“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)
My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”
I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.
But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.
Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.
Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.
Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).
Returning from the land of Pessoa some weeks ago, and now as I think about inertia and the desire to do anything/nothing, I can only borrow his words:
“From any trip, even a short one, I return as from a slumber full of dreams – in a dazed confusion, with one sensation stuck to another, drunk from what I saw. I can’t rest because my soul’s not well. I can’t move because something’s not right between my body and soul. What I lack isn’t mobility but the very desire to move.”
It’s always the statement, the promise – to oneself or to others – that “after this, I will do this…” or “once this is complete, things will go back to normal”. Is this just self-deception?
I crash into this promise again and again but have learned never to believe it. Usually, the chaos is the norm, and only in subsiding or disappearing would things feel abnormal. I don’t know if this approach is optimism or excuse-making. Either way, it’s not really my style, that is, being so out of touch with myself, my life and its patterns that I fool myself and others into thinking that things will be drastically different at some unknown point in the future “when things calm down”. Some people are not meant for calm, and they never will be.
I am not one of those people, even if I, too, find myself making excuses – as we all do. Some excuses more damaging than others. I reread Pessoa’s words, which he applies to returning from a short trip, but which could be any situation that feels like a “slumber full of dreams”. Initially it made me think of a moment in recent time, how someone else must have felt. Thinking that I could put words to or start to understand his confusion comforted me. Weeks later, I thought, though, that this was not entirely new to me: years and years earlier, the roles were reversed, and I was the confused one.
Even decades after a moment like that occurs, followed by the “dazed confusion”, the memory of the excuses that inevitably accompany the ‘aftermath’ sticks with me. Almost 20 years ago, a confessional evening spent with a friend, candlelight in a terrible storm: the moment, the evening, was “one sensation stuck to another”, sort of drunk from being caught up in the experience, in being enveloped completely by that immediate moment. But returning to reality from it, the very desire to move robbed from me – a swirl of conflicting emotion – including a kind of love and admiration for her, a guilty desire not to hurt her, but a much stronger feeling of needing to start concocting excuses for why this would never work.
In Gabor Maté’s book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he writes: “if you want to find liberation in your commitments, your word needs to be freely given or not given at all. Don’t make promises to reform out of a sense of duty or to appease someone else. If you don’t know how to say no to other people’s expectations, howsoever well meant or valid those may be, your yes has no authenticity. This is what I have learned.” This applies not just to addicts but to everyone, myself included.
In trying not to disappoint people or making ourselves appear superhuman, to be all things to all people, most of us overpromise and underdeliver. But shouldn’t we be striving to make promises (not to reform, in the case of the addict of the quote) that we freely commit to keep? The expectations of others can weigh heavy, but that inadvertent and slippery giving of false hope that making empty promises creates weighs much heavier and hurts more in the long run – for everyone involved. Perhaps, though, it is that people are unable to be honest with themselves (maybe it’s where the optimism comes in: “we’re doing our best” and “maybe things will change”).
Life, as we know, can be tedious and brief. What else is life? We think it owes us happiness and that our job is to strive for that. But is happiness the same thing as finding meaning? And how does one find – or define – meaning?
This tedium and brevity is illustrated, but also upended, in the S-Town podcast, which has been quite popular and quite… human. The man who is the focal point of the podcast is complicated. Early on he talks about sundials and how all sundials have mottoes engraved on them. He mentioned “Tedious and brief” as one of them: “All sundial mottoes are sad like that.” And yes, sundial motto or clever tattoo, “tedious and brief” is what we experience, with temporary and memorable bright spots deposited throughout the otherwise tedious (and brief) journey.
Build your own sundial.
…When I returned from being away for a few days, I looked out into the field and saw that hordes of birds had gathered in a huge swarm in a field near the road, not far from home. Upon closer inspection, one could see the twisted carcass of a picked-apart deer. It’s more common to see a fox in this roadside state of non-being. But here, the picked over remains of a deer, a feast for avian life, made me consider life – in general. And how inconsequential its endings. To end up dead in a field for ravenous birds to pick at.
A realization that someone from high school had died some time ago, someone I did not know well but remember in the mind’s eye – these bright memories that form the spine of all the silly stories of youth and even inform the way I came to identify myself (the eternal, calm counselor to heartsick friends). I’ve reached that age when people either start to die or unspool the threads of their tidy lives into tangled knots of midlife crises. And then it’s the stark contrast between the graveyard (metaphorical or not) and the musical chairs game of midlife.
“The interim is mine”
Never mind all the things we do in the interim before reaching death, fooling ourselves. (The word “interim” now always reminds me of a scene from Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Jason Patric’s character boasts about something he had done, “The bitch deserved it. She never understood me.” “Don’t you think you’re going to have to pay for all this in the end?” “If there ends up being a God, probably so. But until then, we’re on my time. The interim is mine.”)
In this interim that belongs to you, or to me, or to us, we can live for the little deaths, whether it’s the small, crushing disappointments that erupt under all the surfaces of our smooth-going, gliding-along lives, or the orgasms we covet (la petite mort, in the purely French sense), or all the bad habits we accumulate but brush off until they kill or damage us, which we instinctively know but still act on, and literature chronicles for us:
“My health was excellent. My daily consumption of cigarettes had reached the four-package mark.” -from Bend Sinister, Nabokov
“An alcoholic, his blood no longer able to clot, who bled to death into his joints and under his skin. Every day, the bruises would spread. Before he became delirious, he looked up at me and said, ‘It’s not fair—I’ve been diluting my drinks with water.’” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi
“In such a state, the philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, ‘One cannot get rid of anything, one cannot get over anything, one cannot repel anything—everything hurts. Men and things obtrude too closely; experiences strike one too deeply; memory becomes a festering wound.’” -from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté
“A great deal of pathological drug use is driven by unmet social needs, by being alienated and having difficulty connecting with others.” -from High Price, Carl Hart
I’ve thought about mortality a great deal (it’s human to do so, after all) from so many angles. I am not sure why it comes to mind so often right now – maybe just as a counterbalance to pettiness. Maybe because there is frailty everywhere. Maybe because it seems meaningless to end up dead in a field (even as a deer), which makes me, as a person, think that even though I won’t leave an indelible mark on the world when I die, I like the idea of at least affecting or influencing those closest to me, which is not really possible if there is no one close to you during this fleeting, brief “interim” that belongs to me, to you, to us, to those who exist in this particular window.
Lately I’ve also read books specifically on the topic (Kalinithi’s aforementioned book as well as Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal).
“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?“
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi
Remembering the man, losing the details
I have written before about the passing of detail with the passing of people – how we don’t know what we will want to know from the people who have died before us. We don’t even preserve their histories and details when they live to a ripe, old age – so how can we hope to gather all the detail from people who die at 30, for example? My mom lost her brother last year, and she has come to realize that not only is she the last one left from her immediate family, her brother was the keeper of all the details. She had counted on being able to ask him about things from their childhood, or about things they had experienced ten years ago. When he died, she lost not just him but that last link to the shared history, to the details. And death looms over the life – and its details – that passed.
“What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along we create little fictions, highly subtle and individual scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. This is obvious to me. If it weren’t for these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. Even film, the most literal of all the arts, is edited.” -from The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosiński
Tedious and brief – and you are not to blame
“Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.” -from Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Yes, death is inevitable. It’s coming for all of us, some sooner than others. Life is “tedious and brief” – and does not care for you. But at some point, it is no longer seen as a game of chance or a hand you are dealt. It is no longer abstract. And if you don’t live to a ripe, old, senile age, somehow you are accused of moral failure. It’s your duty to try to stay alive as long as possible.
“Premature death, particularly if it’s due to terminal illness, is no longer seen as lucking out in the divine lottery, but as a personal failure, like a self-induced bankruptcy.” -from Karaoke Culture, Dubravka Ugrešić
And yet if you overstay your welcome in life, you are anticipating death, perhaps impatiently and angrily, while others either want to hasten your death or force you to keep living even when you don’t want to, falsely selling the idea of prolonging youth when in fact old age is all you can prolong at a certain point:
“The problem was her death: it simply wouldn’t come. If it had crawled in through the central heating system, she would have gladly given herself over to it. Death doesn’t smell. It is life that stinks. Life is shit!” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
“‘Why don’t you dream up a way of dispatching old people comfortably, instead of tormenting them by dragging out their old age?’ Pupa emerged from her slumber. ‘Forgive me, I don’t understand …’ ‘Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!’” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
“All primitive cultures knew how to manage old age. The rules were simple: when old people were no longer capable of contributing to the community, they were left to die or they were helped to move into the next world. Like that Japanese film in which a son stuffs his mother into a basket and carries her to the top of a mountain to die. Even elephants are cleverer than people. When their time comes, they move away from the herd, go to their graveyard, lie down on the pile of elephant bones and wait to be transformed into bones themselves. While today hypocrites, appalled by the primitive nature of former customs, terrorise their old people without the slightest pang of conscience. They are not capable of killing them, or looking after them, or building proper institutions, or organising proper care for them. They leave them in dying rooms, in old people’s homes or, if they have connections, they prolong their stay in geriatric wards in hospitals in the hope that the old people will turn up their toes before anyone notices that their stay there was unnecessary. In Dalmatia people treat their donkeys more tenderly than their old people. When their donkeys get old, they take them off in boats to uninhabited islands and leave them there to die. Pupa had once set foot on one of those donkey graveyards.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
Also in this interminable interim: “As we grow older, we weep less and less. It takes energy to weep. In old age neither the lungs, nor the heart, nor the tear ducts, nor the muscles have the strength for great misery. Age is a kind of natural sedative, perhaps because age itself is a misfortune.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
Part of this indeterminate-in-length waiting room that is life – and it really is a waiting room, even if that makes it sound most mundane (but a lot of life is misery and the most mundane of dullness) – is the part where you are actively waiting to die. Perhaps the medical industry – kabuki that it can be – is trying to extend your life, but at whatever stage of the process you’re in, whatever age you’re at, it’s still kind of a ‘waiting around to die’ ride at the fair: ups, downs, twists, spins, loop-to-loops, and even some maneuvers that turn you right upside-down.
Yet, even with the knowledge of the expected end – that we and those around us will die – it is something we do not know how to handle or prepare for. I again use my mother as an example here – she lost both her parents, her sister-in-law and her three cats (each of which was over 16 years old) all within a short span of time. To say she was devastated by grief would be an understatement. It didn’t matter that her parents were in their 90s, that her sister-in-law finally didn’t suffer any longer or that, as many insensitive souls said, her cats were “just cats”, she was heartbroken, and the hits just kept coming.
It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?
“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter
“Tocqueville captured the phenomenon of invisibly creeping despotism in atomized societies devoted to the pursuit of wealth when he wrote that people ‘in their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune’ can ‘lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.’”
We might for some inexplicable and unreasonable reason (what else can we call it but a ‘reason’ even if it defies that very thing?) expect that the world, our quality of life – our own individually and that of each successive generation – will progressively improve. This is the lie we’re told/sold in at least American society, if not as overtly in others. And sometimes it turns out true. But the forecast isn’t true for everyone. This we know from the divisions we see played out in American society. And in all societies – modern and historic – the haves and have-nots, the with and without, the empowered and disenfranchised. None of this is hidden or difficult to see, but the label still reads: the world continues to get better; progress is on an endless march forward (whether “progress” means more liberal markets or universal prosperity/material betterment, eradication of the worst of the world’s diseases – its definition depends on to whom we pose the question, and even then does not have a simple answer. After all, for example, we might eradicate disease theoretically, patting ourselves on the backs about the triumph of science and ingenuity. But a drug company will come in and make the cure prohibitively expensive, so we have not made that much progress in reality).
These ideas come to the fore in many books I’ve read recently, most notably in Age of Anger (which I recommend) and the book about Boomers destroying everything. Things teeter on the brink on many fronts because people have been told that this label is true: “Freedom is all that matters – and by freedom, we mean the freedom to get rich.” And somehow, the have-have not dichotomy becomes entrenched because the masses of have-nots do not feel the same deprivation they should or the drive for equality. Instead they have been promised that there are lottery winners (whether literal or through hard work). Because they live in “freedom” (another word with complex meanings, all depending on whom you ask) – which in this case is another form of cage – they will swallow anything because there is a slight hope (certainly not expectation) of becoming wealthy, i.e. truly free.
In Gabor Maté’s bookIn the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which was about addiction, one of his addict patients said it in the most down-to-earth, distinct way possible: “Then you go to the office and you see a couple of dozen patients … and all your money goes to the bank at the end of that, and then you count up your shekels or your doubloons. At the end of the day, what have you done? You’ve collected the summation of what you think freedom is. You’re looking for security, and you think that will give you freedom. You collected a hundred shekels of gold, and to you this gold has the capacity of keeping you in a fancy house or maybe you can salt away another six weeks’ worth up and above what you already have in the bank. “But what are you looking for? What have you spent your whole day searching for? That same bit of freedom or satisfaction that I want; we just get it differently. What’s everybody chasing all the money for if not to get them something that will make them feel good for a while or make them feel they’re free? How are they freer than I am? “Everybody’s searching for that feeling of well-being, that greater happiness. But I’d rather be a dog out in the street than do what many people go through to find their summation of freedom.”
But how are we to define freedom, really? We have the version that society feeds and reinforces; our own innate need to fit in or make ourselves feel better (and how? Collecting money? Consuming? Doing drugs or drinking? Owning guns?). From where do we derive our conception of personal/individual autonomy, freedom and what that means and why it is important? Why do we place such an outsized emphasis on freedom – or the version of freedom painted-by-numbers for us in the societies in which we live? Are safety or community or compassion not equally important?
From Age of Angerof course Dostoevsky is cited again: “True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the ‘Occidental Nature’ had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity. ‘You find there instead,’ Dostoevsky wrote: a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination, of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.”
For Pessoa, though, no, freedom actually equates to being free of people and needing them for anything. I relate to his feelings on the subject. I have worked to find freedom from having to co-exist (even if in a bigger sense, e.g. paying taxes and earning money, I do co-exist), and flexibility when I did have to co-exist. At the same time, it is not entirely clear that this ‘freedom’ is important, certainly not beyond the individual sense, and is probably not psychologically healthy either (like it or not, we as humans do need some kind of network and connection to survive, i.e. no man is an island): “Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendours of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant; you’re not free.”
“Slavery is the law of life, and it is the only law, for it must be observed: there is no revolt possible, no way to escape it. Some are born slaves, others become slaves, and still others are forced to accept slavery. Our fainthearted love of freedom — which we would reject as strange and unfamiliar, if it ever came to us — is proof of how ingrained our slavery is.”
“We squander our personalities in orgies of coexistence. Every spoken word double-crosses us. The only tolerable form of communication is the written word, since it isn’t a stone in a bridge between souls but a ray of light between stars.”
“Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me. I yank from my neck a hand that was choking me, and I see that my own hand was holding a noose that fell around my neck as soon as I freed it from the stranger’s hand.”
How can there be this kind of false freedom when it really is a form of keeping people in line, enslaved to a system that pushes them down but teases/taunts them with the tantalizing idea that maybe they could be one of the few to reach the upper echelons? What does it say about a society whose values and education reinforce the idea that that is all that is worth striving for and that that is what truly constitutes freedom?
“In Santayana’s view, most human beings, temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment, and even the few successful rich did not enjoy ‘moral security’ and ‘a happy freedom’. He left the United States for Europe in 1912, having concluded that ‘there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions’. For the next four decades he continued to amplify his warnings that the worldwide dissemination of an individualist culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite a ‘lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’.”
“Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking.”
“Responding to Fukuyama’s thesis in 1989, Allan Bloom was full of foreboding about the gathering revolts against a world that ‘has been made safe for reason as understood by the market’, and ‘a global common market the only goal of which is to minister to men’s bodily needs and whims’.”
A society in which the bitterly competitive fire is stoked to create humans most inhumane?
“Rousseau warned, amour propre is doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied. Too commonplace and parasitic on fickle opinion, it nourishes in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection – in Gore Vidal’s pithy formulation, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’”
“try to make sense of bewildering, and often painful, experiences by re-examining a divided modern world, this time from the perspective of those who came late to it, and felt, as many people do now, left, or pushed, behind.”
“Yet only on the rarest of occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence, and that the politics of violence, hysteria and despair was by no means unique to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Communist Russia.”
The questions – and answers – are tied up in language and its influence/power as well. The language of freedom and equality are an effective smokescreen to mask that there is no actual freedom or equality. In a sense, it’s a sleight of hand (or tongue, in this case), not unlike when US Republicans have recently insisted that all people will still have “access” to healthcare if Obamacare were repealed. Yes, they would be free like every other person in America to shell out a whole lot of money to buy the care or insurance that perhaps, under Obamacare, they could actually afford. They don’t tell you that by “gaining so much freedom”, you are also losing a lot of money – if you could even afford the care in the first place. Bernie Sanders crusaded around this tricky language in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, reminding people that yes, “access to” something is not the same thing as actually being able to get, buy or use it.
“Four years before Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the German thinker Max Stirner argued in the equally incendiary The Ego and its Own that the impersonal rationality of power and government had disguised itself in the emollient language of freedom and equality, and the individual, ostensibly liberated from traditional bonds, had been freshly enslaved by the modern state. Bakunin, the forebear of today’s leaderless militants, spoke with glee of the ‘mysterious and terrible words’, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which portend ‘the complete annihilation’ of the ‘existing political and social world’.”
“His friend Herzen saw Europe’s new gods of wealth and power as inaugurating an era of mass illusion – and violent counter-attacks. Europe was fated to move, Tocqueville warned, to ‘democracy without limits’, but it was far from clear ‘whether we are going toward liberty or marching toward despotism, God alone knows precisely’.”
Does it go beyond just the language in which the concepts are couched? Are concepts now inextricably tied to other concepts to form a net in which we are completely tangled? That is, to be American is to be free? And yet “free” in that statement is in a constant state of redefinition, stretched and pulled by different groups (one is tempted to say the liberal and the conservative, but this is too simplistic. Possibly it is pulled by the haves and have-nots, but in those cases, it’s more like the haves are holding the have-nots in their hands and pulling them at both ends like … a taffy pull, manipulating, stretching and taking more and more from them).
“Presciently critiquing the neo-liberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom, Rousseau claimed that individual liberty was deeply menaced in a society driven by commerce, individual competitiveness and amour propre. Anticipating anti-globalization critics, he argued that finance money is ‘at once the weakest and most useless for the purpose of driving the political mechanism toward its goal, and the strongest and most reliable for the purpose of deflecting it from its course’. Liberty was best protected not by prosperity but the general equality of all subjects, both urban and rural, and balanced economic growth. Emphasizing national self-sufficiency, he also distrusted the great and opaque forces of international trade, especially the trade in luxuries.”
And what could be more true than these ideas, also fruits plucked from Age of Anger?
“Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard doubted the then new ‘idea of sociality, of community’ promoted by journalism, and cautioned against the public opinion that rose from ‘a union of people who separately are weak, a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage’. Early in the twentieth century, communications technology was still confined to the telegraph, the telephone and the cinema; but Max Weber warned that, combined with the pressure of work and opaque political and economic forces, it would push modern individuals away from public life and into a ‘subjectivist culture’ – or what he called ‘sterile excitation’. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the era of literacy had ended with the advent of radio and television; their multi-sensory experience in a ‘global village’ had returned humankind to tribal structures of feeling and ‘we begin again to live a myth’. Today’s colossal exodus of human lives into cyberspace is even more dramatically transforming old notions of time, space, knowledge, values, identities and social relations.”
“In his prescient critique of the neo-liberal notion of individual freedom, Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself. But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’. He absolutely won’t find freedom in the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter. For the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre. On the contrary: even the most festive spirit of communality disguises the competitiveness and envy provoked by constant exposure to other people’s success and well-being.”
Photo: Yes, should have paid attention to/read the label before purchasing online. A 1.5 kg package of tea is probably a bit too much.