“Mutiny of the Scrivener”
A personal essay on refusing the spirit of the times.
Pain is itself an evil, and indeed
without exception, the only evil.
Some years ago, as I watched a news feature in which a woman sang a song of praise, Joni Mitchell-style, not to her lover or her God but to her medically prescribed, “mood-enhancing” drug, Prozac, I suddenly understood why Woody Allen’s films had rarely achieved box office success. The usual explanation—that his serial portrait of the post-Freudian self was too urban, too ethnic—still made sense but masked for me a more telling truth, which was the tale of a temper out of tune with its time. A comedian whose shtick was “anhedonia,” who projected a persona allergic to pleasure, was less and less likely to tickle the psyche of a populace dosed with mood-enhancers. Nor was he apt to bring down the house in a nation housed in those myriad “stately pleasure-domes” (malls, casinos, stadiums) that our Khans of consumption had everywhere decreed. Woody’s act, I grasped that night, wasn’t “where we’re at” now. His has been a mostly modernist laugh at our highly enclosed postmodern life.
Once alerted to the trend, I found this emphasis on boosting the communal mood increasingly intrusive and so hard to deny. Whether I scanned the Wall Street Journal, where I quickly learned that the entertainment industry was the virtual engine of the new economy, or sent my kids to public school, where every day was a “celebration” designed to protect the fragile bud of their self-esteem, I was made to confront the new imperative. How did we get here, I wondered? How could we plumb our nation’s passage from the Puritan’s theology of coercive earnestness to the Mouseketeer’s strategy of mandatory fun?
Thesis: the ideal state of mind towards which America has been striving since the fifties—when the first popular mood-enhancers, Equanil and Miltown, hit the scene—is not the comic’s anhedonia but the junkie’s analgesia. Pain has replaced sex at the top of our list of forbidden sensations, the faintest twinge of which we would girdle or repress. And given that, as Anne Sexton once said, pain tends to engrave a deeper memory,2 this emotional analgesia has naturally engendered a cultural amnesia. We’ve been dumbing down through numbing out. To borrow from Milan Kundera’s title, ours truly has been an era of “laughter and forgetting.”
Rest assured that I’m not merely fretting here, op-ed style, about falling test scores or the lagging skills of the U.S. work force. That our kids don’t know their math facts is, frankly, far less worrisome to me than their almost total ignorance of our culture’s signal stories. The risk is just as real when our myths turn to mush as when our flesh can’t feel. The disneyfied mind, like the anesthetized body, loses its way without a constant measure of the world’s many hard edges, including those perennially painful consequences that our oldest stories plot to reveal. Life here is wondrous but also dangerous. So says not just Paradise Lost but “The Three Little Pigs,” and all our chances for an exodus from our own era’s peculiar bondage begin with this one, hard, and irreducible fact of existential math: to live is to hurt, in both the active and passive senses of that verb.
The Seder of safety demands that we savor the bitter herb.
Long ago, I thought these things through in another guise. A fiction writer who had learned his craft alone, I was mostly ignorant then of standard workshop nomenclature; and when, very suddenly, with babies in tow and bills to pay and a new literary prize hanging from my lapel like a Sunday school pin, I made the grand leap from basement sweeper to college teacher, I had no colleagues from whom I might seek practical advice. Due the day before yesterday, my syllabus required a terminology, and so I set about to improvise. One of the terms of my improvisation, a term I still favor, was “the irritant.”
The irritant was not the conflict of the story but rather the struck flint or rubbing stick that set the conflict’s fuel ablaze. As such, it could be purposeful and dramatic (the snatching of Helen) or random and pathetic (the thorn infecting the fabled lion’s paw). It could range from the flagrantly exotic (Sir Gawain’s ghostly Green Knight) to the apparently mundane. (A jar of mayonnaise, say, left outside one humid August night, its contents quickly spoiling to the yellow of a bruise on a middle-aged thigh. In the morning, over the irritant’s remains, a couple begin exchanging blame for their two-dollar loss. Voices rise in Massapequa’s morning light, their anger spiraling from irritation to rage as the topic turns from housekeeping roles to money woes, exposing finally the real worm boring at the core of their married life: suspicions of infidelity. Meanwhile, their four-year-old child—a boy named Merritt, after the parkway where his erstwhile hipster parents met hitching a ride—hoists himself into their side-loading drier. There, curling into a ball, he closes the door to shut out their cries.)
The irritant proved a useful teaching tool and, as a bonus, implied a broader metaphor for how beauty is made out of the grit and grind of our everyday world. Consider, one might say, an oyster’s irritant, the constant pain when rubbed by sand it is helpless to move. Consider how the very record of its suffering, and of the roughness of the world, is both preserved and cultivated by the roundness of a pearl.
I intend poetry here, not parody. I mean these classroom things I say. Life does stroke, prick, poke, scrape our beings into thoughtfulness. Incidents, grains of beached time, lodge themselves inside our minds, provoking tides of mediating consciousness. Slowly we refine the rough incident into a round anecdote; and then, with practice, rounded anecdote into a polished story—maybe even a parable. And we all do this: meaning-making through storytelling is not just the privilege of professionals but our common gift and constant need. Nor is it merely entertainment. These stories we shape both correct and direct the steps we take in our everyday lives. The world hurts us into heeding it, and we hurt the world in turn. We learn our place, we leave our mark. To move purposefully in time is to marry—both obey and revise—the site we inhabit. Otherwise we waste away like Echo, restating a world we are helpless to change. Or we starve like Echo’s poster-boy, Narcissus, cutting off the world to sight our face.
Although ancient myths such as theirs now tend to be dismissed as superstitious or ethnocentric, the haunting demise of Echo and Narcissus echoes back all too exactly in our postmodern times. For they died, this perfectly mismatched couple, from the affliction we know best, from a dis-ease that all our laugh tracks, Muzak, and iPod play lists can never quite mask, much less arrest. They died, that is, from loneliness. They failed, as I believe our whole culture has been failing, because the world (the real world) was too little with them, and they with it.
Echo, locked in, couldn’t speak for herself, couldn’t hurt the world into heeding her passion. Narcissus, locking out, couldn’t see beyond himself, couldn’t heed the world’s hurting because he lacked compassion. Punished by the gods for abusing love, their shells were tightly closed, their souls were shut in: the careless woman forbidden to give, the heartless man unable to accept the bounty of life’s irritants, and so too its saving luster—pain’s potential gem. And without genuine exchange, action and reaction, the trading off of pain, their bodies wasted away to mere echo and reflection—ellipses on the page . . . No body: nobody: no story to tell. The absence of pain is the stilling of change, is the banishment of hope. Better, though not easier, to be raging in Massapequa than sentenced to that hell.
Living’s Town: A Suburban Allegory
All my life, I realize now, I have felt that same itch of the incomplete. Too little with the world. Too enclosed within some shell to fashion those stories we are born to live and tell. Even as a child inside the mild and milky precincts of Ike’s suburbia, where we sucked on flavor-straws filled with fun and flattery (how bright, how flush, how right we children were, spokesmen all agreed); even then, before sex, drugs, and Vietnam, although I wanted to and tried, I couldn’t quite believe.
It wasn’t just the Gospel of Good Cheer that seemed so fake but the very texture of the physical place: subdivided, fenced in, plastic-wrapped, fluorescent-lit; vitamin-, nitrogen-, super octane-fed. Somewhere (Asia maybe?) people must have breathed the real air, ankle-deep in the paddy of rank and primal things. But we seemed to live instead inside a diorama where the grass was painted green and the foliage was made from shredded cellophane, our smiles the smiles that children tend to paint, crooked cups of dazed cheer on heads without bodies. Life seemed as packaged then as those shows on Parents’ Night where kids were placed on stage in rows arranged by height, reciting there the measures of the goodly and the godly.
Remember those nights? The town’s self-confirming pleasure, its almost catechistical delight at seeing “Youth” assembled? It wasn’t our singing or acting, usually inept, that mattered then so much as the fetching aspiration, Youth willing to affirm the weary wisdoms of the age. It was our willingness to merge, however awkwardly, into a single social creature, one whose collective voice could then be cued by the miming lips and crisply metrical baton of the fervent Miss Brightly, the district’s music teacher. And allegiance was pledged. And the band played on.
Obedient, I played my part (second row, to the left) but even then I felt a fraud: part Echo, rotely reciting those instructions we received; part Narcissus, unable to see through the glazed image of myself to that which lay beyond. I would hear schoolmates earnestly parroting the phrases of teachers, parents, of other schoolmates. And, although I would parrot them, too, repeating the same wish lists of possessions and approved, now laughably irrelevant political truths (remember the missile gap? or Quemoy and Matsu?), what I lacked then was the candor of conviction. “Really?” I wanted to say so much of the time, to adults and kids alike. Really?
For we seemed, most days, at least four steps removed: living in a drawing of a drawing of someone’s cartoon of the world as it was. In some fundamental and faintly frightening way, we didn’t have a clue . . . we didn’t “get it.” But it was there, all right—all about us, every day—and had a way of bursting through like a pencil punching holes in our dioramas’ shells, leaving blistered gaps in our model of the world. For me, that it first struck just one block over, one block up.
A neighbor, my neighbor—new, yes, but a neighbor nonetheless. A boy about my age and yet bereft now in my memory of even a name. This boy who lived just one block over, one block up, did a very foolish thing. He ignored the warning of every anxious modern mother, every cautious father. True to his species and his sex, a budding lover of tools and prober of holes, he picked up a screw driver one fine day and stuck its metal blade into a slot meant to hold instead an appliance’s plug. Abracadabra, contact was made, and joined there to the magic that lit our Christmas lights, this boy-about-my-age rapidly rode the current of Progress—which was, we’d all been told, “our most important product”—over the threshold and out of this life.
An ambulance came to take him away from the basement where they found him to the street where we would play. Already he was covered, his smallish body draped, a featureless shape beneath a stretcher’s sterile sheet. White. Blank. Never really known, he left without a trace, his erasure complete—for us at least, there would be no funeral or wake to make the moment real, to engrave a deeper memory of his image or his name. (I feel that I ought to remember his name.) The house remained shuttered and the family, now appalled by our “safe” suburban setting, would quickly move away.
That very evening, though, in every house on nearby streets, over family dinners or interrupting the canned laughter on network TV, a warning was repeated by panicky parents, the tenor of their love turned tyrannically forbidding: never-never-never-NEVER. The it word itself, though, mostly went unsaid, as if, like tribal priests, our parents believed that to mention the word was to beckon its fate.
I can see it there, I now believe: see the self-esteem age in the cradle of the fifties, with its desperate normalcy and urge toward self-deceit. I can start to sketch, from its impingement on my block, that will-to-avoidance soon rendered concrete by domed stadiums, enclosed malls, surround-sound systems, and wall-to-wall screens. Even the town’s name contains an obvious allegorical key. For it was called Livingston—which is to say, Living’s Town—and Living’s Town, I now believe, was shaped to fit the era’s secret central theme. Yes, the evolution of such a place is deeply rooted and complex, but if you wish to quickly grasp the suburbanization of American life, forget for now the history of technology, the lessons of sociology, the economic theories of the left and the right. Understand instead that our pull toward perfection was also driven by a fear as old as Adam. Understand that Living’s Town was raised, its scenery subdivided in just such a way, so that we, its inhabitants, its children especially, would never have to see an unembalmed corpse.
A good intention, of course—the best, one wants to say. To wish your children safe. To try to make the magic circle of immunity an actual inhabitable place. As many a parent knows, the urge to protect can be as fierce a drive as sex and even more exhausting, inspiring wall after wall, fence within fence, a blaze of hazard signs, warning labels, and double yellow lines.
Good intentions go awry, though. We can’t fence out that which lurks within, nor forbid the laws that made us. People die—children, too. Even in Living’s Town. Despite the baffle and the maze of our subdivided place, the fact of it slipped through even as its sights, scents, and sounds were increasingly excluded. In a realm where the musk of living bodies was masked by chemists’ smells and babies fed on formulas drawn from no one’s breasts, Death arrived as a “datum,” all the more disturbing for having been extracted from its grounding in the flesh—sense-less, and thus senseless. No body: nobody: no story to tell. No locus for the pain, and so no center for the pearl. No setting to measure those edges that make the unknowable real.
Or almost no setting. For although the grand cover-up was well under way, our total enclosure was not yet complete. Vestiges of older economies still remained, lovely, scrubby patches of unassimilated space—an overgrown field recalling rural days; a muck-hemmed pond or a strip of real woodland, whose footways were spongy from leaves never raked. Such a place had managed to survive just behind the houses across the street from mine. And despite all the parks and schools that planners would provide, this narrow island of undeveloped space and unsupervised time was, for me, the truest education that Living’s Town supplied.
There, densely clustered trees—tilting maples, scarred oaks—battled for sunlight, starving the scrub growth and screening our eyes. There, ribboned by a footpath our feet had beaten wide, the woods sloped down a hillside and toward a lusher lowland called by us the Vines: a temperate-zone jungle where we swung and climbed, and where dying trees were draped with thickly leaved and latticed creepers, forming tents about their trunks where crawling kids could hide . . . how wonderful to hide! The narrowest stream, unpicturesque and only seasonally fed, drained nearby. At any moment, at any spot, a revelation might arise. To kick some leaves might bare the skull of a squirrel, or a bone-flecked pellet spit up by an owl. To glance behind a log might reveal some orange fur and lusterless eyes, the meaning of whose stillness you couldn’t deny. For you had found it again (or it had found you). That hole in the box. That place toward which your neighbor’s pet cat had crawled off to die.
At the same time, from behind the gray veil of pond scum or piles of plain rock, came the opposite surprise: life, life erupting. Chipmunks dashing. A locust hatching. Once, a six-foot snake weaving through weeds glazed by the sun. In that nearby stream—which, on first glance, seemed so empty—we’d find finger-length crayfish, aggressively pinching. Down by the Vines, we’d pick “poison” berries and grapes so sour that our tongues stung for hours, their gritty small seeds stuck in our teeth.
Summers, we could play there till supper, our minds enclosed in the shell of our fantasies, the usual boy-games of raiding and rescue. Sometimes, though, we would pause, our inventiveness exhausted; and with our bodies slumped, our voices stilled, with the shell of our fantasies finally unhinged, the presence of the place would slowly seep in: a lyricless music, a slow basal chord. It was large, this music, and it was long—so long that even our longing was lost in its rhythm. We’d sense then a dimming, by degree, of all ambition; an erasure, through immersion, of all subdivisions: no magic circles to be entered, not a fig leaf to be found. This was the grounding the ground itself grew from. And to touch it, to be touched by it, however briefly as we sat on a log with our sneakers planted in the soil’s soft rot, beckoned a feeling, wordless and healing, of deep rootedness in the world as it was.
Yet, within those same pauses, we might have heard, too, the engines of progress encroaching our play. Bulldozers, backhoes, truck- after truck-load of gravel and curbstones, the smoke of hot tar smudging the air. To come of age in that time and that place was to witness a vanishing, one whose completion defines a largely unnoted historical divide: the permanent erasure for whole generations of undeveloped space, unsupervised time.
By the year I left junior high, the woods, the Vines, the footpath were gone. The fields I knew had been turned into lawns. Native trees were giving way to ornamental shrubs in fertilized beds. Actual settings had been rendered into “texts,” signs labeled with the likes of Deer Run Lane or The Princeton Estates. Going, too, were the small, affordable homes with lowball loans, the stable neighborhoods and long-lived marriages: the whole ecosystem of good intentions, its habits and its habitats, its fanciful narratives “on behalf of all children,” going awry.
Mobile was the word, and even now the sixties seem a fast-forward blur of renouncements and departures, residence and precedent likewise deserted, entanglements averted, presidents shot. (Goodbye, Camelot.) Going, neighbors; going, friends; and soon, too, I was gone—to college and beyond. My brother, my sister, then my parents moved on—new homes, new jobs, our nuclear family spread to four states. Only my in-laws remained in town, and even they had switched homes, moving up and over to a newer subdivision, on whose wide and wending streets, I was jogging one day near the end of the seventies when the full force of those vanishings finally struck.
I stopped abruptly in the middle of the street. It was a midsummer day like so many of my childhood—bright and hot, perfect for play—yet empty of movement, eerily tame: the wind barely stirred the leaf-dense trees and the only sound to be heard was the hum of compressors cooling the air for rooms unseen. No high-pitched shrieks. No scraping of chalk on the crackless walks. No blur of looped rope rhythmically spanking the neighborhood’s streets.
It had come to this, the vanishing complete: that on a perfect summer day, in childhood’s planned estate, not a child could be found—much less “Youth assembled”—not a single boy or girl during the whole of my five mile jog. The seventies had come and the children, too, had gone. Where had the children of Living’s Town gone?
Party in Transit
Years later, I was standing at a bar in Sea-Tac Airport, just prior to boarding a midnight flight. By then I had fathered two sons and published two books, and much else had changed in the charting of my life, including the coast of my residence. To visit my original and still mobile family had come to require this longest of journeys across the lower forty-eight: from top left, in what is now frequently called America’s “most livable” city, to the bottom right of the Sunshine State.
The trip itself was a happy occasion. For although I disliked much of the culture of southern Florida—its shabby buildings and shallow social roots, its scary segregation of communities by age—I was as tempted as anyone then by the almost silky softness of its tropical sands. More importantly, the sequence of related emergencies that had kept my soul in a vise for a number of years had loosened just a bit. My students’ stories were all read, my grades were in. And now, having dragged my bags, heavy with books and sporting gear, to the bar nearest the gate of my departure, I was ready at last for a little peaceful celebration—a good book and a good beer—to mark the real start of this rare vacation.
Something was wrong, though, something not quite right. After ordering a beer, I had the edgy sense that even this small plan had somehow gone awry, and as I surveyed the space behind me for a quiet, empty table, I slowly realized why. For although there were many tables empty, none were quiet that night. None were quiet because every fifteen feet or so, in each corner of the room, a large video screen was radiating sounds and imagery in a relentless cross-fire of atmospheric entertainment. I scanned left, then right. But wherever my gaze was fixed, save at my feet, my field of vision was eclipsed by one of those screens while the borders of my thoughts were constantly infringed by a single soundtrack buzzing in, with an eerie omnipresence, from every side at once. I paused, momentarily dumbfounded. In the parlance of old cowboy shows, they’d “got me surrounded”: the literary man ambushed by a band of surround-sound speakers and wall-to-wall TVs.
“Excuse me, but can one of those screens be turned off?”
The bartender, change in hand, greeted the question as if I had just asked her to remove, barehanded, a view-obscuring wall. I refused to move, though. I kept her in sight. What to do, what to do? Pull a plug out? Demand a refund and, wheeling about, take my business some place else? . . . Where, though?
I glanced down at the bags surrounding my feet. My palms were sweaty, my shoulders still ached. Worse, given Sea-Tac’s design then, to find another bar meant leaving this wing and so having to pass through security again: more ringing bells and racing hearts, more suspicious stares from the luggage police.
Beaten, I took a seat. In two awkward trips, I brought my bags, beer, and change to a table, where, attempting to settle, I became part of a scene that had fewer customers than video screens. Writers are stubborn, though, and even here I wouldn’t quit on my planned celebration. I unzipped my bag, retrieved a book. Sipping from my beer, I started to read a three hundred year-old George Herbert poem . . . and so arrived, unaware, at the little irritation out of which all these pages, this unanticipated book, would eventually be formed.
I had a friend in college—let’s call him Bart—in whom earnestness, sociability, and the urge to get ahead were merged in equal parts, and who decided, therefore, to pursue the Law. As a result, language turned puffy in Bart’s apprentice mouth. Meals became repasts, a toilet the commode. The most mundane of frat boy topics—the best NBA franchise, the ideal breast size—he’d gravely drape in a verbal wig and gown. Nevertheless, as I sat in the bar I was astonished to find that an old phrase of Bart’s, as puffy as ever yet eerily apt, floated back to mind: the juxtaposition of the incongruous.
There could be few juxtapositions more incongruous than the spiritually intense, verbally complex George Herbert and the vacuous sphere of banal entertainment in which I was presently trying to read him. At first, though, it wasn’t the special irony of the selection that rubbed me the wrong way—the problem was wider and blunter than that. I simply couldn’t read. The video’s soundtrack kept breaking in, derailing comprehension again and again.
And this wasn’t, mind you, some body-blasting wall of bass and drum. I hadn’t wandered into some den of MTV, with its prepackaged (and highly profitable) “affronts to common decency.” No, the content—bland music, smooth voice-overs—was even less interesting than that robotically “rebellious” capitalist fare. Neither so rude nor so loud, less commanding than distracting, the volume had been set at a level meant to skim, with a dietician’s fervor, all the curds and cream from consciousness, the shapely mind denied all richness, complexity, all density of thought. I could “read” but not read: a sports column, yes; some tabloid piece; a headline, a horoscope; more advice to the lovelorn, with numbered tips, on the ins and outs of orgasmic bliss. But it wasn’t possible to reason, calculate, ponder, or compose.
Forbidden to read, I put down the poem. Beaten again, I did what was expected (that is, as the airport’s environment coercively directed): I looked up. Irritated, I watched and listened with full attention to the presentation still impinging from every side at once. On each screen, a creamy mountain scene with slender folks skiing quickly gave way to some information piece—on vitamins, I think. This, in turn, quickly faded into an interview with someone semi-famous (a quiz show habitué? a failed athlete turned spokesman-for-the-game?): the sort of public figure one knows one ought to know but never quite recalls. And so on, and so on. No topic serious, no segment allowed to last more than a minute, no relation between the pieces, and so no rhyme or reason to the constant transitions: the whole show a kind of illustration of Bart’s “juxtaposition of the incongruous”—the incongruous rendered innocuous, though, by the shallowness of the topics, and by a mood-soothing music thickly applied, like a mud bath to the hide of the postmodern soul.
I tried to resist, but the compass of my senses felt oddly deranged. It didn’t matter if I swiveled in my chair: my perspective couldn’t change. In this simulated world that had captured my attention, each direction seemed the same, exactly the same: front mirrored back, left mirrored right; and given the nonsense sequence of innocuous segments, now also blurred with then, too little to distinguish time from time. There was nothing to engage in any meaningful way, but with the volume too loud to allow an escape, I was still forced to abide in this virtual place—out of real space and out of real time, or rather out of an awareness of real space and time. I was still forced to be there—a there which, although nowhere really, was a nowhere impinging from everywhere at once.
Where was I? What was it—this place of continual “dissolves” and perpetual distraction, of monotonous mood coercively applied? Some new form of Muzak, engaging the eye as well as the ear? A kind of dentist’s waiting room, but outfitted with screens, its sound turned up to the exact pitch and hum that would block out the neurotransmitters of fear? As in the old elevator music’s mind-numbing medleys, this video imagery, while constantly changing, seemed essentially the same, processed like cheese into a textureless range of emotion and reason. Not only fear was being blocked, but wonder, exasperation, exultation, and sadness, in all their subtle mixtures and heady evocations, a whole palette of possible responses lost.
Some line had been crossed—when? how? by whom? and for what?—in the right to regulation: between public and private, between exterior and interior forms of behavior. Something had launched a high-tech invasion of the self’s secret spaces, its most sovereign occasions. New if implicit bans had been added to those normally posted. Here, not only NO SMOKING, NO TIPPING, but NO INTRICATE FEELING, NO VEXATIOUS THOUGHT. Or, as we might choose to phrase it in the ever polite Pacific Northwest: THANK YOU FOR NOT THINKING.
Soon, of course, the soft sands, the hot sun—the real party I wanted—would be mine, and I would return to Seattle both relaxed and revived. But something had entered that night when, hoping to celebrate, my own shell had opened up; something small but hard had lodged in my mind, like a shard in a shoe I couldn’t take off. And although it seemed at first an irritant of the banal sort (more mayo jar than Helen’s fateful snatching), the longer I thought about it, the more like a snatching it seemed to be. A hijacking of the queen—by whom? and for what?—that most royal queen called consciousness.
Over and over in the months to come, I recalled that bar and the strange space it carved. Over and over, my memory would insist on its own obsessive security check, its fluoroscoping eye repeatedly searching the scene of the crime until, at last, a new form was traced, a danger spied . . . until the subliminal voices of commonsense caution seemed to emerge, answering the question I had posed long before. Listen, those voices seemed to say: you really need listen. For this is the place that, willingly or not, we all have entered. This is where the children of Living’s Town have gone.
Just Saying No
Can we open the shell? Can we break the magic spell of these pseudo-places and touch again our native ground? It used to be that when the circus came to town, the challenge was to sneak our way into the tent; now that its virtual big top encloses our town, the new and ever more urgent task is to search its rim for a safe way out. Where might that be, though? They stream Lady Gaga in Nepal now. A decade ago, I read a poll of Beijing students who, when asked to select the greatest people of the age, chose the following two: Chou En-lai and Michael Jordan. Now, one presumes, they’re singing songs to Prozac and saying: “Chou En – who?” Here’s a puzzle to ponder as our masts begin to shudder in the new global order’s turbulent air: how can we disembark from the voyage of our times when its vehicle is virtually everywhere?
This is the age of airways, though, not sea lanes. And when I try to select an apropos scene—one that might capture our era’s special mix of spiritual banality and material rapture, one that might pose the key dilemma we now face—I return to Sea-Tac airport. I recall especially those moments after take off when your fear first fades and, hung like a hammock between security and dread, your mood becomes as buoyant as the body of the jet. You bend down, glimpse out and, just that quickly, you are gone. You feel the whole of your mind intensify as it funnels through your window to giddily expand in the space beyond. This is it: that sphere of pain and play where, once upon a time, for reasons unclear and without ever asking, we as a species were licensed to range. Translucent tufts of cloud, say, sailing above the ocean’s shadowed blue. Or the serrated violence of a mountain ridge rising, its cliff-faces scored in astonishing hues.
You can see the human settlement, too: our patchwork fields, our network of roads, houses hung on hills, ports clinging like barnacles to coastal folds. What you see most clearly from the thermal you ride is where Living’s Town fits within the whole: how the pittance of our genius can only faintly glint, as if a penny tossed for luck into a canyon’s gaping bowl. And perhaps the plane tips, banking to turn. And you catch your breath then as the arc of the horizon seems to be drawn like a cello’s curved bow, long and slow, across some resonant chamber inside.
Suddenly, though, a voice intrudes, a perkily officious spokesperson for the crew. And you have to listen. Even tuning out, face toward the window, you can’t exclude her chipper message: how they’re presenting today a “major motion picture,” Wood Nymphs in Winter, starring Marcie as Echo, Brendan as Narcissus. “A romantic comedy,” she says, “with the pace of a thriller.” The sales pitch concludes. Minutes pass. But as you try to slip back to the space beyond, you’re captured again by that intercom voice which, even as it asks, always seems to insist. And it has, this time, an all too relevant, personal request. (One you knew to expect, so why react with this sudden chill?) Could those in window seats please pull down their shades, so that the passengers who paid might better view their film?
Such a trifle, it would seem—to comply with the needs of the nameless crowd. And no one else seems to mind. All about you now, you can hear the sound of the shades going down, you can sense the communal light growing dimmer. You shift in your seat, you loosen its belt. As the darkness thickens, you’re made aware again of the cabin’s curving walls, the tight tube they form—were they always this small? You’re about to bend again toward your window’s soothing light when, from the corner of your eye, you spot a flight attendant fast approaching.
Glancing her way, you can’t help but see on a neighbor’s small screen a portion of the movie’s opening scene. There, a pining Marcie repeats the lines from a thousand prior flicks. There, a preening Brendan leans in to admire himself again on the moon of her passion’s total eclipse. Even without the sound, you know the script. Just the briefest glimpse and you know what you will get if you pay to tune in: Echo with spin, the candied climax of unconditional bliss where girl gets boy and both get rich. Yes, this is the sort of “myth”—American-born, virtually fashioned—where everyone will live happily ever after (ever after, ever after . . .) Where, against all odds, a glistening Sisyphus plants his flag on Everest’s top, and a certain small child, “wise beyond his years,” emerges from a drier to dry the jar of his parents’ tears. Abracadabra, all across the nation, dead boys arise—light as Lazarus, with milk-sweet smiles—to play again in childhood’s basement.
“Sir?” the flight attendant says. Like the lettuce they serve, the smile she gives is wilting at the edges: she is “sad,” that’s the message, and her sadness now is meant to chasten. She bends, she blinks; obsequious with concern, she tilts toward your face. Nevertheless, you refuse to act; you want at least to make her ask. And so: she does.
“For the sake of your fellow passengers, Sir, would you mind pulling your window shade down?”
Anxiously now you shift in your seat. You didn’t ask for this, you think—you didn’t want the attention. And it doesn’t help now that, somewhere behind you during this pause, you can hear a fellow rebel giving up the cause. It’s unnerving somehow, the soft scraping of his shade, the further dimming of our cave, as yet one more outside view is lost.
Listen—you really need to listen. For this is where we are, you and I; this is the challenge our age has staged, a choice we can’t refuse. Between engagement and entertainment. Between the old Nature, where beauty’s veined with pain, and the new-and-improved Nature 2.0. This is where we are and, Solomon or not, each of us must judge. To which of these places should we sing our songs of praise? In which realm should we house, day-in, day-out, the royal queen of consciousness? . . .
Press 1 if you want the old; press 2 for the new. This is a highly advanced form of parable—wisdom in its interactive mode. Thanks to the boys in the lab, truth itself can be custom-made now; and soon, with a virtual catalogue from which to choose, each story will work out “as you like it” (as you like it, as you like it . . .). Every day, in every way, more autonomy here for you and me.
The temptation is old; the warnings against it, too. Far better writers than I—from Hawthorne to Melville, Berry to Lasch—have left behind their cautions. It is after them that I simply ask: where would we be if even our wildest materialist wishes came to pass? This, I believe, is how they would answer.
We can set up house on virgin Mars, or even beyond; we can fuse energy from the sea or, sucking data from the stars, definitively prove the Big Bang right or wrong; we can mass produce the golden goose, or that sporting shoe that tooled mercurial Michael’s magical jump, so that all of God’s children can eat the cake of kings and, heels sprouting wings, surge to power-dunk; every home from Singapore to Nome can be Wi-Fi connected so that the global mind is firing all its synapses at once—and still it wouldn’t be enough to tip the scales of human fate. Beneath the cover-up of progress, certain facts refuse to budge, the elemental holds its sway. The worm’s still in the apple. The kid’s still in the drier. And the heart still wants the planet on its plate.
My heart, too, as those authors I admire repeatedly admonish. Which is why, after them, I keep trying to remember that autonomy is less a quantity of choices than a quality of intention, a way of seeing through. Less a menu of accessible fantasies than a mapping of one’s will to the landscape of reality—an obedience to the true. Now, rather than rewriting the world “as I like it,” I keep trying, after them, to school my stubborn heart in how to like the world. “The fact,” G.K. Chesterton wrote—not the wish or the hope but the fact—”that [we] must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it.”3 Now there’s a hard number, a knotty problem posed by our existential math, for to be a lover of the world, we have to risk its rougher edges, probe its darkest holes. To be the world’s lover, we have to open up our shells—even knowing, as we do, that the current which cleanses can also kill.
So it is that, in schooling my heart’s likes, I keep trying to say: no immunity, please. No extraterrestrial Edens for me. I want access, not exits. I want what Narcissus never gave and so, in turn, could not receive: intimacy, not expertise.
Irritation, negotiation, interaction: exchange. Dialogue, not monologue. Marriage, not reportage with its mindless echoing of cultural clichés: “inside sources have reported” . . . “experts said today.” All those glib consultants from Jargonese & Jade: what do they really mean? All those insinuating lyrics and enclosing screens, the unscrolling of their “myths” . . . (They’re dying up there, Marcie and Brendan, the souls behind the masks: they’re dying up there from loneliness.) Again and again a voice intrudes, more perkily officious spokespersons for our crew: “for the sake of your fellow passengers, sir . . .”
You’ll know by now which button I would choose—or rather, honoring the difference between intentions and actions, which I want to choose. How strange that, at the very stage of my life when I most desire to obey, I feel compelled to rebel, to resist or escape the order of the age. I think of Melville these days: how hard he found it to love the world, to balance truth with hope; how angry he was with our nation’s cultivation of a phony innocence and with our addiction, evident even then, to mood-enhancing happy endings. I think of Bartleby, too, from “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I recall that pearl which Melville managed to make out of his own rage at our nation’s blurring of greed with grace—that perfectly pitched parable of wry refusal. Set on Wall Street, too. In the epicenter of American can-do, of get-up-and-go, this comic incarnation of “just say no.”
It is after Bartleby that I say, then: no more copy, thank you. No more utopian systems, video sugar plums or I.P.O. visions shall be mnemonically scriven inside my head. Someone else can spell-check the Ten Steps to Success, or cock-a-doodle-doo the latest laws of salesmanship. There are other laws—hymns, fables, koans, psalms—that I would rather engrave inside my head as guide and pilot to my actions. That the wages of work are not merely money. That love’s not a spoonful you can suck clean like honey. That while our smiles may be winning, our gadgets neat, the only bottom line that finally matters is the one which waits beneath our feet. I might be wrong, but according to those laws, the real Invisible Hand couldn’t care less what the Market does.
All easy enough to profess, I admit. Words are cheap if you publish only not to perish on ambition’s tenure ladder. In the world as run by Jargonese & Jade, we find it hard not to blather. In the new Nature, mood-enhanced, it is fantasy that abhors a vacuum. The crap, the unmitigated shit that’s filled my head—all those sports star fantasies, Nobel-speech pufferies; all the hours, the days I’ve managed to kill. (And that’s a phrase, “killing time,” that doesn’t seem so bad until you learn, too late, that time is all we have.) Believe me, there’s not a day during which my finger doesn’t itch to push button #2. I mean, how great it would have been if the boy had arisen from his basement floor. How sweet, oh how sweet it would be if most-livable cities could guarantee a more livable life . . .
Against the pull of such delusions, I cling to the news left by my betters. They’re the ones who remind me that our fondness for spin can only make us dizzy. They’re the ones who insist that there can be no letters more dead than those we pen in the offices of what-might-have-been.
Time is all we have. It matters what we choose—Echo in her cave, Narcissus by his pool. Pull down the shade? For my own sake, and maybe, just maybe for the sake of my fellow passengers: I would prefer not to.
(Originally published in “The Ohio Review” and adapted for a chapter in The Demise of Virtue)