Monday, November 26, 2012

Denial Of Death: I Can Haz Manual Plz?

Detail of Bruegel painting The Triumph of Death, via Wikimedia Commons here.
I kept hearing about this book, Denial of Death, written in 1973 by Ernest Becker.  I heard it was about the dread of death, and the influence this dread has on how people live.  I heard that it was about the way people deal with the reality of death, by committing themselves, in over-the-top ways, to certain kinds of ideas and projects.  I heard it spoke to the particular kind of anxiety associated with the fragility of being human, and the particular kind of depression associated with looking mortality clear in the eye. 

I heard these things and I thought:  this is the book for me.  I can never quite get death out of my mind.  I'm baffled by people who say death gives life meaning.  How can you have meaning -- how can you even have any fucking dignity -- knowing that this is the only time around, and there's only so many days, and when they're over you're a pile of bones and rotting flesh?  And nevermind yourself.  How can you live knowing your loved ones are in the same stupid situation? 

The only rational way to deal with the problem of death is to forget about it for a while.  Some people seem to find this forgetting relatively easy.  I don't know how these people got to be this way, or whether they're from another planet, or have some brain chip or piece of DNA that I am missing.  I see them sometimes, placidly shopping for kale or taking a long bike ride, and I wonder if we're the same species.  Because for me, the thought that today is today is always vividly linked with the thought that today I am one day closer to death.

Anyway, I heard these things about Denial of Death, and I went and bought a copy.  This book has some weird aspects.  Like, the idea that the man's experience is "the" experience is so deeply infused in the book that the question of any difference between men and women doesn't even come up.  Sometimes Becker says "A man experiences ..." and the next part is something like "a fear of mortality" and it's clear he's talking about all persons.  Other times he says "A man experiences ... " and the next part of the sentence is something like "his penis ..." and I'm like "Oh!  I thought we were talking about people in general."

The penis comes up because a lot of the book is about Freud and psychoanalysis.  Penis envy in this book is an actual thing to be taken seriously and grappled with.  This is another weird thing.  Obviously the book was written before we started listening to all the women who were saying "Penis?  Envy?  Hm, no, not so much."

But these are small things.  The book is definitely interesting and in a class by itself.  With respect to death, Becker puts the problem in the context of the double nature of human existence, a double-nature that has been a thorn in my side my adult whole life.  It's something like this:

Because of our animal nature and physical fragility, we are selfish -- we need to feel self-worth, to feel "secure in our self-esteem."  Because we are humans, and not merely animals, we live in a world in which self-worth is "constituted symbolically" -- and so we feel the need to stand out, to "make the biggest contribution possible to world life" -- to show that we matter the most.  We need to see ourselves as figures larger than life.

The problem is that at the end of the day, we're just "worm food."  We're finite beings, animals, mortal, part of nature, actually utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  What we need to feel OK is contradicted by the reality we know to be true.     

Becker argues that humans generally deal with the dilemma of mortality through "immortality projects" -- causes and life-organization schemes in which we feel like we become part of something bigger than ourselves, something likely to last.  These "heroism projects" give us the sense that life has meaning. 

Religion used to structure the heroism projects for a lot of people.  But in the modern world, not so much, but we find substitutes, like having money or feeling superior to other people or being patriotic or whatever. 

As you can imagine, having your immortality project threatened sucks, and part of Becker's thesis is that horrible things like violence and war happen because people's immortality projects are threatened.  I don't know about whether that sort of sociological claim can be true. 

But the personal aspect really speaks to me.  Here's the Wikipedia summary of the idea:

"When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result."
That's it!  I am constantly being reminded of my mortality and insignificance.  Does that mean my heroism project is breaking down?  What would I do about that?

Unfortunately, Becker doesn't give you a lot of answers. I don't want to join a cult or visit an ashram, and I certainly don't want to start believing in money or patriotism to form new hero projects.  How dumb would that be, to become a booster of the war-with-Iran just so you could deal with your own mortality without falling apart?

But then, you know, I don't really need to become unaware of mortality.  Maybe I don't need an "immortality project."  What I need is more like a mortality-distraction project.  I need the grown-ups' equivalent of mobile to hang above my bed:  oooh, look, shiny!  Or maybe I just need a set of stupid guidelines to follow.  Want to forget death?  DO:  call your friends on the phone.  DON'T:  spend quiet time thinking about the Big Questions. 

Conclusion:  I don't need Denial of Death, the psycho-social treatise on Important World Events.  I just need Denial of Death:  The Manual.  A simple how-to would suffice, thank you.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Two Moons, But Still Too Much Like Real Life: Reflections on Murakami's 1Q84

I've always had a complicated reader relationship with Haruki Murakami. 

I mean, at the level of pages and characters I'm totally drawn in.  I'm like "Ooh, there's an oddball girl with a weird name and now she's talking to the disaffected hero.  What is her backstory?  What is she going to say?  I need to know now." 

But at the level of the book, I'm often mystified and kind of blank.  I'm wondering, "was there a point to that?  Is the point the pointlessness itself?  If I think that's annoying, am I a philistine? Am I just missing something?

I just finished Murakami's most recent three-volume novel, 1Q84.   Right of the bat:  as is made obvious, the title is an allusion to 1984, and thus in some way to Orwell's novel.  So I'm asking myself:  is this book supposed to be in any way related to, or a commentary on, 1984?

Wow, wrong question.  Because who can figure that out?  1984 was about a horrifying future of totalitarianism and state control through The Party which is everywhere and all powerful -- going so far as to create reality to suit its needs. 

1Q84 is about an alternative reality (maybe) and two characters who share a mysterious connection.  There's a religious sect with weird beliefs which might be true.  There's a world with two moons.  There's a math teacher.  There's a female assassin.  There's a sinister detective-type guy.  There are complex musings on metaphysics. 

So:  Is Murakami saying that religious sects are dangerous the way totalitarianism is?  Murakami did also write a book on the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, carried out by the cult Aum Shinrikyo, so it's not farfetched.  Or is he making a larger point about the nature of good and evil, implicitly disagreeing with Orwell's blanket condemnation of some characters and some behaviors?  Is the idea that God or his agents are, like the Party of 1984, always in control so that we, like poor Winston, are just pawns?

I don't think I'm making a controversial claim when I say that there is no way this book intends anything so straightforward.  It may not intend anything on these topics.  It may not intend any particular thing at all.  You might have to take it at face value.  There's a religious sect.  There's a math teacher.  There's a female assassin.  Stop. 

The reader in me feels -- well, she feels annoyed by this.  So does Janet Maslin, by the way, who writes of 1Q84 the New York Times review:

"And is it actually about anything? Don’t be silly. Mr. Murakami is far too playful and allusive an artist to be restricted by a banal criterion like that one."

Obviously this is unfair, because a book can be about stuff without having some kind of message or unifying narrative.  I'm sure there are about a million ways to talk intelligently about why and how this is so but perhaps the most obvious is this:  life doesn't have a message or unifying narrative; why should literature?  Isn't the best way of being true to reality to deny the tidiness of a story that ties together loose ends and shows how things are all connected?

Sure.  Of course.  That idea is intellectually unimpeachable. 

And yet.  I think there's something here that goes beyond the matter of narrative tidiness and loose ends. 

Just before I read 1Q84 I reread Nabokov's novel Pale Fire.  In case you haven't read it, the text of Pale Fire is structured as a commentary on a 1000 word fictional poem that forms part of the book itself.  In certain ways, you couldn't ask for a book with more opacity, ambiguity, and general weirdness.  Virtually every important question you could have about what is going on in the book is left, at the end, without a clear answer.

And yet, one never leaves Pale Fire with a feeling of confusion, uncertainty, or blankness.  On the contrary.  Speaking for myself, I finished Pale Fire with a swoosh of dread and a frightening exhilaration.  I don't know exactly what "happened" -- or didn't -- in Pale Fire.  But the book is definitely about some things.

One of the most powerful feelings I get reading Nabokov is that I'm being given the opportunity to encounter something genuinely heartbreaking about the human condition without just faltering in its face.  Reading Nabokov is like passing through the hurricane of humanity with just the proper protection and supplies to know you'll make it to the other side.  Tying up narrative loose ends isn't really a necessary part of that

Is there an analogue for 1Q84?  I don't know.  When I was near the end of it, I stayed up late to finish because I really really wanted to know what was going to happen.  There was an oddball girl with a weird name, and a disaffected hero, and I was dying to know what was going to happen.

And then I finished the book.  And even though the book had "an ending" in the clearest possible way, I was left with an empty feeling.  A feeling of:  OK, so that happened.  OK.

In one way, I guess that's a lot like life, since most of life ends with "OK, so that happened." I guess for me it makes literature too much like life.  I not only know that feeling, I'm kind of sick to death of that feeling.  In literature I'm looking for something else.

Clearly Murakami is thinking about some of the same questions.   In 1Q84 there's a character who is a novelist, and there's a review of a book he's worked on, and the review says in part:

"As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end but when it comes to [certain crucial questions] we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks.  This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of "authorial laziness " ... in the future [the author] may well need to explain [this] deliberately cryptic posture."

I'm sure Murakami does get a lot of reviews like this:  reviews that whine about his refusal to tell us what is going on. 

In 1Q84, he goes on to describe the fictional author's response:  puzzlement, that a writer who "carried the reader along to the very end" could be considered lazy, but also uncertainty, about whether the critic might be right. 

That phrase -- pool of mysterious question marks -- is beautiful and a perfect illustration of what I'm saying.  It's just like real life.  It's a little too much like real life, where we never know what is going on either. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Human Nature Is Addictive Nature

By British Artist Louis Wain, 1860-1939, via Wikimedia Commons
Don't you get tired of hearing about the importance of freeing yourself from your addictions? 

Whenever I hear things like "Jane's a shopping addict! Joey's addicted to sugar! They just can't stop!" I get a twinge of irritation and pain. 

That twinge isn't because I think Jane and Joey can stop after all -- that what they need is "just need a little willpower."  And it's not because I think compulsive spending and eating are small problems.  Au contraire

No, what gets under my skin is the implication that somehow that model of addiction is only applicable to truly pathological patterns of desire and satisfaction.  As if somehow the rest of life were full of some other kind of desire-satisfaction pattern, and somehow once you got yourself into an "addiction" -- well, then you're screwed.  Whatever it is you have to give it up.

The problem with this, it seems to me, is that lots and lots of desire-satisfaction behaviors are like the addiction desire-satisfaction behaviors.  At least they're like addictive desire-satisfaction behaviors in the sense that we ourselves take the steps that increase our desires

One of the things that make addictive behaviors so addictive is that the activity itself increases the desire for the activity.  Smoking is addictive because smoking makes you want to smoke.  If you smoke quite a bit, and you haven't had a cigarette, your desire to smoke becomes crazy.  And one sad truth about crazy desires is that satisfying them feels fucking awesome.

People like to talk about desires as if they just come from nowhere, or as if they can be meaningfully divided into the ones that are "yours" and the ones that come from "outside you."  FWIW, I don't know about you, but it took me about ten minutes with the philosophical literature on self-hood to come to the conclusion that this You/Not You thing is itself pretty suspect (I tried to talk about it here). 

But passons.  What I'm interested in here is the way, in practice, we don't treat our desires this way.  Instead, we go out of our way to stoke our desires -- to create the conditions under which they'll be cravings.  Because when you satisfy a craving -- that's when you feel sooo good.   Satisfying some normal desire is nothing as compared to satisfying a craving.

If you've ever smoked, you know this.  The feeling of smoking is good.  But the feeling of smoking when you're addicted is amazing.  The desire is so much more intense, the pleasure has to be better.

But it's not just addictive things that lead to this desire-intensification-satisfaction pattern.  We seek it out all the time.  Pep rallies, appetizers, a stroll through the mall.  Habit forming TV shows.  What are these if not ways of increasing your desire for something?  Or just look at pornography.  What is the point of pornography if not to give you the feeling of sexual desire?  OK, sure, you might look at pornography because you're already wildly turned on and you want to somehow ramp it up to 11.  But lots of times people look at pornography because it increase the desire itself. 

This means that when our behaviors aren't addictive enough already -- when the behavior itself doesn't already ramp up the desire to do it again, we're taking steps ourselves to ramp up the desire to do it again.  It's like we're trying to make things addictive. 

If that's right, life isn't so much a matter of getting rid of your addictions as it is a matter of lifelong management of them.  Sure, some desires, like those for smoking or drugs or whatever, you might want to get rid of entirely.  But that's because they're bad for you, not because they're addictive.  Everything else, you just have to manage.  Nobody tells you this, because everyone's so busy telling you to free yourself from your addictions.  That's one reason why, as I explained before, desire management has become a lost art

The moral of the story:  The metaphor for a healthy life is not freeing yourself from addictive patterns of behavior.  The addictive personality is the human personality.  The trick is to addict yourself to the right sorts of things. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

The New York Times Covers Dramatic Events Of The Past

Roman Empire: Citizens Concerned About Violence, Looting, Barbarians

Thomas Cole, Destruction, the fourth painting in the Course of Empire series.
By Thomasius Friedmanius

Fires spread throughout the city, key aqueducts failed, and looting and violence were on the rise Tuesday night, as citizens debated whether the Roman Empire was finally coming to an end. 

"Nonsense!" said Gardus, a local patrician, when asked whether the empire was, in fact, failing.  "There's nothing wrong with this empire that a little spirit and discipline won't fix.  I'm disgusted  to hear people apologizing for the Empire's raping and pillaging.  And those slaves, sitting around on their a***s all day -- what do they think, figs grow on trees?"

Gardus, who lives on pleasant hill overlooking the city, told the New York Times that personally, he had barely been affected by the recent turmoil, and that life in the family was much as it has been for centuries.  His sons, Romulus and Julius, will oversee the servants as they get older, and for now are studying music, history, and Greek literature with a highly-regarded personal tutor.  His wife Cornelia enjoys chariot racing and is active in philanthropy, particularly giving away her clothing to servants after it has been worn.

When pressed about worsening infrastructure problems, illness, and the possible uprising of the Barbarian mercenaries, Emperor Romulus Augustus said there was no cause for alarm or fear.  "Rumors that Gaul has been ravaged are entirely false.  Our military is strong and true.  The plague affects only those individuals with evil and weakness in their hearts.  We will be better and stronger when the sick are dead." 

With the death count from the plague growing, and hundreds of thousands without water and food, some citizens have called for the upcoming gladiator contests to be canceled or postponed.  Nevertheless, Emperor Augustus repeated that the gladiator contests would go on.  "The city is a city where we have to go on," Augustus said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. 

The crowd cheered.  "Fight the Vandals! Fight the Visigoths!  Rome will never forget!" they shouted.

Barbarians could not be reached for comment.