i can’t write but i must

Ahead: nihilism, spikey pits, Chainsmokers lyrics. Also, an essay.

I.

Don’t believe the narcissism

When everyone projects and expects you to listen to ’em

Make no mistake, I live in a prison

That I built myself, it is my religion

And they say that I am the sick boy

Easy to say when you don’t take the risk, boy

Welcome to the narcissism

Where we’re united under our indifference

 

Feed yourself with my life’s work

How many likes is my life worth?

 

“Sick Boy” by The Chainsmokers

Cue: eye-rolls. Cue: cries of: “The Chainsmokers are so overrated!” Agreed. Doesn’t matter. The notion that popular or(?) dumb music has nothing important to say betrays a failure on behalf of the reader. “But every time somebody puts lyrics at the start of their post I ignore them and the one time I actually read them they didn’t add anything of value to the rest of the post!” Also agreed. Now read the lyrics again. No, don’t just move your eyes over them and see what the words say. Read them.

Finished reading? Good. At a glance, the song seems to be criticizing the status-quo. It even uses magical rationalist bug-lamp words like ‘narcissism’! See, that’s the thing. The song appears to be anti-status-quo, but it’s not, not even slightly. The song is not a critique of the status-quo, it is in fact a celebration of it. “Mmm, I don’t see it, think you’re reading something that isn’t there.” Don’t believe me? It’s fine, skepticism is good, objectively weigh the evidence, consider both sides, etc. However, if you do believe the song is, overall, against the ways of current society, I will ask the question: what’s changed?

After reading the rest of this essay you might come back and say: “aha! I knew the lyrics had absolutely no relation whatsoever to the rest of the post!” And you’d be totally right but completely wrong. This is an introduction to my blog, I am introducing things I want to talk about in more detail later and the ways in which I will do so unless my ways of thinking drastically change (which is likely).

Either way, on with the exposition.

II.

People need meaning or else they die. 

Most people are given meaning from something. Usually, this meaning is fucking flimsy because modern value systems kinda suck. Way back when, people had The Church which provided a strong sense of community and purpose. Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but being a religious fundamentalist ain’t hip no more, dawg. For many reasons this is good, except it’s easy to forget what’s been lost. Gone are the value systems. Gone is the meaning. Back ‘then’, you could ask somebody what they believed in and they’d exclaim, “God” before you’d even finished the sentence. Ask them what they value and they’d talk your ear off for way too long about the importance of faith and community and rearing as many children as physically possible. And these people wouldn’t just be sitting around hunting for suspected non-believers on Twitter, they’d be fucking doing something that aligns with their values like working in a soup kitchen or standing on the side of a busy path emphatically handing out brochures making people uncomfortable. There was no doubt that people had meaning and if they didn’t, they’d get some god-damned meaning.

Today you ask people what their values are and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a straight answer. Maybe a bit of non-committal mumbling and something about how you’re blocking the TV it’s the last season of Game of Thrones and they need to see which character will disappoint them the most. After some tender waterboarding, you’ll probably get some recycled and recited combo like family, friends, love, happiness, etc. Hell, maybe they’re Educated and value science (ugh), innovation (ughhh), and/or truth (ughhhhhh). Take away their phone and you’ll find out what they really value (hint: not the phone).

It might sound like I love dunking on people, e.g., “take that sheeple!”, but that’s not true. Well, it is, but I mostly just find the whole situation horribly depressing. People get home just fucking drained from another day working at a souless job, only to have the remaining life-essence sucked out of them by some vampiric entity. Think: social media, Netflix, video games, the news, etc. How can I blame people for having unfulfilling value systems when the old ones are getting replaced by worse ones? How can I blame people for lacking meaning in their lives when everything around them demands more and more of their, well, everything?

Time for some revelations.

Revelation numero uno: I am a person. Ergo, I need some of that sweet meaning too.

There are no other revelations.

III.

Everyone’s consuming. All the time. Re-read above or look [anywhere] for the results of that. “Whoa, thought you said there were no other ‘revelations’.” Now look, you. I’m trying to #DoSomething here. Anyway, in terms of meaningfulness, creation always trumps consumption. Who on their deathbed regrets not hitting tenth prestige? Wait, don’t answer that. The point is that at least if you create something, you can die peacefully with the delusion that somebody, somewhere, at some point, maybe will appreciate it. Whoops, there’s that pesky nihilism again. I’m not doing creation justice here, but its value is obvious to most people. Quick, which is Better: listening to music or making music? Okay, cheap example, I’ll admit. Let’s do another one:

Say you have a friend and she makes low-budget short films. Nothing too spectacular as her time and money are limited, but the movie-making keeps her occupied and provides her with a creative outlet. One day, she shows you her newest film and it’s… actually pretty good. Like, damn, that was sorta impressive. Which makes sense. After all, she’s been at it for a while now, and her efforts seem to be paying off. And you tell her that. She thanks you and asks what kinds of things you’ve been working on. If you have any hobbies or projects on the go, that sorta deal. You fumble a little here. You’ve thought of a lot of really cool things you could do, no, that you’re definitely planning to do. Er, going to do. Yes. The problem is, you just haven’t had the time. Life’s pretty busy™ with work/school and all. But once things slow down, you’re 100% planning to work on something. You tell her this. Even before you finish what you’re saying you can see the disappointment on her face. Her smile lessens as the corners of her mouth move ever-so-slightly inward and you swear you can just see the disappointment in her eyes. After you finish talking: a pause as your words hang limply in the air. Then: the inevitable, “oh… I see…”, followed by a ‘well’ and her agreeing your project definitely sounds pretty cool and that she wishes you luck on it and that if you do finish it you should totally show her. You reassure her/yourself that you will totally do that, then quickly change the subject before you sustain any further injury. You ask her if she’s seen the latest season of [show]. She says no. She hasn’t had the time.

Or, consider this scenario:

You see your friend for the first time in a while. Friend asks what you’ve been up to. You tell him that you’ve spent a lot of time watching movies and learning about art criticism. Friend says that’s neat and asks if you wrote down any of your criticisms or if you’ve maybe written some test screenplays. You haven’t. You tell him this, but you insist that what you’ve learned really is valuable. Cue: look of disappointment and the “oh.”

We understand that acquiring new knowledge and learning new skills are both valuable pursuits, but their value is diminutive in isolation. Typically, people place value on harnessing one’s expertise to produce something tangible. The problem with endless acquisition of knowledge and endless sharpening of ‘skills’ is that both are completely safe. Since you never use them to create something tangible, there is no chance that anybody can judge your creation. You plan to [do something] one day, but first you need more [information]. But there is an unlimited supply of information, and there will always be someone doing what you plan to do, but doing it better. You enter into an endless feedback loop where the result is always impotence. No meaning for you.

In summary, if we’re talking about meaning: creation always beats consumption. More broadly: action always beats inaction. No, I don’t care how good you are at watching TV.

So I think, “yeah, let’s make something!” Problem being that I can’t sing, strum, or [whatever you do to a French horn] for shit. That’s cool, I’ll write essays, I’m good at that. (Previous sentence remains guilty until proven innocent, kinda like suspected non-conformers.) Maybe I can even record myself talking and make video essays and put them on YouTube! Actually, on second thought, I don’t want to be associated with any of that.

Okay, guess I’ll start a blog. Time to start writing. Now. Right now. Riiight about now. Anytime now. Fuck. See, the trouble with that is…

Sometimes I think about writing; I fantasize about what I will write, about the clever sentences and dumb jokes I totally will include. Then I go to bed. 

Sometimes I think of a really great topic to write about and I actually start writing about it except the scope cancer sets in and it balloons into an unmanageable, untameable monstrosity. Then I think of another great topic.

Sometimes I write and actually get close to finishing a piece but it’s a mess and I want to make it presentable before showing anybody any of it. Then I never edit it.

Sometimes I think of how shitty our maps and lies are and I proclaim my desire to draw and spin better ones. Then the rush fades.

Sometimes I write something and then read something and think that there’s no way I am knowledgeable enough to even be talking about certain issues. Then I forgo writing for a week.

Sometimes I write about a topic and convince myself that I’m not really bringing anything new to the discussion and just parroting the thoughts of others. Then I forgo writing for another week.

Sometimes I write and write but then talk about what I’m writing and then feel obligated to write all that stuff down I just talked about except I tell myself I can’t write something nearly as good as what I just talked about. Then I give up.

Samzdat labels some of his posts as ‘attempt’. He also occasionally writes about the individual narcissistic self-image. This includes talking about how people will go to great lengths to protect the image they have of themselves. That they will avoid doing anything that might put that self-image in danger. All the while reaffirming themselves that their true self is so much more. For example, a good writer labelling any of his posts falling short of perfect as ‘attempt’. Samzdat obviously recognizes what he’s doing. “Sounds hypocritical.” Wrong. It’s genius.

IV.

The Last Psychiatrist tried to show people the numerous traps they fall into during their daily lives. The idea being that maybe if people understood these traps, they could avoid them and live better lives. Obviously, this pissed off some of his readers. In defense, they turned on him, writing eloquent responses such as:

Man, I wish I was a psychiatrist. It’s awesome to be able to group people into neat categories for condemnation-much like I imagine Cotton Mather felt. Rapists to the left of me, narcissists to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.

So, riddle me this, shrink: what about women who have rape fantasies? What about when you get asked to play the rapist? How come that whole gig doesn’t enter your discourse? Is it because women are always a passive prop for your endless analysis of narcissistic men?

To be fair to the commenter above, the post that led to that comment was abrasive even by TLP’s standards. With such abrasion, it’s understandable for some people to react with: “hey, I’m not a narcissist, you’re a narcissist!” Thankfully, not everyone reacts this way, and there are some great comments that are genuinely worth engaging with. Take this comment, for example, criticizing TLP over one of his other articles (it even got {count ‘em!} 34 vote-ups!):

She’s not writing for you, she’s writing for herself, for her identity.

Careful–you’re drifting into the waters of irony here. One might also suggest that a certain author isn’t writing for us as much as he’s creating an identity of a rum-drinking, iconoclastic, hip-hop listening, indie-film watching, gym-fighting, forensic psychiatrist who screams Cassandra-like about the perils of Narcissism.

The internets have facilitated a new identity: the outsider critic persona, crusty, but subtly hip, with Diogenes-like nuggets of cynic wisdom. A good example is Plinkett of Red Letter Media, with his approach to the new Star Wars movies and, to a lesser extent, The Filthy Critic. There’s a clear style of writing as a means to create a persona–an approach a respected author has recently described as “infinitely narcissistic.”

This someone sees TLP as someone falling into the very traps he warns about. It’s not that I really disagree with this comment—it’s just completely missing the point. People will do anything to avoid introspection, even especially Smart People. Focusing on the author means you aren’t focusing on the author’s words. By accusing the author of falling unknowingly into a pit, you’ve unknowingly fallen into a pit of your own. Except yours is deeper and has spikes. “So you’re saying you should never criticize somebody’s writing?” No, actually. It’s just a little uncharitable to think TLP wasn’t aware he was creating an identity for himself. Maybe he was doing it for a reason.

V.

Tipping my hand. Here’s YouTuber Natalie Wynn (aka ContraPoints) at the 2018 XOXO festival:

I’ve dealt with that basically by creating more of a distinction between my public life, because I need to make it so I don’t feel so attacked when these things happen. Because it’s gonna happen. So, as you see in the video, I use a very strong persona, that’s a kind of fictional character I play on the internet, and that makes it easier to cope with criticism because I feel that it’s not Natalie being criticized, it’s “ContraPoints” and that’s easier to put up with. 

[…]

People want to see what they feel is a real person, but there’s more than one way to be authentic. You don’t have to be a diarist, you can also be a novelist, metaphorically speaking. It’s possible to express yourself through lying, or you can be yourself by becoming someone else. This is a technique I’ve used on my channel to discuss extremely controversial issues where just literally sitting in my bedroom looking at the camera and saying what my opinion is would be a bad idea.

VI.

That’s taken care of. Now for the next part.

I can’t improve my writing without writing anything which is why we end up with posts like this. I’m going to say that I will try to take feedback into account and look back on my past writing to improve my current writing. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people can never be self-aware or [something] enough to catch all their mistakes. If they ever reach such a state, their brain will probably explode and it’ll be messy in a bad way. I’m also going to lie right to your face and say that I’m only writing for myself as a way to better understand the topics I cover. And I’ll hedge some more by saying I’m not particularly well-read and basically everything I write is a regurgitation of someone else’s ideas. “Hey, wait a minute… you’re doing the [narcissism] again!” Exactly.

But wait… Isn’t it a narcissistic defense to admit to using narcissistic defenses to avoid other narcissistic defenses?

(In the distance, screaming is heard)

VII.

I entertained some dark thoughts the other day. 

What if we already have all the answers to our problems but we still can’t solve them?

What if we are stuck thinking that we just need the right [facts/discoveries/innovations] to solve all our problems? What if we are just endlessly convincing ourselves our inaction is actually action? 

That once we find a bit more Truth, we’ll do and fix and solve everything and finally be transported There. Peace, love, happiness, etc. for all.

People learn more, improve their models of the world, etc. and this is swell and all. But then the action out of this additional truth comes to… what, exactly? We ‘progress’ from talking about and criticizing complicated things to talking about and criticizing more complicated things? 

Take this critique of rationalists/nerds/technophiles/the grey tribe. Yeah, I like it. Yeah, I want to write something similar expanding on it because… why? (I know the bad reasons, I’m looking for better ones!) My question becomes: now what?

It seems that once you’ve fallen far enough down The Rabbit Hole, meaning comes not from believing in an imperfect paradigm, it comes from the belief that tearing down imperfect paradigms is meaningful in and of itself. Kill one paradigm, and another imperfect paradigm rises from the ashes. Behind the scenes, another paradigm is birthed, this one defined entirely by tearing down other paradigms. Later, both will be destroyed. Hopefully with facts and logic.

True, the newborn paradigm may appear better than the old one along the criticized axes, but this is not a strict positive. What you didn’t notice during your gleeful destruction is that now you sound like a total alien and nobody normal wants to talk to you. Probably all that incessant talk about paradigms.

Show people their god’s a lie and you risk them never believing in it again.

Scary questions: what if we aren’t heading in the right direction? What if exploring these issues further leads us further astray? What if we tear down paradigm after paradigm, lie after lie, until we realize those flawed systems we destroyed worked better?

Nietzsche said: “God is dead.” What if killing Him without a backup God was our biggest mistake?

What if [this]? What if [that]?

(Meanwhile, no writing gets done)

VIII.

I thought about all this for a while.

Then I thought some more.

Maybe obsessively scrutinizing yourself for elements of narcissism is a narcissistic defense itself. Maybe narcissistic defenses can be harnessed and used to help you do Good.

Finally, with a melodramatic sigh, I crawled out of my pit of nihilistic despair, found a better one, and continued writing.

It’s impossible to steer clear of every trap, to avoid every pitfall. The key is to find a place you can work with. And shit, I can work with this.

Welcome to The Durance.

Mind the spikes.

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