Bitterness over the critical truth about my pointless life leads me from artistic arrogance to submissive submission.
Here I go again, leading the pointless life of an underground man! I should have trashed my sCrAwLiNgS fRoM LiMbO manuscript a long time ago. I thought I was cured of those dark days in paradise, so I filed the manuscript away, thinking I might sell it someday.
In fact, sCrAwLiNgS was accepted by a publisher a couple of years thereafter, but I blew the deal. I wanted to rewrite the book because the grammar was sloppy and structure was virtually non-existent; but the publisher insisted that the strongest appeal of my confessional scrawling was in its defects, so I withdrew it to save me the embarassment. I should have known that I was addicted to my own trash, so much so that I could not let anyone else read it. But I was too vain back then to realize that a recovering libertine is never fully cured of his craving for liberty.
I put a check mark by the my sCrAwLiNgS file last week. I hesitated as my finger hovered over the Delete button. Why not take another look at the manuscript? I asked myself. Maybe I can sell it. All right, then. But first I must do some editing to save face.
And that’s what sucked me into the boring black hole again, into nothing, and nothing is long enough. I resisted for a while, telling myself that the whole thing was trash, only worthy of deleting forthwith. I stalled again, thinking I might as well ask a few writers what they thought of the piece.
“Is this boring or not? Should I trash it?” read my query.
My fellow writers were supportive, but I was in a mood for punishment, having read sCrAwLiNgS again. Meaning that anything positive said must be flattery. After all, real criticism is always negative, is it not? Honesty is when people are mean, right? If they are not really mean, they seem mean when they are right. Rarely are critics actually invited to give their honest criticism, and then some of them do so with a vengeance. Until then, one never hears from them. I was fortunate that all my critics were polite and helpful. Of course I was not surprised to hear that my sCrAwLiNgS were insignificant, inconsequential, puerile, pointless, meaningless, without purpose, pretentious. But only one reader said the work was boring, and he said sCrAwLiNgS should not be thrown away. Not one person recommended that I trash my trash. But what is trash for?
Again, I agreed with the harshest criticism. But I was disappointed, for it did not go far enough, to the heart of the matter, to a pointed attack on my very person. For sCrAwLiNgS is autobiographical. If it is pointless, so am I. Or at least I was at the time. The more I mulled the whole thing over, the more I became the lowly person that I was when I first scrawled down my thoughts. And that was not low enough to exceed the depths plumbed by the first underground man: the clerk who read too much German romantic philosophy; did not want to bond with the cubic Borg of his day; then he took notes of the degradation he suffered as an outsider, that he might not be assimilated by mechanical matters. His critics called him a narcissistic, paranoid, compulsive, repressed, borderline psychotic; to wit: he was normal, but he was the anti-heroic archetype of modern normality.
If only I were a prestigious arche! I told myself as I walked across town to the library – a good place for nobodies to hide. The point is the principle of the line, I thought, and I am pointless! At least I know it. Ah, but how painful it is to be lucid when everyone else has their points buried in the sand!
“You look like Sherlock Holmes,” a young man said as I strode across the library floor in my rain coat. My bold stride, derived from my dancing days, deceives people into thinking that I am somebody who knows exactly where he is going. Although desperately unemployed, people often approach me and ask me for a job.
“If I could only make a few brilliant deductions, I might be somebody, but I am unable to deduce anything because I have no general principles to begin with. My life has no axis or axiom. It is pointless,” I quipped.
“Ah, come on, now, that isn’t right,” said the handsome young fellow, a casually dressed, tall African man, with one of those elongated heads, shaved and gleaming with oil. “It can’t be so bad.”
“It’s bad enough for me to head in that direction without having the slightest idea of where I am going or why,” I paused to explain. “I asked my colleagues to criticize my autobiography, and they said it is pointless and meaningless. They’re right. My life has no purpose to it at all. Even worse, someone said my book is boring. It is boring, very boring.”
“Nah, it can’t be that boring. What are you going to do with it?”
“I submitted it to an editor, just out of spite. It was not easy to give up my artistic arrogance for submissive submission, but the truth about my pointless endeavor embittered me just enough to act. Excuse me, son, for laying this on you. I’d better get on with my inconsequential life,” I said, and continued on my way.
“Hey, good luck, man.” He stared after me, wide-eyed.
I headed for the nearest stack and pulled out a book at random, into which I figured I would escape from the pointless proceedings of the day. It happened to be Ivan Illych’s Toward a History of Needs. I knew the book, having read it some time ago. I opened it to the first chapter, ‘Useful Unemployment and it’s Professional Enemies’. Good grief! Yet another coincidence in Magic City. I just cannot seem to avoid undergrounders. Okay, at least I will paraphrase the chapter for old time’s sake.
Yes, here we go, again, the difference between market-values and use-values. Our affluent society suffers from an overabundance of commodities, paralyzing the autonomous creation of use-values. We cannot make the things we need anymore but must worship commodities and their god, Money. And to get our shares we must depend on the market priests who control the mechanical Holy Commodity Cow. They will create crises, which they can solve for our benefit pending the next crisis. If it were not for the experts, the nicely packaged teats would be ripped right out of our mouths and we would bawl for awhile then wither up and die with ribs sticking out and flies buzzing all around. But the real crisis is our dependence on the commodity machine. The only choice we have inside of our supermarket is consume this or consume that. In other words, consume or consume.
Consumers cannot make anything that is sold inside of the supermarket for themselves, hence “the supermarket (is) a structure different only in name from a ward of idiots.” In the good old days, peoples were self-determined because they were creative and inventive, but today self-determination is just a means of uniform defense. In the good old days, bad times were measured by how much food the community had to buy elsewhere, but now most of the food comes from elsewhere, so times are bad and getting worse. Urban people used to grow lots of food inside their cities. As for housing, the day housing became a commodity in Venezuela, “three-quarters of all families found that their self-built dwellings were thereby degraded to the status of hovels.” Furthermore, once poor natives are brought into the “free” market system, they stop fishing and hunting and their poverty is modernized, meaning they get the dregs of production.
In fine, people, deluded by experts who drive the economic baggage train to eventual global disaster, believe that “useful activities by which people both express and satisfy their needs can be replaced indefinitely by standardized goods or services.” Illych is right: economists like other experts have been blinded by their training. They really do not know where the economy is heading; they tend to huddle together like cattle, hence their predictions conform to the prejudices of their masters. I think monkeys might make better economists. In any case, the professionals refuse to look at reality, just as the inquisitors refused to look into the new-fangled telescope.
The solution? “The generation of nonmarketable use-values must inevitably occupy the center of any culture that provides a program for satisfactory life to a majority of its members.”
I’m for a program that suits that end, as long as I can practice my art. I’m for the twenty-hour work week; guaranteed minimum income regardless of performance; commonwealth parks without rents and building codes, and of course with ample space for gardening activities. It is a shame that most people have to pay rent nowadays, and can’t set up tents or shacks to live in. All that will be optional, of course, and with the expectation that most people will pursue mindless material happiness as usual. Those who opt out should stay clear of electric appliances. I recall that Thomas Merton took up the monastic life, did a lot of hard work in the garden, but he was electrocuted to death in a hotel, I think while plugging in a lamp.
Still, I do not care for camping. Or gardening for that matter. My stepmother abandoned me on a farm when I was a little boy. I did not mind because I had always hoped someone would adopt me so I could get away from parenting. But my dad was awfully mad when he found out, because he had promised my mother to take care of me when she died. All in all, a few months on the farm was good for me, but I would not do it again. Picking strawberries was not my thing, what with the mosquitoes and all. I was paid a penny a bale for baling hay: I was glad I got ten dollars in a single day, but I was too beat to spend it. The manure and rock fights were challenging. The chunky milk was not very appetizing in my opinion. Most fun of all was driving the fast Ford tractor and smoking corn silk. I did learn something useful on that farm: I learned how to type! Maybe I can trade my manuscripts for food and shelter!
Toward a History of Needs brought those farming days to mind again – I had almost forgotten them. I was glad I had gotten lost in the library again. When I exited the library, I saw the young man who had spoken to me. He waved and walked across the plaza towards me.
“Where are you going, sir?”
“To get my head sharpened.”
“To get my head sharpened into a point so I can lead a pointed life from here on out, have some sort of purpose in life. Do you have a good job?”
“I had a good job but I am not working right now,” he responded.
“Do you have food, a pot to piss in, a place to sleep?”
“Oh, yes, that is no problem. I have that.”
“Do you write?”
“Yes, I write some. But I’m bored.”
“Bored? That’s no problem. I might write boring stuff, but I am never bored doing it. There is no reason to be bored. Just walk into the library, pick a subject, any subject, study it, write about it, one thing leads to another, and if you live long enough, you’ll circle the world. That’s not boring.”
“Oh, I already have something to write about.”
“You!” he exclaimed, and excused himself – his friends were calling him to join them.
Egads, I should keep my mouth shut. Yet another writer is going to write about me, get his work published, and my sCrAwLiNgS will probably be rejected as too boring to present to the general public. That fellow Dennis in New York, for one, really fooled me. He knew where all the cheap pitchers of beer could be had in the Village. He took me into one of the saloons every couple of days or so, for two months. Little did I know that he was writing a book about me. I suppose it is out there somewhere, as fiction no doubt. For there really is no such thing as an inconsequential life in this world.