We're like four years into the "Hey, people are making metal I like again" era – and, well, it's 2020 – so of course there were a slew of Nu-Metal-style albums this year. What I didn't expect was how ready I was for this kind of sub-Mindless Self Indulgence, "Hey, anyone remember Adema?", solo-album-by-the-Slipknot-guy nonsense to come back.
Take a couple of those tracks, add a bunch of paint-by-numbers thrash metal songs, and here we are – 2020: The Loud Mix
2020 may have been a pretty lousy year across the board – from politics to plague and everything in between – but the music has been phenomenal. While I'll be putting together a traditional top ten in December, I wanted to highlight some stuff that just couldn't make the cut.
First up, 2020: The Dance Mix
What is all this?
My bookshelves are stuffed to overflowing with works on religion, theology, philosophy – speculation generally. And despite all this reading, I have no more clarity now than I did when I started.
Consider one small corner of "this" – what is a person? Hmm? Go even smaller: what am I really?
There seem to be a few main answers to that question:
I am "really" a soul which happens to be in a body
Though the body is made up of matter, there is something eternal and imperishable within that matter, bringing it to life. This imperishable, eternal self pre-existed me, will continue to exist beyond me, and is the "real" me underlying the accidents of body and personal experience.
I am "really" only my body
My body is the beginning and the end of my existence. I am matter, like any animal. All that I am, have been, or will be is grounded somewhere in, and arises from the matter of my body. Because there is nothing beyond physical matter, my experience of a "self" is the product of a complex chemical reaction happening somewhere in a three-pound organ in my skull. Upon the death of the body, that chemical process with cease, and my "self" will be irrevocably destroyed.
I am "really" a manifestation of the universal Self
The cosmos is a single unified being, without beginning or end. Everything that exists within this cosmos is, in some sense, the cosmos itself. We are a thing that the universe is doing. There is no separate existence – and any experience of being separate, disconnected, small, or perishable is an illusion caused primarily by Ego.
I am "really" neither body nor soul
My experience of myself is a construction of my mind, and my mind is constructed by experiences, and my experiences are constructed from judgments about sensations, and those sensations are just the points of connection between this body something external that I have no direct access to – I have only the sensory response of my body and the interpretation of those responses in my mind. These are all I am. If they did not exist, I would not exist; if I did not exist, they would not exist. The sense of "self" that I'm so worried about is useful for navigating the world, but not especially important.
What I "really" am is not knowable
It is not possible to step outside of my "self", so I cannot access to the perspective that would be necessary to find the answer. My situation is like a two-dimensional figure in a three-dimensional world: I cannot even conceive of the dimension in which the answer is to be found, so there's no hope of getting a satisfactory answer.
All spirit. All matter. Both. Neither. And who knows. There are a lot of special cases and variations, but thought on human existence all ultimately comes back to these five themes.
The early Christians asked the same questions of Jesus: was he a wholly divine avatar of God merely masquerading as a human being? Was he a wholly human prophet – a man like any other? Or was Jesus both fully God and Fully man in some mysterious way? Or was he none of these things? Or is this simply a holy mystery, never to be solved? The Nicene creed is the orthodox answer – "Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father" – but all those other Christs never really went away.
Five possibilities, representing an abyss of doubt. If any of them were persuasive, or provable, who would bother with the rest? The truth would out sooner or later if any of the available options were provable. This, to me, suggests that there's some other way to answer this question that I haven't come across yet.
I find myself most convinced by #3 and #4, but neither seems right: #3 is too vast a concept to fully grasp, and #4 is too intellectual for me to internalize and embrace.
Not that those are the qualifications that a theory has to meet to be true – but if I can't grasp the answer, can't embrace the answer, and can't internalize the answer, then what good is that answer? It would be like finding out that the truth of existence is to be found the smallest seed of the largest pumpkin in the garden of Sue Ellen Hughes of Kenosha, Wisconsin: great, good to know, but… so what? What am I supposed to do with that information?
And that's really the thing, isn't it? I don't want the answer – I want the ought that would follow from that answer.
If what I am is a spirit in a body, then I ought to concern myself with the fate of that spirit – and leave the body behind. To bastardize the Buddha, the body then is like the boat you use to cross a river: useful for its purpose, but to be abandoned when no longer needed.
If what I am is matter, and who I am will be annihilated when I die, then I ought to concern myself with the welfare of my body. My goal should be to live as long as possible, because existence is inherently better than annihilation. And that existence should be as pleasurable, comfortable, and trouble-free as I can contrive it to be.
If I am simply a thing the cosmos is doing, and therefore not a separate entity from the cosmos, then life is just a dream: I (the cosmos) am experiencing my life (as me) and interacting with the world (also the cosmos) in an endless dance (with itself) from which I periodically wake up and realize my situation. Life then becomes a game, and I ought not be too serious about it.
If I am none of these things, and am instead just an illusion created by an infinite web of connections, then I ought to concern myself with what new connections I create, and how I interrelate with the world: do as little harm as possible, and don't hold on to anything because anything you'd hold on to is just another bundle of interconnections.
If the answer is not knowable, then I ought forget the entire line of inquiry and have a sandwich.
All of these things are me asking for someone to hand me a script. /O king, but name the play and we shall perform it most dilligently for your pleasure and amusement, and you may judge our quality through it./ Hamlet is easier than improv.
Rituals are important for a person's well-being.
April 9 is a kind of personal holiday, which I have observed for nineteen years, starting in 2001 on the day that I launched the original version of this website. I'm using holiday here in the OED Definition 1 sense of a "consecrated day, a religious festival" – less about getting the day off work, and more about reflection. Commitment Day, as I call it, is the time that I set aside each year to quietly decide for myself whether writing is something I want to keep doing. Am I going to "re-up" for another year of art, or is this the year that I finally give it up?
Most years, Commitment Day has been a non-event: I wake up in the morning, realize what day it is, and and think to myself, "Yes, of course I want to keep doing this." Some years, I spend the entire day agonizing about this. What are my goals, here? Are those goals achievable? What do I even get out of writing? What is the point? In essence, is what I spend so much of my time, mental energy, and focus on is worth doing? 2020 was one of the "yes, of course" years – but I was thinking last night that I should probably circle back and interrogate where I am at as an artist.
The twenty year timeline here should tell you that I'm getting older. When I was in my 20s I felt time on my back like a demonic goad, constantly whispering to me: "Now – you have to do it now. Now, before it's too late. Now, while there's still a chance. Do it now. Do it. Now, now, now, or you'll miss it." With "it" here standing in for all kinds of different ego-stroking outcomes: publication, initially; fame or notoriety; success generally. I think everyone has a fantasy image of what their own success looks like – and I know for sure that every artist does. The big gallery opening, or whatever. For me, the repeated fantasy is twofold: I have always wanted to see a book that I have written on a library shelf; and, more importantly, I have always wanted to be interviewed about my work. Which is hilarious to me, and says more about how the media I consume shapes the narrative of my life than it does about actual success: I have seen, and absorbed, quite a lot of interviews with people I would consider literary giants; I have read their letters answering questions; I have seen endless films and TV shows about artists that either begin or end with dramatic interviews. To my mind the Capital A, Captial I Artist Interview has always been the key marker to me of whether someone has succeeded enough to be worth paying attention to. All rubbish, of course. Vanity, in both the narcissistic sense and the futile/pointless sense. I've read interviews with dogs for chrissake.
As I've gotten older, time has been, as the Very Online say, "hitting different". I still feel oppressed by my awareness of time, but rather than hearing the voice as a goad, I hear it as a high-pitched whine, like tinnitus. Like a poor surfer, I have missed the wave and now can only watch it roll to shore. A lot of parts of my life feel like that. I'm getting to the age where having children is, while not impossible, certainly not advisable. Besides, the whole point of having kids is watching them grow up – and even if I had them tomorrow I probably wouldn't live long enough to see that. So, that wave rolls to shore without me. I can still marry and buy a house and settle down, but I don't know why would this point. An empty house is dreadful thing. Living a life concerned only with yourself is a dreadful thing. Watching your partner grow old and die is a dreadful thing. So, that wave, too, rolls to shore. I can keep going down the line: career, friends, family. My elderly relatives have already begun to die. My parents will follow soon. Then it will just be me, and then I too will die. Then there will be nothing left. And with no one left, and no children – what becomes of all this material I've piled up? Nothing. It's all vain and pointless. Wave after wave rolls to shore.
Is writing, is the pursuit of art, another wave that I need to just let roll to shore without me?
What does success mean to me now? I don't know. Publishing seems almost redundant at this point. We're in a period of history that I've heard called The Age of Infinite Content – and that phrase chills me like the sound of my bedroom door opening in the middle of the night when no one else is home. Infinite content. All infinities are terrifying, but an infinity of hack artists is the most terrifying of all. So, publishing isn't really success. And, besides, you can get anything published if you try hard enough. It's more about persistence than talent. And, on a related line, making money from art seems silly, since I've already arranged my life in such a way that it pays the bills and leaves ample time to work on what I care about.
What about the other old fantasies of success? Is success still about getting a book into the library? Not really.
Is success still about being interviewed? Sort of, despite knowing how vain and conceited the image is, I still secretly cherish the desire to be asked for my opinion. I think a lot of people have this same secret desire. But in terms of Commitment Day, a vestigial sense of self-importance isn't very helpful.
So, let's set the material visions of success aside. When I write anything, the hope is that someone will read my words, and feel about them the way I have felt about the words of the people I have read and admired. That's a little loosey-goosey, but it's at least true. Again, it comes back to being admired – but at least in this case is it being admired for the work itself and not whatever comes out of my head in an interview. The problem is, I don't have any control over whether somebody gets anything out of the writing that I do, so it's sort of self-defeating as a definition of success. You can never know. Only measurable outcomes can be proper goals. Everything else is just hope.
We can continue on this line for a very long time, but I will tell you right now that I've never found anything that constitutes a satisfactory definition of success. All the measurable outcomes are futile, and all the immaterial outcomes are out of my control – and what animates my desire for those outcomes is more about narcissim, ego, and libido dominandi than anything real. This means the only thing left to fall back on is personal satisfaction. Do I enjoy the writing process? Do I enjoy having written things? Do I feel good about the work that I have done, independent of any other consideration?
The writing process is horrible, and hurts, and takes forever, and never turns out quite the way you think it will. I can put words on the page all day – Lord knows, this blog is evidence enough of that – but putting good words on a page takes a lot of blood sweat and tears, and revising bad words to something tolerable never ends. So, no, I don't actually enjoy the mechanics of writing very much. Sometimes it feels good to have put together a good sentence but finding that sentence is like trying to do calculus in a room full of flies.
But I do enjoy having written things. And I do feel good about the work that I have done, some of the time. Writing feels a lot like exercise in that sense: it is more satisfying when the work is behind you, and you can enjoy both the results and especially the memories of all the hard, miserable work.
This may be a sign that I have taken on projects that are simply too difficult, or have too many restrictions placed on them. That I have aimed too high. That's possible. And at the same time, I hear that line from "Andrea Del Sarto" – "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Never that the poem is supposed to be kind of ironic, and the character is supposed to be kind of loathesome.
If material success isn't the goal, and the social cachet of being known as a writer isn't the goal, and the respect of my peers isn't the goal – then the goal has to be in the work itself. And if I am going to do work that is worth having done, it has to be hard work. I have to risk failing.
That's really the thing, isn't it? Risk. I value my own work as a function of how how much it succeeds compared against how much was risked to create it. I am not impressed by a trapeze act performed in full safety gear, with harnesses and nets and wires. I am not impressed when the child of a millionaire grows up to be a millionaire themselves. Importantly, though – despite the metaphors – the risk that I am talking about here cannot be monetary or material: the risk must be personal. Good work cannot be done in psychological or personal safety.
The paradox is, in order to take these kinds of risks you have to have a different kind of safety or security in place to operate from. Material safety and security help, but only in the sense that artwork requires a significant investment in time, and if you're working two or three jobs just to get by you'll never be able to fit much else into your day. But what you really need is psychological safety, and a secure sense of your own intent. Your mind has to be able to withstand the possibility that you won't like what you find out about yourself or the world when you scratch the surface, and be open to the possibility that either the world, or your own self, are vastly different than your conceptions of them – both good and bad. You have to be able to look at your own failures and addictions and faults and sins and cruelties and all the things that make up your ego without flinching. You have to be able to find in yourself both heroes and villains, good and evil – to look at a death camp and see yourself in the guard and the prisoner and the liberator and the judge of the crime and the man who ordered the cattle cars.
And that desire for self-knowledge, that internal fluidity of identity, has to be wedded to certainty that the game you are playing is worth the trouble. Certainty can take any of several different forms – the certainty that what you have to say is important, the certainty that what you have to say excites or pleases you, the certainty that what you have to say pleases others, the certainty that what you have to say cannot be said by anyone else, and so on – but that certainty is the animating spirit behind every artist. Psychology provides the materials, but certainty provides the will.
You can doubt whether a work will turn out the way you wanted to, and you can doubt whether anyone else will find your work interesting – but you cannot doubt yourself and continue working. You have to believe that your instincts are good, and that your drives are fundamentally good. And you have to accept that success or failure, however you define them, are someone else's problem.
And in that sense, this year is still a "Yes of Course" year – recommitting myself to a task that I have unwavering faith in is easy.
But checking in on yourself every now and then is still good for the soul.
Packing to move has me asking questions again about the objects that I own.
There seem to be three broad categories of possessions around here: utilitarian, sentimental, and… other. The first two categories are pretty obvious. A teapot or a slow cooker or stack of plates are utilitarian objects, whose value is based almost entirely on what they do for me and the convenience that they offer. Eating off a plate is more convenient than eating from my hands – and cleaner! – so I own plates. That sort of thing. Utilitarian objects can be lovely works of art as well, but that's at best a bonus. Whether I take a utilitarian object with me depends entirely whether I'll need it when I get to the place where I'm going. Sentimental objects, by contrast, have no purpose in and of themselves. They are icons, standing in for the people or events they relate to. So, a small piece of jewelry, or a trinket, or a stone from a specific place are all valuable to me because they remind me of someone or something else. I take sentimental objects with me for as long as the connection they represent is still meaningful to me.
To label the third category, rather than "other" I could probably have chosen "clutter" – objects that take up space, and which don't have a particular purpose or emotion attached to them. They just… are. Old computer mice that I should probably just throw away. Cabling. Light bulbs. But, to some extent, I also include books in that category.
True, a couple of the books around here have sentimental value – they were gifts, or mean something special to me. The vast majority, though, are books that I either intend(ed?) to read, or that I have already read and no longer especially need a copy of.
Which is a long preamble to a question that follows on from the last couple of posts: why do I read? What do I get out of it? Throwing out furniture is easier than throwing out books. Throwing out clothes is easier than throwing books. Were I forced to live naked in a bare-walled and unfurnished room, I could survive as long as I had something new, truly new, to read. But… why is that?
I don't read for knowledge, necessarily. I wish I could say that was my main interest – the scholar's desire to learn new things – but like most people I tend to forget most of what I've read immediately after I've finished reading it. I also don't read for entertainment, quite. Most of the books I read aren't very much fun – or, at least, nobody I know would describe them as a good time. As an example, I'm currently about two thirds of the way through Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death – and it's been fascinating, but it's not a rip-roaring page turner.
The best way I can think to describe what I get out of reading is to say that I am a fiend for new experiences – that I thrive in uncertainty, in plunging a little too deep into cold water. I'm never happier than when I am lost in a city I've never visited before. And books, for me, are a cheap means of losing myself an infinite number of new cities.
Which is the answer to a question I've been chewing on for a long time: why have I lost my interest in fiction? For a few years now, I've been incapable of getting more than a few pages into a novel, any novel, and just the thought of picking up a new one makes me feel tired. Why?
Because what I come to books for is novelty – but most novels have precious little to offer. For me, walking through a bookstore is similar to driving through a suburban franchise ghetto, with the same Target, the same Bed Bath & Beyond, the same Chick-Fil-A, the same McDonald's, the same Supercuts, the same Walgreens. We have all been on that street, standing in front of a Starbucks, looking at one colorful logo after another, over and over again, for miles and miles in either direction. That's what picking up a novel is like, for me. The sad realization, "Oh, I've been here before."
More than anything else, this is why I've ended up reading a lot of history and philosophy and psychology over the last few years – these are the most foreign, the most alien, landscapes I can visit these days. I know exactly what a book with a cover like this has to offer. But I cannot predict what I will read when I pick up Kierkegaard for the first time – and though I may or may not agree with what he says, at least the experience of wandering through his thoughts is something new.
Believe me, I know how this makes me sound – an effete pseudo-intellectual who is just so bored with literature. But for real: I read to be uncomfortable. And like any case of hedonic adaptation, the hit I get from fiction just isn't enough to get me there anymore.
Why do certain books compel me to schlep them thousands of miles across the country, at great personal inconvenience and expense? Some are trophies, which I keep because my ego enjoys the reminder of how hard I worked to get through them. Others are reference works, that I'll dip back into when I need to remember something. And still others are aspirational: one day, Schiller – one day I'll read this German-language edition of your plays.
I should probably rubbish most of what's on my shelves…