Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Life's Endless War Against the Self You Cannot Live Without"

And but so, here we are again.

I blog under my "real name" at "Two Girls, One Site." And, hey, a better writer than me once asked "What's in a name?" I suppose the answer (supported by the events of Romeo and Juliet and my own cranial machinations) is, "Depends on who's saying it."

For example.

Michael Jackson just died unexpectedly and I bore witness to an astonishing outpouring of grief from my generation. Myself, I wasn't too upset. Raised in a household where my exposure to popular culture was limited--not to the point where I wasn't aware of Michael Jackson, just to the point where anything more than casual interest in his music was verboten--I had no particular formative experience that caused me to feel any metaphysical connection with MJ, unless you count New Year's Eve the year he was first accused of pedophilia, which was, I suppose, the first time I realized that people, famous or not, are not always what they seem and, in addition, people are not always in control of how or what they seem to be.

No, my recent celebrity grief concerned one David Foster Wallace, celebrated novelist, journalist and teacher. It seems the jury is still out on whether MJ was what he purported to be or not, but DFW's suicide last September at the age of 46 did nothing but confirm what most of his devoted followers already knew.

He was just like us.

I don't mean this in a shallow, US Weekly sense. As moving, hilarious, confusing and downright brilliant as his writing was, I could always sense the personal despair behind his prose. Hardly the original thought I'm pursuing (RE subheader), but certain truths must be established prior to discussing DFW's life and work. My first experience with DFW's writing was Infinite Jest, this blog's primary focus. In that thick tome, for the first time in a twenty-two year lifespan of searching for connection, for meaning in a meaningless world, I heard, underneath all the footnotes and the obscure mathematical references and garbled narration, a quiet, hopeful whisper.

"You are not alone."

All puns, throughout history, are intentional, by the way. And we, IJ's readers, finally had reason to think that there might be reason to hope for something better than the recursive cycle of anxiety, depression and abuse we were trapped in. Life itself, DFW explained, using so many words so as not to cause any undue pain to readers who did, in fact, "get it," is an unending joke. Learn to laugh, to live, to love, all that happy horseshit on generic wall hangings from Bed Bath and Beyond, or you'll find yourself unable to communicate. Your head exploded in a microwave. Your face hidden from view. Regardless, if there is something larger watching our fond pageant, that entity must surely be laughing, so we mere mortals might as well try and see things from that point of view.

The trouble being, of course, if you already know that life has no inherent meaning, it can be difficult to find humor in anything. Or, conversely, it can be difficult not to see humor in everything. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. See teenagers throughout human history for specific examples. It's a daily struggle that has driven people to suicide and organized religion. And, in a certain sense, I can hardly blame those who "give up." What's the point of working to improve oneself and/or the world if all you're doing is making meaninglessness more bearable?

Unless, of course, oneself is a real thing.

And the only way to figure that out is to become real, Velveteen Rabbit-style. To trust and respect and love other independent selves enough to say, "I am real. I believe you are real. So we must both be real if I am to exist." Unfortunately, our selves are frequently disappointed by other selves, usually selves who either cannot or won't see reality from our point of view for very understandable self-preservational-type reasons.

Enter the information age.

Stage left, even. IJ was published in 1996, right around the world wide web's near-viral explosion--the technology existed, but how it would be used remained to be seen. Thirteen years later, a tool for human connection and education has fallen prey to the "sloppy intersection of desires and fears" that is the good old USA, according to Gerherdt Schtitt on p. 83, and I find myself terrified to comment on a blog, terrified to even keep a blog, because the expression of my truth is sure to draw ire from those afraid to consider a different point of view, mine or anyone else's. I've never quite understood that about human argument. We all know that there are people with whom we can never agree, so why take it so personally? Why assume that someone's personal philosophy must be taken wholesale to be of any value? I'm certain, had we ever met, DFW and I would have disagreed about a great many things, but we at least would have agreed that the human condition is still worth pondering. Whether whatever's left of him (if anything) after "opting out" would still agree is up for debate.

And now, a mission statement.

If you are one who takes "why are we here" at all seriously, you, like me, like DFW, are probably a careful practitioner of the art of not revealing too much. After all, when we do engage in all that mundane US Weekly stuff, we don't necessarily want to have an existential debate with the bagboy at the end of our checkout lane, even if the bagboy might be in possession of one of those elusive original thoughts. You've got to cook dinner, he's about to go on break and sometimes survival is more important than the potential to thrive.

If you are one who takes "why are we here" at all seriously, you, like me, like DFW, have been labeled "crazy," sometimes by professionals who have worked hard to know the difference between dangerous insanity and annoying insanity. Moreover, if the colloquial definition of insanity is "repeating the same action and expecting different results," then it stands to reason that any exploration of human existence is insane and, according to conventional wisdom, not necessary.

And yet we keep trying. In all recorded human history, we have told our stories--some true, some false--all in hopes of illuminating some truth about ourselves. We read, listen and watch those stories with the same goal in mind, because maybe, just maybe, if we understand ourselves, we can finally, truly understand each other.

This all becomes more complicated in the present, where blogs and chats and forums offer an opportunity to expose ourselves to a New Thing (aka an original thought) on a daily basis, but are more often used as an extra layer of protection, insulation from the pain of feeling irreparably isolated from one's fellow homo sapiens.

If the price of self-exploration is untimely death, count me out. But I don't think it is. We're all going to shuffle off this mortal coil eventually, so we might as well put off confronting the void if there's a possibility of deriving any kind of meaning from life while still living. No, it seems far more likely to me that the price of ongoing exploration of one's self and, by extension, humanity at large, is to continually be told "no." "No," because you're crazy and therefore scary and therefore someone who poses a threat to the common, comfortable idea that there's a god or life force out there who knows the answer to "why we're here," even though said god or life force has been notoriously tight-lipped or deliberately obsfuscatory on the subject for millenia.

So where do DFW and Infinite Jest fit into all this solipsistic armchair philosophizing?

I didn't know DFW at all, not just in the sense I've described where other people are, essentially, unknowable. We never shook hands, he never signed a copy of one of his books for me, never even breathed the same oxygen in the same room. And yet, because of the way he revealed himself by not revealing himself in his writing, we both understood one another. Kate Gompert, for example, is a character with whom I identify strongly. When I reread her introduction in IJ the other day, I was struck by this passage:

She rolled an eye up at him for a long moment, sighed meaningfully, and rolled and rose. Katherine Ann Gompert probably felt that here was yet another psych-ward M.D. with zero sense of humor. This was probably because she did not understand the strict methodological limits that dictated how literal he, a doctor, had to be with the admits on the psych ward. Nor that jokes and sarcasm were here usually too pregnant and fertile with clinical significance not to be taken seriously: sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.
It probably struck me the first time I read IJ, but I so closely identify with Kate Gompert, particularly when I was dealing with my own rather serious depression during my senior year of college, that it seemed evident that DFW either knew some part of himself or some other, actual person who was very much like me.

And who am I, by the way?

I'm a standup comic, by trade. When people ask me, how did you get into that, pray tell, I say, "I failed at everything else," everything else being stage acting, retail management, housewifery, fiction writing, nonfiction writing, Catholicism, agnosticism, atheism, child care, nice person, mean person, etc. It's always delivered with a flash of a smile and a chuckle on my part, but deep down, it, like any joke that works, is 100% true. Every comic I know is one of the saddest, most beaten down, disappointed people I've had the privilege to meet. And yet, for all our collective sadness, we congregate in bars, coffee houses, random open-minded church basements to ease the pain of others with laughter. I guess some of them are more like Tom Clancys or more poppy writers, seeking approval and thus meaning for their work, but more of us, especially the comics I like, are more like DFW, trying desperately to make sense of a schizophrenic world where (as an isolated example) the ethics of abortion are always in question but the ongoing presence of war and starvation is shrugged off as "not my problem." We do our best to trivialize the trivial and highlight the important, but it's tough to do without letting the seams show, the seams being our own personal sadness.

I remember a few years ago, when comic actor Own Wilson tried to off himself for whatever reason (Kate Hudson, maybe?) and the entertainment punditry all seemed baffled. Some of them obviously never learned that comedy is just tragedy plus time, while still others invoked some Emmett Kelly archetype of "the sad clown." I guess the latter is accurate, if a bit infantilizing, but I'm one of your more pretentious comics who writes jokes for people who paid attention in high school history class, so what do I know? It just seemed to me, at that point, that America's obsession with celebrity, with being looked at or being a looker, had dehumanized not only Wilson, but all actors, writers, musicians, directors, painters, photographers, sculptors--anyone who participates in creating entertainment or allows themself to be viewed for others' "pursuit of happiness."

People tend to take a simplistic view of these so-called artists. When we're not being called outright crazy (my own mother-in-law, who is of dubious clinical mental stability herself, once introduced me to a friend, saying, "We always warned our sons not to become actors, but we forgot to warn them about marrying one."), we're told that we're shallow or stupid to pursue a career and a lifestyle with absolutely no guarantee of remuneration or job security whatsoever. Some of us take this to heart and decide it's not worth it--fair play to those guys. But many of us persevere compulsively, working three jobs at a time to make ends meet and using every available minute (when we're not holed up under the covers being clinically depressed about our own inexplicable choice to pursue a creative career) to say something illuminating about the human experience.

The point, Madame P., the point!

I don't presume to know why, exactly, David Foster Wallace hung himself in his garage last fall. Mental illness has always been a tricky beast for the self to tame and obviously, whatever his personal demons were, specifically, they seemed too daunting to live with for another second. As I tried to explain above, I don't begrudge any self who, in a single moment after a lifetime of desperation, presses the self-destruct button, merely because in spite of all the "permanent solution to a temporary problem" platitudes I've heard over the years, DFW, and indeed, every suicide throughout history, was the only person who had to live with his particular mind 24 hours a day, so perhaps, in his isolated reality, DFW did, in fact, have a very good reason, a permanent problem that needed solving.

But surely there was another solution!

Nope. I really don't think there was, just based on this excellent article from Rolling Stone and current mores regarding mental illness in America. So here's my real point, the real deal: is living in America utterly incompatible with living with mental illness? For all that the stigma of utilizing a therapist has decreased significantly in recent decades, the general populace still responds to any revelation of acute anxiety, major depressive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, schizophrenia or any number of irrational phobias with a resounding, "Not interested. Don't infect me with your bullshit." Not to suggest that these disorders are, in fact, contaigious, but there is certainly, in my experience, a closing off that occurs when people reveal that their minds are clinically compromised.

Myself, I've never quite understood that reaction.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I've never even taken Psych 101. I'm a hypochondriac with a touch of mania, so it seems like any sophisticated study of the human mind would ultimately drive me completely, utterly, nonfunctionally bats. I've probably had acute anxiety sporadically from a very young age but wasn't ever given an opportunity to seek professional help until college because I could still function at a very high level ("pass" as sane, if you will) and my family has always been mistrustful of mental health care, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, my family has always been very mistrustful of crazy people as well, so when I learned that my very first bad idea boyfriend was bipolar as well as a high-functioning alcoholic, I found myself in quite a predicament. The upside of my family's lack of a cohesive (or dare I say, sane) attitude toward mental health, as well as my crippling phobia of psychological textbooks, has been that most of my education about mental illness has been "hands-on." It's not an approach I can recommend for most people--I frequently wonder at my own sanity for continuing to try to understand mental illness from the point of view of the unhinged.

And yet, I persist.

Despite the fact that I guess my ongoing relationships with the clinically insane does sort of implicate me in some sort of weird self-aware unhingedness, which fact I mention mainly to call myself crazy before some collegiate psych major reading this blog can.

It's not news to me, Mr. or Ms. Cocky Co-ed.

It just seems to me that if I want to persist in searching for an original thought or some sort of meaning in the face of the void, I have no recourse other than aligning myself with society's outcasts, because it seems to me that we've been trying all the same things on the human brain and expecting different results. Call it "reclaiming mental illness." Remember, people thought eating a tomato led to certain death before Thomas Edison proved them wrong, and I'm sure Alexander Graham Bell had to stave off accusations about his mental state when he suggested that there might be a way for people to communicate vocally even if they weren't in the same room. Also remember that not too long ago, women with opinions (aka original thoughts) were frequently subjected to forced hysterectomies by concerned, compassionate members of the medical elite. If humanity is to find cohesive meaning in our collective experience that doesn't involve accepting that life itself has inherent value (if that worked, then presumeably no one would commit suicide) or that surely some metaphysical paradise awaits us after we've drawn out last breath (since there's no real way to prove that either of those things are unequivocally true), then some of us are going to have to take that plunge daily. It's not for everyone, and the search has claimed lives more brilliant, better equipped and more valuable than mine. DFW, case in point.

But I'm in on the neverending joke.

There's a certain freedom in admitting one's inherent meaninglessness (hat tip to the French Existentialists and the nihilists, even though my study of philosophy has been sporadic and autodidactic and utterly devoid of a full understanding of statistics). Loony tunes though I may be, I look to other humanoids for solace, imperfect and damaged though they may be. Perhaps they, isolated in their experience of the firing of their very own synapses, have found something worth living for. Perhaps they'll share it with me, perhaps not. But for my money, if I'm not open to the possibility of another way of looking at the world, if I think I've got it all wrapped up in a neat little package, then the joke of existence isn't funny anymore and I might as well resign myself to failure as a standup comic. And, hey, maybe Hamlet would have been a comedy had "poor Yorick" stuck around longer to keep everyone from taking themselves so goddamn seriously.

No. Seriously. The point, please?

All right, all right, I've put you through more than enough paces, dear readers. I'm doing this whole Infinite Summer thing, for myself and also for you. I figure the cool kids will do a splendid job of dissecting the tome's literary merit and even DFW himself (pun!), all the while continuing to reveal as little as possible about their own, undoubtedly very personal, connection to the book. I've always found academic writing to be very stifling because there's this sort of whiff of sterilization about it. I've always hated utilizing footnotes or end notes because I've always been very unclear on where the ideas that influence my ideas begin and where my supposedly "original" thoughts begin. So, on this blog, I won't be bolstering my positions with a lot of hyperlinks. Sorry, if I say something you don't understand, the onus is on you to figure it out if you're interested, that way my reasons for thinking something don't unnecessarily influence your dis/agreement. I suppose that sort of thing is important if you're trying to prove a point about politics or history or economics, but I'll be exploring the intersectionality of my self, your selves and this wacky book that lives on even though DFW himself (twofer!) is dead. I'll be following as much of the other commentary as possible, but I'll try not to read it until I've posted what I believe to be my own unique take and we'll see how things work out. No rules in comments, really, but this will probably be easier if we can all agree that the only certainties in life are death and disagreement, so there's no need to take things too personally or call names.

Maybe we'll find another New Thing together by analyzing this old New Thing.

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