Of course, what we write about is what we think about, and what we think about is invariably influenced by what we’re doing, what we’re reading, what we’re ceaselessly reacting to.
For a writer, being forever engaged with both the material world and the so-called life of the mind (inner space?) is at once inspiration and cause for exhaustion. It’s what the mostly unreadable literary theorists spend considerable energy attempting to describe and deconstruct.
As such, I can only conclude that it’s equal parts coincidence and inevitable that the sudden suicide of a friend and a deep dive (pun intended, however painful) into all-things Melville (which means most things Moby Dick) on the occasion of his 200th birthday, along with a remarkable piece by the always-enlightening Jia Tolentino, all seem of a particular and not particularly random piece.
Insufficiently equipped to explain my friend’s suicide, I inexorably ponder the decision Anthony Bourdain made to end his life. If all suicides are micro-tragedies (the lost life, the unexplored potential, the unharvested loves), some are more macro than others. Bourdain’s death, which appears to have shocked those who knew him intimately as well as those who knew him via the one-way relationship TV enables, super-sizes the usual question why would someone do this? I’m certain I was not alone in thinking if a person as successful, as purposeful and productive, as alive as Bourdain can’t stand reality one second longer, what hope is there for any of us? All the clichés apply: we never know what’s inside someone’s heart; we can’t know even our closest friends as well as we’d hope or like; even the individual making the choice might not have a satisfying explanation, were they able to willing to offer one, etc.
Tolentino’s piece “Athleisure, barre, and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman” (from The Guardian and enthusiastically recommended), along with a piece by John Updike’s encyclopedic piece “Herman Melville’s Soft Withdrawal” (from 1982 and republished in The New Yorker, and boy, whatever your feelings about Updike’s fiction, when he wrote essays they stayed wrote. Damn.) read in the days after learning about my friend’s suicide prompted me to conclude that, naturally, there’s nothing new under the sun. Only more so. These things, so disparate, are also so of our moment, so modern and so American, I believe they lend some insight into the pressures and illusions that hinder and, at times, overwhelm us.
First, my friend. According to just about everyone in his Facebook orbit, nobody predicted or anticipated (except perhaps those closest to him, whom I don’t know and have never spoken to) his decision; he (perhaps like Bourdain and so many others) kept the scope of his despair and desperation to himself. For Bourdain, one suspects it was those pressures, along with his well-documented and frankly heroic struggles with addiction, and an obvious propensity to be, if not morbid, dark and ruthless in his appraisal of our world and his place in it, for good, bad, ugly, etc., that — certainly with hindsight — enable us to assemble some of the puzzling pieces.
(The Melville story, in brief, is a sort of yin to Bourdain’s yang; Melville faced the twin pressures of seeking acclaim and remuneration and this ensuing decades-long battle broke him in many senses of the world. In his case, he didn’t fail; the world failed him: failed to recognize, appreciate, and compensate him. This, however unfortunate, is unremarkable: reviewing the 20th Century catalog of verifiable geniuses — just in the blues and jazz idioms, invariably African-Americans — who were ignored, swindled, and embittered, we can conclude that our country has a lamentable track record supporting and sustaining our best and brightest. But with Melville, it’s not merely that he was under-funded and overlooked; the collective critical whims and myopia prevailing in the 1850’s left him a failure (in the literal and superficial sense), and worse, effectively ensured that he was unable to create more works that we could celebrate and profit from, today. As his own letters attest, he knew he was a genius, and there must be a special sort of madness suffered by those who soldier, mostly in vain, against the ignorance and apathy engulfing them.)
I look at my friend, who was a lawyer (something I know he strived to become, and worked diligently to succeed in being), by all outward appearances successful in all the genuine and superficial ways we measure such things, not only thriving in his field, but committed to offering considerable pro bono work. Of course, at my most lucid I’m not naïve enough to ever imagine these perfunctory — but still concrete, measurable — benchmarks convey contentment or effectively repel despair, particularly in our cliché-within-a-cliché charade of social media unreality, where all of us are at once presenting our best selves, our best meals, our cries for attention, however modestly or artfully announced, our necessity to be visible in a medium (and world) where it’s never been easier to be seen and invisible, literally at the same second.
The same pressures that drove and derailed Melville (to be read, to endure, to make a living) are similar ones that drive the multi-billion-dollar athleisure industry: the struggle to succeed, or at least survive, in a hyper-capitalist system that necessarily pits us against not only one another, but ourselves. What I found so remarkable, if dispiriting, about Tolentino’s insights is how she’s able to articulate these competing tensions, while correctly noting that the seemingly positive compulsion to become one’s ideal self is a construction (created by someone else) and there’s money involved. A lot of money, and the people pushing these pressures are very calculated, and invested in the charade. I could easily quote from a number of passages, but this one succinctly ties many threads together:
the ideal woman looks beautiful, happy, carefree and perfectly competent. Is she really? To look any particular way and to actually be that way are two separate concepts, and striving to look carefree and happy can interfere with your ability to feel so. The internet codifies this problem, makes it inescapable; in recent years, pop culture has started to reflect the fractures in selfhood that social media creates.
The pressures to be an individual and assimilate are not uniquely American, or contemporary, but with social media and a socioeconomic code that chides us for not being healthy, wealthy, in control, at worst competent (at our jobs, in our hobbies, in our familial duties), and optimistic; if we are not one or all of these things, the fault is clearly within ourselves. Hence reality TV; hence a reality-TV president. Hence an unreality where a men like Anthony Bourdain who ostensibly have it all (on the very complicated terms we quantify self-actualization) and my friend, in his modest, honest, genuine way, was living his best life, determine that this world is no longer hospitable.
So…what else is new? Maybe nothing. But if it’s the same, it’s definitely more so. Just this week we’ve seen our unique American psychosis regarding firearms bear the predictably strange (e.g., dead) fruit, and coordinated ICE raids scheduled in advance to occur during the first day of school seem a suitably nauseating distillation of why, with this president and his minions, the cruelty is the point, and the bottomlessness of the mendacity the appeal.
In short and in sum, there’s been a seemingly inordinate and relentless stream of shit hitting us of late: violence, ignorance, misdirected anger, a very American kind of belligerence, a super-sized denial to look inward, and a general air of what Roger Waters inimitably described as a “creeping malaise” (a line, poignantly, followed by the rhetorical query “If I don’t stand my own ground, how can I find my way out of this maze?”). We are all bearing witness to a profound ugliness; hopefully people with minds and hearts bigger than their wallets will feel inspired and find each other, in solidarity. What else can we do?