how do you cope with the fact that nobody will ever understand you the way you understand you?
I’m very sure that we’re all mysteries to ourselves.
The more a person attracts adherents and admirers, the more a person seems to present a unified intention and gapless self-comprehension, the more you may be certain that that person is a complete mystery to him or herself. Needless to say, like attracts like, and the admirers mirror this shell enclosing a vacuity.
If you wanted to see this in the wild, and at the same time witness a whole sheaf of hateful pathologies splayed out with uncommon vividness, read the lead paragraph of this New York Times Style section article from 2002:
If the social commentators are to be believed, the post-Sept. 11 world has caused a certain kind of woman to re-evaluate what she is looking for in a man. Theoretically, this woman — clever, controlled, prone to overthink — no longer feels an inexorable pull toward the guy who shows up in a skinny vintage suit and a pair of Converse All Stars, a copy of something by Gaston Bachelard peeking out of his pocket. She has seen the valiant efforts of rescue workers and remarked to herself that men like Donald Rumsfeld make big, impactive decisions in the time it would take any of her exes to order lunch. Suddenly she finds herself tired of the dawdlers, melancholics and other variants of genius who would not know what to do with a baseball mitt or a drill press.
It might just be personal preference on my part, but there’s something nicer about people who are empty like a bell compared to those whose anxiety has sutured closed around the mystery of them. Cuz the people who have worried themselves into smooth shell always feel like they’re completely covered with hornets when you get close enough to them…
An idea’s birth is legitimate only if one has the feeling that one is catching oneself plagiarizing oneself. —Karl Kraus
Thomas Hardy’s anecdote about looking up a word in the dictionary because he wasn’t certain it existed—and finding that he himself was the only authority cited for its usage. —David Markson, Vanishing Point
The Prophet by Alexander Pushkin, Google 17/5/14, trans.
Tormented by spiritual thirst, In the wilderness, I eked out a bleak, And a six-winged seraph At the crossroads I was; finger light as a dream he touched my Lids: hath prophetic apple, like a startled eagle. My ears touched it, and filled their noise and ringing: And heed I shudder sky, and mountain flight of angels, and marine reptile submerged speed, and sub-vine vegetation. And he clung to my mouth, And tore my sinful tongue, My tongue idle and sly, And the sting-forked snake in my mouth he stilled Invested bloody right hand. And he cut my chest with the sword, and took heart quivering and a coal burning fire into the chest hole pushed. Like a corpse in the desert I lay, And the voice of God called to me: 'Arise, O Prophet, and see, and give ear, Be filled with the will of My, And, bypassing the sea and land, Verb-burn the hearts of men.’
I find it difficult to deal with praise because there is something irritating about pleasure. being told that I am special or good at doing things right, this tensions me. I’m imagining those little rubber hemispheres we played with as kids. the ones whose poles you pushed in and partways inverted, and then waited for the nipple-shape you’d made to flip back into a dome as it flew off the table. it’s fun to be fucked with like that, but like anything that springs you, the tautness dissipates and the irritation at being unable to live up to our transient pleasures takes its place.
and anyway, it’s a grave mistake to think that praise aimed at what you’ve done strikes anything close to the person who did it. the arrow always sails far over our heads, on its way to the work. and feeling better about yourself for being told you’ve done something ‘good’ is a little like running up to where the arrow fell, sticking it in your chest and shouting ‘You got me!’
When I was in third grade I was in the last year of elementary school. The school was four hallways arranged around a courtyard where three tame sheep and an old nanny goat ate grass. On the first day of May every kid in the school would dance around a maypole, over and around one another until the bands of colored fabric we held above our heads were braided down the whole length of the blonde pole. The teachers would applaud us and bring large, white dairy cans over to the school’s five butterchurns. The strongest man at the school, a math teacher, would heft the cans of cream into the air and pour them into the stoneware buckets of the churns. Kids would take turns jumping on the wooden treadles that, by an oscillating arm, worked the pistons up and down inside the churns. Our enthusiasm was boundless and we soon had fresh butter to put on our lunches of saltines with grape juice. Then the school’s nurse would use an enormous black electric razor to shear the sheep of the wool we would card and dye later that afternoon.
Soon after this I began taking entrance exams for prep schools. These were private boys schools that ran from grades four through twelve. A prep school is, in an obvious sense, meant to prepare students to go to college, but the implicit purpose is to place them on a trajectory that ends in positions of control and authority within white society.
I took four exams for four schools. I worked diligently on the first, but when I took the second, third, and fourth I discovered that each was composed of a set of questions identical to the first. I wrote ‘I took this test last week, call them for my score’ on the top of the Scantron cards. I was accepted by only one of the four schools, and I went there in the fall.
This school was on close to eighty acres of land. Grades were called ‘Forms’ and each was designated a roman numeral. My favorite class was art, where our teacher would play Tangerine Dream as we tried to draw our own faces by looking in special mirrors that turned our heads upside-down. The teacher had a closely cropped ginger beard and could draw perfect freehand circles of any size on the chalkboard. After flipping one of his Tangerine Dream LP’s over, he would frequently retreat to one of the classroom’s bay windows and smoke a cigarette with his body leaning halfway out of it.
There was a library for the younger grades, but I quickly found the upper school’s library. It was a double-height room with wood panels and marble busts of famous authors on top of each riser of books. The decimal system was used on the spines of the library’s books, but if you asked the librarian where something was, he would say something like ‘Voltaire Seven’ which meant that you should look on the seventh shelf down from Voltaire’s bust.
I was not allowed actually to check out books from the upper school’s library, but I found that if you dropped the book you wanted to read out of one of the windows and into the bushes below, you could circumvent the anti-theft panels at its only entrance. After I was finished with a book I simply put it through the night-return slot when nobody was looking.
One of the books I read in fifth grade was ‘To The Finland Station’ by Edmund Wilson. The book is a history of socialist revolutionaries and it was the most exciting history book I had ever read. Wilson’s writing was like discovering that the water you had been drinking all your life was a diluted version of a purer, more concentrated, and exponentially more refreshing liquid. And Wilson was giving you this essence for free, by the gallon, page after page. In his voice, everything about Socialism seemed both fascinating and inevitable. The next book I dropped out of the library’s window was a paperback copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ bound as one.
I had been teased about being fatter than most of the other students at the prep school and it did not especially bother me. I was frequently told by teachers that I should play football for reasons that they indicated should be obvious. I preferred to play tennis during the heart of the afternoon carved out for sports. The athletics director was a man named Ernest Winkle who wore a silver whistle and burgundy sweatsuit to every occasion. He was frustrated by my decision to play tennis but eventually lost any ardor he had for my usefulness after he took seriously a group of kids when they said I was a fag. I was happy to be in distant communication with another person across the school’s clay courts.
A student named Crispin sat next to me in history class. He saw me reading the library’s copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ one day, before the class started and began teasing me about it. I tried to explain about Wilson’s mastery of the English language, but the joke was in the air and Crispin was soon bouncing lines off four or five other kids. One of them said the phrase ‘Red whale’ just before the teacher stood up at his desk to start the class.
The next day, when I walked into the history classroom, Crispin stood up, clicked his heels together, shot his right arm out in the familiar Nazi salute and said in a loud voice ‘All hail the Red whale!’ Everybody laughed and I was extremely embarrassed. My first impulse was to explain how stupid it was to use the Nazi salute in this situation but I quickly realized that this wouldn’t help. For the next two or three months, everywhere I went at the school there was somebody from my form or from the older forms who would shoot out his right arm and yell ‘All hail the Red whale!’ Eventually I started carrying a portable CD player in the outside coat pocket of my blazer so that I could listen to something other than that taunt while I was walking between classes.
I thought that, like any other joke, this one would become old and lose its edge. I found, however, that once the joke had spread to thirty or forty other kids it stopped being a joke and became something more like a ritual. People stopped in their tracks when they saw me, became solemn, threw out their arm, and with no attempt to be funny shouted the line. They lowered their arm and waited for me to acknowledge that they had greeted me, and once I had, they walked on. It very quickly felt like being snipped out of the school’s social fabric and being repatterned into the school’s professional outsider.
This was the first time that I felt the depression waiting for you in the basement when the upper floors of your self start to collapse. I wasn’t stung by their dislike of me, but by the fact that their dislike was becoming less and less foreign to how I thought of myself. Their dislike did not require me to agree with it for it to become one of my own, domestic feelings.
The shame at being a person who was given a Nazi salute everywhere he went made it very difficult to ask an adult to help me. The later stages of this bullying would be funny if they hadn’t actually happened.
The Jewish students in my form who greeted me with the Nazi salute started calling me an anti-Semite because they had heard that Stalin was planning a purge of every Jew in the Soviet Union at the time of his fatal stroke. This news filtered back to the parents of most of my friends, who then began to discourage their sons from hanging out with me.
In the end, I became desperate and asked the headmaster of the youngest three forms (or lower school) for help. I went into his office one afternoon and—as I looked over his shoulder at a Looney Toons poster commemorating the death of Mel Blanc, in which every cartoon character he had voiced stood speechless before a solitary microphone—I told him my story. He nodded along and asked me questions about when it had started and by whom. I felt a growing sense of confidence that this man and his non-threatening mustache would intercede on my behalf. I was wrong.
When I finished my story he said explicitly that he was going to do nothing. Though he didn’t say it was my fault for reading ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in public, he did say that it was my problem and that if I wanted to fix it he would suggest a way. He told me that I ought to stand up at the end of the next school assembly and deny that I was a Communist. He said that the only way I could extricate myself from the mess I was in was publicly to deny that I held any sympathy for Socialism.
And so, at the end of the next assembly, I stood up in front of a hundred and fifty kids and recanted. I said that I was not a Communist and that I had no connection of any kind with Stalinism. I said that I was sorry I had given people the impression that I was or had. The last thing I said was to ask that nobody applaud my recantation. One or two people clapped ironically, anyway.
I came to think of this experience as the narrow edge on a wedge. One of several, that together separated me from all the other lumber being floated downstream. Lumber moving towards a sawmill that none of those who bullied me have escaped.
There's an article on website The Awl right now called "The Dead Cannot Consent" which is a response to the Wallace estate's complaints about the making of this new DFW film. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the state of Wallace fans in general, given that their response to this movie is to actually decry the people who actually knew Wallace for speaking out against it?
Many people don’t know that JG Ballard trained as a physician.
There’s an early short story called The Drowned Giant. It was written shortly after his wife died while on vacation with her family, of a pneumonia that Spanish doctors were unable to cure. In this story, a 300 foot tall man washes up on the beach of an English resort town. 1964 was a fulcrum year. Ballard was disgusted by the medical profession and by himself. While his wife was still living, Ballard was bolted into a happiness that made his writing shallow. Her death thrust his three children on him in a way that made his compartment of self-satisfaction much too crowded any longer to soothe. After his wife’s death Ballard was thrown back on himself, where he nearly foundered.
The town’s inhabitants are at first awed by the presence of a man the size of a cathedral, lying drowned on a tidal flat. But the giant quite naturally becomes an object of tourism, and even of affection. Children dare one another to climb over his face, leap across the black well of his parted lips and curl up in the orbits of his cloudy eyes. Then, as the man begins to putrefy, his flesh is stripped from his bones and sold to factories where it will be rendered into cat food and fertilizer. His penis is dug out by the root on the orders of a theatrical promoter. The promoter has it skinned, dried, and loaded onto a truck where it follows a traveling circus, misadvertised as the member of a whale.
Whether you like it or not, whether you’re a fan or not, whether you’re tending some memorial flame or embroidering the edge of some disintegrating memory, whether you’re canning his posterity or wrapping death in chintz by referring to his suicide with despicable platitudes, if your connection to David Foster Wallace is personal in any way you will find yourself in the crowd that gathered on the beach in Ballard’s story. You are by turns deluded, callous, ghoulish, given to flabby eulogy, aroused by profit, paralyzed by glory, or worst of all, inebriated by intimacy.
The giant is dead, and though we will continue to gather around it to suck meaning from the corpse (we are helpless to do anything else), we will find that the flesh—flesh of the body or flesh of the spirit—can be sliced only so thin before its sections surrender to transparency and finally, nothingness.
And in the end, when only the ribs at low tide remain, when every exploitation has been undertaken and every last bubble of fruitless intimacy blown and burst, there will be what there always was—what there has always been in the face of death—the story.
In that final battle, with the country at the mercy of uncontrolled and unforeseen forces of subversion, [socialist Chilean President Salvatore Allende] was still bound by legality. The most dramatic contradiction of his life was being at the same time the congenital foe of violence and a passionate revolutionary. He believed that he had resolved the contradiction with the hypothesis that conditions in Chile would permit a peaceful evolution toward socialism under bourgeois legality. Experience taught him too late that a system cannot be changed by a government without power.
That belated disillusionment must have been the force that impelled him to resist to the death, defending the flaming ruins of a house that was not his own, a sombre mansion that an Italian architect had built to be a mint and that ended up as a refuge for presidents without power. He resisted for six hours with a sub-machine gun that Castro had given him and was the first weapon that Allende had ever fired.
Around four o’clock in the afternoon, Major General Javier Palacios managed to reach the second floor with his adjutant, Captain Gallardo, and a group of officers. There, in the midst of the fake Louis XV chairs, the Chinese dragon vases and the Rugendas paintings in the red parlour, Allende was waiting for them. He was in shirtsleeves, wearing a miner’s helmet and no tie, his clothing stained with blood. He was holding the sub-machine gun but he had run low on ammunition.
Allende knew General Palacios well. A few days before, he had told [the journalist] Augusto Olivares that this was a dangerous man with close connections to the American embassy. As soon as he saw him appear on the stairs, Allende shouted at him: “Traitor!” and shot him in the hand.
According to the story of a witness who asked me not to give his name, the president died in an exchange of shots with that gang. Then all the other officers, in a caste-bound ritual, fired on the body. Finally, a non-commissioned officer smashed in his face with the butt of his rifle.
This story about the United States’ role in Chile’s 1973 coup is the first, and in one sense the only thing Americans should be reading by Gabriel Garcia Marquez right now.
Admitted to a good liberal arts college and the free honors program at my city's public university. I'd prefer the LAC's academics/culture, but I barely grasp the meaning of 230k. Consciously, all I'd like in this life is to open the floodgates of my sternum and let that primordial silvery stuff inside out to mix with the equivalent fluids that sit in others' guts, dormant until piqued by the prospect of combination. But considering the more frugal choice stings my pride sharply. How do I deal?
Because liberal arts education is yet another thing that’s free to those who can afford it but very expensive for those who can’t, the real question isn’t about school but about yourself. The question is:
Do you care about the whirl of experience more than you care about the comfort and leisure that would make that sort of life a pleasure?
Because if you do liberal arts right, you’ll become a roulette ball that never settles. For the rest of your life no identity will seduce, no doctrine will persuade, and no accomplishment will reward. You will not win because the momentum of intellectual greed bends everything into a circuit.
If Faust and Paradise Lost don’t read as cautionary tales to you; if you’re okay with seeming like a loser to everyone around you and—inwardly—even to your deepest self, then do it.
You’ll be in debt either way: better to yourself than Sallie Mae Cocksucker.
This 32-year-old man was an ambitious and creative mathematician whose life was geared to a weekly psychophysiological cycle. Towards the end of the working working week, he would become fretful, irritable and distractible, ‘useless’ at anything save the simplest routine tasks. He would have difficulty sleeping on Friday nights, and on Saturdays would become unbearable. On Sunday mornings he would awaken with a violent migraine, and would be forced to remain in bed for the greater part of the day. Towards evening he would break out in a gentle sweat and pass many pints of pale urine. The fury of his sufferings would melt away with the passage of these secretions. Following the attack he would feel a profound refreshment, a tranquillity, and a surge of creative energy which would carry him to the middle of the following week.
How best to avoid describing myself in terms of the culture—in my case: books, movies, games, art—that I like? (Without doing Wittgenstein's mutter-about-my-increasing-stupidity thing?)
I think that it’s good to remember the distinction between the things that lend color to your life and the pale, translucent thing to which their color is lent.
So for example, you have the Egyptian tomb that Howard Carter excavated in 1922. I get uncomfortable and excited when I think about it. I find myself imagining the plates of carbonized fruit, the mummified cats, the fillets of fish laid out to feed them—fillets that were found to have raised themselves into arches as they dried, and then suddenly to crumble into dust when they were touched.
The immense period for which the tomb’s contents stayed perfectly still gives you the sense that time has been building up inside of it. And that the silence you hear once the doors are hauled open is not a silence at all, but instead a deafening testimony that time is bearing to a secret kept for three thousand years.
The testimonies of culture deafen us in a similar way. They are loud because life is hard. They are intense because disappointment can bleach. And to the kind of person who needs to make representations of their connection to culture, these accidents can easily be confused with an essential lack of vividness.
But then I think of a moment in the tomb after the excavation was complete, after the gold, the corpses and the treasure all had been removed. In this moment a junior archeologist is alone, copying hieroglyphs from the walls. And the only thing he can hear is the sound of wooden beams that creak and pop in the new air.
Karl Marx wrote most of Capital at a side table not much larger than an open issue of TheNew York Times, feeling as he did for most of his creative life, a pain in his side that reminded him constantly of his father’s early death from liver cancer.
the phenomenon of suicide would appear to argue that even mortal life as we now experience it is too long for some people.
On April 14th, 1919 the sister of Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne, married one of his closest friends, the painter Jean Crotti. Marcel’s wedding present to the couple arrived by mail three weeks later. It was a letter that contained a set of instructions for a work of art his sister and brother in law were to make. His letter said to take a geometry textbook, to open it, and then to bind it with wire to the metal railing of their apartment’s balcony. It was to be left out in the weather until it learned the facts of life.
That’s you and all of us. We have ideas about beauty, axioms that describe how faces ought to look and even rules for the right texture of skin. But right now, as you’re reading this, rays from space are entering your body and destroying the elasticity of the collagen in your skin. With every smile, with every expression of disapproval, you are stretching proteins that, thanks to this cosmic barrage, will no longer return your skin to its original and attractive tension. Wrinkles come from emotion and the particles shed by dying stars.
Beauty is a game that does not permit those who can compete to retire as champions. What do you do when you’re faced with a game that no one can win but which everyone feels compelled to play? What’s the point of squeezing yourself for the rest of your life in order to contribute your several drops to the ocean of human knowledge? Or culture? Duchamp was in Buenos Aires when his sister was married and he wrote a letter about how any game a person felt compelled to play was also a game whose rules anyone could change.