Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. I sat at my desk thinking about the first time I missed my mother’s birthday. I was fourteen. I was in New York that time, too. I was here for ballet. At 5, I decided that I was going to move to New York for ballet. I remember deciding it — sitting in front of the thick computer that I played Webkinz on. Googling the best ballet schools. I always had to be the best. I was always praised for being the best. the best the best the best.
And I was rewarded for so many things growing up. I won times table competitions and brought home hysterical amounts of candy bars. I won a spelling bee — my father has a video of me spelling out a-b-o-m-i-n-a-b-l-e — and I remember it. I remember that I wasn’t really certain of the spelling and so when I won it was like a little surprise. It felt so special — but it felt special because people thought I was smart and I knew my parents would be proud of me and they were.
And yes later, I won Miss Teen USA. I didn’t think I was going to win. I was shy. I’d been told by grown women with highlights and filled lips that I was too low energy — (I need to hold some of this back for the novel) — but I won. And I didn’t think I would win. And it was a surprise, and because it was a surprise, it was delightful. Someone captured a video of my mother’s reaction. She jumps up and out of her chair and there is so much joy expressed in a tremendously grainy video. And I went home a few days after. I was back on my childhood couch reading books from the library. I read Tender is the Night that summer. That was one of my first Instagram posts after winning. Tender is the Night and a cup of black coffee. I don’t remember much of the book. I need to re-read it. I want to, I should say.
And then I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. And I remember one part vividly. I will never forget this part. Because it was the first time I heard about set-point theory. (and I answered a question on it in one of my first Princeton lectures before I let that places strip me of my confidence in everything I loved. I’ll probably write about that eventually, but Fitzgerald already did. It’s his debut novel) Set-point theory is the idea that no matter what happens in our life — if we win a spelling bee, if we win a pageant, if we get into our dream school, if we publish our dream book, if we marry our dream partner, if we win the lottery, we always go back to the same level of happiness. We always go back. And I’ve been writing about balance a lot lately. Balance in dating. Balance in self. But lately, I’ve been thinking about a different type of balance. A balance in the human condition because —
I started rereading my favorite book, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in two different translations. I also started reading this book about the self called The Mind’s I by Hofstadter — an author who was recommended to me by a woman I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. And the Hofstadter book is scaring me a little. But it’s also exciting. I’m afraid it’s breaking my brain a little — so much so, that I was looking at Goodreads reviews of it, which I hardly ever read other people’s reviews of stuff, but there was this one that stood out. This guy told the story of a young woman who recommended this book to him and she was young and brilliant and well-read but called herself clinically insane and had a brain aneurism and died at 25 after having a child too. And this scared me and I left the book somewhere over the weekend and told myself if it wasn’t there a few days later I wasn’t supposed to read it. But it was there when I came back and so I am reading it. And it says some stuff that correlates with the Zamyatin book in the most fascinating way —
We is like the father of the dystopian genre. It’s about a society where they’ve almost reached mathematical perfection and one number (or “cipher” in the later translation) — D-503 is tasked with the business of writing about their climb to mathematical perfection as if he’s writing to people of the past. But he keeps seeing inconsistencies. In the world. Within himself. And the inconsistencies are beautiful but they also scare him. Especially the ones in himself. Because he is a good little number!!
He is supposed to be working toward the goal —
“The ideal (clearly) is a state where nothing actually happens anymore.” (23 in 2006 translation).
But he keeps finding Xs. Unknowns —
“And there is no X in me (it’s not possible). It is simply that I am afraid that some kind of X exists in you, unknown readers of mine.”
And the X — the unknown part — is the distinctly human part. The part they are trying to conquer — to vanquish — because they can’t figure it out. And this really stuck out to me, because I think — and I’ve thought for a while — that consumerism and late-stage capitalism is making art less human. Not everything needs to be “slick” (I hate that word) or “concise” or “efficient.” Especially not art. Especially. not. art.
But something clicked when I read D.E. Harding’s “On Having No Head” in The Mind’s I. Harding tells the story of realizing that he “has no head.” And the idea of it is that he finally stopped thinking. Everything in his head calmed down. The chatter calmed down. There was nothing to figure out. And better yet, the “twoness” was gone. The “twoness” refers to this idea that we are separate from everything that we’re seeing. That I am a person observing a world from inside of myself and not as a part of it. Why is it peaceful to have an empty head like that. To have no head. To stop thinking.
And this got me thinking of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist a little and then the Bible a lot and some stuff in The Brothers Karamazov, but my copy is back home (home!) in Kansas.
I wanted to find this Joyce quote about animals. About the innocence of animals. And I’m pretty sure The Bother's Karamazov says some stuff on it too. They’re so innocent. They have nothing to figure out. Just the act of living. Of staying alive. Of playing. Of eating. Of loving. (Why are we so hell-bent on inventing industries to gatekeep the act of being human) But I think Portrait of the Artist is a great example of this twoness. Of being born into a world and understanding yourself as a part of it because you have no urge to understand yourself yet. You take everyone and everything at their word. But the older you get — the older Stephen gets — and the more he observes cruel priests and the sadness in his parents, the more he tries to understand and mimic the world. And the book ends at the worst part for all of that stuff — young adulthood. But look at this quote from the childhood section:
“Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.” (57)
But he is the real world. He’s a part of it. We all are. But as we grow up and we get nervous or confused or something something, we start to think that we’re not and we project and lie and we’re so afraid of our own humanity. We’re afraid of our flesh. Because it can be hurt. And it can die. And we don’t really understand how it’s housing what we understand to be ourselves. That’s the whole premise of The Mind's I. That we literally do not understand consciousness. There’s super interesting stuff about quantum theory and how we — up until now — have taken a reductionist theory toward studying ourselves, we’ve looked at the smallest particles of things in an attempt to try to understand ourselves, so we really don’t have a top-down view of anything, let alone ourselves. But regardless, reductionist or not, we’re always trying to figure stuff out, aren’t we? We’re always trying to understand stuff, but never ourselves in the top-down way. We’re like the world in We. We’re trying to achieve stillness. We’re stripping things down to an equation until it has no room to breathe or love or live. But what happens when we reach the ideal? What happens when the equation is solved.
There is nothing left. There is no X. There is no humanity. I really like this Kurt Vonnegut excerpt from The Sirens of Titans for this. It says it in such a nice, light, concise (ew), way, how we can figure ourselves out to death. It’s a little excerpt on the tralfamadores.
So what’s the alternative? Well, again, I remind you, I’m 22. I’m like Stephen at the end of the book. But I think maybe this is our curse. There’s a verse for this in the Bible. It’s sad, but it’s worded beautifully:
It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. Ecclesiastes 1:13
This is our curse, right? This is our fall from oneness. Desire. Knowledge. The urge to figure everything out. But there is nothing to figure out. We don’t have heads. Nothing is real. Everything is real. The aliens could come tomorrow and you wouldn’t care if you were late to your meeting, would you? You would want to remain alive and maybe hope that you’d told your family you loved them when you had the chance.
I miss my family so much. And I was so eager to leave Kansas as a little girl. I had so much ambition really young. But I think most people are really peaceful when they are very young and then again when they’re very old. Because you accept that you know nothing in the beginning and then you accept that you know everything you’re going to know at the end. And we think of ourselves as one with the world really young. And we know that we’ll return to it at the end. (But I don’t think I thought of myself like this — as a part of the world — young, I think I felt a separation very young and I think it makes me a good writer, but it makes a lot of other, day-to-day things very difficult).
So that’s it. I guess. there’s nothing to figure out. And we knew that once. And I had a really hard day yesterday. I missed my family so much. And I thought about how little I will see them if I end up on this path of life and I wanted to hug my mother on her birthday instead of looking at her on a screen we’ve created in the pursuit of something we don’t even know. And I found myself in this cafe in Brooklyn run by this family that just oozed warmth and peace. This man was falling asleep standing outside. And this old man pulled up in a little jeep-ish thing and honked at him to wake him up. and the sleepy man helped him carry some things inside and the man who made the latte made his son give me the wifi password and I’ll bet that his son has done so many things to make him proud. And will do so many more. And I hope he doesn’t have to go very far to do them. I miss my family so much. I called my mother on the way back to Manhattan and told her happy birthday. I want to be there for the next. But in the meantime, I’m going to try to make art because it is the only way I can understand how to use a mind that is never quiet. A mind that will never be quiet. A mind that has never been quiet. I will make messy art. I will make human art. And I wanted to say something about death. Because I’m a little scared of The Mind’s I book. And that one review. And because there’s a slight pain in my chest when I’m hunched over and breathing deep (the latter could be because I’m learning guitar).
Because Montaigne used to be afraid of death until he almost died once and he realized that there’s nothing to figure out. It just happens. And we don’t really know what’s after. And sure, it could be nothing. But it could be everything. Or somewhere in between. Maybe it’s some version of that straight line they’re always trying to get to in We. Or maybe it’s a world with people with no heads. Or somewhere where our set-points are exponential lines that just go up. Math can be beautiful too, when we’re not trying to conquer it. Good music makes patterns after all.
I hope that after is somewhere where you don’t have to leave home to make the people you love and are loved by proud of you.