Saturday, November 19, 2011

Turning Points: Failure

To understand this you'll probably want to read the first installment

When I began to write this section of the series, I wrote it as a simple chronology of events. But to tell what happened doesn't say what actually happened.

What actually happened was desperation, and fear. What happened was frustration and frenzy. What happened was loss disguised as a little bit of public attention and a small bite of power. I spent the next few years feeling as if I were fake, and I concluded this period by becoming an outright fraud.

I was desperate to feed the attention and power machine that I had become. What started as a shocking turnaround in my social fortunes at 14 became a full-on need for as much personal attention as I could muster. It wasn't enough that I was charismatic (one acquaintance half-seriously suggested an experiment: put me in a large box, wheel me around on a dolly, and see if people still stopped, turned around, and stared. He guessed that they would). No: I had to spend hours in front of the mirror every morning, fashioning ever more outlandish attire, so that no stare might ever be averted. I had to spend every waking hour mulling over the next publicity stunt-- all in a good cause, you see-- except I knew inside that my bottomless pit of loneliness was the real cause in question.

I really did believe in the ideas and values I espoused. I really did hope that I might do some good even as I substituted quantity of people and degree of influence over them for quality of relationships. But I knew how very far my persona, both in public and in private, deviated from who I was and why I did things. And I felt fake.

Fueling the drive for attention also was that it seemed I could no longer succeed at anything else (and I was obsessively ambitious even while pretending not to be). After two years of hiatus, during which it had seemed I could accomplish anything I wished, my waking nightmare and nemesis was back.

I called this nightmare Dark Thing. I had named it as a child when I had no more creative language. It had a sound: a deep, bone shaking sound in one's mind as chilling as any Siren's call. It had a size -- large, usually several feet taller than myself, reaching to whatever the height of the ceiling. It had a color (if things not seen with eyes can be said to have a color) -- not mere optical black, but the very color of annihilation. It had an effect: to shut down cold whatever l I had been thinking at the time of its arrival, not just at that moment but for days and weeks afterwards, as if it were a giant Novocaine shot to the brain. And it was Terror, as near to the absolute quality of terror as anything could be.

It had a modus operandi, too. From a very young age I liked to play with ideas, to follow the threads of reasoning as deep to their roots as I could, push out the limits of an idea as far as I might, and follow the tangly web, the grand patterns, of thought as it linked and merged and wove among other thoughts and ideas. That's why I loved the sciences: there were so many broad, deep, and interconnected patterns to play with. It wasn't just science though. The act of writing generated a mental playground within which I could romp. So did painting. So did reading, on nearly any topic.

Dark Thing always struck when I was at play with ideas. Moreover, it always struck at the point when ideas were flowing the easiest and patterns of connections were tumbling out. One moment, I was as happy as I could be, surrounded by connections, and the next, I was blindsided by Terror.

It was impossible for me to apply myself to thought after Dark Thing returned. My mind was too numb even to think about things, like chess, that had never generated the cascade of ideas from which Dark Thing emerged. If I wasn't directly impacted by Dark Thing, I was terrified that I would be impacted by Dark Thing. I had mapped out over the years a kind of mental minefield, where to stray would certainly bring about Terror (I called such thoughts "Forbidden Thoughts"), but there was much I hadn't mapped, and, I suspected, new mines were being planted every day. It isn't possible to be a physics and mathematics major -- at least not a very good one -- when vast swaths of one's chosen field were flagged and cordoned off as unsafe.

There was never a question of defying Dark Thing and pushing onward. It could not be done. My mind shut down tight. Even if someday it didn't, I was certain that beyond Dark Thing lie death itself, or maybe even something worse than death, some kind of utter annihilation.

But I could apply myself with little difficulty to winning a little bit of fame, and using what influence I had to wield a small amount of power. I rationalized my new interest, in promoting me, as an interest in furthering assorted noble political goals. The catch is that accreting a following and wielding those followers to noble political ends was not especially good at producing noble results. Mostly it produced complicated situations where no side was the side of right, and where I was as apt as anything to find myself, after a few convolutions, fighting for the exact opposite of what I believed in.

But I persisted with the tumult for lack of any other functional plan, until I couldn't. Then, upon diagnosing my problem as that which happens when needy ambitious egomaniacal fucks try to accrete and wield political power (and since I had no prospects that did not involve me being the needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck that I was), I decided to take my act to the one industry where needy ambitious egomaniacal fucks were the norm: music. I could, I thought, be as charismatic and attention seeking as I could bear, and the worst that I could do with a following would be to boost sales.

This scheme failed as well, when I came to realize that the violence that seemed to follow our band around (it was an early punk band) had everything to do with the violent imagery we drew upon and that I wrote into our music. Evidently I could be plenty destructive as a needy egomaniacal ambitious fuck atop a stage. People were getting hurt. And I was at fault.

Maybe the destructive effect came about through my personal charisma, I reasoned. Maybe I needed to take up an activity where people wouldn't actually see me very often. So, one morning, I put a sheet of paper between the rollers of my typewriter, and began my career as a writer of political theory.

My writing career lasted about a dozen keystrokes.

My first book, I had imagined, would be on the intimate relationship between hierarchy, freedom, and the very words we have to describe relationships among people. It had long been obvious to me from my trace-the-ideas sessions that to a great extent what was politically "possible" was merely that which was linguistically easy (by way of simple illustration I believed Russia's willingness to experiment (badly) with state socialism was in part the consequence of how possession is expressed in the language. The construction for possession, У меня, is, literally, "by me". Only context can tell you if the man standing next to a factory is discussing his proximity to the building, or claiming ownership of it). Furthermore the politically possible was, I thought, wound up even in our popular choices regarding logic itself (logic, or more generally how we know what we know, is a much more complex question than the average person understands it to be).

I had to think these ideas through, of course, before putting them on paper. And as I started to do so I began to see a horrible pattern. My failures as a leader were not merely the product of my glaring personality flaws. They weren't even the consequences of flaws in my political theories (though flawed they were). Those attributes that I least liked in the political world, that I least liked in myself, and more, were an inevitable consequence of the the very stuff of language and logic. The problem lie at a stratum of thought just below language. And so long as it remained, unchallenged and unchallengeable, in the stuff from which symbolic thought emerges, ideas would fail. Make a theory of freedom and follow it, and eventually it would tell you that you needed to advance its cause through dictatorship. Make a theory of peace among people, and it would guide you to bomb in its name. Make a theory of kindness towards animals, and surely someday those ideas would instruct you how many puppies and kittens to dropkick, and when.

I could see the glimmer of a solution to this fundamental failure of the intellect. It involved peering below the substratum of symbolic thought, at a still deeper level (one notch over is generally speaking where such resolutions, if extant, lie). And so I started again to trace things, this time deeper into the silent world beyond words, the world of the high pitched whine of one's brain, the whoosh of one's breathing... and then, a sound. I recoiled and put as much distance as I could between my previous line of thought.

The answer to how not to be so damned destructive was a Forbidden Thought. I was well and truly trapped.

I had no idea what to do with myself. I worked at a computer job or two, joined a none-too-dedicated folk band for a while, and otherwise drifted aimlessly for a few months until the interview.

It must have been a slow news day at the Rocky Mountain News. I got a phone call from a reporter who wanted to do a story on me. If I had any degree of self-restraint, I would have admitted that I was lost and had nothing of value to say to him or his readership. But while I was undoubtedly lost, I remained a needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck, and so I consented to the interview. I recited my usual lines to him, even as I thought to myself "this is all garbage and I know it". And he published it.

I was no longer a needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck. I was a lying needy ambitious egomaniacal, knowingly fake and knowingly destructive, fuck. I couldn't keep myself from perpetrating this flagrant fraud as far as opportunity allowed.

I had to physically remove myself from the opportunity. It was time to run.

Part 3 is now available, and you can read it here

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