I published a new essay today in Re-Imagining magazine. It’s a response to our collective longing to be able to live our social lives again, though I provoke some questions readers of Liquid Ink will find interesting.
I’m wondering if anyone else is noticing the perception of accelerated time. For me, the days don’t seem to drag, despite me spending almost all of my time in my condo. I sense them barreling forward; it’s almost evening before I’m finished with my late morning chores. Given this, it seems I had inhabited a completely different consciousness when I first submitted that essay to an editor.
How to describe it? When I wrote the essay, I was feeling inquisitive, and I hoped for hope. As the days barrel forward, I’m noticing myself becoming more belligerent. I don’t mean that I argue with people, or that I sense some enemy or assault—I go outside to exercise alone or ride bikes with my children, and I’m hardly active on social media. I also don’t mean that I’ve formed an idea I want to push.
Instead, I feel an alarm going off, and my belligerence is the panic of a man reaching around in a dark room to try to silence it.
But it doesn’t quiet down. It seems to strengthen as my arm reaches and swings more desperately to find it in the dark. Strangely, I’ve longed for this alarm. Sometimes I even feel that I’ve heard it before.
Volumes holds a unique place in Chicago’s cultural scene. Situated in the heart of Wicker Park, only blocks from Nelson’ Algren’s former home, the bookstore sprung up to become, virtually overnight, an institution in Chicago’s literary community. Bookish but not highbrow, nerdy but not lame, Volumes welcomes absolutely everyone, and sells books, beers, pens, magnets, puzzles or muffins to suit virtually every taste.
When independent publishers Tortoise Books picked up my novel, The Fugue, back in 2016, I faced the daunting task of marketing it with virtually no budget, few leads and limited knowledge of marketing or salesmanship. I looked at a map of Chicago’s bookstores, and decided to walk in to each one to talk about holding some event, or leaving books on consignment.
A lot of bookstores in Chicago aid writers of all stripes. However, the support I received from Volumes was particular in its warmth and openness. They did not look at me like a formal business partner, or a token that allowed them to claim support for small artists. Because their goal was to create community and foster cultural activity, Volumes welcomed me to a space that felt nothing short of family, and allowed me to access readers I never would have reached without their help. They seemed unaware of how strange, even exotic their habits were. It was just the way they went about selling books.
Well, we’re at risk of losing them. Yes…we’re at risk of losing so much…but saving Volumes is a noble goal, not only for the city: tourists from around the world buy books here, drink coffee here, and feel as welcome as I did when I came to say, “Um, hi. I’m an obscure writer with holes in my pants. Can you help me?”
In the same way, a person demanding comfort from artists must not be feeling it while making their morning coffee. Maybe it’s worse…maybe they’re looking for distraction from whatever they feel or think. They might be seeking reassurance. They can relax because plenty of writers, artists (and teachers) will oblige them.
It’s clearly stupid to make learning boring. But people get this whole thing backwards. If memorizing a list of eventful dates alongside names of dead politicians is boring, maybe it’s because we don’t learn all that much by doing it.
Yet notice what crazy and complicated shit people memorize when self-motivated or linked to community. My son and his friends can tell you meticulous details about the myriad Pokémon characters. When I was a kid, I could recreate AD&D saving throw grids and combat matrices from memory.
Could I recite the names of all 12 apostles?
At a certain point in our development as adults, we end up weighing the difference between tasks that cause immediate discomfort while offering potential for wisdom, community or skill. This is how we learn to play music. It’s how we train to take penalty shots, win street fights, manage large groups of people or sew up wounds. It’s not comfortable for a trauma surgeon to treat a person who fell out of a rolling truck.
Ah…you say…but the surgeon is well compensated!
Sure. But I won’t agree that comfort is commercially viable while discomfort is a liability. Sex, drugs, gambling and arms have proven their commercial demand for millennia. Does porn offer comfort? Does heroin? The roulette table? Is American military might a cause of widespread paranoia or a result? Does it pacify our fear of the world or trigger it?
I could make a fuss. I’ve always been stunned by readers who think their comfort is universal. In other words, if they curl up by a fire to read Agatha Christie, they guess it’s masochism to read Wittgenstein while seated on a rock. Maybe it is. Of course, some people really like to get hooked. It turns them on.
This reader is responding to an answer I gave to Rob McClennan as part of his 12 or 20 Questions series. You can read the entire interview at the link. However, here’s an excerpt to the bit that provoked a question:
Fiction…is the more demanding art form, at least for me. It’s rooted in deeper traditions, and the risks you take leave more at stake than just personal embarrassment, or someone taking issue with an idea you have. When you’re writing fiction, you’re sitting in the room with all the ancestors, the lineage going all the way back to Homer, to the Old Testament, Christ’s parables, the myths and legends that form the foundations behind the fundamental assumptions we use to create a reality for ourselves. So, you’re adding a patch to that quilt, as you stretch and bend it. It’s a really demanding moment.
Several people have found this answer surprising. My memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, handles heavy themes, not least of which is the Holocaust. The belief is that themes, not mediums, determine difficulty.
There’s truth to that assumption, though my novels also handle themes like sexual assault, domestic violence, collapsing identity, wartime trauma, family dysfunction, religion, artistic process, etc.
I’m sure there are writers who find memoir-writing impossible. Writing my memoir was frightening; however, I could do it, whereas I can’t write poetry without it sounding like a nursery rhyme, bad rap song or random grocery list. I don’t bother with it. It’s too demanding.
Demanding how? I think it’s important to separate emotional demands from technical ones. They’re related, sure, but I find it much easier to say “this hurts” or “here’s where I messed up” or “here are my flaws” than implementing the scalpel, rib shears, protractor and carpenter square necessary to write even a short story of a few hundred words.
Of course, the demands are largely determined by me.
I’m aware and respectful of traditions, use a fair amount of allusion in my fiction, and when I draw water from the well that is the English language, I let the pail sink for a while before drawing it up. I’m bored otherwise.
At the same time, I think there’s an important note in English that colors my awareness of the past, as the words we use to categorize prose are fiction and non-fiction. That implies the default form is fiction, while the other form is its negation.
Imagine if, instead of saying vegetable, we used non-fruit or something. Fruit would clearly be the primary reference point.
To me, fiction is the primary reference point. The great lessons in Western civilization come in stories. Myths, fables, parables and allegories make up the reference points that both progress and define our culture, and we engage in much more soul searching and theoretical “what if” in our fiction than we do in our laws, news reports or histories. American philosophy—Emerson or Thoreau—is blithe stuff compared to Moby Dick or Huck Finn. Homer and Sophocles get me going much more than do Aristotle or Kant.
It’s true that a great historiographer must use her imagination to connect one dot to the next while arguing for some cause. Historiography is demanding, but I’m not an historiographer. I don’t have that kind of mind. I’m an artist, and when I want to put myself to the test, I try writing fiction. It’s sad that more people don’t read it, and that economic and social obstacles have prevented me from writing more than I have, but that doesn’t change what I find engaging.
I think the best example of what I mean should come from writers I admire. If we compare Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory to Lolita, I think we’ll find he’s working much harder in Lolita. Dostoevsky hardly breaks a sweat in The House of the Dead, even when he’s describing gruesome scenes. But in his great novels, he’s carrying massive stones up the hill.
Some writers who find memoirs more demanding than novels might come up with examples of novelists who have it easy compared to their memoirs. I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Ultimately, art is a kind of perversion in which the artist creates some problem and tries to deal with it, usually alone. Notice that dealing with it is different from solving. Beware artists who think they’ve got something figured out.
This question comes from a reader responding to something I wrote in an essay, Find the Bigotry, published in Re-Imagining late last year. That essay offers my take on “woke” culture. The reader is responding to my claim that books surviving over the centuries commonly critique the powerful in their own time periods.
Before I get into a detailed answer, I need to stress that all writing resists something, if even a reader’s basic unawareness. However, that doesn’t make it good or bad. Manuals for things like leaf blowers resist those who don’t know how leaf blowers work.
These days, we think of resistance as a political and sociological force standing in opposition to disinformation, the harvesting of fear and bigotry for political and economic gain, and the dismantling of civility and culture. I feel, as I tried to communicate in Find the Bigotry, that we should work to oppose all propaganda, and all efforts to destabilize communication. Fascist propaganda is not the only type of discourse guilty of destabilization, though it’s particularly dangerous. As I argue in Relief by Execution, my memoir, the most dangerous kind of disinformation denies atrocity or responsibility.
Obviously, in order to have propaganda or disinformation, you need writers (or “content providers”) to compose it. If our definition of good writing is writing that seduces the audience to belief or action, then propaganda is good writing. It’s certainly more effective, and more seductive, judging by its appeal, than is writing that provokes introspection.
Frankly, I’ve lost interest in whether or not writing is good. I’m interested in whether or not the writing is trying to aid our survival. I don’t think writing does this by pointing fingers at “the bad people” as it tries to elevate itself somehow. We are destroying ourselves by shopping and sitting in traffic.
Most important: artists aren’t noble by default. Take the photos of musicians I’m including below. I know plenty of people who’d elevate classical music over American folk, though in this case I’ll take Woody Guthrie over the Vienna Philharmonic.
Of course, Guthrie’s machine did not kill fascists. In his hands, it offered a counter-narrative. In someone else’s, it could incite loathing. In order for it to do one thing or another, it requires a listener to draw conclusions or take actions.
As far as writing goes, if there’s good resistance, it rests with the reader. Without a reader, writing doesn’t exist.
In the weeks following the release of my recent memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, three readers asked me (in different places, unaware of each other) exactly the same question: “Have you seen Joker?” These readers wondered if I identified with Arther Fleck, The Joker.
The short answer is yes, I did identify with that character. Obviously, it’s complicated, and I have a lot to say about this question. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free.
Todd Phillips’s Joker provokes the audience to sympathize with a remorseless killer. Along the way, it considers a number of interconnected issues: income inequality, urban decay, the disintegration of personal and collective morality, the abandonment of the unfortunate, and the experience of mental illness. Socio-economically, Gotham doesn’t seem to have a middle class, just an über-class of politicians and financial sector cretins, then a massive working class of single moms, shopkeepers, random commuters and clowns. With few exceptions, most everyone is deplorable.
Arthur Fleck, the Joker, is a victim of child abuse. He suffers from a cocktail of mental illnesses. His tic is a joyless laugh that seems to hurt his body. He can barely function, even in a job—he’s a “professional” clown— that does not require him to do much besides wear a disguise. Most people abuse, berate, isolate or laugh at him.
Gotham’s citizens are exhausted from struggle but quick to sneer at others. Fleck ends up on television when a recording of his flop at an open mic is sent to a talk show. The host publicly ridicules Fleck. No one shows him any real affection. The person nicest to him, another clown, is merely civil.
The film tries to provoke a brand of sympathy that’s part of a primitive, pathological and cult-like ethos: it asks for whole acceptance of Fleck. Another filmmaker could leave us empathizing with a man who descends to madness following an abusive childhood. But Phillips either dares or invites us to feel good about Fleck’s murders.
After all, his targets are the people we love to blame: grifters, influencers, privileged douchebags, abusers and liars. His first killing of a “financial sector cretin” can pass as an act of self-defense, but subsequent murders are acts of fury against “the awful.”
Fleck asks, without any irony, why the masses care about the people he has killed. One of Fleck’s victims tries to reason with him: not everyone is awful. In the context of the film, the words ring hollow: the few characters who fit that description—a single mom and a dwarfish clown—are merely innocuous.
When Fleck tells this victim, “You’re awful,” the man says, “You don’t know the first thing about me, pal.” It’s true. The film doesn’t explore that victim to any nuance. The audience joins Fleck in ignorance.
As part of the film’s cult-like ethos, its moral system is binary: there’s a massive group of awful people fighting among themselves. Their divisions are not based on any ethic or value system; they’re merely haves and have-nots who look down on the opposite side as society’s true filth. Then there’s a microscopic group that’s withdrawn and mostly powerless. Fleck is a socially mobile character in the film, and his means is violence. When he starts killing, he moves from the latter group to the former.
He desires love and attention but feels noticed only in destruction. His “awful” targets are not just the elite: they include family members and former co-wokers. The risk the film takes is to leave things arbitrary: is Fleck a symbol representing Todd Phillips’s amoral world view, or is he a cog in an aesthetic that’s critiquing society?
I’m not here to settle that question but to admit that, to my own discomfort, I identified with Arthur Fleck, at least to a point. While I wished he might stumble into someone who could love him, I knew only a masochist could do it. His traumas are beyond repair, certainly in this version of Gotham City.
My memoir, Relief by Execution, reveals my struggle with PTSD. While I say quite a bit there, I don’t get into a lengthy description of that moment, experienced by many who’ve suffered childhood traumas, when defense-mechanism amnesia or disassociation breaks. It’s the moment when you remember, “Oh no, that happened!” You had forgotten whatever that is; your brain pushed it away for your own good. Returning to those memories can be like stepping into a room you always knew was in the house but never bothered entering. You find the thing that should never have been found, so it paralyzes you.
That’s the mild version of this experience, of course, because it can also be like turning a corner on a familiar neighborhood street to get assaulted by a flame thrower.
At the moment Fleck realizes the abuse he suffered in childhood, the force of this memory levels his identity as a riot would burn a city. The result is madness.
Some people kill themselves at such moments. In a harrowing scene, Fleck chooses to kill someone else. The eruption of near-limitless rage and hatred overwhelms the compassion and introspection necessary to heal. His new identity, the Joker, is less a disguise than a madman’s reality show, whose definition of humor is a lack of remorse.
Fleck’s transformation into (or adoption of) the Joker persona brings up important questions about the nature of human agency, and what capacity people have to choose actions when confronted by harrowing circumstances.
Few of Fleck’s feelings were foreign to me. While I explore chronic self-pity and blame in Relief by Execution, I don’t reveal any particular revenge fantasy, though I’ve learned they are normal (and dangerous) symptoms of conditions like PTSD, best handled with care. Mine were so frightening that I feared even writing them down on a sheet of paper that I might shred or burn.
Of course, unlike Fleck, I had therapists and friends (and a city) who did not abandon me for falling apart. Despite the people and support, I often felt alone, powerless and inconsequential; my anxiety was an ironic system, wherein my desire for love and affection transformed into self-important paranoia: the perception that most everyone loathed me when in reality I hardly crossed anyone’s mind.
So, it’s terrifying to imagine how someone truly alone and abandoned could collapse completely, lose all remorse, and find a sense of agency in violence. However, I don’t feel one needs to have suffered from PTSD to get to that point. People say our prisons are full of such people.
Curiously, I was thinking about these social issues as I left the cinema to walk home. And I recalled something Fleck says right before committing his climactic murder.
When he describes killing men on a subway train simply because they were awful, a group of people boo him, and he wonders, “Why is everybody so upset about these guys [I killed]? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me.”
I found Fleck’s observation to be meta. If he were dying on the sidewalk, we’d walk right over him. In the same way, Would we have this discussion about mental health and societal decline if the film weren’t about the Joker?
Imagine it were about some random guy in New York who suffers abuse, loses his mind, descends to self-absorption, dances on stairs in The Bronx, and takes to crime. We’d probably pass by that film in the same way we’d pass by Fleck dying on the sidewalk. The studios know this. The only way to pull us in to a conversation about these issues—and to leave us introspecting over questions of who is responsible for an individual’s behavior—is to offer up the comfort of the stories we think we know, the comic books we find worth our time.
Some people are suffering because society isn’t interested in the experiences they’re having. From their point of view, society seems much more interested in who is having the experience. If Fleck is right about anything in the film, perhaps it’s this. If not about a Batman character, Phillips’ film would be obscure art house cinema, discussed by cinephiles and college professors.
This might help explain why so many people feel Todd betrays their morals—their sensibilities and expectations—even as they de-emphasize the suffering his film represents, focusing instead on its nihilistic outcome: a horde of clowns worshiping a remorseless madman, one who arose out of the gutters of a city that seems incapable of supporting its citizens.
That outcome won’t do. It leaves us uncomfortable.
The folks at Re-Imagine Magazine were kind enough to publish this essay I wrote about the ways our higher-education system fosters, accelerates but also complicates our abilities to communicate clearly about the issues we find meaningful.
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