Letter 6

Dear Alanna,

There is a book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. On its cover, it’s billed as “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” I never finished reading this book, but I definitely made it past page 152, on which the author demonstrates his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek)

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

^^^^^

Due to a series of complex and pervasive internal tendencies and environmental events, I spent most of my adolescence and early twenties wishing I could avoid doing or being anything at all. The options with which I had been presented had always seemed undesirable, and I was becoming increasingly aware of how incompatible I was with them. At the same time, I had been taught to endure things rather than to seek better alternatives – any deviation from a particular definition of the norm was not so much unacceptable as impossible. It took a long time to unlearn this, but I think I still did so on a kind of fast-track, by virtue of becoming insane.

When one becomes sufficiently mentally ill, a lot of ordinary pressures are immediately lifted (although, obviously, a lot of other pressures become immediately more apparent). When one is judged to be medically ‘incurable’ with a life-long disability that is expected to render one unfit for almost all of the activities commonly regarded as ‘productive’, then suddenly one’s failure and inadequacy become, in the eyes of many, not a feared possibility but an inexorable certainty. This conclusion is arrived at not due to any real understanding of one’s situation or potential, but simply by habitual definition.

My previous letter’s description of failure as an untrodden field, rather than a deep hole from which to escape (which seems to be a more common conception), comes from what I’ve learnt about language and social expectation as a result of being seen (by many, though not by all) as someone who is trapped in a dark pit, from which I could not even see the pit, much less the surface.

Although I agreed with this pit-definition (or peat-bog-definition, perhaps?) for a time, eventually I began to question this assumed relation between other people’s definitions and my tangible reality. I began to enjoy ‘being sick’ because it allowed me so much freedom to define my life and work in a way that made sense to me. The mental-illness-as-pit-of-eternal-woe conception I encountered in others became a kind of disguise. The more insignificant I appeared according to ordinary definitions of usefulness, the more space I had to explore the world in my own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of my actions.

I also realized that the act of appearing productive is often the only method we have for judging productivity, even within ourselves. I had been largely absolved of that particular responsibility, and yet I felt that my time was much more fruitful now that I had no reason to care about its actual or apparent products.

Things are a bit different for me these days, but the insights I had then are no less pertinent now. All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of answering your questions

When are you getting things done?
When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

The short answer to the latter question (and possibly also the former question) is: “probably always.” The short answer to the former question (and possibly also the latter question) is: “I don’t know, because I’m not entirely sure what I’m even trying to do in the first place.”

Your quote from Quentin Crisp provides an even shorter expression of my thoughts:

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

^^^^^

I’ve been constructing a little darkroom in the basement, taping cardboard over all the sources of light. I thought I’d blocked it all out until I sat in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, at which point all the little glowing spaces became visible. I called Adam down to confirm to me that there were still gaps for light – that I wasn’t just imagining them because I’d been down there too long with nothing to look at – but he couldn’t see them. He hypothesized that this was due to his eyes not being properly adjusted to the darkness, rather than me being in the dark for so long that I had to imagine there was something there, when really there was nothing.

^^^^^

Your comments about Slack Time and Against the Rage Machine made me think of an incredibly prescient book I’m reading at the moment, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It was written in 1985, and starts off like this:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
[emphasis mine]

Postman wrote this before the internet came into public use, and he died in 2003, before the explosion of social media, YouTube-comment wars, and Twitter #protests. His book, a discussion of the way in which the content of discourse is changed (he thinks damaged) by an image-heavy, context-poor medium, was based upon an analysis of the epistemological assumptions inherent in the medium of television.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, so I don’t know precisely what the author’s conclusion is going to be. I do agree that Huxley’s dystopian vision is closer to our reality than Orwell’s. But I also incline towards the idea that part of the problem is the unquestioned definition of irrelevance as detrimentally murky or unproductive – something to be overcome, a hole out of which we are constantly trying to escape. Perhaps irrelevance has proliferated, but I don’t think our knee-jerk definition of it has changed, even though it seems we are all feeling increasingly bogged down by irrelevance’s necessity.

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

worm mrow

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