Hello again. I seem to be writing these little notes to you quite frequently these days. No one can say it is not pleasant to spend a quiet moment together before beginning the business of the day. But I will make this quick. I just want to note that a reader pointed out that I said something in Thursday’s column that I did not mean and did not quite intend to say. It was carelessness on my part and so I want to amend the record. In the column headlined “I’ve Got Breast Cancer and I Don’t Want to Live,” I said in the last line, “Depression can be cured, but death is incurable.” The reader pointed out quite rightly that while there are many medications and treatments for depression, there does not currently exist a medically recognized cure. It remains a baffling phenomenon about which both much and little are known. What I should have said is that depression sometimes lifts, while death never does.
I appreciate having that pointed out.
Now, speaking of “should,” on to today’s puzzling problem, in which “should” plays a prominent role.
I also have had difficulty with my sexuality. I am gay and I feel OK about it, yet I never make much attempt to find a guy. In fact, I don’t really make much attempt to do anything. Part of me just wants to travel and roam the lands. In fact, more than anything, I’d like to be a writer who earned just enough to get by, just enough to skip town when I chose.
Anyway, What I really wanna know is, why am I so lacking in energy? I have an intense need to do something, a great frustration, but no firepower.
Out of Gas
Dear Out of Gas,
So you think you should be making more of life. Says who?
What authority stands over you and says, “You should be making more of life!”? Whose voice is that? Is it conscience? Is it a legitimate order?
It’s true that you may have trouble with your metabolism or the lingering effects of drug abuse, and, as pointed out numerous times, depression is a real but difficult and baffling disease that you may want to look into.
But your question raises something else that has been on my mind lately.
To me you simply sound like the philosophical rebel — what we term these days a slacker.
And where have all the slackers gone? What happened to their ironic inoculation against the pestilence of certainty, their limp, cunning subversion of jackbooted hoo-ha? Do you not realize that you are a member of the cultural opposition? Who among us does not wrinkle his nose at the air of tawdry fraudulence that surrounds the “riches” the world has to offer? Do you really want these things or do you only think you are supposed to want them?
The philosophical rebel is Bartleby. Whatever we want him to do, he prefers not to — and with good cause! He rightly disdains the carrying out of duties and chores; he says “I would prefer not” to the undistinguished business of distinguishing himself in an undistinguished field among undistinguished peers; he sees the masses aping the classes, gaping at the Oscars and donning tuxedos to be like the swells and it sickens him … not because he yearns to change the world but because he wishes fervently to escape its hideous embrace. He hears the speeches of preachers of “Think and Grow Rich” and the jingle-jangle hype of “American Idol,” unironic and blind to its own cheap worship, and he is sickened.
Immune to the contagion of striving that infects his peers, to his elders he appears simply ungrateful. He does not want what his fathers created nor what his peers are working for. So yes, the philosophical rebel is an elitist of sorts. He does not want what others want. This angers the strivers. They see him idling on a corner and think: We worked so you could have this! We won the war so you could have this! And look what you do with it! You sneer at it!
But he means them no harm. He only means to be true to himself, to follow his own voice. “You’re tearing me apart!” he screams. (A little context for this otherwise baffling cri de coeur can be found here and also in this Salon story on James Dean.) Thus the sons defy the fathers and desert the factory for an urban bohemia, not so much to denounce their fathers’ triumphant smokestack striving and to curse their blackening of God’s blue skies but merely to be true to themselves. Who among us, in his heart, does not agree with him?
But it makes one wonder: What has happened to the broad cultural idea of the misfit as hero? How is it that you could be a prime example of this important social feature and yet not realize it?
I find this rigid new world baffling; where I come from, the misfit is king. This idea — that Allen Ginsberg is more important than Alan Greenspan — is so engulfing, you can’t untangle where it came from. It’s like religion or a gender, this notion of the outsider hero. (It’s as if upon birth the question would be not, Is it a boy or a girl? but, Is it a hipster or a straight?)
So has the fringe been bribed with sandwiches and beer? Or is it just a question of style? I do not know. I just know it’s different now. You used to be able to identify a rebel on sight. Now it is harder. As my buddy Andrew O has pointed out, of course, rebellion has been commodified.
So if one can purchase one’s rebellion in the correct size at any … um Paul Frank store (not that I don’t love Paul Frank designs more than life itself), it’s equally possible that one might be in fact a true rebel without realizing it. Perhaps that makes you the true misfit — one who does not even recognize it and would disavow it if asked. When asked to consider the useful social role he plays, the philosophical rebel prefers not to.
Or has something happened to the currency of the idea itself of the rebel of conscience, the revolutionary of the soul, the transcendence seeker? Has the fringe been brought to the center and tamed? Is the center finally holding, after a fashion — held together by thin gold strands of omnipresent representation?
Well, anyway, you are a rebel, that’s what you are, that’s what I say. You are the solitary man without a country, without a home, wondering what’s wrong with you — because your protest is yet an inchoate thing, innate and unfocused. Your plight is thickened because your context is so thin — today you’re a rebel without a context! Is there still a Greenwich Village to flee to? Is there still a San Francisco where one can rent a cheap room above a bookstore without becoming a real estate agent or a software change agent or an FBI agent?
Of course there is a place for “should.” If you’ve got a job and you’re on company time then of course you should be working. And if you’re working but not with all your heart, perhaps you could be working better. I’m not for negligence or shoddiness in the important things. If on a dull afternoon I’m producing dull sentence after dull sentence it is not unreasonable to ask if there isn’t something I am missing in the air, if a little cappuccino might not brighten up the prose, if I could look a little deeper to see what I’m hiding from myself; when the mind grows dull, a little “should” can focus the mind; it can remind one of the ongoing majesty of muted sunlight warm on the skin; it can remind one to listen more closely to the droning inner voice that at times says things quite amazing if obscure.
But you can certainly go overboard with should. What should be you doing if you are not on the job and have nowhere to be? Should you pick your toenails or eat some lasagna? Should you read an edifying book or stroll through the park? What should you do? What indeed? The conditions of life in the industrialized West are such that broad material disparities exist in the rewards dispensed to workers. Some of the rewards are just and some are random without apparent reason (see “Oprah’s Ugly Secret”). You live within this matrix and may wish for it to mean something, and indeed rules can be deduced about how social class and business and government power sometimes coalesce to produce those peculiar beings we know as “American Fascists,” but at times, to the individual man caught in the tornado, the only thing it seems to be is random and insane.
That is why the philosophical rebel is so dear to us — because he alone has the courage to say, “I have no clue what this shit is.”
Of what value to society is such a stance? What does he add to the GNP of nations or to the riches of our souls? Most important, he is anathema to hoo-ha — he does not swallow the Kool-Aid or follow the company line; he does not jump when the Man says jump — he scarcely moves; he hardly hears the Man; he can hardly even see him; he has to squint. It’s his constitution to be cautious and to ask the relevant question Why? Which in our current situation we could use more of — if we in the West had been more skeptical, if there were among us more bantams in pine woods, we might not be so deep in shit as we are. The philosophical rebel fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.
Could it be that the voice of what you want is God’s voice? Could it be that what you want is what God wants? Could it be that you are eating and sleeping and fucking for God? And if that is God’s voice then what is this other voice that would hobble the hipster and tie him down, would frighten him into a frightful day job he half believes in and half detests?
That must be the voice of the devil! Ha ha ha. Fear the devil.
Give yourself a break, my man. If you are depressed and have a drug problem or have a metabolic imbalance, then that’s some serious stuff and you need medical care. But if you simply lack ambition, I take my hat off to you. The world is way too full already of overly ambitious fucks elbowing us out of the way on the streetcar.
I take my hat off to you. Give yourself a break. Take another day off.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
What? You want more? Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory. See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum. Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis. Send a letter to Salon’s editors not for publication.