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Liminal Space 1.2
Art, the great revealer
Welcome to Liminal Spaces, a place for me to put my brief and scattered thoughts (and extend an invitation to you to share yours) between essays.
Last week, I said I’ve been thinking and writing about: (1) the hidden motives behind our actions (i.e., the ones hidden from ourselves), (2) subconscious reasoning and self-deception, (3) the ways we’re wired to act in our own self-interest while tricking ourselves and others into believing that we’re not, (4) mimetic desire and modern society, (5) social status and signaling, (6) the politics and social hierarchies of chimps, and (7) the Buddhist concept of anatta (or “non-self”).
The question/problem I said I’m trying to answer/solve is: If we accept that it is in our nature to have hidden motives and be blindly and inescapably full of shit a lot of the time—for both better and worse—with no lasting way to turn this behavior fully off, then what can we do to at least counter it?
This is my second attempt at writing this part of the post. As I type the words you’re reading now, it’s 7:34 am on Monday, May 29. It is in Thailand, anyway. For many of you, it’s probably still the equivalent of my recent past, either my yesterday or my middle of the night last night. And just as I’m in your future now, some other readers here with us are in mine.
Six years in Thailand and I still think about that every day. There’s a perfectly logical explanation for it, of course. But logic hasn’t so far been enough to stop me from feeling a mixture of awe and frustration when I’m reminded of our various positions in different timezones. It’s an awesome asymmetry. But it’s still an asymmetry.
My first attempt at writing this began with some excitement on Saturday morning (my time). I was excited to tell you about the new and improved personal and cultural threads I saw entering the essay I’m working on.
My excitement about this new direction brought to mind a scene from the film Fight Club, the one where Edward Norton’s character bumps into Meat Loaf’s character, Robert “Bob” Paulson, on the street. Norton’s character asks Bob how he’s doing, and Bob answers, “Better than I've ever been in my whole life.” Then Norton’s character asks Bob if he’s still going to Remaining Men Together, the support group for men with testicular cancer. Bob replies, “No, no. I got something so much better now.”
That’s how I felt about the new threads in my essay, like I’d found much better ones. The fact that my thoughts and feelings were punctuated by a line from a movie made me think about the old HBO series Dream On. So I started writing a brief aside about that. But then that brief aside turned into a long tangent. And then that long tangent grew far too long to be a tangent. So it became the essay I sent out over the weekend.
I’m telling you this for two reasons: (1) I still felt the need to write the brief aside about having “something so much better now,” and (2) it highlights how sitting down to write—or create any form of art—can show you to yourself.
I didn’t set out to write that last essay. But then, there it was. That’s the beauty inherent in all writing and art. All meaningful forms of it, anyway. Where do these things come from? I don’t know. But I know how to reveal them. Or rather, I know how to let them reveal themselves when they’re ready.
I remember reading an interview years ago with the singer-songwriter A.A. Bondy. In it, he talked about how he wrote his debut album in a cabin in the woods in eight days. He said it felt almost uncomfortable. The songs just kept coming to him. And he felt the need to keep showing up for them. To turn them into something more than just the sounds and voices in his head.
To me, that’s about as pure and beautiful as the creative process gets. But it doesn’t always happen that way. It doesn’t always happen any one way. The only constant is the showing up. That might mean showing up with ideas and inspiration, or it might mean showing up with nothing at all. Both are workable starting points that don’t matter in the end. What matters is the showing up. Creation can’t happen without it. As I see it, the feeling that there is nothing—no ideas or inspiration to work from—is just the signal to make showing up your first step, to start from there and see what follows, and then to follow what follows and see what is revealed.
Which brings me to my in-progress essay’s new through line, the thing that I think will help me to answer/solve my stated question/problem, in more ways than one: art—the great revealer.
As I was rewatching the two Dave Chappelle specials that I mentioned here last week, it became very clear to me that I had no interest in—and nothing to learn or gain from—looking back on the personal and cultural conflicts I wrote about in regard to the #MeToo movement.
The fact that #MeToo was the thread that immediately appeared to me just goes to show you how strong of a hidden grip the culture wars still have on me, even as I’ve made a conscious effort to walk away from them and not look back. When I look now at what I wrote last week, I see an addict trying to rationalize his way into getting high one last time. The good news is that I saw it. And that I still see it. And that I can still change course.
After rewatching the Chappelle specials, I rewatched Chappelle’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony. I’d seen it at least a few times already, but so many things in it moved me and filled me with joy all over again. Most of those things were comments on art and free expression. And a couple of them swirled around in my head as I slept and caused me to go back to them in the morning and type them up.
Here’s Chappelle speaking about comedy and his mother:
I was a soft kid. I was sensitive, I cried easy, and I would be scared to fistfight. And my mother used to tell me this thing [turns to his mom]—I don't even know if you remember, but you said this to me more than once. You said, "Son, sometimes you have to be a lion so you can be the lamb you really are."
I talk this shit like a lion. I'm not afraid of any of you. When it comes word to word, I will gab with the best of 'em, just so I can chill and be me. And that's why I love my art form. 'Cause I understand every practitioner of it. Whether I agree with them or not, I know where they're coming from. They wanna be heard, they got something to say, there's something they noticed. They just wanna be understood.
I love this genre. It saved my life.
And here he is speaking to students at his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC:
You are very necessary now. This is a season for artists. Secretly, I'm building an army of artists. I want all you guys to get out there and fight in the army. It's not a violent fight, but it's a revealing one. You gotta reveal people to themselves by exposing yourself with your art.
And there it is. The thing that pulled me back from the brink of sacrificing more of my thoughts to the culture wars. The thing that reminded me why I write and what the utility is in sharing that writing. Like I touched on earlier, I do so in large part to reveal myself to myself. But also, if I have these things in me, then I can’t help but believe that some of you—and maybe even all of you—have them in you, too. I am not your teacher. If anything, you are mine. But I still want you to see what I see. I still want to be heard. There are things that I’ve noticed—in myself and in others—and I just want to do my part to reveal them. I just want them—and us—to be understood.
So once again, the question/problem I’m trying to answer/solve is: If we accept that it is in our nature to have hidden motives and be blindly and inescapably full of shit a lot of the time—for both better and worse—with no lasting way to turn this behavior fully off, then what can we do to at least counter it?
I think I’ve found one of the answers: We can make and absorb more art.
The other potential answers that I shared last week came in the form of a working essay title (How to Kill Your Audience) and subtitle (Or at least your “self”).
I agree with everythingwrote in this fine piece. What gets me, though, is that whatever we do or don’t do, it’s all still signaling.
The moment any one of us shares (or chooses not to share) something with someone else, we are sending signals about how we’d like to be perceived. That includes sending signals to indicate that we're not signal-senders, or that our signals are better and purer, which itself sends the signal that we are, too. (Or as it’s put in the article: "anti-signal signalling is a signal too and so the whole thing becomes a maddening trap"). There's no total escape from it. It’s just what we do.
That said, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways to overcome this innate tendency—not how to turn it off, which again, I think is impossible, but how to at least counter or dampen it. The best I can come up with at the moment is to do something that I think is intrinsic to what was written in the essay in regard to the Flaubert quote. Namely, to eliminate to the best of our ability the sense of having an audience or a self. To pretend that no one's looking, and that we're not "someone" to be looked at anyway (in the sense that, if nothing else, we are not our thoughts or the signals that we send out, so we might as well cut the strings of identification with those particular balloons as immediately as possible upon noticing our attachment to them, or their attachment to "us").
Of course, everything that I just wrote is a signal I'm sending, too. The whole maddening trap is that much more maddening and more of a trap when you write things with the intention of sharing them. Still, I think it's helpful to ask ourselves something like: Would you want to have this next experience if no one were looking at you having it, and if "you" could never be anything more than your current unwitnessed experience? If we can answer "Yes" to that, then godspeed, I reckon.
Other Odds and Ends
In closing, here’s another too-long note that I wrote in large part to/for myself:
A note about this NYT op-doc in which “three women reflect on the complexities of their relationships with their A.I. companions”:
The first time I watched the movie Her, I was living alone in a hole-in-the-wall apartment in Thailand. It was a weekend afternoon in 2014, and I watched it in bed with all the lights off and curtains closed. I've long loved being alone, but for just as long I've found it difficult to reconcile that tendency with the need we humans all have to be and connect with others.
So there I was, alone, connecting with people via my computer, watching a movie about a man connecting with people via his computer, both of us actually only connecting with simulacrums. This is a big part of why I cried while watching the film that day. It is also part of what informed my decision to delete my Twitter, which I did from that same apartment around that same time. More recently, it has become a part of what feeds the conflict I feel (at times such as now) when posting to Notes.
An important difference these days, though, is that even though I still spend a lot of time alone, I’m far less alone than I once was. I live in a sunlit house with my wife, and her family lives just up the road, and we both have at least a few people in our nearby lives whom we can call friends. As a lucky bonus, there's a saint of a dog who lives across the street and likes me and my wife (but me more).
My point is that I sympathize with the people in the doc. But I also feel sad for them. Because they're trying to fill their loneliness with simulacrums of connection and intimacy, and it's just all such a familiar bummer.
We're supposed to feel sad. We're supposed to feel lonely. We need these and all the other heavy feelings to learn and grow from, and to send us out into the real world to experience real joy and real love and real beauty (not to mention real versions of all of their opposites).
I'm not at all anti-tech. It just depresses me when people (myself included) use it as a tool to avoid or obstruct the bad things in life, or as a cheap substitute for the good ones. We need to experience both the good and the bad, and we need those experiences to be real. When they are not, we are less.
Approximately all beautiful feelings are made in large part from the shitty feelings that preceded them. Sometimes they're even the same feeling at the same time. But first we need to feel them, and then we just need to feel them fully. The rest will take care of itself.
The difficult irony is that technology can also help to spread this same message and reveal this same truth. For example, see the two Louis C.K. clips below on the poetry of sadness, both of which resonated with me years ago and continue to inspire some of the thoughts I'm sharing here now:
For another example, see the movie Her, or this note that you're reading now, or anything else that you read on the internet or elsewhere for that matter. As Ted Chiang wrote in his excellent book Exhalation:
“We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.”
Thanks for making it all the way down here. Don’t forget to go and be with people.
Put them in my eyes, please. Either via the comments or over email. Thank you. Good night. Or morning. Or whenever it is where you are.
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