so concerned with the very small would be so big in gesticulation). “We still need the handmade rendering of the micro. What artists choose subconsciously to paint might indicate what we as humans need to confront inside us. If artists start depicting white blood cells up the wazoo, maybe biologists need to study those more intently. Art could, in this way, spur science on to greater discovery.” Here, O’Hara paused, as if even that feel-good message of the art/science bond wasn’t quite all-encompassing enough for his taste.“See, I think of infinity and the great unknown as being not in what’s outside, beyond, and bigger than us, but in what’s in us. In the smallest little bits of us. The bits of the bits of the bits. Beauty’s not the big, the grand, the God, it’s the tiny little antibody battling an itty bitty virus. That’s biology. And now we know that’s art as well.”

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Trumping Your Basic Gambling Metaphor

I have always loved gambling imagery and gambling metaphors. Though they’re trite as can be, there’s something so resonant about them, and so fun about using them. For instance, I often find myself gleefully referring to myself as “holding all the cards” or angrily accusing someone else of thinking they “hold all the cards” before explaining why that is indeed an illusion. Sometimes I think it’s a shame that I don’t actually gamble or actually understand any card game. If I did, I wouldn’t be restricted to the gambling metaphor basics, which are (these appear in song and in daily life):
“Believe me, I’ve got a card up my sleeve”
= I have a hidden advantage
“You gotta lay ‘em down, boy, You gotta lay em down in this life, and go on with the game.
=Young man, you need to interact with the world and stop being a hermit, whatever the risk.
“Look, those are the cards I’ve been dealt. That’s the end of it.”
=I am a tumble weed of fate. Don’t accuse me of agency.

Of course there’s more. But in general, I used to think that all my usage of gambling imagery was bound to remain typical. What new use of gambling imagery could there be? Especially since I don’t understand Blackjack or Craps or whatever the hell people play on those tables with those great little rakes that gather up the chips. Man, if I knew the particulars of one of those games, my metaphors would be so finely shaded! I’d refer to somebody life’s situation with such specificity: “You see, you’re like a fella with an Ace in the hole who’s just drawn a two and mistakenly winked at the dealer. And yet your fixated on that little plastic rake, pulling those chips everywhere but towards you.” Oh, what help I could be to my fellow man if I had a wider vocabulary of gambling comparisons! But since I hate to have things explained to me, I knew I‘d never learn cards of any sort.. (I hate the earnestness and intensity of explanation. People love the unambiguousness of knowing the rules completely, and the brief holiness of telling those rules to the un-indoctrinated. I always want to interrupt every explanation with: ‘But you only love ‘explaining’ because its so unlike the murk of the world and your unclear purpose in it! This is no real reprieve from that!’ ) Yet…I did have an occasion to use the cards, the table, and the game in a new way nonetheless. Here’s the scene:

The other day, I was thinking of the term “poetic soul” and how much it bothered me. Specifically, I was thinking of a friend of mine who I’m sure has been referred to, wistfully, as a ‘poetic soul.’ Sickened by the thought of anyone thinking of someone else as reflective, gentle, wise and uncorrupted, I spun on my friend and blurted out: “I bet women have called you a poetic soul!” I delivered this acidly, as if he were at fault for soliciting the description, and as if the description should obviously offend him as much as it did me. Accustomed to the strange tenor of my accusations, he merely agreed that yes, women probably have called him that. Then he said: “But you don’t think I’m not a poetic soul, I take it?” At this point, I figured I had to offer my own far more profound reading of his soul to show him that I, McFawn, would never rely on anything as idealized and offensively unspecific as ‘poetic soul’ to describe ANYONE. So there I was, in the position I always want to be in: invited to sum up someone else’s soul on the spot and off the cuff.

“No, you’re not a poetic soul, you’re….”
And here I thought of what I wanted to say. I wanted to discuss his attitude towards his life and the role of his will in it. This friend of mine fluctuated on whether or not his life was a series of his own blunders or if he merely and unavoidably drew a ’bad hand.’ Now, the question of the line between will and circumstance, fate and freedom ,providence and pluckiness, has always interested me. Not because I care about it in philosophical terms, but because I think its revealing where people draw the line for themselves. “This was a mistake” they’ll say, about something that sounds like inextricable Fate. “I guess this was good luck” they’ll say, about what sound like the results of their will exerted. However irrationally people determine what in their life was luck, fate or circumstance and what was their mistake, good move, or action, many people are consistent with whatever they decide. Marriage 2, they might say, a mistake. Taking the job in Seattle, they might say, fate (in the form of opportunity.) So they are at least consistent in this pretty random divvying up of life into luck and choice. My friend, the poetic soul, was not. It seemed like he either described everything, depending on his mood, as either all choices he made, or as all the work of fate. There was no in-between. This seemed to be the best comment I could make on his soul for the moment, so I said:

“You only have two modes. You’re like someone who gets dealt a hand of cards and throws up his hands and says ‘That’s it. Nothing can be done!’ You mistake the tools of the game for the result, as if the hand you‘re dealt is the end of the game! And when you aren’t thinking that way, you’re like someone at a card table who just reaches over and tries to grab at everything--the chips, the whole deck, everything! As if you can just disregard your hand and the game itself. No matter what, either way you’re not playing the game properly!”

In reaction against the idea of a poetic soul, I had hit upon what I thought was a great new application of the gambling metaphor. On one hand, the misinterpretation of the game as being only the dealing of cards, and thus completely defeated by a bad hand (all fate). One the other, misinterpreting the game as a lawless free-for all where you can just lean over and grab all you want (all choice). After this, I tried to convince my friend that he desperately needed to draw that arbitrary line in his mind between what he could have controlled, and what he couldn’t have. That way, he'd never have to wonder when to wail at fate or chastise himself. He could then catalogue all this regrets. “Life’s all about drawing arbitrary lines in your mind” I explained, thinking to myself that the most well adjusted people are those who map out their inner self once, and just leave it at that. “Just draw those lines anywhere.”

But later that evening, I was crestfallen to hear his real response. “All that stuff about the cards you were saying was really just a clever, unnecessarily complicated way of saying that I’m a poetic soul.”
Well, maybe he’s right. I guess I’ve never been too good at just calling a spade a spade.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Me, Myself, and a Dazzling Carbuncle

There’s an article in the New York Times magazine today about lying and I read it the way I read most everything--by paragraph in no particular order. I may start with the second to last paragraph, and then read a paragraph in the middle, and then read the intro, and so on until I finish. Like most of my engrained habits, I like to speculate on why I do this. What truth am I illustrating or pursuing? Perhaps its because I enjoy reading things I don’t fully grasp. If you just start reading in the middle of the paragraph, names are dropped without introduction, the fine points of concepts are deliberated over before you know the basics, the deviations are mentioned before you know the quintessential, and all this in a tone that implies that you should be “with” the author by this point. Now, if I were Hawthorne, I’d say that reading in this manner is a fine mimicry of the human predicament. Human beings, at in any one epoch, are thrust into a world that has already been ongoing (like reading the middle of an article first) and therefore have no sense of the set-up or “introduction” that might give the present meaning. Yet we all behave as if everything could be inferred from the present moment, just as I relish getting the gist of an article by beginning at the midpoint. I like a gist that’s hard won. Hawthorne responds: Perhaps so. But mankind has never been content with getting just the world‘s “gist” as you call it, though that’s all we should expect, given we’re permitted only a partly glimpse of the design in our short lives.
Oh that Hawthorne! Sometimes I think that if ideas were buildings and avenues thoughts, Hawthorne would appear on every street corner. He wouldn’t own a particular building or dominate a neighborhood as another mind might; instead, he’d just appear as a small detail at every intersection. You’d be racing down a street, trying to flee an idea or skid into the closing doors of another, and there’d be Hawthorne, leaning against a light post, staring idly into the streets. He would turn to you with a look of amusement and gentle pity, as if to say “Why run-through all these thoughts and ideas as if one would lead “somewhere else? Just as I am, you’re already at every point. You race through the streets in the hopes that you may find a corner free of yourself--something untouched by your own mind and lacks. But no corner can be free of you once you’re there! The only way to see things clearly and fully would be to have no self at all. No self to obscure anything, but sadly no self to see anything,either.”
On to a most Hawthornian topic: lying and secrets. In the NY Times article, there was a paragraph about a women who “lied for the sake of lying.” If her husband asked who she had lunch with, she say “June” instead of “Nancy” for no reason whatsoever. She lied like this everyday, with no motive or meaning, just ‘cause. Now, why would someone do this? Obviously, she isn’t trying to hide any one thing because the lies are arbitrary and lacking the uniformity to conceal anything substantial. Yet she does it naturally. The Times article speculated that it may have been her upbringing: she was raised in a loud, competitive house where lying to get attention or preemptive lying to avoid conflict may have made sense. Maybe. But I’d always thought that liars like this probably find a great deal of comfort in the idea that no one knows all the facts on them. Not one person knows what they do during a day. So much is kept to themselves that perhaps it feels like there’s more self in which to keep it all. I figure that’s why people lie--to make their selves feel more full and definitive. “I am,” they can say to themselves “all the little secrets I keep, all the stuff that no one knows.” They furnish the self with all that they withhold.
It would be easy enough to disapprove of lying for self-hood’s sake, but why? The contrary isn’t much better. I’m the opposite of a habitual liar. I’m a habitual discloser, which certainly doesn’t make me any morally sounder or mentally healthier. I hate keeping anything to myself. For the brief moments in my life when I had a secret, I hated it. Having something “all to myself” only reminded me of how lonely having a self is at all. It was like sitting alone in a room with a perfect gem, a dazzling carbuncle. At first, you’d feel great that it was all yours, but then you’d realize it had no value--it had no meaning at all--unless someone else sees it and sees that you have it. Once you’d realize this, you’d want to display it to the world, even if it meant the possibility of having it stolen. Being alone with either something of value or something terrible strikes me as equally painful. As I like to say, I wouldn’t want to see the ideal unless I had someone with me to nudge and say “look, there it is, the Ideal!!” I suppose, for me, I want to clear everything out of the “self” to give room for someone, or something, else to move in. Unlike the habitual liar, I try to empty myself out and keep myself ready for potential tenants to walk through. But just like the habitual liar, I’m sure I’m no more successful in that as they are in building the self through omission, lies, and secrets.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Order & Indifference

I’m writing from New York, and what better place to finally reveal my long-awaited views on intelligent design! As I stood in Grand Central Station, watching the people hustle and bustle by, I noted—guess what!!-- a paradox. If you looked into the face of each person, he or she seemed to be boiling over with intention. Each person looked determined to get somewhere, to be somewhere, to do something critical to some large enterprise. Yet if you pulled back and looked at them again and in total, all their striding and dodging and bumping looked comical and senseless. Masses of anything—be it people, feeder goldfish, or balls in the playarea of a McDonalds—always look impressive at first and then silly. A mass, though it depends on lots and lots of parts, still makes those very parts seem inessential. Steal a plastic ball, and the ball bin can still be jumped in and fouled by some kid. A belly-up fish in the tank is hardly of note, and a simple Midwestern girl needing prodding and guidance through the crowd neither adds nor subtracts from the overall sense of it. Even her stupefied pauses and downhome commentary: “Where are all these people going? There can’t possibly be a point to all this hustle-bustle!” are smoothly subsumed within the crowd she doubts.

So is all this teeming the teeming of “creations” or is it the teeming of organisms produced by an unthinking chain of reactions? What’s interesting to me about intelligent design is that the reasons why people want to believe in it seems to conflict with the implications of the belief. If you want to believe in an intelligent designer, you want to believe because:
1. You want humankind to have the meaning inherent in being designed by a conscious force.
2. If there is a designer, he/she/it likely has a design—a plan—for us. There is comfort in knowing that anything seeming random to us isn’t—its simply a part of the plan that remains inscrutable to us. (And, we can reassure ourselves, perhaps inscrutability is part of the plan!)
3. If we have a designer, he/she/it wouldn’t create us just to destroy us. Believing in a creator is believing that there might be some after-death purpose for us. It is a way to reassure ourselves that our existence has meaning, and will therefore go on. It is a yearning for the infinite.

Fair enough! Who wouldn’t want to believe all that? The problem is, a creator—a fixed point of origin—is actually dependent on the exact OPPOSITE of the above.
The whole idea that we were created out of nothing at a particular moment is contrary to the notion of eternity or the infinite. In fact, a belief in intelligent design shows most acutely the human inability to comprehend the infinite, or to think beyond life/death terms. When people want to doubt intelligent design on an easy level, they simply ask: “Well, if there’s a creator, who created the creator? And who created the creator’s-creator?” And so on. For some reason, endless origins (or endless creators with small roles, which I suppose could describe evolution itself) that stretch back forever in time feels to us like no origin at all. Why is it that we want ONE creator, creating us (or the conditions for our existence) in ONE moment in time? Why not believe that our beginnings stretch back and back and back to pre-primordial slime, pre-Big Bang, pre-anything we know now? Why not want to believe that there was no one moment when everything began, but rather that the universe is, and always will be, ongoing? It seems to me that believing in no start to the universe, or no one moment of our creation, naturally leads to believing in no end to the universe—or us.

But when we say that life, or the world, began at one point, we are allowing that it could likewise end at a point. We are putting the universe in a frame of duration, yet if we really want “forever” we should avoid these terms completely. In some ways, this shows our inability—or, as I sometimes suspect, our unwillingness—to truly think of eternity. Meaning for human beings, unfortunately or fortunately, is inextricably dependent on the notion of time. An endless background of our creation doesn’t appeal to us because meaning, in a person’s life, happens in the moment and by the moment. So, of course, we can only think of a meaningful start to the world as happening in a certain moment and by a certain force’s will. But what this implies is that our meaning making is framed around duration: A start and therefore an end. A life and therefore a death. Moments have meaning for us, and eternity does not. If you believe in a creator, you are tacitly and rightly believing in the necessity of your own death. Think of it:

If you cannot conceive of, or be comfortable with, the idea that the world’s past/origins stretch infinitely back in time and do NOT finally originate at some creator or point of creation, then you probably can’t really accept (as much as you seem to want to) the corollary: that we too will, in some sphere of being, exist forever.

The reason to believe in intelligent design is that it is a comfort against death and the unknown of the afterlife, yet the premise of intelligent design necessitates time, beginnings, endings and therefore death itself. We want a fixed origin and an endless existence, but infinity is not borne of the finite.
I was watching Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man right before I left for New York, and a bit of the narration made me consider something else about intelligent design. Late in the film, right before Timothy Treadwell’s death at the hands of one of his precious grizzles, Herzog narrates something like this over a close up image of a grizzly’s face and eyes:
“When I look into the eyes of these animals, I see but a vague pursuit of food and nothing more. All I see is the vast indifference of nature: its essential cruelties, its innate brutality, its unforgivingness.” (This is my recreation of the quote, retaining the central point that nature is cruel and indifferent.) My first reaction to this was annoyance: its not exactly new to muse grimly at how brutal nature may be. Then I thought a little more about it: why is it that nature is described as “indifferent” and “cruel”? Is that why people find evolution so unfulfilling spiritually, because of its seeming indifference (mindless advancements of species) and cruelty (survival of the fittest, for one)? But why is nature considered indifferent at all, when, as ecologists will tell you, there is a balance and a cycle that preserves life? Of course, this is nature sans human intervention that I’m speaking of here. Nature seems anything but indifferent when you consider the inherent harmony and well-being of species in an unmolested natural landscape. If there are too many predators, a few will starve to rebalance things. Too much prey, and more predators might move into the area to compensate. Nature’s processes seem anything but indifferent; instead, they represent the height of attentiveness. Every insect has a purpose, every dead leaf nourishes, everything has a role. Evolution is merely a description of those roles as they changed--and changed species--over time.
I think that evolution and nature are considered indifferent not because they really are, obviously, but because they are too orderly. The order of nature and the order of evolution strike us as cold. Could it be that order itself is unappealing to humans in some way? I’d love to write a book called “Order & Indifference", the main thesis being that even though humans claim to strive for order, efficiency, properly used and gathered data, we actually are terrified by the spiritual lack we see in it. Machines are orderly, statistics are orderly, personal computers are orderly, but we have yet to commune with our motherboards when struck with a mortality crisis. There is more emotional and spiritual warmth in chaos and illogic: more comfort in the chaos of a creator, inexplicably appearing to create a world for an inexplicable reason, a creator strange enough to create life, death, and the afterlife, where the disembodied essences of all these personalities he painstakingly designed can gather in a state of bliss that for some unknown reason he withheld for our time on earth. Faith is likewise chaotic: it depends on believing, fiercely, in the unseen. The spiritual dependence on chaos is just another way that humankind is solipsistic: chaos reminds us of ourselves because it reminds of personality--the quirks and oddities and irrationality of the individual--while order reminds us of masses and machines and the perfect march of logic: the not-us.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Some Appealing Notions

Notion #1
The other day, I was telling my friend gleefully what a wonderful speech I’d give at his funeral. “I can’t wait for you to die,” I said “so I can really put on a show.” I had amused myself thinking of the conventions of funeral-speeches. The eulogist, regardless of how his or her relationship to the deceased was, must behave as if he’s speaking for all the bereaved. I.E. “We all know how much Sandy loved anything crocheted!” or “Bill never could turn down an opportunity to gamble.” The speechmaker must make a gesture like this for two reasons: First, to build a makeshift community of the mourners through a shared understanding. Secondly, the speech-maker is trying to show that the dead had a coherent self that everyone remembered in a similar way. Though the mourners may feel that they knew parts of Bill and Sandy beyond the crocheting and gambling, they can still be reassured that they’re grieving a person potent and complete enough to affect everyone’s memories--at least partially--the same way. At least a part of the dead was universally recognized by his or her loved ones. The eulogist’s task is to decide what part this was, and offer it up as proof that the dead was finite enough to create a shared experience in all the mourners.

Of course, sometimes the dead had such a major weakness or addiction that the speechmaker much acknowledge this to show that we, even in the magic presence of death, have no illusions. If Bill’s gambling was compulsive, the speechmaker might ruefully mention his “final gamble” (whatever it might be--a gamble with disease, with a bad driving choice whatever) as a way of nodding to his problem. This isn’t to insult or chastise the dead, but to give license for the rhapsodizing to come. Idealizing the dead seems all the more legitimate when prefaced with a mention of a flaw. What amuses me about all this is the thought of someone giving a eulogy that was completely obscure, yet delivered in this tone of “we all know this.” For example, imagine this short speech given with the confidence of someone who was sure you were on the same page:

“Elliot wasn’t an ethical man. He wasn’t a reasonable man. He wasn’t a guy you could clap on the should and say “how’s it going?” He didn’t invite familiarity. He didn’t invite flattery. He certainly didn’t invite love or even fond feelings. Elliot was, however, memorable. Memorable, that is, in the way of a fogbank. What we remember about Elliot, what we cherish about him most, is not his virtues but his ability to make the obvious seem obscure. We don’t remember fog because of what it looks like, but because of what it does to what we see. Likewise, we remember Elliot because of how remote he made the world to us, how his bafflement and personal chaos could take the edges off of everything. He really did give the finite a beating, huh?!”

Whoever this “Elliot” was, its hard to imagine that this depiction could be shared among the mourners. Two things interest me about the whole notion of a misguided eulogist, wrongly thinking he’s hit upon the general feeling about the dead. First, it subverts the goal of drawing up a firm image of the just-deceased. Nothing is worse than a diffuse impression of a dead person. If we can’t have their corporal substance, we damn well better have a substantial--and most importantly standard--description of them. We don’t need the ghostliness of ambiguity or the intangibility of nuance at a time like this. The other thing that interests me is the idea of a speaker feeling so casually assured that everyone agreed with, or even just apprehended, his unchecked subjectivity. But, as I’ve both seen and exploited, a tone of “I know you know where I’m coming from” can actually be more persuasive than actually coming from a sensible place. Very likely, a few of Elliot’s loved ones might start to recall his charming quality of loosening everything nailed down in the world. It is one of the memories we all share, though maybe just a bit curiously put.

Notion #2
My way of dealing with criticisms or accusations is this: I confess to each one, then explain why my attacker is actually noting a universal human quality, rather than something peculiar to me. “Yes, I’m manipulative. But who can avoid it? The argument could be made that all language is manipulative because it never conforms exactly to what we mean. Therefore, we have to strategize--”choose the right words” as they say--to have the intended effect. Our expressions are unavoidably deferred from our intentions, so everything we say and do must involve a large measure of plotting to deliver our real wishes. Frankness and openness are just a style of expression--still just as remote from the person’s real thoughts and feelings. ‘Frankness’ is just a more sanctioned mode of manipulation.” Or “Of course I’m hypocritical. What you see in me is nothing more than a microcosm of the failure of all human striving. We never are what we claim to be. Everything used to describe humanity: civilized, intelligent, progressing--can be easily countered by an example from history or the present. Come on. You know that.”

I often wait eagerly to be accused so I can challenge myself to get from the personal criticism to Universal Truth in the smallest time possible. Sadly, it seems that people have picked up on my enjoyment of this game and don’t criticize much at all. Now they’ve just resorted to “silent contempt. ” But when I accuse them of that, they insist upon denying it. Why don’t they just admit the truth, that they of course look upon me with silent contempt because how else can you look at your fellow man? Why don’t they just explain that human kind has always been a little self-loathing, so there must always be a little contempt in how we look upon each other?

Anyway, even though I use this “admit everything” strategy to deal with accusations, I don’t much like it when someone else does it. Once, I was making a criticism of a friend and he kept fessing up to everything I was saying even before I got to luxuriate in every in and out of my criticism. Frustrated, I blurted out: “You’re like a man being tried for murder who just keeps repeating ‘I never said I wasn’t a murderer. What’s all the fuss about?’ The thing is, just because you never said you weren’t a murderer doesn’t make it any less of a crime or any less heinous! Its not a defense! The point of the trial is not to determine whether or not you’re a hypocrite, but to decide if you committed a crime!”

As often happens, I became so delighted by my hypothetical situation that I abandoned the point I was trying to make to linger within it. There’s something really funny to me about somebody on the stand in a murder trial throwing up his hands and saying “I never said I wasn’t a murderer!” as if the whole point of the trial is just to give him that label. I can see this person so clearly…a ruddy, impatient type of guy, the type of guy that hates forms and officialdom and unnecessarily drawn-out doings…and when he utters his famous line, he says it in a way that makes law and justice and human reason and all that seem like pointless rigmarole. Why have all these people in this specially configured room, with these podiums and risers and things, why have all these labels: jurors, defense, prosecution, lawyer, why have all these funny symbols, this judges robe, this gavel, this sculpture of a blind chick with her balanced scales, why have all these official statements like “all rise” and “please approach the stand, counselor”, why have all this just to say I’m a murderer? I never said I wasn’t, goddamnit!

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Fresh New Reading of the Madness of Eternal Life!!

It's common knowledge that if you were to live forever, you’d eventually go mad. Simone De Beauvoir, Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde are just a few of the authors that have shown the folly and vanity of eternal life, though I’m sure there are more. But I, McFawn, think I have thought of a new reason, beyond the ones I’ve seen, for the madness of eternal life.
From my very brief look into eternal life, the common reasons for madness are these:
1.You become bored. After living out all your ambitions eventually, you’d run out of things to do.
2.You’d see too many loved ones die and that would eventually ruin your capacity for relationships. A human lifetime--fleeting enough as it is--would appear like a mere moment to you. So, you’d warn yourself “not to get too attached” to everyone you meet, much like a parent might give that warning to a child about a guppy.
3. You’d be alienated. Human ambitions and fears would look arbitrary and foolish. You’d sympathize with no one and no one could sympathize with you.

I agree with all these reasons. However, I think there is the new way of considering the madness of eternal life that might explain some madness in this life. Eternal life would really make you lose your mind because you’d no longer understand metaphors. Madness is the loss of metaphor-literacy. Before I get into the idea of “metaphor-illiteracy,” I’ve got to say a few things on metaphors themselves. All metaphors, in my thinking, are born of the unavoidable truths of human life. These can be broken down into simple dichotomies such as:

Life vs. Death---> (the arrow here indicates that all other metaphors are subsets of this one)
Nothing vs. Something
Power vs. Weakness
Inner vs. Outer
Knowing vs. Not-Knowing
I use metaphors to mean either literary metaphors--turns of phrase that use images etc to represent/explain something else. Or, metaphors can be a behavior-- a reply and representation of one of the above versus. A metaphor is basically a reaction to a truth in the from of symbol. But back to the person who lives forever, or "ForeverMan" (shorthand: FM). The worst part is that metaphors would lose meaning because the central truth of human existence would no longer apply. As I said in my “transience” post, life and death are so central that their tension gives birth to all sorts of metaphors and metaphorical actions. For example, the FM would have trouble even enjoying something like chocolate or sex. Chocolate is an indulgence, and a quick pleasure. The idea of indulging is a metaphorical response to death. To illustrate, someone might say “you only live once” as a justification for buying a particularly rich piece of cheesecake. To indulge in something that’s a little unhealthy, and is transient, is a way of saying: “I embrace the brevity of my existence, therefore I can take pleasure in other brevities, such as the quickly melting quality of this chocolate. Also, since my life is impossible to preserve, I will drop the absurd ruse of being “healthy” and eat this cheesecake, and--perhaps--I’ll request whip cream as well so the gesture won’t be mistaken. I know I’m going to die! No personal restraint will change that! Besides, what’s more “healthy” than a hard, level look at death in the form of sensory indulgence?” By this brief example, you can see both what metaphors refer to and why we need them. Most people would prefer the metaphorical act of eating chocolate to the explanation of its meaning. Although…what a wonderful absurdist comedy the world would be if we all talked like the above! But, metaphors are like jokes and therefore more powerful when they go unexplained, even to the person who uses them. It would certainly kill the exhilaration and abandon of eating cheesecake if you reminded yourself that you’re also giving an acknowledging nod to the Reaper in doing so.

But for our ForeverMan, the indulgence in treats is impossible. There is no indulgence without Death. The metaphorical life, as human life is, would elude him. Metaphors would not only lose power for the FM, they would become undetectable, unreadable, obscure. Metaphor would not exists for him. Everything would have a purely literal, and therefore maddening, existence. However feeble metaphors are, however little they do to actually illuminate or respond to any truth, they at least place life in a frame of meaning-making. They demonstrate the comforting and universal human desire to TRY to know. Human beings, regardless of how different from one another, all agree to try to know. That is our communion. But without death, the FM no longer recognizes human attempts at meaning. He sees no meaning, nor can imagine how one would try for it.

But I’m tired of explaining the FM’s plight. Let me end this post with a vivid description of the FM in an erotic situation. The FM has roamed the earth for 200 years now, so he is very early in his tenure of forever. He has sex occasionally, mostly trying to regain the excitement he once felt for it before he realized he would live forever. He has tried every sort of women, in hopes that variety would be thrilling. Oh, but its not. After fondling women of every size, age and hue, he realizes his mistake. The problem with infinite variety, he thinks, is that it’s infinite, and therefore reminds him of his own endlessness. He wants the singular, momentary experience of person, but every bit of flesh he sees seems to be part of an continuum of flesh and woman, each differing slightly but all part of a line-up that stretches on forever. This woman, with her mousey hair and hazel eyes and low voice is only a hair away from her variation, a slightly mousier, lower toned, brighter eyed woman. The FM is turned off by the thought. She is both an individual and expendable, but also a style of person that will reappear, slightly altered (just as a variation on the theme of Nathaniel Hawthorne appeared in this century as McFawn, who will no doubt be followed by a an Almost-McFawn. Poor McFawn thinks she’s so unique, but she’s really just casting of a person from a mold slightly chipped from overuse. She considers that slight flaw in her mold and making her “individuality“! HA!) They don’t break the mold on anyone, it just degrades. The FoveverMan is undressing as he thinks all this, and the woman sprawled on the bed looks to him like someone standing between two mirrors with her image repeating in all directions. Screw one, screwed ‘em all, he thinks and how he wishes that was a simple misogynist comment rather than a chilling metaphysical truth.

*P.S. Metaphor-illiteracy can also come from too strong a denial of death…even if you aren’t an FM. Beware. Nod to the Reaper every now and again or risk losing your basic hold on the human condition--METAPHOR! *