Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Turkey Turns One

This week marks the one year anniversary of the first post on this blog, and I figure a year's worth of weekly posts is enough to earn me the reward of the following entirely self-indulgent exercise, in which I talk about the story of this blog up to this point rather than anything that's happening in the outside world-- assuming, of course, that this isn't essentially what I do in every post on this blog, but more on that later.

This blog began as a joint project with a friend from college-- the idea was that we would debate politics and news of the day from competing perspectives, and eventually rise to prominence as trusted sources of opinion.  In pursuit of this goal we were paragons of earnestness, and our output quotas were initially set with Stakhanovite precision-- one post a day from each of us, rain or shine.  The idea was that with such a constant stream of activity we would force ourselves on the attention of the internet, gain respect as reliable defeatherers of conventional wisdom, and at last, presumably, quit our student careers and live off the fat of the LAM.

Several things conspired to prevent this-- first was the fact that one post a day is rather more than it sounds.  This wouldn't be the case if either of us had been content to turn out posts of only a sentence or two in length, with maybe a single link embedded in them.  But it turns out that writer's inertia is a more profound force than we realized.  It was potent enough at any rate to prevent us from saying anything until we felt we had something worth saying.  And such things tend to take a "long time to say."  Now, this principle may work in Old Entish, but it is poison on the blogosphere, which is governed by the law that whatever everyone else is talking about is the only thing in the world.  This was the first source of trouble for our six foot hatchling.

Eventually my collaborator moved on to other projects, and I began to realize that it was slightly harder to get noticed on the internet than I had thought.  Sure, Orwell was largely unread in his time too, prior to his last two books.  But being an undiscovered genius is only fun in retrospect, and if the discovery is posthumous you don't even get access to the retrospective view.

So I decided on a couple of firm principles early on-- the first and most important was that it clearly wasn't going to be worth writing this blog for anyone's sake but my own.  The chances of its gaining a substantial following were too slight to merit the chore of writing about things just because they were popular or much in the news, and not because I cared about them.   If I was going to summon up the energy to write an essay every week-- and the posts did all become essays, for reasons stated above-- I was going to have to write about whatever I happened to be mulling or puzzling over that week, regardless of how timely or intrinsically interesting it was.

Somehow, meanwhile, I got the writing of this blog timed precisely to a mysterious inner rhythm of my psychology, to which I attribute an almost occult quality.  After every post I write, you see, I have a blank period.  I have absolutely no idea what I am going to write about next during this time, and generally, the idea of exerting energy ever again on another post fills me with disgust and misery.  The blank period lasts from, let's say, Saturday until Tuesday.  Then  every Wednesday morning, by a perfectly mysterious mechanism, an idea for the next post starts to form.  By Thursday I am in a sweat of terror lest I forget what it was, or the apocalypse comes, or I am permanently mentally incapacitated by a glass of beer I had the previous night, and I will ignore meals and showers and human society to somehow get the thing on paper.

Because of the inevitability of this cycle, with the blank period at the outset and the mysterious resurrection at the other end, each week on this blog is like a small death and rebirth.  There is a part of me, after I finish each post, which sincerely believes that it is the last post I'll ever write-- "There," I think, "I've finally said everything I meant to say."  Of course, another part of me is able to take the long-term view, and observe the cycle as a whole.  It knows that by Wednesday, the next post will already begin to present itself to my mind with the old desperate urgency.  But there is a satisfactory feeling after each post, regardless, of having fulfilled my generative purpose and completed my life-cycle, by sending my electronic larvae out into cyberspace.

Part of this fruit-fly exultation comes from my deluded notion that I will be able to go back and take pride someday in the posts I've already written, to such an extent that I won't ever feel compelled to write again.  But this is not so.  I don't mean that I am always displeased by previous posts, though that happens too.  I just mean that old posts seem as if they were written by a recognizable but nevertheless distinct person who happens to share my name.  Said Oscar Wilde: "The permanence of personality is a very subtle metaphysical problem, and certainly the English law solves the question in an extremely rough-and-ready manner."  Well, so does our notion of authorship, you see.  It's bad enough when I see something I wrote a few months ago and find it is poorly written.  In that case I'm embarrassed.  But still worse is the realization that something I wrote in the past is really good.  This feels like an affront and a challenge to my current, older self, who is supposed to be wiser but may in fact be duller and more complacent, like the elder lion who is chased out of the pride by his own offspring.

Well, the challenge works.  I am called forth to blog again and the life-cycle repeats itself.  This, at least, is one part of what motivates me.  But why is it a sufficient force to set me in motion?  Why is my life-cycle long enough to sustain this blog at the rate of precisely one post a week, but at no faster clip?  If the inertia was great enough to overpower my daily post, why has it spared my weekly one?

This is another great psychological riddle.  I have mentioned the outrageous insult to my vanity posed by my former, slightly younger self-- that cheeky upstart.  So that's one explanation of my weekly surge of authorial energy.  Another is pure vanity itself, affronted or otherwise, with informs a great deal of all writing.

The last and perhaps greatest impulse to these posts, however, is moral outrage.  This is a truly unpredictable motor, and I don't fully understand its mechanism.  One thing I have noticed about it is that it is not directly tied to the level of objective outrageousness of the things that I see in this world.  It spares entirely certain utterly abhorrent and indefensible events -- I notice, for instance, that I was never compelled to blog about the events in Ukraine and the Crimea this year, despite the obvious criminality of Putin's behavior.  Meanwhile, I realize with guilt, I am writing this self-indulgent post at the same moment that a fresh humanitarian horror is unfolding in Iraq.  Do these things not outrage me sufficiently to merit attention?

Well, despair and disgust which are shared with most of the people around me is not enough to provoke me to outrage.  For outrage, I'm afraid, I need to encounter not just some dreadful behavior, but some commentator or acquaintance who doesn't realize that it's dreadful.  This is why I evidently got more hot under the collar in defense of Mr. Rogers than in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty.  The latter, on the one hand, is more important, but on the other seems to already have sufficient defenders in the media.

In short, to bother to write one of these posts I need to feel that I have something new to contribute.  With regard to things about which I have no expertise, and a certain vague disgust, and no reason to question a prevailing moral consensus which shares in that disgust, I have no posts to write.

The outrage impulse, I might add, provokes what we might call the "fruit-fly delusion" in especially acute form-- that is, the delusion that each post written under its impetus will be the last one writes.  Outrage presents itself to our minds as incredibly urgent-- the most important thing in the world-- or, to put it even more strongly, as the only thing in the world.  Whatever we are outraged about at present is the only thing one could be outraged about-- or care about, for that matter.  How could anyone not be outraged?  How could the world dance and sing in its blind revelries while such unspeakable horrors are allowed to continue... and so on.

We forget in our ruminations that there will be endless future outrages to get worked up about, and that in the meantime, there will also be things to grin about.  The German satirist Kurt Tucholsky, who expended a great deal of outrage over the onward march of the Nazi regime as it was coming to power, also bade future generations to forgive the occasional flashes of insouciance and superficiality that his writing also displayed: "wir mußten leben," he said.  In other words, life goes on, joy goes on, and reasons for being amused and light-hearted go on, even when the world is very nasty.  There is thus never an epoch of history so bleak that one should lose oneself entirely in outrage.

But on the other hand, some people were built to have outrage as at least a constant companion, if not as one's only acquaintance.  I suspect I am one of them.  But another odd thing about outrage is that it presents itself to us as something that is always on its way out the door, and that we must desperately catch by the shirt-tail before it absconds.  So we perennial companions of outrage don't realize that's what we are.

Orwell is a case in point.  He, it seems to me, was very wrong when he suggested that "In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties."  This appears in his classic "Why I Write," and is followed shortly thereafter by an example of the sort of thing he would have written, supposedly, if only political circumstances hadn't forced his hand-- namely, it is some very bad poetry.  Well, in that case, we can be glad that Orwell lived when he did.  But I also think his self-diagnosis, which is usually so acute, is totally off here.  After all, every age provides us with infinite reasons to be indignant and horrified.  Orwell was simply writing here under the impulse of the fruit fly delusion-- he is supposing that each of his columns of profuse political outrage is the last one, each written simply because he was forced to enter the arena on that one occasion by a discrete objectionable phenomenon.  He refused to recognize the pattern.

But the truth, pace Orwell, is that we write the things we are going to write.  If Orwell had in him a verse epic or a volume of purple description of the English countryside, it would have been preserved to us.  But it has not been, and I suspect that's because Orwell was built to be a conduit for outrage rather than for purple prose.

Similarly, if I were a novelist, I'd have written novels by now.  Instead, I write outraged blog posts, because I'm an outraged blogger.  The fruit-fly inside me may buzz in my ear that: "I just need to get this last thought out on this last subject, then I'm done with outrage forever and will devote myself to peaceful meditation on some other subject, or else give up writing entirely."  But our capacity for rational self-reflection tells us to pay attention to what we actually do, and not just what we think we want to do.  The former lets us in on the secret of who we are.


As I said at the outset, my cardinal rule on this blog has been to write precisely what I wished to write at any given time.  This might be a self-centered way to approach it, but the choice was either that or not to have a blog at all.  Writing this thing takes energy, and I don't have much to spare for anything other than what I genuinely care about.

The blog has therefore become a sort of catalogue of my various thoughts and obsessions as I go about reading and living-- its primary subject, therefore, is always me, in the last analysis-- even when I am apparently writing about other books or authors.  The blog is a sort of reader's diary, but it can only reflect what I read as it is refracted through a particular medium: myself.  Oscar Wilde, at least, thought that's what a chronicle of one's person's reading ought to do, and what made it interesting.  "That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul," he writes in his dialogue on "The Critic as Artist."  Wilde's assumption here is that the critic has an interesting soul, but then-- who doesn't have an interesting internal life, when honestly expressed?

If the downside of the Wildean approach is that my soul may prove of limited interest to others, the upside is that writing this blog has been wickedly good fun, for me at least, all along.

You see, my second cardinal rule on this blog has been to mute as much as possible the anxiety of self-exposure that might stand in the way of honesty.  It has been to say what I like, how I like, even if it's blasphemous or sarcastic or uses too many quotes.  I think that when I began to pursue the ministry as a career, I had a notion that I couldn't do this sort of thing: that I needed to be especially good in everything I say, or else I'd never make it.  I see now that notions like this are a source of a great deal of badness in the world. Old Martin Luther took a vow of silence as a young man-- and in Erik Erikson's telling, this was only the other side of the coin of his later outpouring of scatalogical venom against his opponents.  What is prevented from exiting the body through one orifice, in short, will come out the other eventually, to use a metaphor worthy of Luther himself.  A person needs at some point to say what she or he feels-- and to discover that the reality of these feelings, when properly expressed, is often not as bad as it seemed.

This blog has thus been an exercise in controlled irresponsibility for me-- of limited but tremendously cathartic emotional release.  I hope that what has appeared here is not actually anything I need have been ashamed of.

Now, I'm going to employ some dramatic language at the end here, but trust me that I mean every word of it.  The last thing this blog has been to me over the past year is a sort of hymn of gratitude to life.  For the two years prior to starting this blog, I wrote very little that wasn't a part of a school assignment. This was in sharp contrast to every other year of my life that I can recall, back to when I first learned the meaning of the word "to write."  It's no coincidence that these were also two of the most unhappy years of my life up to this point.  Some time before I started this blog, and close to a low point of this period, I read Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy.  At its outset, the author declares that the books he has written are a source of solace to him when he asks himself what he has done with life-- a gift "which has been denied to so many others."

This blog is an attempt to show some of Kaufmann's gratitude for that gift.  It's a reminder to myself that the capacity to create is something one can carry within oneself, as a talisman, even when one feels otherwise dragged down by circumstances.  It's a reminder that life and freedom are not bestowed on people with anything approximating a principle of fairness, and that if I have been given both, I'd better do something with them.


There have been 86 posts published on this blog so far.  Are any of them worth revisiting now?  It's hard to be objective, but I can tell you which ones I most enjoyed writing at the time, and which I still look back on with a feeling of satisfaction.  What characterizes all of my personal favorites, I notice, is that I wrote each in a single rush of emotion.  They are my least premeditated contributions.  The longer I think about a topic before committing it to paper, you see, the more points I want to make and unnecessary quotes I connect in my mind.  In the cases I list here, by contrast, I poured out the substance of the idea before it had time to congeal.  These are the posts I think are still worth a gander now, at the end of the first year of the blog's life:

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