It feels v 2006 to blog like this (Do normal people blog regularly anymore? Was that a pre-Twitter trend?), but I figure that I ought to supply a little rundown of some rather exciting things that have been going on – for, you know, the “fanbase” or the “followerbase” or whatever the hell we’re calling that now.
I graduated last week. That was fun. And exhausting. Perhaps the best part of the week (besides spending time with my lovely family and eating the [w/o exaggeration] best burger ever made) involved receiving an award for “interdisciplinary academic excellence” and, therefore, sitting on the stage at my Gallatin School of Individualized Study graduation. I sort of doubt that I deserve this award more than many, many of my talented classmates, but it was an honor to be honored by a school that I felt so honored to attend. Gallatin gave me the flexibility to explore and grow and discover my academic proclivities on my own terms. It taught me how to write and how to think in radically critical ways. I’m a proud alum.
This fall, I will enter a five-year PhD program in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard. This is exciting, but I’m not quite there yet, because…
…beginning today, I’ll start writing a thematic memoir about growing up and growing into an increasingly media saturated culture. It’ll probably feature some potent mixture of traditional memoir stuff, media theory, philosophy, literature, theology… the whole enchilada. Here’s a brief excerpt from my very-in-process-and-subject-to-change introduction:
It’s easy to think about “The Media” as a concrete entity that will either oppress or liberate you; it’s much harder to think about many mediums. Mediums are, by their very nature, indeterminate. They’re contingent spaces. The author Zadie Smith voices our communal angst when she cries: “How persistent this horror of the middling spot is, this dread of the interim place! It extends through the specter of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety–disguised as genteel concern – for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices – whatever will become of them?”
In Protestant circles, we tend to ease our anxieties by resorting to polarities. We speak of sin: total disconnect between God and Man and Woman, manifest in the eternal reality of Hell. And then we do a full 180-degree turn. We look toward, and yearn for, the fruit of salvation: unmediated, communal intimacy with God and Man and Woman. While these polarities can bring spiritual reality into sharp focus (Flannery O’Conner: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures”), they can also make it harder to a cast cold eye onto the contingent spaces where we experience both communion and divorce, relation and isolation, unity and discord – and often a little bit of all that simultaneously. It’s much easier to gesture toward the solved and unsolved equations, and decry the dangers of moral relativism, than it is to engage complex ethical problems in media res.
Yet for some reason, I have spent my whole life attracted to media, in all senses of the word. As a so-called millennial, I have grown into what the pundits call an “increasingly media-saturated culture.” I have matured alongside television, video cassette players, personal computers, cell phones, laptops, blogs, iPhones, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and so on. I’ve witnessed that interpersonal modifier, “social,” welded onto “media” like a new, sequined outfit. And I’ve engaged with it all like a kid at a strange, ever-evolving candy shop.
I want to reflect on a life lived in media res, to decry reductive pulpit pounding and really get my hands dirty. It’ll be fun, I hope.
I’ll still write for the web every once in a while. If you’ve missed my past pieces, you can find some of them here, here, and here. And if you’d like me to write for your publication (and if you pay at least a little bit… ), I’m all ears.
I’ll be in Brooklyn until July 13th and then in Los Angeles until August 24th. If you’re around, let’s hang out and grab a beer or something.
Here’s 1000 words I wrote on Inherent Vice, my favorite 2014 film. There’s a lot more to say, but, this is a fun start.
Plot is the best and worst part of cinema, and Paul Thomas Anderson knows it. On one hand, plot is unavoidable––if, by plot, we mean intentional progression from one image to another. And since celluloid (real, beautiful celluloid in PTA’s case) unspools image after image, it keeps charging onward. Some genres are particularly dependent on the velocity and direction of their charge; mysteries, for instance, are hopelessly dependent on their logical, Rube Goldbergian momentum. We’re all foremen when it comes to mysteries: pulled in to dissect and judge the quality of the motors, gears, and sprockets whirring us through time.
But, on the other hand, what could be more antithetical to the visceral, sensual joy of cinema than the manmade shackle of narrative logic? Plots can carve up the unruly, the sensual, the natural into cubits and acres. They strip mine them with utilitarian haste. Scene 4 must get X from Location B to Location C, because Y waits there with crucial info. Sometimes, mystery plots are so preoccupied with how their progressions must unfold that they’re unconcerned with what simply is. They can leave us with handcrafted resolutions and disposable experiences.
This is why Inherent Vice is so damn great. PTA turns the mystery on its head: we’re left with very few answers and a phenomenal experience. He’s performed a magic trick, overloading this film with the best that plot can offer––the whirring, cackling mechanics, via Thomas Pynchon––for thesake of cultivating the wild, the wacky, the untamable. The true pleasure of the Rube Goldberg machine, Anderson knows, has nothing to do with utility. It’s all in the whiz-bang cause-effect razzle-dazzle. PTA’s mechanics spin and spin until they blossom into something wild and weird and awesome.
Premise: it’s 1970. The Age of Aquarius has come and gone in Gordita Beach, California, and the good vibrations have started shaking things up a little too much for stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). When Doc’s ex-old-lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, asks him to examine the disappearance of her gangster boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, Doc is drawn into a web of postmodern intrigue: real estate tycoons, Asian hookers, Aryan biker gangs, Black Panthers, straight-laced-cops-turned-part-time-TV-actors, marine lawyers, runaway teenagers, blacklisted actors, two-timing “antigovernment revolutionaries,” megacorporate drug-pushing dentists, they’re all running (and tanning and sexing and coke snorting) around this full-baked SoCal mélange. The deeper Doc dives into this knotty rhizome, the more characters we meet, the more thematic connections arise, the fewer things make sense. Doc scribbles important points onto his notepad, like: “Hallucinating?,” “Definitely not hallucinating,” and “Something Spanish.” Critics may be tempted to do the same. While Inherent Vice might melt a positivist’s mind, feebler noggins like mine might as well chill and take in the ganja for what it’s worth.
And it’s worth a surprising lot. There’s a deep logic at play here: this is a high film about a high time. Doc would probably wax meditative like Joan Didion (“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children…”) if he weren’t so blazed. Phoenix has received little buzz for this loose, mutton chopped performance––none of the raves he got for his manic, apish histrionics in The Master––and that’s too bad. He’s a pro purveyor of loopy, low-key comedy. It’s all in the reaction shots: the dropped jowl, the indignant, furrowed brow, the muddled noirspeak, the faux-I’m-totally-tracking-with-yah “mmmhm” response, the disapproving tongue click and head nod.
But as PTA carries us into an elegiac dénouement we realize how deeply we feel for our decentered, denim-clad, sunglassed hombre. Like all PTA films, Inherent Vice’s formal razzmatazz is marshaled to illuminate primal longings––in this case, we’re drawn to the wishful mirage of companionship in an ever-fracturing world.
Doc channels this longing into imagined romance and bromance. Inherent Vice is equallyanchored by Doc’s feelings for Shasta Fay and Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson. Josh Brolin has, fortunately, received well-deserved acclaim for this (sometimes literal) scenery chewing, wannabe straight-laced/bad-boy cop. (Cops always want to have it both ways––a tension that writhes at the heart of this dead-eyed, sharp-jawed buffoon.) Geoffrey O’Brien likened Bigfoot’s flattop haircut to a granite mesa, and he’s right on the money. Bigfoot could have sprung from the rich red earth itself or come straight outta John Wayne’s big fat cock, ready to take the West with that “evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations.” And yet, when Bigfoot and Doc eye each other warily––Doc’s eyes squinting, Bigfoot’s piercing––forced into unwitting cahoots, we sense The Master’s Freddy Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in a lesser key: beneath the sturdy façade of mid-20th-century American essentialism, both guys just kinda wanna be each other. PTA makes this desire hilariously, movingly literal in the aforementioned scenery-chewing scene, which begins when Bigfoot not only kicks down Doc’s door, but crushes its glass panes with decisive, vertical, Godzilla-like stomps.
I won’t describe the actual scenery chewed for the sake of preserving the punch line. It’s the kind of surreal, visual gag that leaves you wide-eyed, gasping and laughing at the same time. Inherent Vice is the kind of movie that makes you want to leave punch lines unsoiled for first-time viewers. And so I suppose I should end by saying that among its other qualities, Inherent Vice is, in its purest, most visceral element, one of the best visual comedies I’ve ever seen. Pynchon lays the loco-logical groundwork and then PTA, master of the mise-en-scène, carries in the wonky furniture. Nearly every shot is bursts with explosive visual verve. The mathematical mystery-lover may frown here and there as the equation stops adding up, but she may be just too doubled over to care. It’s certainly the best bad trip I’ve ever been on, and I mean that in the grooviest way possible.
I, like many others in Whitbread, NPR-Hooked Americaland, recently finished listening to a podcast called Serial. I’m not going to bore you by recalling what the show is or what it’s about, mostly because you can find out about these details in about a million places–The New York Times, Slate, The Colbert Report, The Guardian, The Verge, and on and on, not to mention NPRand the official Serialwebsite, of course. The show has taken off, picked up steam and spawned countless conversations around the nation (I’ve had at least three very in-depth ones within the last week alone). As professional press junkets have slowly ceded their authority to less rigorous media platforms, it’s kind of thrilling to see a country hooked on professional journalism again. As much as we like digestible media tidbits, we seem to be collectively rediscovering the pleasure of wading through the weeds of an in-depth story. Forgo the cat memes for a little bit–Sarah Koenig wants us to trade out our 100-calorie airplane snacks for a 12-course meal. Unfortunately, however, the meal has finished, and many people don’t feel full. And that is what I want address.
Part of the innate appeal of Serial is its inherent relationship to hard-boiled crime fiction. By a stroke of incredible luck, Ms. Koenig found herself deep in a case as confusing and ambiguous as any John le Carré novel. What seemed fairly simple going in grew more and more complicated. Interviewed subjects were lying, but we weren’t sure who the liars were, or to what degree the liars were lying. “It sounds like a game of Clue, I know,” Sarah admitted once, sounding almost embarrassed, after she described several pieces of possible evidence collected near the crime scene. Serial was thrilling because detective fiction tropes were miraculously reified. That sort of thrill lies implicit in the very name “True Crime”; the “True Crime” label implies that crime is inherently untrue, except for true crime, which is (thrillingly) a bit different. It’s a treated like a special subcategory nestled under the overarching Crime Genre category, rather than the real-life source of the Crime Genre itself.
How bizarre. We’ve got it backwards.
Backward thinking has led many of us to treat Serial as if it were a piece of genre fiction. Emily Nussbaum, speaking for many of us, admitted: “Haven’t heard this week’s Serial, but I’ve been feeling guilty about theorizing that Adnan’s mom did it, since they’re all real people.” The genre tropes are all there, underscored by intense music, streamed through online media – it’s all too easy to fictionalize this real life situation, to project our assumptions onto charact – sorry, real individuals – just as we do with fiction. It’s an old postmodern yarn, that mass-media-saturated-culture treats truth like fiction and fiction like truth and relativizes and free plays and bla bla bla… but, well, isn’t it sort of true after all?
The best part of Serial, in my opinion, is that the show is resolutely not a work of crime fiction. Not even sensationalized drama. It’s plenty lurid, sure, and pretty sad, but it steers clear clear clear of tabloid territory. Therefore, the end of Serial is a pill our postmodern society needs to take. It should remind us what good journalism looks like, and, more importantly, hold a mirror up to our own skewed expectations.
Immediately after I began to listen to the show, I tuned in to a Serial-related podcast on Slate. In the podcast, as Dwight Garner put it, “Mike Pesca… practically begged Ms. Koenig for closure. ‘Don’t let this,’ he said, ‘wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.’” I found the interview to be, like many things published on Slate, rather enervating. The most aggravating aspect of this Mr. Pesca’s beg was his implied belief that Ms. Koenig could be, in fact, driving for some sort of half-assed “artistic contemplation.” Mr. Pesca should have clearly known, not only because Ms. Koenig has worked on this project for an entire year, but because she is an award-winning journalist – the kind that churns out, you know, fact-checked journalism – that that sort of mediocrity was never in her playbook. Ms. Koenig isn’t some liberal college freshman straight out of her first Derrida seminar. Serial would not devolve into some impressionistic postmodern hoo-ha. This should have been self-evident.
On Serial, we witnessed reporters doing what responsible reporters ought to do: reporting what they know, admitting what they don’t know. Not theorizing under the guise of explaining (all hypothetical imagining labeled itself as such). Not projecting their stories into some garbled stew of “possible fact.” We got a reporter who, yes, believes that the truth is out there. A reporter who spent an entire year chasing down facts and opinions in order to recover this truth.
But, just as significantly, we got a reporter willing to admit what she didn’t know. A reporter stating what she could reasonably propose, and staying silent where she felt she ought to say silent. A reporter who didn’t spin, who didn’t pull wild accusations out of thin air on the air. A reporter who did what Rolling Stone should have done months ago and, sadly, did not do.
We didn’t end up with sensationalized “True Crime.” We got journalistic integrity. And as far as I’m concerned, integrity is far more satisfying than any contrived or exaggerated “explanation” would ever be.
Many people won’t be satisfied – aren’t satisfied. These people will, in their desire to have a solid resolution, turn their anger against Ms. Koenig instead of the evidence (or lack thereof). This is a shame. What does it say about us if we desire concrete, possibly untrue resolutions instead of honest ambiguity? It says we kinda like the spin we’re generally thrown, so long as it is simple and concrete. This is the real postmodern mess: not that we believe that truth is ambiguous and relative, but that we believe that we can all come to some sort of straight-forward truth on our own terms, by our own assumptive powers. That we can pull together shambles of evidence and make it all stick together by the power of sheer will. At least little parts of all Serial listeners (I’ll include myself here) do wish that Ms. Koenig did exactly this.
But Ms. Koenig didn’t balk in the face of this pressure. Even when Serial became the most popular podcast in history, and one of the most popular shows in the American media, period, she demonstrated what honest journalism should look like. She worked and worked and worked to try to acquire facts that would lead us to new resolutions, but she admitted when she didn’t find them. Sometimes you just come up dry. If you can’t tell whether the cat in the box is alive or dead, it’s best to avoid false assumptions in either direction.
And one of the things I liked most about Serial is how it demonstrated that, when you’re living in ambiguity, you can treat your own “Adnan Syed’ with sympathy, and, for that matter, your “Jay” too – even when Jay’s story seems fishier by the day. A special sort of grace arises when someone empathizes with people who are possibly dishonest. Persevering in the face of interpersonal ambiguity – this lies at the bedrock of any sort of relational development, I think. We can all improve in that department, and Serial gives us a chance to practice that form of difficult sympathy, with Ms. Koenig standing in as our collective avatar.
Murder fiction tends to either stem from the notion that there is an absolute truth, readily available to anyone by way of deductive reasoning, or – in its nihilistic, postmodern form – a stubborn insistence on utter doubt.
On Serial, Ms. Koenig showed how good reporting, even very entertaining reporting, can rise above both extremes. It can tirelessly search for an absolute truth that, yes, does exist. But, at the same time, it can avoid pretending that it knows what it don’t know, or suggesting that reporters can cobble together true stories with their own interpretive abilities and relational biases.
We joined Ms. Koenig; she got us hooked. Then we subjected her story to our own Hermeneutics of Fiction. But Ms. Koenig didn’t give in to our simple interpretive frameworks, and, by doing so, she challenged our naïve, fiction-formed presuppositions. Are we going to stare into the mirror she’s holding up to us? I hope so.
As much as I’d like to know the truth, we shouldn’t be happy with half-truths. (As my wise mentor Mike once said, “No half measures.”) But vigilance and integrity? I can live with that. Serially.
Just as the August heat really starts to wear a Texan down, I finished my summer internship with The High Calling. Somehow, magically, I got to write a lot. One of my articles was even–to my great shock–published on TIME.com. I’ll archive the articles on this site in the near future, but, for now, here’s a list of links by publication date.
They make for a surprisingly coherent anthology, sandwiched together like this, as if they’re in dialogue with each other. This reveals my sensibility and the limitations of my neural pathways, obviously (slightly younger Nathans talking to slightly older Nathans). But I hope these also reveal broader themes that come up whenever we talk about morality, faith, and work. I think they do:
3. What Can Pharrell’s “Happy” Tell Us About God? (Originally posted here.) Surprise of the summer. Took me about six hours to write; if I knew that it would blow up like it did, I would’ve probably edited it for years. Strange to see something so small grow so fast; fun to see people really digging it. And like most internet opinion pieces, it got some entertainingly boneheaded responses from Christians and non-Christians alike. We binary-oriented, over-literal Westerners aren’t really equipped to talk about nuanced relationships between physical and metaphysical properties. Inspired by some of those loony responses (one of which even made it into TIME Magazine Proper), I started an essay with the resolutely unsexy title “Trouble with Metaphysics and Exemplification.” Maybe at some point I’ll finish the piece and throw it up here. With incredibly gripping topic sentences like “Let’s do some basic semiotics,” I’m sure that TIME will go head over heels for it.
4. What Does Sin Look Like in the Internet Age? This was my favorite article to write, I think. It was a little hard to get back on the saddle after “Happy,” but only a little bit. I just love essay-length media/cultural criticism. It gets me going on all cylinders. And the Deadly Sins website is a lot of thoughtful fun, too. The best sort of object d’research.
5. On Developing A New Style of Leadership. Written for a High Calling community linkup on leadership styles that go “beyond the stereotype”. It wasn’t actually picked up, and that’s just fine by me. Apple’s not really hurting in the good press department.
8. I Was An Unpaid Intern for an Oscar-Nominated Director. An memoir-ish piece for the “Working for Free” theme. It was kind of tricky and fun to weave together. Personal, theoretical, and ethical elements overlap in (genuinely, for me) surprising ways. I didn’t know exactly where it was heading while I wrote it, but I like where it ended up.
I also wrote the text for some infographics that will be published later in the fall. Stay tuned for those! And thanks to Marcus Goodyear and all of The High Calling staff for an exciting, creative summer.
On June 2nd, Apple hosted its annual Worldwide Developers Conference Keynote address. This event is always preceded by a steady accumulation of prognosticating articles (if you’re any sort of techie, you know how they go: “4 New Reveals Expected from Apple at WWDC!”), followed by a wave of New Tech Fever (“12 Biggest Life-Changing WWDC Surprises!”). This keynote has hosted some of Apple’s largest product announcements over the last ten years. They were usually announced during Steve Jobs’ signature “One More Thing…” segments: the Power Mac, Mac Pro, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, and so on. What would be next?
Steve Jobs was a towering example of brilliant leadership. When he took the stage at WWDC, he was a dynamic, creative-meets-technophile rock star. He was the ultimate Apple televangelist. Jobs had non-developers, like myself, tuning in to 90-minute developer conference keynotes and kept them there with the electricity of his pure, enthusiastic showmanship. After he died, this was one of the first things my dad and I mentioned: “He was just so excited to share his products. He loved his work.”
And he did love it, surely. But these sorts of post-mortem accolades were somewhat curtailed after the release of Jobs’ highly anticipated biography. Carefully researched by Walter Isaacson, it revealed a side of Jobs that (although bits and pieces had been gossiped around Silicon Valley for decades) never really figured into his public image. You’ve probably heard about them by now. Jobs could be short or cruel to his coworkers; he’d build you up to gain your support, but tear you down if he perceived your work to be inadequate. He had unrealistic expectations, but he was uncompromisingly stubborn (a term for this even has its own Wikipedia page: Jobs’s “Reality Distortion Field”). Designers were working because they wanted to please Steve. His pleasure was a high, his displeasure like the harshest withdrawals.
I have a hard time knowing how to react to this. Selfishly, I miss the days of the Old Apple Razzle-Dazzle. I liked seeing new, creative inventions shimmer at every WWDC. I liked Steve’s bravado; the “Reality Distortion Field” completely reshaped reality. But at the same time, I wonder if a less-productive Apple is a happier, healthier Apple. I hope that the employees are treated with more respect. If they are, if they no longer find themselvess in a Cult of Personality, isn’t that development worth a world with less Jobsian technology?
I have no idea what’s actually going on inside the Cupertino offices, but I do like what I see. This Macworld article is particularly revealing. WWDC 2014 wasn’t about us, the common consumers. It wasn’t about wowing us with the Next Big Hardware Thing. It was for developers. As far as they were concerned, it was “a big, exuberant, sloppy love letter from Apple.” This article makes it apparent that what seemed like an anti-climactic show was, actually, a show tailored for the needs and concerns of developers. It concludes: “every step the company takes in this direction can only make developers happier and more productive—and for each and every one of us, that means that the apps we use every day will simply get better and better.”
In the old days of the WWDC keynote, it was all about Apple and all about Steve. This year, it seemed to be about developers, which, for a developer’s conference, seems just about right. CEO Tim Cook shared the stage with many other leaders. He’s not trying to become some sort of “Surrogate Jobs.” He seems to be trying out a totally different style of interpersonal leadership. Ironically, in doing this, he seems to be taking Jobs’ own maxim to heart.
Photo by Gavin Cragie https://www.flickr.com/photos/gavincraigie/
The man is a “club scene legend,” my roommate tells me. He’s a real-life Batman: a mysterious, wealthy benefactor. You’ll be minding your own business at an exclusive nightclub when––surprise!––he swoops onto the scene, showering you with charitable gifts.
YouTube clips show this charity in action. They depict the sorts of scenes that inspire rappers to wax poetic. Hundreds of champagne bottles are carried into a darkened club, radiant sparklers rubber-banded to their necks. The shimmering display screams as loudly as the clip’s title: “A 190K Night!”
I turn away from the video, staring at my roommate, wide-eyed: “You mean this mysterious guy bought one-hundred and ninety-thousand dollars worth of champagne in one night… all at once?”
He shrugs. “Yeah, that’s just what some people like to do.”
My stomach turns over. One hundred and ninety thousand dollars funneled into a brief night’s shallow pleasures, thumping away in the next day’s hangovers. My mind flips through a variety of social justice clichés: pouting, bony children; large families crammed into rickety favelas; the group of men huddled under donated blankets in front of my apartment. How much more could these people use this man’s charity? What could they have gotten with 190K?
Videos like these make me a little ashamed to call myself a Manhattanite. Many New Yorkers have the resources to radically change the world, but use them to bolster their own cultural capital instead. Of course, I can’t totally blame my neighbors. I, too, have learned how frighteningly easy it is to spend a lot of money in a single night. And as a scholarship-dependent, good-food-and-drink-loving college student, I’m no paragon of philanthropy either.
Still, it’s hard to live in a culture that could spark so much social justice but seems so reticent to do so. 190K nights may keep the economy rolling, but they won’t help the orphans, the widows, the “least of these.”
Generally, I just let these issues depress me. I unconsciously assume that the days of Zacchaeus are long past. But, in my better moments, I remember the story of someone who was once a NYU student like me: Scott Harrison. Scott was once a major club promoter. At the height of his career, Budweiser would pay him two thousand dollars to drink its beer in public––per night!
Then, at age 28, it hit him. As he put it: “I realized I was the worst person I knew. I was emotionally bankrupt. I was spiritually bankrupt, morally bankrupt…” So he began reading theology and asked himself: What if I actually served others? What would the exact opposite of my life look like?
Scott founded charity:water, an organization created to bring clean water into every area in the world. Since 2006, charity:water has funded 11,771 water projects and provided clean drinking water for over four million people.
What’s striking about Scott is that he isn’t just an example of a “life turned around.” He’s an example of how radical, selfish extravagance paved the way for radical, selfless commitment to social justice. Like Paul, his life is an example of how God works through opposing extremes–transforming hate into love, utter selfishness into selflessness. Would Scott have created such a radically charitable company if he hadn’t lived such a radically uncharitable lifestyle first? I’m not sure. Maybe not.
Scott reminds me how I shouldn’t just be depressed by 190K nights. Instead, I should imagine what these benefactors will look like when their lives are transformed by God. I should remind myself what Tim Keller says about God’s redemption: “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”
Some careers may not seem social justice oriented at all. They may seem hedonistic and wasteful. But we shouldn’t grow cynical. We have a just and merciful God who wants to take the worst of human nature and make it far better than we can imagine.
I wrote this essay for class in April, 2014. Here was the prompt: “In what way is David Foster Wallace an ethical writer in ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’? What would that even mean in the context of these stories?” If you haven’t read the book, I’d firmly exhort you to check it out before reading this essay; it’s challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Otherwise you might find yourself a bit lost in my non-contextualized references. Or not. You decide. Either way, I like it enough to share it with you.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men reminded me of one of my favorite segments in the New Testament, Chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Roman Church. In this portion of the text, I imagine Paul having a sort of mental breakdown. He writes:
So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway… I have discovered this principle in life––that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong… Oh, what a miserable person I am! (7:14-25, New Living Translation, abridged).
Paul’s repetitions are striking here, especially considering the expense of ink and papyrus during this historical moment. It seems that cost-consciousness alone––not to mention common editorial sense and philosophical rules-of-thumb like Occam’s Razor––would have kept him from making the same point four consecutive times.
This portion of the letter isn’t a logical, didactic treatise. This is the textual imprint of a mental breakdown. Anxiety builds and builds until an eruption of self-loathing and self-pity gushes onto the page: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!” In verses 7 through 10, Paul explains how the command “You must not covet” led him to this place of self-loathing. Through a life of restricted living, Paul easily avoided breaking most of the Ten Commandments. But this particular command was a different beast. It dealt in the realm of internal motivation, not external action. Paul realized that, as a Jewish Pharisee determined to follow the Law at all times, he began to covet a lack of covetousness. He says: “Sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me!” Paul’s self-centeredness felt unbeatable and he admits that, until his Christian conversion, this realization caused “spiritual death.”
In Brief Interviews, one gets the sense that Wallace knows this “spiritual death”all too well. Similarities between the texts are obvious: volatile prose, self-awareness, and a despairing attitude toward the seemingly incurable problem of human self-centeredness. Wallace understands our all-too-automatic inclination to covet.
How should we go about solving this problem? Perhaps we should grow aware of our own self-centeredness. Maybe self-knowledge will better us? This seems to be the prototypical Freudian or faux-Shakespearian solution: “This above all—to thine own self be true.” We can ignore that this phrase is uttered by the Polonius, a character Hamlet calls a “tedious old fool.”
Wallace has no qualms trampling on the moral implications of this simplistic worldview. The titular men are hideous––not only for their self-serving misogyny, but because many of them are self-aware and, therefore, guiltless. They use their self-awareness like defensive armor, uttering phrases like: “I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me,” “men are just shit,” “Does that sound shallow? Or does the real truth about this sort of thing always sound shallow, you know everybody’s real reasons?” They are Late Night comedians scowling at their own mediocre jokes, grasping for easy ways to gain favor with the “audience.” One interviewee even uses an “accurate” assessment of his relationship––“I saw that she would forever go on playing victim to my villain”––to forgive himself for committing domestic violence. For these men, awareness is the key to absolution.
Wallace compares this approach to the attitude of “‘meta’-type writers” whom are “honest” about the artificiality of their work. He calls this sort of “honesty” cheap, “highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him (i.e., of the ‘meta’-type writer).” He (i.e. the ‘meta’-type writer) is like the Hideous Man “who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how… open and honest… he’s being all the time…. Constantly congratulating himself for not doing precisely what the self-congratulation itself ends up doing… [He’s] just performing in some highly self-conscious and manipulative way.”
Well, where do we go from here? Maybe we can override our self-centeredness by helping others. This notion inspired my favorite line in the short film collection Paris, Je T’aime: “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.” Self-determination defines Sartre’s solution in “Existentialism As Humanism”: “Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is…” If I act selflessly, perhaps I will become selfless.
Although Wallace is sympathetic toward self-determination––the raped Granola Cruncher transcends her situation through a demined, empathetic stare––he is weary because acts of self-giving are often motivated by “pure selfishness.” The Great Lover exemplifies this problem. The Great Lover is not “your basic pig.” He’s not the sort of thoughtless, hedonistic being that “wants whatever he can get, and as long as he gets it that’s all there is to it.” The pig doesn’t care about his partner’s pleasure because he’s “barely even semiconscious anyhow,” but the Great Lover tries to please his partner at all costs. He gives himself to her like a dedicated soldier laying his life on the line for his country: offering massages, “going down on her yingyang for hours on hours, holding off [his] own coming so [he] can keep at it for hours, knowing the G-spot and Ecstasy Posture and such.”
At first glance, the Great Lover seems like a charitable, honorable man––hence the title “Great.” Yet these sorts of men need to “think of themselves as Great.” The problem rears its ugly head with the three words “think of themselves,” but Wallace continues: “Seeing themselves as a Great Lover doesn’t mean they give any more of a shit about her than the pigs do, and deep down they aren’t one little bit less selfish in bed…. Their trip is different, but it’s still only just their own trip they’re on, in bed, and the little lady deep down’s going to feel like she’s just getting used just the same.”
What an awkward, insightful phrase: “it’s still only just their own trip they’re on.” They may be giving themselves, but they’re coveting power and status. They may be physically giving, but they’re emotionally using. It’s easier to pinpoint this in wannabe Great Lovers than in successful Great Lovers, which is why Andrew Crawford stands out in The Easter Parade. After an embarrassing display of sexual impotence, “he sat slumped on the edge of the bed as if on a prizefighter’s stool, his head hanging.” He may be trying to please Emily physically, but he looks like a prizefighter; he’s fighting for his own glory and self-worth. She is a conduit to his own accomplishment, “worked like a Porsche.”
Selfish self-giving isn’t an exclusively sexual phenomenon, of course. In “Octet,” Wallace refers to the sorts of people “everybody’s seen.” They will use you “as some piece of like moral gymnastics equipment on which they can demonstrate their virtuous character (as in people who are generous to other people only because they want to be seen as generous, and so actually secretly like it when people around them go broke or get into trouble, because it means they can rush generously in and act all helpful….” These people like when others are in trouble because it gives them opportunities to build up their self-worth. They want to call themselves good people.
They’re often blind to their own self-centeredness. In “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” the Charitable Giver condemns himself unintentionally. He says: “selfish motive would empty the nice gesture of any ultimate value, and cause me to once again fail in my efforts to be classifiable as a nice or ‘good’ person.” By trying so hard to be a good person, he’s still “on his own trip.” Maybe we should call a sort of Sympathy Simulacrum, or, more specifically, a genuinely sympathetic impulse “turned inward on oneself.”
As with the manipulative, “honest” meta-writer, perhaps this sort of selfishness is more deadly than brazen greed because it pretends to be virtuous. When we interact with “good people,” we begin to play by their rules. If we wish to be regarded as a good people, too, then other “good people” demand our respect. They’ll use our approval to build up their sense of self-worth; we’ll use our own appreciation of their “goodness” to decide that we’re at least partially good, too. Look at me. I “admire” this refugee worker––aren’t I a good person?
At this point, we can agree with Wallace: “there are literally a billion times more ways to ‘use’ somebody than there are to honestly just ‘be with’ them.” We will also admit, as Paul does: “when we want to do what is right, we inevitably do what is wrong.” Perhaps we’ll cry out in frustration: “Oh, what miserable people we are!” This cry describes the attitude of The Depressed Person in a nutshell. She understands how she exploits her Support System. She knows that these telephone-based relationships are unbalanced; she’s usingher poor confidants. The Depressed Person realizes that she’s using her therapist, too, by paying for the “pathetic temporary illusion of a friend” “who[m] could fulfill her childishly narcissistic fantasies of getting her own emotional needs met by another without having to reciprocally… empathize with… the other’s own emotional needs.”
Yet she uses her “temporary illusion of a friend” to express these anxieties instead of finding a “real friend.” She uses her Support Group to express her Support Group anxieties, “bursting involuntarily into tears and telling them that she knew all too well that she was one of those dreaded types of people of everyone’s grim acquaintance who call at inconvenient times and just go on and on about themselves…” She lives out the relational equivalent of the joke-phrase “don’t fucking swear,” using people as she decries using them––even though she, like Paul in his insurmountable covetousness, despises her own hypocrisy.
Unlike the Hideous Men, the Depressed Person seems genuinely concerned by her lack of empathy. She’s not trying to use her Support Group members as pieces of “moral gymnastics equipment.” In the spirit of absolute honesty, she even “urged her terminally ill friend to go on, to not hold back, to let her have it: what words and terms might be applied to describe and assess such a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared herself to be?”
In this exhausting and desperate ending, Wallace successfully utilizes what he calls exformation: “a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.” This story evokes what it refuses to say: if the depressed person really wants escape from her selfish conundrum, she is asking the wrong question! She ought to ask the terminally ill person: How are you today? or What can I do for you? The ending pulls us in two directions simultaneously: we feel sorry for the depressed person––who has medical reasons for this endless self-obsession, after all––and compassion for the terminally ill person. Since our impressions of these confidantes are filtered through the untrustworthy mind of The Depressed Person, we desperately want to escape her mind. And we want to take her––or at least the sacred, ethically minded part of her––with us on the way out.
The term “self-centeredness” is helpful here because it suggests that, like focused camera lens, the mind and heart are often centered on the self. Yet the term also implies that it is possible to shift this center away from the self. In other words, the locus of my attention may be internal or external. In an ideal world, the question “How are you?” suggests an external orientation; the center of my attention shifts onto you. We can determine the location of a speaker’s “center” by attending to their personal pronouns. “I want to be a good, caring person. I want to do charity work in Africa.” is a very different statement than “They are dying of AIDS in Swaziland. We must assist by distributing contraceptives.”
How do you shift your center? As Wallace demonstrates, this is more easily said than done. He’d agree with Benjamin Franklin: “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome [pride], I should probably be proud of my humility.” Similarly, after we learn about the Great Lovers, the speaker suggests that if you’re able to “put your picture of yourself on the goddamn back burner for once in your life,” you’ll “get” the woman you’ve been coveting: “Then you really and truly got her.” Once again, self-centeredness pokes its ugly head into the fray.
How does Paul center his mind? His solution is theistic and direct: “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Therefore, he writes in Chapter 8: “The Law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (8:3-4, NLT).
After Paul found a god that kept all of the laws and died the death that he deserved––a god of “substitutionary atonement,” a Sydney Carton to his Charles Darnay––he found an external force worth centering his thoughts on. This discovery allowed him to center his thoughts on other people, too, since this god loved them all equally. In this vein, Benedictine Monks have developed what they call Centering Prayer. Modern Christian worship music speaks of putting “Jesus at the center of it all.”
When we don’t call this exuberant center-shifting process “falling in love,” we call it worship. Paul found something outside of himself worship-worthy. In what is perhaps Wallace’s most famous quote, he speaks of worship: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship––be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles –– is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” For Wallace, modern culture is particularly pernicious because it “hums merrily along in a pool of… worship of self,” encouraging us to believe that we are all “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” Brief Interviews focuses on the toxic byproducts of self-worship: vanity, misogyny, disillusionment, anxiety, helplessness, and solipsism.
Yet Wallace’s characters are at their best when they chose to initiate a center-shifting process. Consider the protagonist in “Think.” As the “younger sister of his wife’s college roommate” seduces him, “her expression is from Page 18 of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” She wants him to covet her body; she covets his approval. Her sexual vulnerability ought to flatter his ego; his willingness to fuck ought to compliment her seductive prowess. And yet, instead of leaning into his self-centered lust, he kneels to pray. “His gaze at the room’s ceiling is supplicatory. His lips are soundlessly moving… She’s not sure how to stand or look while he’s gazing so intently upward… His eyes never leave the middle distance between the ceiling and themselves.”
It doesn’t matter if he’s praying to JC or Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, but his unfailing gaze is surprising and crucial. It demonstrates how he’s trying to re-center his focus in order to worship something more meaningful than her “media taught” body and his covetous lust. What is worth worshiping in this situation? He lands on a beautiful, fantastical possibility: “And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication.” Mutual regard for eternal value would be worth worshiping. Center shifting would be worth worshiping. Genuine intimacy––not a transactional sort of “mutual using”––would be worth worshiping.
Finally, consider the last Hideous Man. His story is all about center shifting. It’s like a falling domino line of center shifting experiences, actually. In chronological order: the Granola Cruncher centers her thoughts on her rapist. “She wills herself not to weep or plead but merely to use her penetrating focus to attempt to feel and empathize with the sex offender’s psychosis…” Just as the praying man intently stares at the ceiling, she stares at the sex offender. And in a similar manner, her dedicated focus changes what would have otherwise been a self-centered disaster for both parties involved.
As she recounts this horrific event to the Hideous Man, the Granola Cruncher exemplifies this sort of focus with her storytelling. She “had an unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself.” She isn’t using this anecdote to prove how she’s a “good person.” Hence, the Hideous Man is the next domino to fall. He finds himself shifting his center of attention onto her. He is legitimately focused on the Granola Cruncher: “She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her.” And she continues to hold his attention as he recounts her recount to us. In another storytelling universe, this might not seem like a marvelous occasion. But in Wallace’s diegetic sphere, when a man uses the phrase “She had all my attention,” it feels like an ethical victory. Even the pronoun “she” seems to signify a seismic shift.
Wallace surely agreed with C.S. Lewis’s aphorism: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” But Brief Interviews is valuable precisely because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to think of yourself less. Self-worship is not just tempting; it’s our “default setting.” However, if we consciously shift our centers of attention, we may just find something outside of ourselves worth worshiping.
Actually, Wallace doesn’t equivocate with these sorts of “may just find” statements. He has a desperate, urgent need to say that if don’t worship something outside of ourselves, wewill worship ourselves and we will drown in the mire of our own imperfections and insecurities. Here is Lewis again, at the end of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon that he wrote in the middle of World War II: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be inside some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”
Wallace knew this door.
 In his 2005 Kenyon College Address, Wallace acknowledges how self-determined focus takes work: “Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” (emphasis mine).
In everyday Western existence, there is perhaps no question robbed of its altruistic power quite like “How are you?”. In Czech culture, for example, if you ask someone how she is, she will respond with excessive details: “Not too well, I’m going through a divorce right now. My husband wants custody of Jan…” and so on. They assume that the question actually arises from an externally oriented place.
 There is something Christ-like going on here, actually. She exudes empathy that the Sex Offender cannot exude, giving him the sort of intimacy that he could never imagine.
[Please note: This is morally motivated satirical fiction, through and through. Hence the fictional author, and so on. It deserves pretty hard PG-13 rating. You have been warned.]
by Michael Labeline
Ok, guys. We all know how difficult it is to be a Godly man in the age when every single internet link leads to porn and every woman in your life just wants your toned abs and rockin bod. But the truth is that sexual purity was never easy… Heck, even Jesus had to scribble in the dirt to keep his eyes off of a curvilicious ho. So that’s why we all need to realize that there are just some ladies that you shouldn’t be hooking up with in the ever-so-tempting gas station bathrooms. With a little accountability and a lot of prayer, we can be intentionally pursuing the shiny, long hair; sharp, elegant nose; and white, gleaming skin of Jesus instead of what I believe the apostle Paul called the forbidden-fruit-eating-woman’s “Rump of Repulsion.” So here are some of Lucifer’s Luscious Ladies that we need to say “Hell no” to, in more ways than one. Avoiding the temptation may feel like squeezing your Johnson through the eye of the needle, but isn’t that the point?
1. Definitely-Cracked-Out Lady
And no, I’m not talking about the B-crack, although that may be out too. No, I’m talking about the little lady who is probably rapidly repeating Kelly Clarkson lyrics while combing her hair with your baseball bat in the trunk of your Volvo. You know who I’m talking about. She may say, “Oooh, that Valero sign makes me want to—Wait, where’d the eagle go? Where’s Tito?” but you STAY AWAY from that Valero, boy. The STD Doctor waiting for you is just the servant of the real doctor, Doctor Sin Consequence Man.
2. Your Worship Team’s Two-Sundays-A-Month Drummer
So it’s after worship practice and you’re still trying to master that A-D-A-C chord progression of this month’s really popular worship song. The cross-tattooed drummer with short hair asks if you want to check out a set her cousin is playing down at the Raging Lion. You’re really supposed to meet with your small group to bench press and talk about Chapter 2 of “Finding God in Braveheart,” but she seems chill and maybe secretly lesbian, so…. hot, right?
Lesbians: no, no, no. Even that Juno chick’s a lesbian now, and you see what happened when she did it with a straight guy. Disaster and, as Netflix calls it, “quirky indie comedy.” No way.
This lady might even ask you about stuff like “Keekeguard” or “Ackwynus” (whatever that is?). Come on, girl.
Let’s just say that Chevron’s family bathrooms are NOT up to any other company’s “Quality Standards”. And she might lock you in them for being a “presumptive jerk” and take your car and leave until you call her and apologize over and over again #ugh.
3. Bartender from The Rusty Buzzard
Yeah, so you’re a hotshot regular now. You don’t even need to show your slowly crumbling fake Arizona ID anymore. They KNOW you. You can drink a glass of whisky and only choke on the shit every third or forth sip. So you show up for the Cowboys game…. and let’s just say that they’re not the only Cowboys scoring one touchdown that night, am I right?
Anyway, bad idea. It might be hot, it might be sweaty, it might rock your world, but it also might make the threat of Hell keep you up at night, putting you into cold sweats and keep you crying out for forgiveness endlessly in the dark to God who won’t answer.
4. Teenage Summer Camp Girl
You’re in tenth grade. Everybody’s having that “How Camp Rocked My World” meeting on the last night, acoustic worship music is being played, people are crying, and all she wants to do is have you come to her cabin and spoon her while she talks about her life and stuff. This girl doesn’t even want any action. She’s just an emotional wreck who doesn’t want to go home to her kindof meh upper-middle-class life after having her hair braided by pretty college girls for two weeks.
So when she sees you three years later, she’s gonna jump onto you like you’re her long lost puppy or something, all teary eyed and sentimental like you bought her a Bouqet on valentines day or something. This girl is just a hot mess. She might want to yank your wang, but she’s gonna get all attached and bleh about it. (Also, P.S., BP might spill their gas in the gulf or w/e, but she might help you learn that their restrooms are TIGHT. Not that this really matters, though. Don’t do anything in them. Period. Yeah, never.)
5. The “Feminist”
K, this grl seems CRAZY. Like, she spits fire in your face that you’re never seen. She’s like Grandma before the Vicodin kicks in. She keeps you on your toes, rolling her eyes, acting like she owns the place.
Well here’s the twist: she actually thinks she does own the place. Yeah, you heard me right. She thinks girls can call the shots, that chivalry is so old-school, that your Johnny Manziel wall-calendar emphasizes male domination as if that’s a bad thing. She makes up words like “male gaze” and “misojenny” and pretty much hates your guts. She doesn’t want to do it unless it’s on her terms, on her time. She acts as if girls don’t evenreally want the D! Puhleeeasssee.
Guys, this girl is trouble. This is not what the Bible is about, ever. No, no sir. Consider this verse from Romans (paraphrasing, don’t have a bible b/c my iPhone’s out of battery): “Let the man be in control and the woman be subservient to her husband. She has to keep stuff on her head in church because men are better.”
Stay away, bros, stay away.
6. Your half-sister, New Years Eve, Johnny’s “14 Shots For 2014” Party
Nuff said. We’ve all been there.
So man nuggets, let’s keep our eyes on the prize like the medal waiting at the end of the 800 meter dash. Some day we’re going to get married and have our wives do us like 200 times on the first night of the honeymoon and it’s going to be hot and awesome. Crazy positions up the wazoo, you know the drill.
But until then, we gotta keep focused on God and he said don’t do any of this stuff until we’re married. We gotta let Jesus give us boundaries and stuff because who knows when he’s coming back? When you hear that knock on the Citgo restroom door mid-smash, how do you really know that it’s the manager or a cop and not the Big Man Upstairs himself?
That’s enough to keep you up at night, guys. Be strong.
“Diamonds of the Night” begins with breathtaking swiftness. Sharp gunshots echo in the distance as two unidentified young men scramble, half-running, half-crawling, up a hillside. We hear nothing but gunshots and breathless panting as they head into the woods for shelter.
In this 1964 feature-length debut by 1960s Czech New Wave auteur Jan Nemec, the young men are never given names or significant dialogue. Their forest escape meshes with intercut surrealistic visions: walks through a concentration camp wearing cloaks labeled “KL,” a tram speeding through the streets of Prague, ants crawling into an eye socket, laughing children tobogganing down snowy slopes, grain bags, slinking cats, rising elevators. No framing devices contextualize these images, leaving us the weighty task of determining whether we’re witnessing flashbacks, hallucinations or merely images that Nemec fancies.
Cheswick, sporting an exaggerated frown like a stubborn toddler, stands and interrupts a group therapy session in a fleeting impulse of civil disobedience.
“May I have my cigarettes please, Nurse Ratched?”
Ratched juts out her jaw, widening her fiery eyes: “Mr. Cheswick, you sit down!”
Cheswick sits, arms crossed, anxiety practically dripping from his pores. McMurphy tries to appease the squirmy man by playing off of Harding’s better nature. Harding, ever the intellectual, refuses to let Cheswick have his last cigarette: “I’m not running a charity ward, see.” Martini, grinning impishly, snatches this “last cigarette” from Harding’s hand and gives it one puff before tossing it across the circle. A game of “cigarette catch” begins, tensions rise, and Cheswick stands again to bellow in pure, bloated agony: “I want MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratched! I want MINE, Nurse Ratched!”